Saturday, 31 December 2011

Child development, entry to Oxbridge and simply common sense

A few days ago I heard on radio a feisty debate on the effect of TV watching on young children.

I've long believed that TV should not be used as a baby-sitter. And so it was that we banned our son from watching TV (especially so-called children's programmes like Teletubbies) until he was two years old.

He was allowed to watch any amount of sport and news programmes, but no other TV was allowed. DVD and video tapes (back when) were OK if carefully vetted. There was a particularly good Beatrix Potter box set.

More importantly he was exposed to a lot of speech on radio, story CDs, to our reading and our face-to-face conversations.

As my blog stats show that the post on bringing up a gifted child was most read, parents interested in this, please do search for information on "children and TV-watching". Note who says what. Children's TV producers usually have a different perspective from academics.

Oxbridge entry 'still stubbornly linked to postcode' was another news item.

Can't say one is exactly surprised that the "richer" areas in the country have more students getting to Oxbridge.

I remember while I was in RGS reading some sociologists (who later became my teachers) telling us that children who lived in Queenstown (where I lived) was least likely to get to junior colleges and then to university.

(This was when Buona Vista was considered "ulu". There were no Clementi, Pandan this and that, Sengkang, etc.)

Instead of being detered by this finding I was determined to prove these sociologists wrong. And did.

But that was when Singapore was truly meritocratic.

Every neighbourhood school was likely to produce boys and girls going to RI and RGSS. Without the benefit of tuition and enhancement classes. We were the generation of WYSIWYG.

Now it appears that we have to be in the right catchment area to get into a good primary school, to get into a SAP/GEP/IP school, to get to university, etc. Not unlike the plight of many parents in the UK: School admissions fraud rises in race for best places.

What I do not understand is why selection is considered such a bad thing in this country.

Is it because UK is [supposed to be] a Christian country and so any talk of selection is Darwinist and therefore anti-Christian?

In fact this is -- ironically -- a largely non-Christian country. Despite what is an essentially Darwinist outlook the country spends a fortune to support the survival of the unfittest (the feckless, the lazy, you get the picture).

OK, maybe schools should not select on the basis of ability, as in academic ability. What about selection on the basis of good behaviour? Or other positive traits?

Even if children are not naturally academic, they could seek to excel in art, sport, drama, music, kindness, selflessness, etc.

If children are anti-social -- or if their parents think it is OK for their children to be anti-social -- then they should be given the lowest priority for schools, housing, etc.

Would this resolve the issue of misbehaving and disrespectful children?

We were actually having this heated debate at dinner table when husband said, "We made the mistake of giving free education."

When education became an entitlement (free textbooks, free exercise books, free stationery, etc) parents lost their stakeholder function, and quickly lost their interest.

Discipline at school is such a huge problem that teachers cannot teach and the able students -- and I believe there are gifted children in every school, whatever their biological parentage, because God is fair -- cannot learn and so, yes, they don't get to Oxbridge.

Wherever you find good schools (state or private) you find it is the parents who make a difference.

In paying schools, parents would not only push their own children. If other people's children stand in the way of their own children progressing, They would have words with the teacher/head teacher. No fear.

Selection by good behaviour is social engineering, you say?

The welfare state is social engineering on a mega scale, full stop.

And the chickens are coming home to roost. See: It should pay to be thrifty

[It's New Year's eve and I've not been as stringent as I usually am with the use of language here. Apologies.]

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Homeless in London, who cares?

My clients yesterday included a 44-year-old mother of four who suffers from incontinence and told me that "I am claiming [benefits] for them [husband and sons]".

She's one of the thousands the government is trying to move off Incapacity Benefit (she was classed as severely disabled) back into work (JobSeekers Allowance). However because no one in the family works, for her to lose her benefits would mean the family would struggle to survive.

This is despite one son and husband also claiming benefits. She "claims for them" in the sense that she is entitled to most. When I probed further she said that she is a bit embarrassed by her problem and so does not feel that she could work.

She also mentioned depression. I wonder if the depression is a result of her not working or her reason (excuse?) not to work. Similarly her son who trained as a plumber could not find a job -- and is depressed -- and so has signed on.

Before I met this lady I didn't think incontinence is such a big problem that it would be categorized as "severely disabled". Let's put it this way: us women are "incontinent" for a week in every four, dripping blood, and we manage to remain in work.

It appears that this lady is not using the right kind of support, using sanitary pads instead of incontinence aids, to control her problems (smell, eg). She's only 44. She has another 27 years, possibly more, to state retirement age.

Twenty-seven years! That is a long time. She could do so much during this time.

Her grown up son who trained as a plumber, he's sitting at home waiting for a job to come to him. Is this a symptom or a result of the welfare state?

Why does he not go to solicit for business? Everyone is looking for a good plumber. Why not ask to work for someone for free, a charity for example, helping to fix plumbing for old people? He sits at home collecting his JSA, and gets depressed.

Worklessness in this country contributes to poverty, not of the pocket, but of the soul.

Another client arrived from France and went to claim benefits the following day. And was rejected. He had been thrown out by his wife*. I don't know the details.

Nepali woman who does not speak a word of English wearing very "blingey" glasses. She applied for pension credit and was awarded it for several months. Then some hardworking civil servant (hurrah! there is at least one) finds out that she is not actually eligible.

Her daughter has sponsored her visa. Her daughter has undertaken to maintain her. Somehow someone told her that benefits were to be had if she applied. Now she's slapped with an "overpayment" bill. We advised on how she could settle the bill.

I had to warn her that if she made too big a fuss, they could just deport her.

Student next, paid an enormous amount of money to a "college" offering something like an "MEP" (Masters Entry Programme). This young man spoke with such a heavy accent I could hardly understand him. The college threw him out, saying that he was not a good enough student. They also dismissed about half his class. Student wants his money back. This is, believe it or not, a consumer issue.

Room got a bit cold, so I shut the window. Big mistake.

My next client was a man who has been sleeping rough. He had not washed for two weeks. He came in and promptly removed his shoes to show me his problems.

He arrived in this country on a spouse visa. His wife is supposed to support him. But somehow he managed to antagonize her enough she threw him out*, and this man has also been given conditional police bail -- whatever that means. He had come in two weeks ago and another volunteer tried to help him. And now he's back.

[*Women are so keen to throw out their husbands, it seems. Why?]

Because he has "no status" in the country he is not entitled to any benefits. So some "charities" would not touch him as their costs could not be recouped from government departments. We rang around, my manager and I, and I finally found a nice young lady who advised that he could get to a day centre the following day where they would give him some food, he could have a shower, wash his clothes, and they might even be able to give him shelter.

"Uhm, what if he has a history of violence?" YMCA has rejected him on that basis, so I thought I should check.

Lady checked. "Uhm, yes, it's OK. We love everyone here."

I managed to stop myself asking, "Are you, by any chance, a Christian charity?"

CEO gave us permission to give him money for a night at a B&B. Manager had also made him a cup of tea and given him some food.

I hope this man managed to get to the day centre and I hope they are able to shelter him. But it led me to think: If his wife promised to be responsible for him, but is not, should she be given the bill when he is finally sorted out?

Why should I, as the taxpayer, pick up her bill?

I came home and looked up the day centre and discovered that they are indeed a Christian charity. There was something in the way that lady spoke, or something she said, which gave the game away.

I also cannot get over the smell.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ouch! Singapore society slammed by Apple co-founder

This morning while working at my computer pre-9am I heard BBC interviewer quizzing Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computers, about the counter-culture that Steve Jobs apparently embodied.

Steve W talked about creativity, and noted that -- especially in schools -- the length of one's hair is not important relative to how creative that person is.

You may or may not agree with him. I say, it should be entirely up to you. But then I sat up as he went:

"... look at structured societies like Singapore where bad behaviour is not tolerated. You are extremely punished.

"Where are the creative people? Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? Where are the great singers? Where are the great writers? Where are the great athletes?

"All the creative elements seem to disappear. Of course everybody is educated, has a good job, a lot of pay and a nice car.

"You know, some rituals in life, you are never going to get away from all rituals. 'Let's sing and cheer to our school,' you're taught in school, you know, 'My school, right or wrong, and I'd always oppose the other.'

"'And the referees if they make the call that is against our team, the referee made a mistake ....'

"That's not really what it's about. You're just taught this 'nationalism', not to think about what is right and wrong but to take a side, just like in politics at an early age ... and that's not lined up with creativity.

"And they will take a side because [of] other people, it's the thing to do. Somebody else made that rule, not you. You did not think for yourself. So thinking for yourself is creativity.

"And that goes right down to what we were talking about dress, the clothing that you wear. It's like you wear what you want to wear."

Clearly Steve W knows enough about Singapore to talk like that. (And this is going to be broadcast to all of Britain later on tonight.)

I am so embarrassed. But he is right.

This is exactly what my husband has been saying about Singapore. So "thinking-inside-the-box", so sticking to rules, so toeing the line, we are unlikely to produce a Nobel Prize winner.

Talk about a wake-up call. I'm not sure my breakfast sat very well after this.

Singapore the laughing stock -- again.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

We don't need no education

Thankfully it was yesterday and not today that I travelled to central London early in the morning and came home walking past the University of London Union building. As you know our young men and women were out demonstrating today, starting at ULU.

Here's Toby Young's comment

and James Delingpole's

and a student's view

I came home frustrated, so frustrated. The only comfort is that today's demo shows that anthropology graduates are not the only ones who live in cloud-cuckoo land.

I had the impression that the workshop I was attending was about getting people within anthropology to think outside the box and say how anthropology could or should be taught so that the richness of anthropological research could be used outside academia.

So I didn't mind a former MA student complain about how her course did not meet her expectations. Great, I thought, such honesty. Department staff have better sit up and take notice. The student is now a "customer". How do we meet their needs?

We had a recent PhD student telling us all the wonderful things he's done: refusing to "give office hours" because as Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) they are not paid for office hours (which I assume means consultation hours, ie making themselves available to students they tutor at regular advertised times).

Prat! I thought. When I was graduate tutor at NUS we all had to have fixed times for consultation. We are not only facilitators at tutorials. We do not only mark essays. We also provide some pastoral care to our students. We knew we had to do that when we agreed to become tutors.

We were not paid a lot of money, but it was our duty of care to the students. We took the responsibility of shaping lives very seriously.

This GTA would only do it if they were given more money.

Then he boasted about not agreeing with the policy of submitting attendance registers to the UK Border Agency. Apparently this was required to help the agency weed out those bogus students who sometimes cause a lot of trouble, either from a terrorist perspective or slipping into the great illegal/informal sector which costs the tax payer a lot of money in the long run.

Prat! I thought. Does he think he is on the moral high ground by simply claiming that he did not want to be "gatekeeper" and agent for the Border Agency?

Has he ever considered: If only we did not have to waste so much time, money and effort tracing the illegals, if only we manage to stop these illegals worming their way into our benefits system and sponging on it, or working in the black market sector without paying due taxes, we would have more money to spend on hospitals and education, pay our academics? Yes! Including him.

So on the one hand he wants to be paid more money. On the other he refuses to safeguard the finite amount of money available to pay people like him. "Eating cake" is the phrase that comes to mind.

Reminds me of the time my friend had heart trouble when visiting the UK. After a short hospital stay he offered to pay his bill as it would be covered by his insurance. But the staff -- presumably also refusing to act a a gatekeeper to a National Health Service -- told him that they would not be contacting his insurer.


That means they now cannot recoup the money spent on him that could be used to treat the next British heart patient who needs a hospital stay. It is the NATIONAL Health Service, not INTERNATIONAL Health Service, for crying out loud.

And then as Anthropology PhD students they didn't like very much having to study statistics .... I thought anthropologists are supposed to provide a holistic perspective.

Young students are allowed to be idealistic.

Most of the time we grow out of it. As we pay taxes, get married, start a family. When thrown into the dog-eat-dog world we begin to realize university is not at all like the real world. Grow up!

However, sometimes, they take this idealism to an unsustainable plane.

It would be a gross understatement to describe the last speaker as such. Despite the grey hair, this speaker does not seem to have grown up.

He rambled on about how he was unemployable, found a job, and then is now unemployable again. He is attempting to overthrow the British government come 30th November and then we can all happily return to being hunter-gatherers, when we would have more time to play, for music, for food, and sex and all that.

Is it any surprise that he has been sacked by a few universities?

He handed out leaflets for a blockade of the "ring of steel" (within which, incidentally, my husband works) that would "bring down the government". Capitalism has had its day, he thinks.

Yet just a few minutes before that this man was happily tucking into a store-bought sandwich in plastic wrapping carried in an orange plastic carrier bag, and drinking water out of a plastic cup, poured from a plastic bottle. Where would he be hunting and gathering if nobody now makes sandwiches for sale?

Is he any good at all with a rifle, I wondered. (I was pretty good at air rifle myself.) He would need something to hunt with. What happens when there are no more capitalists to make rifles for him to hunt?

O well, maybe he is good with a slingshot.

If these are the images that the British people have of anthropologists, no wonder anthropology departments are having trouble recruiting. Would parents across the country encourage their children to study this subject if all they could get up to is complain about everything?

What have they done today to make them feel proud?

What have they done in the last two weeks to make the world a better place?

How much taxpayers' money have they wasted today simply on the policing cost?

And what are they saying? I have a right to education, whatever that may mean. The taxpayer should fund my studies. Even if it means the hospital attendant, the school cleaning lady and the checkout girl at the supermarket must pay for it.

After all that cerebral exercise it was so good to return to sewing and making physical things with my own hands today.

Please tell me your views of anthropology graduates. Thank you.

Monday, 7 November 2011

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

Warning: This is a brag post.

My son, his mate and I enjoy watching the comedy series "Miranda" in which Miranda's friend (and employee) often holds up a mask of Heather Small and mimic her singing "What have you done today to make you FEEL proud?"

Yesterday I went to bed thinking that I really toted up well.

First, a meeting with fellow social scientists outside academia. It was a group I started by accident some years ago and now it has grown, nearly 400 members! Was able to encourage those present.

Then on the way home my train, for which I was careful to buy a first class ticket to ensure a seat after a tiring meeting, was cancelled I was squashed into a Tube train whereupon a man with a beard, long hair, a very large ring in his nose, dirty finger nails, on a walking stick asked my fellow social scientist and myself whether the train was going to MK.

He, too, was supposed to be on my cancelled train, but got shoved into this other train instead.

My colleague got off the train but this man let's call him Mick leeched on to me. Meanwhile husband was on the phone trying to get 'live' information on the internet and telling me how to get home.

We were directed to make a change at station X at which anxious people were trying to get information as to how to travel. The platform staff were trying to be helpful but they, alas, did not seem to have the up-to-date information.

The electronic board said 17:15 was "on time" whereas I was told on the phone (and another passenger apparently knew too) that it was cancelled. What to do?

Husband on phone said, go to platform 3. Train due in. I walked over to platform 3 as quickly as I could while Mick hobbled along, trying to keep up.

More confusion on this platform. Even bigger crowd. Mood still harmonious though. People were anxious, not angry. Londoners are used to such delays. Unlike in Singapore, a train that is delayed by six minutes does not get reported in the papers.

Husband on phone, "There should be a train coming in at 17.19. It's the late-running 16:44. Get on that one."

I could hear on radio of staff on platform receive the information from control at a station upstream, "Train leaving that platform, should be at station X soon."

Husband on phone, "Your 17:19 should be arriving any second now. You might need to push your way in. I'll hang on to make sure you're on."

Me, "No. If I need to push in I need both hands. Call back in five minutes."

Train on platform. Mick said, "O no! It's one of those trains with a big drop from the platform. I made sure Mick got onto the train and followed." We actually found seats across each other.

Husband on phone, "Are you on?"

Me: "Yes."

Husband, "Your train should arrive at 17:32. I'll be at the station to pick you up."

Mick continued to make conversation with me across the train. Other passengers looked on with interest. Was tramp-like Mick harrassing this tiny Chinese woman? I felt they were all watching to make sure I was alright.

The man next to Mick was clearly an ex-Gurkha. He wears a uniform with a badge "Security" emblazoned on it. (A number of ex-Gurkhas are in the security sector in the UK.)

Girl next to me got off. Mick came to sit next to me. Mick had been very keen to tell us on the first train that he could not wait to get home to his flat in MK. He had gone to London for a "demo" for animal rights.

I asked him where he lived before MK. He uhmmed and arhed which suggests that he had just been taken off the streets, or released from supported housing (for mentally ill?), or even perhaps from prison, but he was "doing well". I had, as if on auto-pilot, put on my CAB hat and wanted to make sure that he was being looked after as well as looking after himself.

So the questions came fast: why the walking stick? Orthoarthritis since he was 16 or 17. How old is he? About 39. Is he taking his medicine? He stopped because the pain comes back one the drugs wear off. He just bears with the pain." I thought, "Hmm, should I ask if he was on cannabis?" Time and place for everything, my dear. The train is not the right place.

Is he with a GP? Which council is looking after him? Does he get to do much? So I learned that he gets "lonely, you know" and he repeated how pleased he was to be travelling with such good company. Earlier he had given me his number so that my vegetarian colleague could call him. Now he tells me I should put his number on my phone, too.

No, I won't, I said. "Why not?" It's falling apart. "O! But you'd put it in your next phone." I didn't commit.

Then I said he should stop smoking. Told him I could smell it a mile away. What a waste of money. "I know, but I have cut down a lot," and threw me a sheepish look.

He told me he is into art (I really hope it's art, and not graffitti). I said he should make himself useful, do something with his art. "Do something nice for someone every day."

He said he tries to do that, indeed. Mick might smell, but he speaks very good English, and very polite. If indeed he was on cannabis his intellect had only be slightly dulled by its use.

We reached our station at the end of the line and was thrown off the train. I walked away quickly, wishing him a safe journey home. He waited as I went through the gates to say "Goodbye!".

I think Mick was chuffed that two complete strangers (describing us as "very pleasant ladies") trusted him enough to continue a conversation with him. Would he do something to make himself useful? I don't know and might never know. But I certainly hope so.

Outside my "chauffeur" was waiting patiently and we got home, had a short break and we were off to a church fireworks party.

There we met PO and his dad. PO has just lost his mum. His dad had been married for nearly 60 years. Put another way, he had been married for longer than I have been alive.

For Christmas "dinner" we usually gather people we know who have no close family to go to, or people who are new to the country. So a number of nationalities have graced our table at Christmas.

[What would Jesus do? In the parable of the banquet the rich man invited those who were not likely to reciprocate his invitation. This is also partly a result of my own experience of Christmas in this country as a single person. Friends went home to their families and I was on my own, lonely and very cold.]

We had asked PO and his dad this time knowing that the first Christmas after the death of a loved one is always difficult. PO's dad was not sure whether he wanted to accept the invitation just incase he wanted to be able to have a cry. Later on he grabbed me by the shoulders and said "Christmas. Thank you for the invitation. Yes, we will be there."

Tears welled up and he gave me a long, long hug. I comforted him as I have comforted others by confessing that it took me four years before I could speak of the death of my father without crying.

When we left the party husband was "smoke damaged" by then , from being the "lighter" of fireworks PO's dad gave me another long hug, and still more tears.

At the end of the day I took stock and thought: It does not take much to bring happiness to those around us. A word of encouragement. Kind words. An offer of hospitality.

Perhaps I must remember to ask myself at the end of each day the words of Heather Small: what have you done today to make you FEEL proud?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

English as it should be writ (Part 6)

The headline Institutionalise hawker courses (20th October 2011) refers.

20/10/11 I sent this email to the Straits Times editor:

It has been a long, tiring day: squashed in the Tube train first thing in the morning, research at university, department seminar, more library research, long journey home, prepared evening meal, back to school where son played a concert, prepared evening meal (again), supervised homework, etc. and then "Institutionalise hawker courses" on Straits Times online.

It woke me up!

Does the headline writer mean courses to institutionalize hawkers (ie how to put hawkers in an institution, usually implying they have committed a crime or needed to be institutionalized due to mental illness)?

Or does he/she mean running courses for hawkers so that they could become better (or betterer), more hygienic in practice, smarter in marketing, or more polite to customers, multi-lingual, etc?

In other words make them more professional?

When I finally got round to reading the letter I realized that the writer was, amongst other thoughts, calling for the Institute of Technical Education to run courses for hawkers, which I thought was a very good suggestion.

However the word "institutionalize" (I spell it with a "z") cannot be used in this context just because the name of an "Institute" has been invoked.

[The emphasis was added for this post.]

"Institutionalized" (usually in the past tense) means it has become identified with a certain act (ie normalized) or that a person has been incarcerated (ie put into an institution). Eg "institutionalized racism", so-and-so has been declared mentally unfit and needs to be "institionalized" for his own good.

Sure, we have the Raffles Institution, but one certainly does not refer to any of their alumni as being "institutionalized".

I doubt very much that Singaporeans would appreciate being locked up just so to get a licence to run a hawker stall.

An alternative headline?

I'm too tired to think of any.


Surprise, surprise, nochet got reply.

Please, Straits Times, teach our chewren well.
The original letter here:

Institutionalise hawker courses

MANY hawkers had no formal education when I grew up and yet, succeeded through sheer perseverance and hard work ('Who will operate stalls at new hawker centres?' by Mr Alvin Tan; Tuesday).

Many also grew wealthy. I believe there are still many citizens who are willing to be hawkers, judging from the number of those who work in retail assistant jobs and the food and beverage sector. The owner of casual dining chain Paradise Inn started out as a cook in a small coffee shop in an industrial estate in Defu Lane.

I patronise a stall selling cuttlefish kang kong at Bedok Hawker Centre opposite Bedok Camp. Its owner, Mr Peter, still runs the business handed down by his father since the 1950s.

The Institute of Technical Education or community clubs should consider starting a course for food stall operators.

I am confident the take-up rate will be overwhelming as there are now more young entrepreneurs keen to venture into the food business after seeing others succeed.

The humble hawker stall is a good starting point.

Jeffrey Tan

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

What would Jesus do? (Part 2)

Following the last post I continued to mull over "What would Jesus do?".

This is what Jesus did (emphases are mine).
Mark 12:
13Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement.
14They came and said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?
15“Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.”
16They brought one. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they said to Him, “Caesar’s.”
17And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him.


John 8:
1But  Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.
3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court,
4they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.
5“Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”
6They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.
7But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
8Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.
10Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”
11She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”

Mark 10:
17As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
18And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.
20And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.”
21Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
22But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.

Luke 19:
1He entered Jericho and was passing through.
2And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich.
3Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature.
4So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way.
5When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”
6And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly.
7When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
8Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”
9And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.
10“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Was Jesus an out-and-out capitalist?

Luke 19:
11While they were listening to these things, Jesus went on to tell a parable, because He was near Jerusalem, and they supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately.
12So He said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to receive a kingdom for himself, and then return.
13“And he called ten of his slaves, and gave them ten minas and said to them, ‘Do business with this until I come back.
14“But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’
15“When he returned, after receiving the kingdom, he ordered that these slaves, to whom he had given the money, be called to him so that he might know what business they had done.
16“The first appeared, saying, ‘Master, your mina has made ten minas more.’
17“And he said to him, ‘Well done, good slave, because you have been faithful in a very little thing, you are to be in authority over ten cities.’
18“The second came, saying, ‘Your mina, master, has made five minas.’
19“And he said to him also, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’
20“Another came, saying, ‘Master, here is your mina, which I kept put away in a handkerchief;
21for I was afraid of you, because you are an exacting man; you take up what you did not lay down and reap what you did not sow.’
22“He said to him, ‘By your own words I will judge you, you worthless slave. Did you know that I am an exacting man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow?
23‘Then why did you not put my money in the bank, and having come, I would have collected it with interest?’
24“Then he said to the bystanders, ‘Take the mina away from him and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’
25“And they said to him, ‘Master, he has ten minas already.
26“I tell you that to everyone who has, more shall be given, but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.

My observations
(1) When quizzed by Pharisees and Herodians trying to trick him into saying something to incriminate himself, Jesus reasoned and used words to make his inquisitors realize that they have backed themselves into a corner. They quietly went away.

(2) The rich man who could not stomach giving away his riches also went away quietly, grieving. Zaccheus, on the other hand, understood almost immediately that Jesus did not only wish to be a guest in his physical house, but wanted to enter into Zaccheus's heart as well.

Becoming acutely aware that his fraudulent dealings were not acceptable he repented and acted upon his conscience. He gave away half of his wealth and compensated those he defrauded.

(3) As for the parable that Jesus told, a literal reading would suggest that Jesus was on the side of bankers and banking. Bad news for the anti-capitalist protesters then? (They did not quote this parable, did they?)

Perhaps. This message is often quoted to teach us how we are each to use our talent/s until God returns. It does, however, suggest that Jesus would not oppose banking and banking (lending/saving) with interest, as such.

Alongside the Zaccheus story -- which comes immediately before this parable -- it also shows that Jesus was not happy with fraudulent gain. That is why Zaccheus's example is being hailed as the enlightened course of action once a person realized that his profit-making has not been above-board.

Which leads me to three conclusions:

(1) Given that Jesus was not anti-capitalist, would the protesters who have proven themselves to be asking the wrong questions of the wrong people at the wrong place now quietly go away?

(2) Are we more likely to get our money back through governments legislating against bankers, or should we pray that the rich and fraudulent "do a Zaccheus"? How would they do a Zaccheus unless they first let Jesus into their homes (and hearts)?

(3) Hebrews 13:5: Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."
I Timothy 6:10: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
Matthew 6:24: You cannot serve both God and Money

Money, whether it is to render to Caesar what is Caesar's or to put it in a bank to gain interest, it is not evil. It is the love of money, otherwise known as greed -- when Money becomes our god -- that is the root of evil.

Capitalism does not have to be this greedy

The protesters and the clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral have both got it wrong

St Paul's protestors should stop bullying the Church of England and go home

Thank God ethics is a messy business

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

What would Jesus do (re: anti-capitalist protesters outside St Paul's)?

On the way back from Devon this morning we concluded that the anti-capitalists outside St Paul's were merely bullying the church. Why not pitch up outside a mosque, we asked.

Lo and behold, someone else thought the same.

They cannot pitch up where they wanted to and found refuge outside St Paul's. Now they have overstayed their welcome (as Libby Purves said in a Times column which I am not able to link to because some capitalist has installed a paywall), but nobody had the decency to move. Too much 'face' at stake.

No, no, must not 'lose face'.

Let's go back to first cause. Capitalism. If these anti-capitalists are really anti the capitalists then surely the church is the wrong target.

The complaints against these "protesters":
  • They all indulge in the fruit of capitalism: Starbucks coffee, coca-cola, iPhone, iPads, the expensive/cheap tents they use, etc. How could you be against capitalism on the one hand and support it with your buying habits? Something has to go.
  • Where do they find the time to protest? My husband and I, we do not have time for protests. They have the time to protest only because they do not need to work, ie they are either (1) on benefits, paid for by taxpayers within the capitalist system, or (2) offspring of very rich capitalists who can afford not to work. Either way their present activity is supported by the spoils of capitalism.
  • Some are "professional" protesters who have just moved from Dale Farm
  • Many are said to have not "camped" there at all during the cold nights, but retreated to warm homes and hotel rooms (but this is in dispute, although a spokesperson for the protesters said she did send people home for a shower and a rest).
One word comes to my mind: hypocrisy.

I am, like many others, not happy with the way the leaders and employees of banks have conducted themselves. I am, like many others, appalled at how the taxpayer has had to bail out these banks.

But I am, also like many others, not in favour of a group of people with very ambiguous aims ruining the livelihood of the families of those who work in and around the cathedral (ie the person who cleans the restaurant and brings you the tea, the single mother who mans the cashier counter, etc.). Yes, the very same people who paid taxes to fund the expensive university education of some of these protesters.

I like to say that my life is guided by the principle of asking "What would Jesus do?", as emblazoned on the banner of these protesters.

We know that Jesus overturned tables and chased the money changers out of the temple, the House of Worship. He was angry that these traders had turned the temple into a den of thieves. Apparently these traders were making profit out of people who came to the temple to worship.

Inside the temple.

But what did Jesus do outside the temple?

He supped with tax-collectors, merchants, farmers, Pharisees, prostitutes, etc. and worked alongside fishermen. Jesus engaged with people who were both in the centre of political and commercial life as well as those on the margins.

What else did Jesus do?

He healed the sick, comforted those who grieved, debated with the intellectuals, turned water into wine, taught us to give support to the widows and fatherless.

So let us not get mired in a mono-dimensional debate, comfortably ensconced in the muddy belief that because Jesus threw out the traders in the temple that he must be against all capitalists.

A basic principle of hermeneutics is that we must let scripture interpret scripture. We must look at the whole Bible for a truly biblical perspective. Never read anything out of its historical and cultural context.

For otherwise we would all migrate to Jerusalem (because the New Testament repeats "starting from Jerusalem"), we would all become alcoholics (look! Jesus turned a lot of water into a lot of wine), and then of course we would also encourage 12-year-olds to leave their parents in order to spend time with their religious leaders because that was exactly what Jesus did!

What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?

I think that amongst other things Jesus would wish to know what have these protesters done in the last 24 hours, in the last week, in the last fortnight, in the last month, to make the life of one person in need, one hungry person, one sick person, one under-achieving student, better in any way.

How many of us have gone to visit someone in prison, read a book to someone in hospital, shared a hot meal with someone who has no one to share a meal with, given money to some deserving poor, coached a neighbour's child on trigonometry, washed someone else's dirty and smelly feet?

Many of us do this every day through our taxes.

Some of us do this through our ir/regular charity giving.

Too few of us do this every day for real.

What would Jesus do? I think, like Marx, Jesus would advocate "praxis".

(Readers who post links to my posts on FB, please use the "Comments" box to let me know where I could find them. As I believe in the freedom of speech, I would also appreciate a "right to reply".)

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Anti-welfare and why

I don't have the time (yet) to put together my next instalment of "How to help the poorest" (it is there, ruminating) as I am trying to write a conference paper on the UK benefit culture.

It's really "doing my head in" (as my son would say) with books I covered today in the vein of "So Marx was right, after all", more capitalism leads to more poverty, etc. (But who do these writers expect to fund a comprehensive welfare state? The writers talk about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett making so, so much money, but refuse to also note that they give a lot of their wealth away. O, don't get me started.)

This evening I got onto this website and found a whole list of "books".

Brilliant. That's my homework sorted for the next few days.

Civitas is, as you will see, rather "anti" the welfare state as it stands.

Enjoy reading!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

After CAB

The managers were pleased that I was back this week after this episode last week. Told them that I would tell clients off the next time if they mess with my fellow volunteers.

It was an interesting session.

First up I was able to tell this elderly gentleman (after I've organized an appointment for him) who could not speak much English (his son was speaking for him) that it would do him and his wife a lot of good to learn to speak good English.

I said otherwise they would not be able to communicate with their grandchildren. His son agrees, but elderly gentleman was not so keen.

We (ie anthropologists) see this all the time. Elderly migrants who become prisoners in their own homes because a lack of English means they can't go any where on their own.

Grandchildren speak English fluently. Migrants think they must preserve their own language and culture, insisting their grandchildren speak it. In the end they lose it because they do not have the English to tell their grandchildren about their own rich culture and history.

What a pity. (In this particular case it is all Joanna Lumley's fault!)
Then I had a young woman who appeared to just want to hear her own voice. Laugh if you must. There are lots of lonely people who have no one to talk to in their own homes.

She had several problems. My task was to get her to see the separation between the bureaucratic (requirement that she signed on at a particular centre) and the affective (apprehension about her treatment there as she has an outstanding complaint about this particular job centre).

She wondered about making an appeal for four months of "loss of income" (ie loss of JobSeekers Allowance when she tried to claim ESA, a higher-value benefit). Really she did not have a case as she had refused to undergo those tests that her GP had ordered.

(I nearly said "she did not have a leg to stand on", but if she really did not have a leg to stand on, then she would surely get her ESA! O, never mind!)

The GP could not, in honesty, sign her off, and so her application was rejected.

To be honest, at one point I nearly lost my patience with her. This client thought she knew better than her GP and refused to take those tests. What help could I or anyone give in this instance if she thinks the GP is not good enough?

She was speaking gently, always politely, but you could see she is just such a troubled soul. The measured way in which she spoke suggested a certain "tightness" (for want of a better word) in her being.

After I sorted the one problem I could help her with I asked "would it not be better if she let go of trying to claw back the 4 months of benefits that she felt she had been deprived of and instead focus on the future".

She is still alive, she has a future to look forward to, why spend all her time and nervous energy thinking, "O! I should have been given those benefits."

How about trying to do something positive to make her future more of what she always wanted it to be instead of being dependent on benefits?

Yes, she missed her benefits for four months, but the fact that she found the strength to survive that shows she is capable of doing better. Look at this experience positively.

As I said that it appeared that a light came on in her head. Her face lit up. She started agreeing with everything I was saying.

In the end she declared that she would now go to do the thing she said she was fearful of doing when she first came into my office. With a smile. :)

She was also sign-posted to a good counselling service.
Then a single mother who was "sanctioned" (penalized for not doing enough "job-seeking"). We talked about her problem. We talked through her problem: what she needed to do. And then I thought, "Hmm, is it worth talking AROUND her problem?"

I suggested that she might think about using her other skills to earn some money (ie start a business) instead of relying on benefits and the poor (non)advice the Job Centre seemed to be giving her. She agreed that she should do so.

She then told me she is a good cook. I suggested ways she could explore making her skills known, maybe get a shop to sell some of her food, let people know she could do that kind of work, ready to launch her own business if not now, then later on.

Yes, it is difficult now with a 10-year-old to care for, but 10-year-olds will eventually grow up.

I said if we were in a non-welfare state we would be cooking and making things to sell to make some money.

She agreed. She would very much like to do that. But in this country there is such a mountain of health and safety regulations to get over, it guarantees that it is much easier to rely on benefits than to think about starting one's own business.

If only we could have a way of co-ordinating a few good (women) cooks to prepare meals-on-wheels -- in this case for the Asian community with their specific dietary requirements -- would that not be wonderful? Local jobs for the local community.

Jobseekers get to do something. The community benefits. The taxpayers are not worse off.
On the whole I thought it was a good session. I don't think I was able to help these clients directly (the other advisers would be doing that) but I think (I like to think) that I had planted seed thoughts in these clients and I do hope that their future would be much brighter, much happier, as a result of their resolution to do something for themselves.

Maybe I should apply for a job at the Job Centre ....

Monday, 17 October 2011

How to help the poorest (3)

The thing that characterized my young life was "hand me downs".

Clothes -- hand me downs.

Mum had cardboard boxes full of beautiful clothes that belonged to my cousins. Even after I graduated university I accepted hand-me-downs from friends and family.

Books -- hand me downs.

Mum kept textbooks that my siblings had finished using. She also collected these from neighbours and any one willing to part with them.

Furniture -- hand me downs.

For a long time we only had mum and dad's "wedding bed". Over the years we were given a second double bed, a bunk-bed, a wardrobe and a sofa set. I was the last one to be allotted a bed and slept on the floor (first bamboo mat, then mattress).

Electrical appliances -- hand me downs.

We had no fridge until Second Auntie gave us her old one. A cousin gave us his old black-and-white TV when I was sixteen, our first TV.

My childhood was also characterized by watching my parents help those who are more in need.

One day the neighbourhood was abuzz with talk about an elderly couple two floors down from us who had no money for food or water. Neighbours found them with a mouldy bit of bread and nothing else to eat. Their water, gas and electricity had been disconnected.

Neighbours gave them cooked food. Mum was sent out to buy a long length of garden (water) hose. It was trailed from our bathroom tap down to this couple's flat in the evenings. It ran for as long as they had receptacles to collect water for drinking, cleaning and flushing the toilet.

We stopped when social services stepped in.

Our flat had an open-door policy, it appeared. People came from all the different households to ask to use the phone, for example. (It was a necessity, not a luxury, as my dad needed the phone to run his market stall.)

People came to my mum if they needed help with reading letters. When a neighbour was being beaten up by her husband, Mum was the person she shouted for.

We didn't have money to throw around but we were able to help in practical ways.

Take my eldest sister.

She always managed to find a neighbour here, a friend's child there, or someone else who needed help with school work. She gives free tuition to kids who needed that extra coaching.

So it has been ingrained in me that we must as neighbours, as fellow human beings, help those who are immediately around us. In practical ways.

Fighting for better national provision for the sick and elderly is important. Agitating for a fairer and more inclusive education where those who are not academically gifted are given space to develop is critical. Seeking pathways for our nationals to be happy and comfortable in being "Singaporean" -- that is urgent.

But it appears to me that most of us are also probably in the position to do something practical. If my late father, a market butcher, and my late mother, housewife, could make a difference in the lives of those in their neighbourhood, surely anyone reading this could do something, too. No?

The exchange of material goods is not only helpful but environmentally sound. These days we live in such a "disposable world" we forget that there is a long shelf-life to most of the things we own.

Just think, there was life before disposable nappies, when in fact people had more babies. The same cloth nappies could be used over and over again, and then either passed on to other parents or cut up to make other items (hankies in my case).

No, I doubt if my parents would have had six children if they had to depend on disposable nappies.

In Britain we have "Freecycle". We join Freecycle groups in our local area to recycle what might seem useless to you, but which would be of value to someone else.

Eg we had a robot lawn mower. (Husband bought this when he was too ill to mow the lawn.) When it stopped functioning we offered it on Freecycle and it was picked up by people who either like mucking about with robots or enjoyed repairing broken things.

Mum (who never threw anything away) found someone disposing of a huge "softboard" (which you could stick pins into). It was about six foot by three foot. We did not know what it was used for. Mum, being Mum, felt that it could be useful one day.

That "one day" came when a neighbour came to use the telephone, saw the board propped up between the bed and the wall and asked if she could have it. "Auntie Tailor" could use that to transfer her paper patterns onto fabric.

Rubbish to everyone else, but treasure for "Auntie Tailor".

So what can we do to supply those most in need amongst us with practical tools, appliances, bedding, clothes, books, furniture, etc?

We have the charity shops in the UK. (I used to volunteer in one.) My sister-in-law takes a lot of stuff to the Salvation Army in Singapore. (Unfortunately one day she took my 30plus-year-old Brownie uniform with all the badges intact.)

Such shops in the UK are great in re-cycling old but clean and useful clothes/other items. However they do also face a lot of flak from rival shops because they are seen to be unfair competition, in not having to pay employees but can depend on volunteers instead.

What about those who are unemployed? Disabled? Alcohol-dependent? The gambling addict?

There was a couple who lived in the next block who are both blind. But the husband was trained in sports massage and earned his own living. On occasions when I got to help him to cross the roads, etc. we had very interesting conversations.

How do we support our disabled so that they could lead an independent life?

There used to be "sheltered" factories where disabled people could make items with their hands or provide a service and earn their own living. Yes, these ventures might need to be subsidized. These people are never ever going to be able to compete against all the dagongmei from China if manufacturing is their mainstay.

But are there contracts that they could get for, let's say, filling goodie bags for National Day Parades or other corporate events? (I know it is cheaper to get our NSmen and prisoners to do these jobs.)

Such jobs mean workers are DOING something, creating and deriving a positive feeling about their own being. Even if taxpayers have to subsidize these ventures it is still cheaper, much cheaper, than handing out welfare benefits in the long run.

(As I pointed out in previous post, handing out welfare benefits willy-nilly only leave recipients free to loiter, listless, purposeless, and prone to being stopped and searched by police. Money does not remove the poverty in one's soul.)

By the same token, some unemployed can be absorbed into the charity shops either as volunteers or sometimes as volunteers who get expenses paid (transport will be expensive when you do not earn anything).

There are already people who collect perishable foods to distribute to those who need them. Such organizations need volunteers. Could you offer help, too?

My point is there are big overarching missions we can work towards: a change in policy, a turn towards passion, a step towards graciousness.

But there are little practical things we could all do to help. Let us walk our talk.

We are the ones who would know which neighbour is in need. What have we done in the last week to check up his/her needs? When we cannot finish the food that we buy on a "buy one get one free" deal, do we give the second lot away?

Do we make it known to those in a position to help that someone might benefit from free food? Or a care package (soap, toothbrush, shaving razers, etc) once in a while?

Or could it be that we could make a world of difference by volunteering to distribute food just once a week, a fortnight?

When we see our neighours' children struggling with school work and not being able to afford private tuition, are we able to offer help? Or point them to places where volunteers offer free tuition? Give them some old textbooks, or other books?

What about offering a lift in our car so someone could get to work? Or offering to childmind just a few hours a day so a parent could get to work?

Of course, of course, I also recognize that sometimes our offers of help are not appreciated. We risk rejection.

It has never occurred to me, once, that accepting hand-me-downs was a negative thing. It has not given me a low self-esteem. I have never once thought, "Yee, people must think we are so poor because they keep giving me their old clothes."

However when I consider that there are relatively good jobs that Singaporeans do not wish to take up, then possibly they would not accept offers of help.

(Times have changed. Jobs that my classmates would have aspired to are shunned by the younger generation. Is this a result of our own making?)

I remember two Cantonese phrases learned in my childhood: ma sei lok dei harng. When your horse dies on you, you jolly well get off and walk.

The other phrase is yum soey see yuen. When you drink water, think of its source.

When we help those in need, as I had been helped when my family and/or I was in need, people remember. When we then get to a position where we are able to help others, we must all see yuen and do the same.

And perhaps this is why people from humble backgrounds who have received scholarships and other types of help want to put themselves in positions where they are able to influence policy. When one is born with a silver spoon in one's mouth (can't understand this idiom, think of the poor mum!), one is less able to understand what it is like to have so little, and yet be given so much.

If some of our leaders (or civil servants or their offspring) appear to be heartless is it because they do not have the "privileged" disposition to yum soey see yuen as an impoverished young person, because everything had always been handed to them on a silver platter?

(Maybe some have chosen conveniently to blot out memory of their humble beginnings?)

Still, if each of us could do one additional thing for our neighbour in need, today, we will make this world a better place. Not just for this generation, but also for the next (should they remember to see yuen).

No need to wait for the politicians to debate until the cows come home.


How to help the poorest (2)
How to help the poorest (1)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Where got time to loiter?

The CEO at my CAB phoned yesterday to check that I was alright after the Monday run-in with client.

That was nice, I thought.

I didn't tell her though the next time I see clients mis/behaving this way I shall tell them in no uncertain terms what I thought of them. The CAB staff cannot do that. But as a volunteer, I can.

(This CAB employs about 5 staff members, the other 30-40 "work" on a voluntary basis.)

Clients have no right to abuse a free service. Even less so do they have the right to abuse volunteers who try their best without any thought of being paid.

And that man who told us to "get a real job", he has no job. He does not pay tax. I pay tax, a lot of it. So how dare he shout at my co-volunteers in that manner?

Thinking about how this client alleged that he was simply stopped and questioned, I thought, I have never been stopped by police and questioned.

(I've stopped them several times, though. Once to ask if a crime had been committed across the road. Turned out there was a cannabis farm. Once I saw that a group of Chinese illegal DVD vendors had just been rounded up. I asked if they needed any interpretation. Etc. etc.)

Is it because I always look like I am walking with a purpose?

People who are "time-poor" do not loiter. We just focus on what we needed to do, do it, and head home.

Why would anyone "loiter"?

When you look around you the next time you go out for lunch, do you see people "walking with purpose", or do you see many who are just ambling along, loitering?

The next instalment of "How to help the poorest" is brewing. I am too busy in the next couple of days to spell it out. I think it would have something to do with "walking our talk".

Monday, 10 October 2011

How to help the poorest (2)

Just come back from a rotten time at a CAB session.

My first client refused to leave my office insisting that his human rights had been infringed because we could not help him. It was a criminal matter. We only deal with civil matters. I had given him all the phone numbers for people he could contact but he was not happy.

This person alleged that he was "kidnapped" and assaulted. It turned out that he was being charged with assaulting a policeman. A senior volunteer adviser (SVA) tried to explain the situation to him and client went, "What? Are you trying to strangle me?" Senior volunteer (probably in his 70s) had not laid a finger on him.

Client finally left my office when SVA said he would have to call Security. Client was shouting that SVA had assaulted him. ??? This client was in denial that it is a criminal matter. I had given him a list of solicitors circling "C" for "Criminal" and he said, "I don't want no criminal lawyer."

When I thought the dust had settled, another client was shouting, saying us volunteers were useless, go get a real job. By this time, security had been called. This second man left before security appeared.

I learned later that the bureau had been helping this man countless times before. He is a case where instead of being empowered from previous advice given, he had taken CAB as a crutch.

This time he alleged that a policeman was mistreating him simply because he is black. Sure, police officers stop and question a black man simply because he is black and ignore the white man who is ranting and raving and behaving in a threatening manner across the street.

First up, two people who seem to refuse to take responsibility for their own aggressive behaviour. It is their human rights being violated and other people's racist actions to blame. Nothing to do with the way they were shouting and making life unpleasant for other people, even those who were trying to help them.

Rant over.

The Big Issue

Meant to say, really, that if you were to visit the UK you are likely to encounter people with big plastic identity tags dangling from their necks selling copies of a magazine call The Big Issue.

This started as the brainchild of a man called John Bird and co-founder of The Body Shop Gordon Roddick. You can read more about this magazine here.

The idea was that homeless people, if they fulfilled certain criteria for homelessness, could apply and be trained to become sellers of The Big Issue. They are given a few free copies to sell at a specific pitch, and after that they could buy a few more copies to sell, and basically decide on how many copies they could sell, and thus become self-employed.

One might well ask how it is that in a country with a comprehensive welfare system individuals could become "homeless".

There are a great number of reasons, not least of all arising from mental illness. For some reason people could be deemed "intentionally homeless" in which case local councils are absolved from any responsibility to house them.

There are those who prefer to remain homeless with their dog rather than be housed in a hostel or B&B while waiting for more permanent accommodation. But you are unlikely to be rehoused permanently unless you are first in temporary accommodation. A Catch-22 situation.

Be that as it may The Big Issue is doing a great job in helping some of the most vulnerable back on their feet.

What about Singapore? Could a Good Issue (bearing only good news?) help the poorest of the poor? Following the theme of a previous post we could call this The Good Heart Issue (or Ho Sim Times?)

To some extent, it is not much different from people who used to hawk Ma Biu Po (papers giving the race results) as such. (Is there still Ma Biu Po in Singapore these days?)

Selling The Big Issue is only the first step towards normality. These homeless vendors need further practical support to help them into long-term jobs and a more regular income.

In the same way the poorest and most vulnerable Singaporeans are likely to need help other than a pitch to sell magazines to get them into the rhythm of work. Are there debts that need to be cleared/otherwise managed, illnesses to be cured/managed, homes to be cleaned/decluttered, bedding to be de-bugged/replaced?

Part of the failure of the UK welfare system is that it is a huge, cumbersome and impersonal bureaucracy. There are fixed sets of criteria and fixed sets of rules and corresponding sets of decisions and sets of rewards.

But in the real world people's personal circumstances do not fit neatly into those sets of criteria.

Handouts prevent a person from being homeless but it does not stop him/her from getting dependent on alcohol and spiralling into deeper troubles. Nor does being so aggressive like our first two clients today make long-term employment possible.

For any "helping system" to be effective, the whole person, the individual in his specific set of circumstances, within his family of a particular/peculiar structure, in the context of his personal abilities, mental well-being and emotional/physical limitations, must be taken into account.

It's what the anthropologist calls the "holistic" perspective again.

I mean, if the first man here went to court and was found guilty of assaulting the police, what is going to happen other than a short prison sentence, maybe some "unpaid work", a fine (paid out of his benefits money) and then he's still back on benefits.

It chews up police, court and probation service time. Should he complain about police mistreatment he would be chewing up even more administrative time, maybe even precious legal aid. And the result? It is still one young man who refuses to work and who thinks that the whole world is against him.

He, on the other hand, is the ultimate innocent. His only recourse is to shout "my human rights are being infringed", "you are not helping me", "don't treat me like I am stupid".


Any way, note though that even an ostensibly charitable venture like The Big Issue could be abused.

It has been reported that in certain regions of the UK Romanian migrants who do not qualify for welfare benefits get themselves into the The Big Issue circuit. As they are classified as "self-employed" they then become eligible for benefits.

This is another example of how when there are easy pickings (a generous welfare system), people would try, in the most devious ways, to benefit from it.

And I wonder if our two CAB clients were out busy working at a suitable job to earn their keep because there are no welfare handouts, would they have the energy to be so aggressive?


How to help the poorest (3)
How to help the poorest (1)

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Payday loans -- avoid, avoid, avoid

On the news today we learn that the government is looking into "payday loans". Hurray!

The issue was brought up by the Citizens Advice Bureau, where as a volunteer I was shocked to see clients having to pay eye-watering 600-1000+% interest on a small loan that they thought they could pay off come their next pay day.

When I joined the CAB I was heartened by their mission to provide evidence to the government on issues affecting the general population.

When we come across cases which could be sorted by policy changes, we flag up such cases. So when bureaux across UK have sufficient evidence we could alert the government to what is really (f)ailing the people.

As an anthropologist stuck on the "holistic approach" to life I find myself asking questions around the issue that the client comes in with. Debt often surfaces although this is not at first articulated.

My advice is always to stay clear of the "personal credit" people such as this and this who are just one half-step up the evolutionary ladder from unlicensed loan sharks, it appears to me. 1068.5% APR.
How would it be deemed "responsible lending" when they approach people on their door-step knowing that they are already hugely in debt, and some already have taken an IVA (individual voluntary arrangement) to sort out their mounting debts?


Friday, 7 October 2011

How to help the poorest (1)

I grew up in a family which would be considered poor by many. ("Poverty" is always relative. We were rich in love and enthusiasm for learning.) Yet I am against the welfare system that I have to subscribe to in the UK.

So how do we help the poorest of the poor amongst Singaporeans?

I remember when in primary one the teacher Mrs Jalil said to bring in 20 cents to buy a plastic cover for a workbook. I went home to ask Mum for 20 cents.

Mum did not have 20 cents to spare. Instead my eldest sister removed the (dirty) plastic cover from one of her books and put it on the workbook which I took back to school.

The next day a classmate laughed at me. I was too poor to afford the 20 cents to buy a book cover. I cried.

I went home, told Mum, and a few days later Mum found the 20 cents to let me buy a pristine plastic cover.

On another occasion someone told me the handbag I was using (a gift from my aunt) came from the "50 cents bargain bin" at CK Tang.

There I was, chuffed to the bones with a handbag at last (I was 12) as my mum had never bought me a handbag. A rich girl turned her nose up at my handbag because it cost all of 50 cents.

I remember these occasions well because clearly they had left marks on my psyche.

Sadly the classmate who laughed at me lost her father soon after that. She had become one of my best friends by then.

Then it transpired that her grandmother was given a stall in a nearby coffee-shop to sell wanton noodles (very yummy ones, too). This way her grandmother helped to support her family.

It appears to me that that was the way the Singapore government used to help the very poor and uneducated. They were given help or some sort of priority in running a business in coffee-shops, school canteens and so on.

I don't see how my friend's grandmother would have found a way to run a stall these days. The cost of renting a stall must be exhorbitant when one hears of coffee-shop owners having to bid a million dollars for a unit.


It has long been recognized by people "in the field" in developing countries that "throwing money" at some people would not help their situation. International aid often goes astray, lining the pockets of dictators and those in positions of influence instead.

Yet many charities are able to make a real difference by offering interest-free micro-loans to women (usually) so that they could start a business. The loan is then repaid and the money given to another person to start another business.

Such schemes engender empowerment instead of dependency.

Are we in Singapore able to do something similar?

Instead of making old ladies sell tissue paper in food centres, is there something we could do to set them up in business?

Here's an idea, an untested idea. So please bear with me, and do please add your suggestions.

In the bus exchanges, void decks, and appropriate locations, could shop space be allotted to a group of needy Singaporeans who might wish to run a business? Let's call it, for now, a "Ho Sim [good heart] Shop"*, run by "members" and not "owners" or "employees".

Members could run mini-units (just a table space, say) within the shop/space, or they could run the whole shop on a rota, or the shop could be run as a co-operative, with members sharing all profits. A decision as to organization has to be made at the start.

Say we find a group of individuals who make some really beautiful one-off cushion covers, aprons, dolls, clothes, other decorative objects, etc. They do not have the platform to sell these items. They could sell these through a Ho Sim Shop.

Items could be bought outright for re-sale or on a "sale or return" basis. Members pay makers a commission, as if they are running a physical version of eBay.

Maybe the Ho Sim Shop members are themselves creative people. They could weave baskets out of discarded magazines, for example, or knit and crochet items that people would wish to buy. They could sell such items (and perhaps the odd pack of tissue paper) at such shops.

The thing is Ho Sim Shops must only sell items which are unique, not items that other shops could sell better(er?) and cheaper, like tacky plastic mass-produced items bought extremely cheaply from another country.

Maybe (and this idea is full of "maybe's" because it is just an idea) polytechnic/university business (and law?) students could come and help them get started, help organize them, help source supplies (eg gather a group of housewives keen to make things to sell), help them to agree on how to run the shop, help them commit to doing some simple book-keeping.

Maybe other students could advise on window displays, marketing, etc. ITE students could be in charge of the fittings and upkeep (electricals, plumbing, eg) of the shop, etc.

An audit trail is important. Because we want members to be able to return whatever start-up money they were given. Maybe they could be given tax breaks for a fixed period. Maybe there is a maximum stay of three to five years so someone else gets the chance.

So perhaps they get a discount on tax/rent every time they let a new member in. On a first-in, first-out basis, members also have to think about a longer-term plan. The point is this scheme is a temporary help. Members who have gained confidence and contacts could move on to other enterprises.

The result?

A platform for home-bound creative people, a source of income for destitute Singaporeans, a chance for students to hone their skills (which would sit well in their CVs), and a unique shop for shoppers to browse where they can expect the unexpected.

A win-win situation?

Alternatively, existing shops could be given a discount on tax or rent if they gave a "Ho Sim space" to a needy person "approved" by the appropriate authority. (Be careful this does not degenerate into a "rent-a-granny scam".) In the long run, this is still cheaper than a comprehensive welfare state.

Who qualifies for such help is a tricky question. If left to a bureaucrat, underlying reasons for "need" would become subsumed under red-tape. One could almost guarantee that.

I suspect it is better for a charity or a "people's champion" to do this work.

If you think you could do something, please kee chiew.

* Overnight thought of another name "The Traiding Post". As some charities say, "Trade, not aid". We also have "Traidcraft".
Playing on the concept "Hand up, not hand out", what about a "Hand-me-up" shop (in contrast to the "hand-me-down's" I used to wear)? NB there is a shop in Georgia, USA, called "Hand Me Up's".

How to help the poorest (2)
How to help the poorest (3)

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

How welfare culture evolves (4)

A Solution in Sight?

In my three previous posts about the welfare state in Britain I might have sounded like a hard-hearted woman. What about those people who are really in need? you ask.

Hopefully it has also become clear that I believe welfare benefits are great iff (if and only if) it is structured in such a way that those who need temporary help/support are helped/supported, but those who only intend to sponge on the hard work of others could be weeded out.

Clearly no government has been able to design a welfare system so "fail-safe" that this very important principle could be adhered to whatever the circumstances, whatever the political party is in power, and whatever the global economic situation is.

If there is a "perfect" or "ideal" system, every country would have adopted it. If I could come up with this perfect solution I would not be "self-employed craftswoman" and "general busybody", but specialist adviser to national governments, being feted by national leaders and jetting around the world, first class.

Having lived and worked in the past 20 years in a welfare state first in the Netherlands and then in the UK these are some of my observations (it might be useful to substitute "Singapore" for every time I use "UK" or "Britain" when you ponder "welfare" in Singapore):

"Us" versus "Them"

When my friend drove us to what is ostensibly one of the poorest parts of Amsterdam (to visit a church member living there) I was struck by the number of BMWs in the carpark. My friend enlightened me.

"These people have lots of children. The more children the more benefits they get. They can afford to buy expensive cars."

There was a lot of friction between the indigenous Dutch and the new migrants from North Africa (Algerians and Moroccans ). My friend said, "Sometimes I feel like I am living in a foreign country. This is not my own country any more."

She also warned that some day there would be a backlash.

In England I researched the first generation of Chinese who retired in this country. They were also up in arms against the new arrivals.

They insisted that they deserved their pension privileges because they have long "lim see-tump" ("pasted their stamps", meaning paid their national insurance). But "that one there", the one who's just arrived from America, she had not paid anything. How is it that she also gets the benefits?

Meanwhile "that one there" told everyone her children had long paid their taxes and national insurance and so she, too, was entitled to her benefits.

Somehow or other a benefits system such as this would evolve into a system where people who have tenuous relationships with those who have actually paid would find ways to assert their rights to benefits. Eventually a group of people would fight for these relatives on their behalf and the "entitlements" of new arrivals will become entrenched in the system.

In view of the current immigration policies that irk Singaporeans so much, do we want a welfare system where 20 years down the road, a whole lot of new immigrants would claim the right to long-term, indefinite benefits for themselves and their extended families? Your children and children's children could be funding these benefits instead of looking after you.

Where pensions are concerned, the truth is few people actually pay more into it then they get out of the system. Only the top earners do so. How else would the bulk of a population agree to such a system knowing that some/most of their contributions would go to other people?

The point was people thought, "Great! I put in £x, if I live to see it I could be getting £10x out of this."

The next question is: how does a government come up with the shortfall?


Remember that a welfare system does not exist in isolation. It exists within a context of a failing or thriving economy, a political context with greater or lesser tension, a social context of contested or free-flowing immigration.

In the UK we have just been told that EU citizens can now come to the UK and claim benefits without having first worked here. In other words, people who have not contributed a penny to a country can now claim benefits. Is this morally correct or acceptable?

How do you separate the nationals from the "inter-nationals"? If your border is hermetically sealed, then it's less of a problem. But if it is as porous as it is in Britain, then you are in serious trouble.

Add to this the non-EU nationals who come here, work for a year or so, often less, claim to suffer backache, and never work again. They continue to draw benefits, have several children, and are not in a hurry to get back to work.

Soon non-EU citizens would say "if EU citizens do not need to contribute and still get benefits, to make non-EU migrants work first before being given benefits will constitute discrimination". What then?

Attitudinal change

I went to school with classmates whose mothers washed clothes for a living. My mum used to hoard newspapers to sell to the karung guni man for a few cents. My neighbours sold nasi lemak and goreng pisang to earn the extra money for household expenses.

Day in and out we were told, "Study hard. Get a good job. Or you'd end up in a labouring job. Get good grades. Then you could get a good office job."

It was the same in Britain. It used to be that people who needed money would "char" (clean) or do gardening work. It was a respectable thing to do. They were earning clean money to support their families.

These days people simply expect to receive handouts. There is a dearth of entrepreneurial spirit.

Meanwhile retirees who cannot manage the scrubbing and cleaning, mums and dads too busy working to pay taxes, pay above minimum wage to have East European women clean their homes and East European men to do gardens.

In short taxpayers are paying twice:  for (1) one group of people who do nothing and (2) another group to do the same work that group (1) would have done had there not been welfare handouts.

When the welfare system was first introduced in Britain after the war it had the laudable objective of helping those who were most in need: widows and orphans, those maimed in the war. People avoided getting any public help until it was impossible to put food on the table for their children. People had so much pride.

These days children learn in their citizenship classes (I kid you not) that the welfare state would look after them.

We have a friend whose daughter is disabled. He cannot get her to do her homework. Her view is that it does not matter whether or not she studies. Because the government would look after her, give her a house, and pay her for doing nothing.

Inevitably people come to the conclusion: why work at all?

Young girls vie with one another on how soon they could have a baby so that "social" would give them their own flat and they could stop going to school. I actually know young girls who would have more babies in order to get a larger flat.

One claims to suffer from bad backache and was unable to work. (She keeps a taxi running on the meter while she shops, the taxpayer picks up the bill.) "But the backache disappears when I'm pregnant". (Tell that to a woman who's ever been pregnant.)

She was chuffed when allotted a larger property. A few weeks later she had chucked the boyfriend out.

In Britain now there are families where members have been on benefits for two or even three generations. Single mothers beget children who beget children while still in their teens. Women become grandmothers by the time they are 28 and such-like.

Even my hardworking Chinese friends are saying, within a generation of living here, "Why bother to work 40 hours just to have some money to spend when you can do nothing and still get money to spend?"

You cannot legislate against creeping laziness.

Mission creep

A woman told me her husband had not been in work for more than five years because he cannot cope with employers who have rules.

What sort of rules, I asked.

You know, like being on time.

[And actually being productive? I said to myself.]

This woman came to see me to have her benefits transferred from her husband's name to hers. The taxpayers pay her some £250 a week for Housing Benefits, and she was concerned that she had no money to organize a halloween party and then a birthday party for her daughters.

A woman who is a German national shouted and ranted about the civil servants not giving her her money. She suffered so much she had to pawn her gold jewellery to get £500 to feed her five children.

This woman is given £1500 a month for Housing Benefits. She's not even British but gained EU status as a refugee from the sub-continent. She has a second husband with whom she has children. Her husband had come from India to join her and was trying to get benefits as well.

I was really cross with her as she had already been given an appointment to see our adviser but had come to clog up the system demanding that I rang around to find out where her benefits were. She had also been hassling the various govt depts to no avail.

This woman worked 16 hours a day. She spent her free time ranting and raving at govt servants and CAB volunteers. Why does she not increase her hours of work to increase her income to support her family now that her husband was in the country to care for their children?

Because she knew that if she worked more than 16 hours she would lose a lot of her benefits (losing out on her Working Tax Credits).

She and/or her husband could also either return to Germany or India. But would she/they?

A woman from a North African country was in receipt of benefits and found herself in debt. She demanded that I rang Belfast (benefits office) and other agencies to ascertain why she was not getting her money.

I looked at her letters and said, "Here, this is the number to call."

She steadfastly refused, "You have to call. I don't understand what they say."

"You seem to understand perfectly well what we are talking about here."

"No, those people they speak with an Irish accent, I cannot understand them. You have to call them."

I was trained not to discriminate on racist grounds. What do you do when a client is racist in this manner?

She also disclosed that she is a member of a private gym charging some £50 a month.

So, "not got money enough" for gas and electricity, requiring help from the taxpayer, but "got money enough" to join a private gym. After 20 years in the country she had no intention of learning the language well enough to get real work.

Young man threatened suicide if I didn't let him see an adviser straightaway.

He was on incapacity benefit that was being phased out. Recipients have to undergo medicals to show they are indeed unfit and unable to work to receive the new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) which is now time-limited. He failed this medical (meaning he was shown to be fit to work).

This man was loud and rude, telling me that even talking to me was stressful to him. He just wanted money to feed himself and his dog. His sister was with him. She said she tried to help him where possible but she has her own children to feed. She is dependent on welfare as well.

I made the appointment for this man, briefing him on the documents he needed to bring so that we could help him.

"I'd be dead by then!" he shouted, and stormed out of my office. [My husband has very strong opinions about such people.]

Young man with "depression" problems wanted help to fill in forms to appeal a failed ESA application. When I looked at his claim it says he could not go out of the house by himself or cope with being with strangers. His claim of depression was not substantiated by any doctors. Neither was he on any medication.

Yet he was at the bureau by himself and waited in a crowded waiting room full of strangers for hours so that someone, he hoped, could help him claim that he was really too ill to work because he is not able to step out of his house.

My personal, possibly erroneous, assessment was that this man (who came into country as a refugee) needed to brush up on his English. But he cannot be bothered to learn English. Or someone told him that he should try to claim a disability instead.

For these claimants, the welfare system is not the safety net it was meant to be. It is a lifestyle choice.

Why work when you can get benefits indefinitely? When the Housing Benefits, Council Tax Benefits, Child Tax Credits/Working Tax Credits, etc are all taken into account, some claimants are getting (are you ready?) more than £15 an hour. And that is FOR NOT WORKING. There is no way that they would be paid anything close to this in the real world, given their lack of work ethic, punctuality, skills and literacy.

Of course I do not see/know everything about the welfare system. The type of cases I come across are repeated in the 394 Citizens Advice Bureaux across Britain. I am barely seeing the tip of the iceberg.

A Covenant?

As I said at the start, if I could come up with an ideal/perfect welfare system I would be feted by national leaders.

One cannot legislate against laziness or greed. There will be mission creep. How do you cope with the question of immigrants' rights to benefits?

The Israelite nation of the Old Testament were reminded of the covenant that God had made with them. Parents are to keep teaching their children how they were slaves in Egypt, how they were delivered from Egypt and how they were brought into the land "flowing with milk and honey".

They were also told that if they were to break their convenant and worshipped another God, calamity would befall them.

Part of my church building was sold off many years ago. Written into the title deeds are a covenant that anyone who runs the shop (which it has become) must not trade on Sundays.

It is now an estate agent's office. Some years ago the owner wanted to sell it to a cafe owner, and with it the application to trade on Sundays. The matter was brought up to members at the church business meeting. The proposition to allow Sunday trading was unanimously rejected.

Change of ownership is fine. Change of use is fine. But Sunday trading is not OK. It is written into the covenant. It would cost a long court battle to break that convenant, if ever.

But covenants only work if there is a shared vision, a set of shared values. Twenty years down the road the church members may not be so irked by Sunday trading because they have grown up with Sunday trading unlike the current generation of church members. Then, maybe, the church would allow the covenant to be broken.

When the UK welfare system was mooted, there was a shared value system. Most of the population were church-goers. They may not be very staunch Christians, but they upheld the teachings of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, etc.

It was unspoken but there was this "social glue", a "British" value of looking after oneself, and where one is able, to look after one's neighbour as well. Marriage was the norm. Having children within wedlock was the norm.

In the aftermath of a Pakistan-born member of the Lords blowing the whistle it has become known that thousands of Muslim men have multiple "wives", each claiming benefits as a "single mother" while the husband keeps on fathering more children. Entitlement without responsibilities.

Non-Muslim men are just as culpable. Why work when you can enjoy sexual favours from multiple wives/partners and produce many children who are all given all kinds of child benefits?

Worse still is the spectre that the welfare state skews the law of natural selection (if you believe in such a thing). The feckless procreate whilst the able and conscientious, mindful of mounting bills, increased taxes and responsibilities, choose to have fewer children.

The result is the "survival of the unfittest".

The social glue, British (to a great extent Christain) values, have eroded as Britain became a multi-cultural and multi-religious society, in a political Europe that has made its border porous.

Would a convenant -- a constant reiteration of how the welfare system is meant to be a safety net, not a lifestyle choice, not a gravy train to multiple conjugal relationships -- prevent mission creep?

I have my doubts.

One thing I am sure: if the bogus, lazy, feckless and undeserving claimants can be removed from the system, those who are really in need through no fault of their own, or those who have tried despite disadvantages, will be far better off. But how do we design such a system?

How welfare culture evolves (3)
How welfare culture evolves (2)
How welfare culture evolves