Saturday, 30 April 2011

Parenting an adolescent (nation)

I look in amazement at pictures of the crowds at the opposition rallies. Then I noticed that Straits Times ran pictures of people at PAP rallies from quite different angles, as if attempting to portray the crowd to be as large as possible.

There was also video evidence that PAP supporters were bus-ed in. Contrast this with the exchange I had with friends giving up hope on going to a WP rally because they heard that the stadium was already full.

While I cheered for William and Catherine celebrating the start of what we hope is a long and fruitful union yesterday, I felt sorrow -- yes, sorrow -- for Mr LKY. How was he reacting to reports of the lack of interest in PAP rallies?

This was the man used to addressing thousands. His shouts of "Merdeka!" have resounded in the largest public spaces. He galvanized our imagination, motivated a generation, and turned pockets of immigrants with differing worldviews into a nation.

Yes, for all our gripes today that Singapore is not what we wish it to be, you cannot take away the credit due to the first generation of politicians who were true statesmen. Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen, S Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San, Dr Toh Chin Chye, etc. these were men of vision, passionate for Singapore, the nation.

Were they passionate for a PAP-Singapore or were they passionate for Singapore - the nation?

As my son turns another year older, just two years short of turning into a sullen teenager, we are bracing ourselves for a few years of rebellion.

I wonder if we can view the "life course of a nation" in a similar way. Do the stages of development in a child correspond somewhat to the development of a nation?

When they are in their "terrible twos" we show them who's boss (ie learn to say firmly, "no"). When they are older we hold their hand to teach them how to cross the road.

When they are young we sometimes resort to bribes/rewards (eg sweets/chocolates) and punishment (eg deprived of a favourite toy/TV programme). When they get older we reason together.

Then, sooner or later, they fly the nest.

If we have faith in our parenting skills, then when it's time for us to "let go" of our adolescent children, we will let go, and let them grow up.

Many societies still do this. Young people undergo "rites of passage" and are then expected to become adults. Parents take a step back as adolescents come under the tutelage of older people in the wider society, the "communitas".

My first research work was of adolescent girls and one of the lessons I learned is that it is difficult to be an adolescent when sometimes parents expect us to be grown up and discharge responsibilities, and yet at other times they treat us like a young child.

In urban Singapore where many adolescents do not have clear "rites of passage", adolescents remain for a long time in a state of "liminality", in a "between and betwixt" state, where they have no certain status.

If as grown-ups we do not remember this state of being/mind as a problem it is probably because it was so traumatic our brains had blanked it out. (Just as, thankfully, we do not remember the pain when we cut our first teeth.)

Then we turn 18, and either university, work or national service suddenly qualifies us as "adults".

Is Singapore an "adolescent" nation?

When I read comments in blogs and forums (fora?) I get a very strong feeling of "Singaporeans" vs "foreigners". Is this a good or bad thing?

I think it is a marvellous achievement that political leaders have now nurtured a generation or two who are "Singaporean". As my Hong Kong-born hairdresser tells me, "You Singaporeans always say 'Singaporean' first, before saying you are 'Chinese'."

My father was born in China and to him, he was always Chinese first. Singapore was his adopted country. I might support the English team at cricket, but I am still Singaporean.

How different would Singapore be if at the point when we got to be "Singaporean" our 'parents' (aka PAP) had "let go"?

Together as "Singaporeans" we would have forged a path together. Perhaps a different path, but nonetheless a path, TOGETHER.

Political threats, we can deal with that. Housing shortage, we can deal with that. Economic crisis, we can deal with that. Because we had done it once before, we can do it again.

If nothing else, we could look back at our visionary leaders and say, we MUST also deal with these issues.

Low fertility rate? Ah, this one, we don't know, but at least give us a chance, we can probably also deal with that. Maybe we need to tweak the way we work. Maybe we need to tweak the school system. Just give us a chance.

But Singaporeans did not have a chance to deal with this. So while we were treated as "adults" in some ways (paying for a grown up, first class but very expensive Cabinet), we were still "children" in other ways, having policies regarding immigration (eg) foisted on us.

If we are behaving like rebellious teenagers now, agitating for change, is it because we have been forced for so long --  for too long -- to remain in this state of liminality?

My son is nearly as tall as I. I say to friends, my parenting must be done by the time he is my height. I must teach him values, manners and those skills that I am able to impart to him, and which he must have, by then.

Because five-foot-two me cannot expect to look up to a six foot tall man, point a finger and say, "You do this because I am your mum."

No, I should jolly well make sure that I have taught him what I need to teach him before he gets taller than me. After that it is his father's responsibility, but only until he outgrows his dad. Then he is on his own.

We have invested in our parenting early in our child's life to ensure that when it's time to let go, the child can be trusted to be the type of adult we wish him to be.

Children grow up. Just as nations do. Founding fathers (and mothers) of nations cannot expect to be parents forever. As I often say to my son "there's a time and place for everything", there's a time to let go, and let them grow.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Kookaburra gay your life must be: one Christian view

When my son was born I had this inordinate fear, an overwhelming fear, totally illogical fear, that he would be gay (not in the "happy" sense).

After years of parenthood now I realize that even if he did decide to be gay, I as a parent, would still love him. I would not abandon him.

My Christian response to this debate is -- and I am not ashamed to say that I am a committed, Bible-believing Christian -- this is how I imagine God would respond to homosexuals. He still loves them nonetheless. They are still his creation, and he loves them one and all.

Some Christians shorten this principle as "hate the sin, love the sinner".

Of course it is not nice to be called a sinner, but that is what we are, if we believe in what the Bible says about our "fallen nature".

What would Jesus do? (WWJD?)

We read in the Gospels that Jesus associated with those who are the lowest of the low in his time on earth: the prostitutes, the lepers, the tax-collectors. Indeed, those who are not sick do not need a doctor. [I am thinking, should I underline "do not need a doctor"? ]

Some people ask, "Why are you Christians so homophobic, so hung up on a person's sexual orientation?" My response to this is I have no problems with anyone's sexual orientation. But the Bible does not condone sex outside marriage, full stop. It does not matter whether this be premarital sex, extra-marital sex, homosexual sex, or sex with animals, etc.

Just as the Bible forbids theft, whether this be stealing biscuits from a supermarket, paper clips from your employer, or money that your friend, client, taxpayer, investor, etc has entrusted to you, it is theft.

Of course a "gay agenda" scares me. It scares me stiff.

Recently a gay couple went to a B&B in Cornwall run by a devout Christian couple. They state clearly on their website that only married couples are allowed to use the room with the double bed. The gay couple arrived and when the B&B owners realized that this was not the "married couple" they expected, offered them separate rooms.

The gay couple sued for discrimination. In court the gay couple won because the judge deemed that the right of the couple to protection from discrimination was stronger than the B&B couple's right to religious faith and conscience.

There are lots of B&Bs who would have gladly let this couple share a bed. Why they deliberately chose a B&B which clearly states that it is run by a Christian couple on Christian principles, I will never understand.

If I am a meat eater I won't choose a "vegan B&B" and then complain they refused to serve me meat. Why did this gay couple go and "kachow" this Christian couple? I don't go to a gay bar and complain I can't find a straight guy there.

I don't wish Singapore to come to that where churches are forced by law to hire out rooms to Satanists or face the full wrath of discrimination legislation.

However, as a Christian, I won't have a problem voting for VW.

Let me rephrase that: In a truly democratic system I have no problems with voting for VW even if he is gay if I know that he would represent my voice better than the alternative candidate.

Simple. In a truly democratic system I can -- Singaporeans please note -- vote him out at the next election!

Elected MPs are not, if I may borrow a slogan from the Dog Trust*, "a dog"; they are not for life. (*A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.)

Let's say I, as a Christian, am a bit uncomfortable about a candidate's sexual orientation (that has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on his/her abilities as an MP) gives this person a chance. He gets into parliament. He speaks on my behalf. I am happy. I vote him back.

Then he begins to push for the "gay agenda". I am not happy with that. I write to him, "Please stop," I say.

He says, "Cannot. I cannot act against my conscience. The rights of gay people are very important to me."

Then I can vote him out. I can gather as many people as possible who would vote him out. I might have to start my own "Christian Democratic Party" to succeed, but that is the whole point of a democratic system.

Wish-list: Candidates must stop saying to opposition candidates "What is your track record?" This is a non-argument.

How can a candidate who has not yet been in parliament talk about a "track record"?

It is like my own experience of being "over-qualified and under-experienced". Impressive CV when it comes to education, internship, practical experience, etc. But no track record of being in a paid job.

Who would employ such a person?

You see, unless you are a government scholar, bonded to serve the government, most of us in the real world would have, at some time or other, experienced the pain of not being offered a job because "we have no track record".

Until an enlightened employer comes along to say, "I see the potential in you," and makes you an offer.

Remember, "no track record!" is a non-argument. Voters must think as prospective employers. After all, MPs are indeed the employees/servants of the electorate.

Incidentally I read in the Bible (Matthew 20:25-28) yesterday Jesus teaching his disciples:

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

MPs' salary: Is Confucius out of fashion today?

In my last visit to Singapore I (or rather my sister) managed to retrieve an old plastic folder of my newspaper clippings. I used to write letters to the local press (nothing's changed) as well as occasional "Analysis" pieces for the Sunday Times.

In my folder I found a clipping from 7th April 1985, a letter entitled: If we took the Master at his word. Back then we were admonished by a senior statesman to follow a "Confucian ethic".

I attach the text of this letter in full below:


It was interesting to have a People's Action Party Member of Parliament quote Confucius in support of Confucius policies.

For if we are going to take Master Kung at his word, life in Singapore would be very different.

For example, the Sage teaches that there should be no distinction of classes in education. If we accept that, streaming must go.

Leonard Hsu, in The Political Philosophy of Confucianism, writes: "Equity, in Confucius philosophy, condemns favouritism, partisanship, and selfishness in administration."

"The government should help the insufficient and deplete the abundant in order to maintain the level of balance. The poorest people in the state should be respected, and the noblest people should not be flattered."

On the question of salaries and due recognition, the Analects, one of the Four Books of Confucian teachings, records the following: "The Master does not mind failing to get recognition; he is too busy doing the things that entitle him to recognition."

"The Master said (the good man) does not grieve that other people do not recognise his merits. His only anxiety is lest he should fail to recognise others."

"Concerning the head of state or family, I have heard that rulers should not be concerned that they have not enough possessions and territories, but should be concerned that possessions are not equally distributed; they should not be concerned that they are poor, but should be concerned that the people are not content."

On the question of ministerial salaries, let us be reminded by the Chung Yung (usually translated as The Doctrine of the Mean), another of the Four Books, "it is possible for a poor officer to give up voluntarily his position and emolument."

If the poor officer can give up his meagre salary, what more he who has 30 times that to spare?

If only we could follow Confucius to the letter, there wouldn't have been those long Parliament reports and Saturday night movies* need not be shown on Sunday mornings.


*This reference is to the TV schedule being distrupted by extended parliament sittings.

Clearly, Confucius and his myriad teachings: being gracious (being the junzi), the emperor being given the "Heavenly Mandate" to rule, and the setting right of the five relationships, etc. these have fallen out of fashion.

I was struck by how relevant this letter is despite it being 26 years old! Does that make me a woman of vision? Or simply old-fashioned.

Here in the UK we have a debate "in reverse". The British PM earns £145,500. But many CEOs and senior civil servants in the local council, BBC, and QUANGOs earn much more than that. See link.

Basically these people, unlike CEOs in the private sector, do not have to worry about income or making a profit, but are paid an incredible amount of money to spend it! Taxpayers have no choice but to pay the local tax and TV license fee, but the people earning these inflated incomes are not accountable to the taxpayer.

I personally feel that CEOs of local councils have no moral right to earn such amounts. They will be totally unemployable outside the civil service. What they have is a thick address book, a good network, and they do the "merry-go-round" moving from one council to another, getting a higher and higher pay each time, thereby pushing upwards the average salary. Ludicrous.

OK, I have to concede that we cannot expect these self-serving individuals to have any Confucianist principles. What to do?

Interestingly, I spotted another letter in my folder, dated 21st July 1985. It expresses my surprise and discomfort at the closure of the Singapore Monitor.

It was particularly bizarre for me as a senior staff member of the Sunday Monitor had just rung, a few weeks before, to try to get me to write for them instead of the Sunday Times.

We learned that the paper was facing a financial blackhole to the tune of $20million, or some staggering figure like that (if I remember correctly). My letter expresses how the closure was so sudden that allegedly even the editors were kept in the dark. The staff also did not have a chance to up their productivity or stage a management buyout, etc.

Guess who was at the helm (the CEO, no less) of this newspaper?

I give you a clue. His initials are MBT.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Singapore GE 2011: A view from overseas

The excitement over the forthcoming General Election in Singapore is palpable, even where I am, miles away from home.

It reminded me of the elections between 1981 and 1984, when I was often worried over whether an increase in bus fares would mean I could not afford to eat, given my meagre income giving private tuition as an undergraduate.

I don't remember much of elections since then, and in particular in 2006.

2006 was when (1) my son had the most difficult time at school before his special education needs were identified, (2) my husband was very ill, and (3) my business was in its infancy.

It has been said of British politics prior to 1997 when the Labour Party came into power, that it was not that the electorate wanted Conservative rule, but that there was no "credible opposition".

I remember how every time the then PM John Major came on radio I switched it off. His "back to basics" rhetoric was torn to shreds as minister after minister, politician after policitican was exposed as a hypocrite.

The Labour Party remained in power while the Conservative party was in disarray, going through several leaders in the course. Likewise I was so affronted by the lies and spin of the Labour government that every time Blair or Brown came on radio I switched off. Enough! I cried to myself. Enough of those lies.

Again Labour remained in power only because the Conservative Party did not constitute a "credible opposition" until last year where though they won more votes in total, the constituency boundaries were drawn in such a way that they could not form the government.

Of course in the lead-up to our last UK election we had the "expenses scandal". In Singapore ( where there is no corruption, remember?) I understand that the ministers have awarded themselves a 30% pay rise. This, you must agree, is a first-class way of preventing corruption.

We have been introduced to opposition candidates whom many now feel make up a "credible opposition" come May the 7th.

Interestingly, many of these candidates are men and women of a certain age. They are, to a great extent, self-employed. Professionally they have proven themselves.

I wonder if they have only now come forward because they have observed that to do so earlier would lead to professional suicide.

They have seen how the likes of JB Jeyaretnam have had to suffer the pain and ignominy of being imprisoned and bankrupted. Have they bided their time in anticipation of an uphill struggle ahead?

For years the ruling party have resorted to mudslinging come election time. "Ad hominem" (character assassination) arguments do not work any more. The Singaporean electorate have grown up and have become quite fed up with this. Singaporeans want a clean fight.

It amuses me that whilst the ruling party champions the virtue of foreign talent and Singaporeans working abroad, when faced with a "returnee" billed as a "star catch" by a opposition party, they question his credentials.

Singaporeans who, for whatever reason, have been living abroad can only be good for local politics. Singaporeans exposed to other parliaments, whether "First World", "Third World" or none at all, can offer a fresh and useful perspective.

Eg I would express caution when it comes to a debate on minimum wage and a comprehensive welfare state because I know this is not working. Here in the UK I am paying the heavy price of a welfare state that has lost its moral bearings.

In a 'previous life' I had to introduce Mr MBT to interactive educational software via touch-screen technology. The preparation for his visit required rehearsals because "we must not let the minister wait for the lift". So colleagues were detailed to ensure that the lift doors would be open when Mr MBT stepped out of his ministerial car.

That is not how the majority of us Singaporeans live.

How many of us have found it impossible, come lunch hour, to get into a lift to take us to the ground floor? How many of us have resorted to taking the "up" lift to a higher floor in order to take us down so that we could brave the hot sun walking to the nearest hawker centre?

So, when was the last time people like Mr MBT had to wait for a lift?

When was the last time politicians had a door slammed in their faces by another ungracious Singaporean?

When was the last time they sat down at a hawker centre or food court and experience the ugly practice amongst Singaporeans of reserving seats with tissue paper while people eating on their own cannot find a place to set down their tray of hot food?

Part of me feels sorry for these politicians because, of course, when you become famous, or become a minister, this freedom to live an ordinary life is not always possible.

When politicians and ministers come to a point where they cannot move around freely, let the current candidates take note, they must surround themselves with trusted friends who can do this and report accurately, make use of every feedback channel to listen, and then act accordingly with a clear conscience.

Any way, here are my other thoughts, for what they are worth:

"Parliament" is pronounced "paR-le-ment", not "pa-lee-men". OK, Nicole, take note!

I was very impressed by the woman PAP candidate who comes from a Mandarin-speaking background (her parents are Nantah graduates). Is it because she learned English properly, ie. as a second language, or by immersion in America (or wherever it was her parents were based)?

Please sounD youR enD consonaNTS. If your poiNT is importaNT, say iT. It heLPS to sloW down.

Y-O-U-T-H is "youth", not "yoof".

P-A-R-T-Y  is "paR-ty" not "pah-ty".

We "take" someone (eg children) TO somewhere there (eg Legoland). We "bring" something FROM somewhere else to here.

I was quite tickled by how the likes of Tan Jee Say, who speak very good English, would switch to Singlish complete with the accent.

And please stop nodding your head incessantly at the end of answering a question and saying "ya". It reminds me of those nodding dogs some people put in the back of their cars!

Wrt to opposition switching parties I have this to say: people switch parties when they feel that they cannot, with a clear conscience, go along with what that party stands for. This is to be taken as an expression of one's integrity and honesty, not a negative point.

Unless of course that candidate is "shopping around" for a party that would reward him/her with privileges not obtainable elsewhere (eg a ministerial post). It's a bit like athletes shopping for a country they could represent because they are not really top-class in their own countries.

When I first came to the UK I was still very hung up on personalities when it came to elections. That was the Singaporean upbringing in me.

Now I understand that in a First World parliament, party manifestos are important. When it comes to a vote, MPs vote along party lines except when a "free vote" is allowed on matters of conscience.

I am tempted to fly back to cast my vote, but alas! it appears that it is another walkover in my Gee-Arer-See.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Mudslinging makes potatoes grow

The potatoes in my garden are going berserk. Every time I see new leaves I cover them with compost (as per instructions).

If I put compost on it last thing at night, new growth appears the following morning. If I cover it with compost in the morning, the leaves break through again by the end of the day.

New leaves appear despite the compost. Or is it because of the compost?

I’ve been baking my own bread. In the temperate clime here it takes a long time for bread dough to prove (rise). But when it has risen to the right size, it takes but a few minutes to bake, and then soon we can tuck into delicious warm bread.

When it’s the season for potatoes to grow, nothing would stop it once it finds moist, fertile ground.

Fed with alternative views via the internet and watered by rising dissatisfaction, the political ground in Singapore is fertile for opposition growth.

The ruling party might dig up the dirt and heap it on the opposition. But mudslinging and dirt (as compost is but organic material that has rotted down) only promote even greater growth.

I don’t have to remind you that potatoes grow underground.

As the opposition has been biding its time, proving (pun intended) itself to be worthy (or not, as the case might be), so too like bread, it would not take too long for it to be ready to form a government, or at least that alternative voice.

Wishing you, my beloved Singapore, the wonderful aroma that promises the delight of freshly baked bread. Soon.

PS: Is it not ironic that in these 20 years I have been able to participate in all local, mayoral and general elections as well as the forthcoming referendum on AV (Alternative Vote for Proportional Represenation) in the UK but cannot take part in an election in my native Singapore?

Friday, 1 April 2011

Big Society, Small Mind (copy)

[Copied this from another of my blogs]

It's been a long while since I last posted. Together with all the usual busy-ness of life during this time of year I had been doing my weekly stint at a local charity which gives advice on all areas of life. (This means I have less time to run my business, but never mind.)

Of course we are not know-it-alls. We merely have the resources to point people in the right direction. Some folk who come in need more help than others. For these we spend more time with them and help with writing letters, making phone calls, etc.

My role in this charity is to assess within as short a time as possible how we might (or not) help the "client".

We get all sorts. People asking about neighbour disputes over boundary fences, pensions and how these affect their current benefits, whether they are genuinely required to pay underpaid taxes because HMRC completely fouled up, domestic violence, how to apply for benefits for 19-year-olds, etc.

We get the few odd-balls, for want of a better word. People who want to just have a talk, eg I've applied for x number of jobs in the last y number of weeks, and not a single reply. Can you tell me whether the job market is really that bad?

One man who finally decided to divorce his wife was so glad for some guidance we gave he put quite a substantial donation into our collection box. He needed reassurance, some advice regarding a legal matter, and you could see the relief on his face when we helped him to separate the two issues.

But two weeks ago I very nearly quit. For the second week running I had a 'run' of clients wanting to know where they stand with regards to their benefits application, etc. We are a charity. We have nothing to do with the various government departments that push one bit of paper to another, and then on to another department, only for it to be lost in the post, etc.

But they come, constantly, "Please, I have no money to live on this week, what has happened to my application?"

I don't know.

You also have those who tell you, "I'm entitled to this [benefit] and that [benefit]. I went to the office, and they tell me I'm OK, but I get the letter that tells me I get nothing. What is happening?"

I don't know.

Some get really rude when after we had given them the advice and clear directions as to what to do. "But why are you not helping me? Previously when I came here always someone helped me. Make a phone call and you get the answer."

Me: "Here's the number given to you. Call and find out what the situation is."

Client: "No. They won't give me an answer. You people have to give them a call, and then they give you an answer."

Me: "Are you saying that the people at the council are not giving you the answers? Are you saying that they would only give an answer if someone from here speaks to them?

Client: "Yes. Always I call and they don't help me. You people call them, they would give you an answer."

That really made my blood boil.

First, I didn't like being referred to as "you people". "Look!" I said, "I am only a volunteer. I don't get paid for trying to help you. My role here is not to make phone calls for you."

Second, I was furious that local council employees who are supposed to be public servants, paid by my tax money, seem not to be doing their job. Why are they not giving this man the answers he deserves?

So on the one hand I pay these servants, and on another I pay this man (his benefits via my tax), but the lazy public servant has caused this man to come to me to say, "You people are not helping me."

Why should I be taxed to the hilt and be insulted by this client whose benefits come out of my taxes?

The following week I had a woman who claims to be single, with three children, with a query about her housing and impending eviction. Of course the taxpayer is already paying her housing benefits, council tax credit, child benefits, child tax credits, etc.

She asked me whether I knew anything about "banding" in the homelessness jargon. "No," I said, and she rolled her eyes in disgust.

I wanted to say, "Sweetheart I've not received a single penny of benefit from this country. How do you expect me to know? I have not even received Child Benefit because it was too complicated for me as a foreigner to claim, so it has been given to my husband.

"Incidentally I am contributing towards your benefits, so don't sound so high-and-mighty." (I learned later from the case notes that actually, she had not been telling us the whole truth! And yes, I would still like to find out how in a community that considers it acceptable to stone a woman caught in adultery she could have three children when claiming not to be in a relationship.)

When I got home after this session I had to bake bread. I needed to punch out my anger and frustration. How dare these people talk to me like I am their servant when their livelihood depends on people like me who fund their benefits?

Here I am trying to do my Big Society and all I meet are small minds like these.

Thankfully the last session (yesterday) was so different. I met some really nice people who were grateful for the help, advice and information we were able to provide.

I am, however, continuing to make my own bread. My baking skill has risen a lot in my boys' estimation as my bread proved to be a great success!