Saturday, 25 June 2011

What's wrong with our education system?

I was trying to find the energy to write a piece about the education system in Singapore when I came across Education standards 'not good enough' warns former Tesco boss .

Much of what he says about the British school-leaver could also probably be said of the Singaporean school-leaver/graduate. So, have a good read. Read the readers' comments, too. Check out the comments with the "best rating".

Incidentally the person who made this comment is "Sir Terry, who stepped down from the helm of Britain’s largest private employer earlier this year after 14 years in charge".

Please note that it says he stepped down "from the helm of" and not "from helming".

Monday, 13 June 2011

We have potatoes!

Remember my post about mudslinging?

One of my potato tubs looks like this:

There are "windows" at the bottom of these bags to let you reach in and remove potatoes. My first attempt yielded these:

There are more, but I think this is enough for one (or two) of our forthcoming family meals

I think Singaporeans should begin to grow their own food again. Why not use this method to try growing sweet potatoes on your balcony? Or other root vegetables suitable to the Singapore climate.

My mum used to keep the water from washing rice to water her plants. Only water when the sun is not beating down ie early in the morning or after sundown.

O! And here is a picture of my parmesan and sage bread rolls. The sage is organically-grown in my garden.

Tell me how you get on with either growing or baking.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Soul-searching: Singaporeans need a vision

Since the General Election 2011 there has been a lot of soul-searching and one of the questions raised is "Do our leaders have a vision?".

At the last British General Election I was lamenting (1st May 2010) the lack of vision in all the main parties:
None of the major parties seem to have any undergirding ideology in the recent years. There is no real 'vision' for this society. Everywhere there is just a bit of tinkering here, a bit of polyfiller there.

Our political parties have abandoned ideology because ideology does not win votes.

... Instead, we have politicians saying only what the populace wish to hear.
Previous to this I discussed vision in relation to the importance of speaking good English here (2nd October 2010):
The tools of language, like the keys on a piano, are all there. Just as good music would evoke a response, a good leader could put words together in such a way that listeners could go, “Wow! I’ve never thought of it that way.”

Good use of language could stir listeners to action. Think of famous speeches like "I have a dream" and "We shall fight [them] on the beaches", etc.

In his recent National Day Rally speech did the Singapore PM choose to inspire?

Instead he chose to dwell on bread-and-butter issues, using anecdotes and case studies to engage, explain and communicate.

Perhaps he had discerned that his audience were unlikely to have the vital language skills to be inspired by clever rhetoric. He has learned that they much prefer to talk cockles and chilli.

Years of languishing in a linguistic torpor have guaranteed that enough people remain merely useful and utterly apathetic. So apathetic that there is no real fear of uprising.

But alas! these same people cannot be stirred to action either.
Post GE2011 we may have stirred from our dreams, but do we, or our leaders, yet have a vision?

For all his shortcomings, Mr Goh Chok Tong's aspiration to a "Swiss standard of living" is visionary. I enjoyed my time in Switzerland. You can, literally, set your watch by the bus time-table.

Not being very good in reading German I did not realize that the shop I was in was about to close for lunch. I loitered. They did not say, "O! She's a tourist, just tell her to go. We'll not be seeing her again."

Instead they waited patiently when at last I bought a bar of chocolate. They took payment, I left, and they closed the shop. It left me with a very favourable impression of the Swiss.

Back up a little and I remember Mr Lee Kuan Yew admonishing us to aspire towards being "an educated Singaporean".

Even Mr Lee didn't seem to know how to define the "educated Singaporean". He made references to reading books unrelated to work, and paintings on our walls, of needing to have been "educated" -- not just "trained" -- and "something else". 

But what was that elusive "something else"? (Did he contrast this with the "ugly Singaporean"?)

Is it a bit like "class", as in "so-and-so exudes class". However money cannot buy you class. Thus while some people have all the money, and wear the most expensive clothes, they might still exhibit the traits of a peasant. (Think My Fair Lady, and the high-flying wife of a certain ex-prime minister.)

We can go back further still. Think about "We, the citizens of Singapore ...". Now that, I think, was a real vision: "happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation".

Most, not all, of us have done well on the score of prosperity. We have progressed a little in our arts. But happiness?

So what vision do I have for Singapore (or of Singaporeans)?

Call them educated or something else, my kind of Singaporean is a gracious Singaporean (23rd January 2008). That would be a good start.

A gracious person looks beyond the self to the society in which they live. They are conscious of their responsibilities (and not just of their rights) to the point that it affects even the way they drive their buses, serve a customer, treat a patient, etc. Being gracious is a first step towards that "Swiss standard of living".

Such persons look beyond pure material gains, mindful of their fellow travellers. People who abuse their maids need not apply.

A gracious person also believes in a "shared space". I refuse to throw my litter in the train, on the ground, or spit, etc. not because I am afraid of being fined so much money. I refrain from doing so because I think of public space as shared space.

I do not own the space. I do not have the right to mess it up. Either by polluting it with material waste or by talking loudly and incessantly (mostly rubbish) on the phone.

Gracious people can also be proud people. They are proud of their achievements, whatever their achievements. They are aware that they play an important part in the overall picture of national success. They don't look down on others because, hopefully, others have not looked down on them.

You see if, within and between every stratum of society or pecking order, we can be gracious and kind to one another, accepting one another for our talents, then wouldn't we all be happy?

I wouldn't look down at the men and women who empty my bins because if they do not do their jobs well we'd live in a stinking cesspit. Sure, I can see that they may not be as well educated and as well paid, but they earn their own keep. I respect them for that.

Just think, any of us could be that person who is now a maid or road sweeper. They are each someone's child, sibling, parent, spouse. How could you treat them other than with utmost respect? (And from the biblical perspective, may I add, they are each made in the image of God.)

For as long as we -- as a nation -- wander aimlessly around looking for a reason to exist other than a home, a job, family and a Kate Spade bag or two (or that Rolex watch, say), we will only find drudgery.

If Singaporeans are soul-searching, is it perhaps because in our quest to make more money (with or without asset enhancement, in or out of the casinos) we have somehow lost our soul?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Education: Hardware vs. Heartware

I am a "small trader", a "self-employed craftswoman". I'm like a little market stall trader, except that I sell online.

As such I am keen to encourage young entrepreneurs with new ideas and inventions.

When I used to organize fundraising school fairs at my son's school, I always tried to get the young boys (all under-13) to run their own "business". (One young boy, eg, drew cartoons and comics, copied and sold them. You could even get them printed on T-shirts.)

But I was not impressed by this short report: This toilet seat could lift couples' spirits

The problem: (Men) Toilet users do not lift the seat before use, thus messing it up.

The solution: Develop a device to flip the seat up after use.

As a woman my response was: But I don't want the seat to flip up. Why should "seat up" be the default position?

Why can't the men users learn to lift the seat up, use the loo, and then put it down?

It does not take rocket science to do that!

Whatever the right and wrong of "seat up" or "seat down", I was struck by how these student inventors tried to resolve an attitudinal problem with an engineering solution.

It reminded me of the time my young son would preface most of his statements with "I shall invent a machine to ...."

As a four-year-old and very lacking in social skills (being an only child looked after by a full-time mum and therefore not exposed to the rough and tumble of nurseries and child care environments) my son thought all problems could be resolved by designing the correct machines.

An attitude issue has to do from what emanates from the heart. Such problems cannot be changed by hardware like machines.

Three points I wish to note here:
  1. I cannot understand why notices in Singapore ladies toilets tell me to lift the seat. No, no, no! Women need to have the seat DOWN! Was it a man who commissioned those posters?
  2. A marriage requires a lot of give and take. If couples fight over the toilet seat, we as a nation are in serious trouble. What is so difficult about lifting a toilet seat that a husband would refuse to do it? What is so difficult about the wife putting it down?  
  3. If our engineering students cannot tell which problems require engineering solutions and which not, there is something wrong in the way we've been educating our young people.
While discussing toilets, let me mention two other problems in Singapore public toilets:

Some users squat on the seats instead of sitting on them. You can tell by the footprints. O! Why on earth do people do something so uncivil as that?

My ex-room-mate from America once asked me, after discovering the "hole-in-ground" toilets in Asia, whether I thought the western way of sitting on toilets rather "unhygienic".

That was an interesting perspective. Maybe people squat on pedestal toilets not because they are "uncivilized". Far from it, they may be thinking that WE are the ones who are "unhygienic"!

Once we learn to see it their way, our education programme could take a different track.

The other problem with ladies toilets in Singapore is wet floors. Some of our women folk insist on washing with water (it's a religious thing), but toilets are not designed to drain water poured onto the floor.

Now this is a problem that our engineers can solve.

Still the best way to keep our toilets pristine is still a notice that says: "Please leave this toilet the way you would like to find it."

Sunday, 5 June 2011

English as it should be writ (Part 4)

The headline Civil service to get half-month payment in July (28th May 2011) refers.

This headline was accompanied by what looked like senior civil servants smiling, which mystified me.

Why would these civil servants be smiling when they are only going to get a half-month pay instead of the full month?

Reading further I realized that the headline writer meant these civil servants were going to get a half-month "bonus".

A "payment" is just reward (or punishment).

A "bonus" (Latin root "bon" = good) is an additional payment usually due to good performance.

As a taxpayer you might well ask what have these civil servants done to deserve a bonus, almost immediately after a general election. (Answer: it was not the peformance of the civil servants that was deemed good, but that of the economy.)

When so many aspects of our daily life are going wrong, eg:
  • dead body in water tank (not properly regulated by government department?)
  • flooding (we can't stop the rain, but at least the relevant departments could ensure safety)
  • boy lost to flood (when safety barriers were not put in place)
  • overcrowding in buses and other public transport (not getting the estimates right)
  • schools not producing the type of graduands required by employers (poor forecasting and understanding of economic and industry needs)
  • foreign maid left with brain damage because of some illogical government policy, etc.,
is it legitimate to ask why these civil servants should be getting a bonus at all?

I have friends in the civil service who are doing a great job, I'm sure, so forgive me for even thinking this: maybe a real dose of "half-month payment", especially for those at the top, could be the spur that we taxpayers should put in the you-know-where of the ministers and those who should be leading the charge in making the life of Singaporeans (and their guests) that little better.

Those who agree, please put your hand up kee chiew.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

English as it should be writ (Part 3)

In the GE2011 period and its aftermath I cannot help but notice that Singaporeans tend to:

(1) use the word "stay" when they mean "live", and

(2) use the word "house" when they mean "flat".

I have not done any research or looked up any dictionaries, so feel free to fire arrows.

Typically "stay" suggests a temporary stopover.

So if you run into friends while on holiday they might enquire, "Where are you staying?" Your answer might be "such-n-such hotel", or "I'm staying with my friends", etc.

The location at which you spend most of your life outside work and school is where you "live".

If you say, "O! Fred? He lives at the casino now," we would conclude that Fred is in serious trouble.

In the UK I live in Greater London. In Singapore I am a person of "no fixed address" or "no fixed abode", so my family and I usually stay at the YMCA. ("Homeless in Singapore", that will be another post.)

My mum-in-law? She does not live with us. She lives a four-hour drive away.

Of course when you say that you "live with" someone, it often suggests that you are in a special relationship with that person.

Thus on bio-blurbs you might read that "so-and-so lives in such-and-such with her partner, two step-children, a parrot and two cats".

If the person you live with is not your "partner" as such, you'd probably describe this person as your "flatmate*", "landlord" or something else. *The Americans tend to use "room-mate".

In Singapore we often use the words "house" and "home" interchangeably. This is probably because in the Chinese and Malay languages "jia" and "rumah" mean both house and home.

In the UK I find that English speakers are often more particular. A house refers to a two-storey property. It could be a stand-alone and therefore "detached" house, or a "semi-detached" property (two houses sharing a common wall).

Houses in a row that share common walls on both sides form a "terrace". The end houses in the row with only one common wall is "end-of-terrace" and therefore more expensive, though it is still not as prestigious as a semi-detached.

Single-storey detached houses are called bungalows. If a second (half) floor is added to it where the attic used to be, it is a "chalet bungalow". Etc. etc.

So the Brits are miffed when Singaporeans say "Come to my house for a visit" and find that the "house" is actually a flat.

Yet, let me add, there is nothing shameful about the flats we have in Singapore. Most of our flats in Singapore are larger than the flats you'd find in the UK.

The flat I lived in for nearly five years would be claustrophobic by Singaporean standards. The upside is there is a little garden.

In summary, most Singaporeans do not stay in houses. We live in flats. Nice flats.

English as it should be writ (Part 2)

The headline President Nathan forfeits public service awards to Ming Yi, Durai (27th May, 2011) refers.

27/5/2011 I sent this email to ''


Dear Editor

It was a "facepalm" moment when I read this headline.

It is appalling English.

How could President Nathan "forfeit" a public service award that was not his?

A person can only forfeit something he owns or is due to him but which now needs to be given up as a punishment or penalty.

You could say "President to strip Ming Yi and Durai of public service awards" (except that "President to strip" is not a very good headline).

Or "President to remove/recall Ming Yi and Durai's public service awards".

Or "Ming Yi and Durai to forfeit public service awards".

Or "Ming Yi and Durai to be stripped of public service awards".

Or "Ming Yi and Durai to lose public service awards".

Or several other ways to convey that story.

But the President can only "forfeit" what is his to lose: freedom, free time, salary, title, anonymity, etc.

Notchet got reply from Channelnewsasia, but I noticed that the next time someone wrote about this in Todayonline the headline was: Durai, Ming Yi stripped of public service awards.

Are Channelnewsasia and Todayonline part of the same company?

English as it should be writ (Part 1)

The headline Clementi's first full-fledged mall officially opens (22nd May, 2011) refers.

22/05/2011 I sent this email to Straits Times  Forum as well as the contact email on their website:

Dear Sir/Madam

My husband and I looked in puzzlement at this headline.

What animal is this Clementi mall that it is now full/fully-fledged?

In what way has this Clementi mall lost its fledgling status to gain maturity (hence fully-fledged)?

If your writer/subhead writer* means "complete" as in fully-built does that imply that previous malls, in Clementi perhaps, have never been fully-built?

I used to learn my English by reading Straits Times a lot. I am glad that my son does not have to do the same.

Please take note.
* My mistake here. I meant headline writer, or sub-editor. 

Didn't expect a reply, but it came on 26/5/2011:


Dear Dr Lee,

Thank you for taking the trouble to point out the wording of our headline.

"Full-fledged" in this instance refers to the "full status" (New Oxford Dictionary of English) of the mall as one that comes complete with major anchor tenants (a big supermarket, department store, public library, etc) and a wide variety of other shops, including specialty stores, restaurants and a foodcourt, among other tenants.

This is as opposed to smaller malls which do not have major anchor tenants or a wide range of shops/services.

And it is the first such mall in the Clementi area, a point the headline writer saw fit to point out.

Apologies for the slow reply; our usual person who deals with external emails is away.

I hope you and your family will continue to read The Straits Times.

Lim Chuan Huat
Associate Night Editor
I mulled over this, but was still dissatisfied with the answer and responded.


Dear Mr Lim

Thank you for your reply.

I am still not convinced that the phrase "full-fledged" has been used in its correct context.

How does one define when a shopping mall [has**] acquired "full status"?

You might argue that it has anchor tenants and such. I could argue that it lacks a fitness gym and a swimming pool, for example. A very important feature of new shopping malls is that it has a creche for shoppers so that little children could be taken care of while parents/carers shop. Does Clementi Mall have one of these? Also it should have a "motobility" shop, hiring out motorised scooters for elderly people who cannot walk the distance.

I hope you begin to see how illogical it is that one would describe a mall as "full-fledged". Someone else might argue that it lacks a place of worship, a place of meditation (for stressed out shoppers or husbands of shoppers), a funeral services shop (convenient for those who like to shop till they drop?), a maid service agency, etc.

There is no agreed definition of when a mall is "complete" or of "full status" in your usage. Whereas in describing an animal that has fully matured, all the biological indicators are there (or not). In describing whether a professional person is fully-qualified, all the requirements are legislated (eg a medical student who has not completed x period of internship, certified by professional body, etc. cannot call himself/herself a "doctor").

If you could describe a shopping mall as "full-fledged", you would next describe a car as "full-fledged" (because it comes with satnav, remote controlled seats, etc).

You get the picture ....

Yours truly

Dr Lee (full-fledged busybody)
**Omitted inadvertently in my email.
I'm still waiting for Mr Lim to reply.