Sunday, 23 December 2012

Two layers of manliness

To say that my son is growing UP is an understatement.

He's not yet 13 but I've just bought him men's size pyjamas. He's about 3cm taller than I, but that is clearly because I am a very short Singaporean female at 1.58m.

It's also my fault that I have been feeding him 'man-size meals' since he was five.

He was 90cm tall at two years old so that before one visit back to Singapore I had to drill him on using the MRT gates. We practised the action of mum slotting in his card, imagining the barrier opening , and him having to go through quickly before the barrier closed , mum retrieving his card before mum going through herself.

He was tall in stature but young in years.

In the last three months however he was, more importantly, growing up emotionally in a way I did not expect, and in a most delightful way.

He went through a very rough patch in the early summer that caused us a lot of grief, but then suddenly he started behaving like a young man as mothers would like young men to behave.

Recently I checked to see if he was warm enough in the clothes he was wearing. His answer, "Mum, don't worry. I have one layer of clothes and two layers of manliness."

His voice is only just breaking but he is thinking and learning ways of being manly ... and POLITE. That can be a shock to the system. But I am not complaining. The other mothers at school keep telling me how 'charming' he is. I reassure them that he's not always like that at home.

So it was interesting to read this article about how women like their men: Bring back the gentleman!

Someone asked a Bible College lecturer, "The Bible has lots of principles that wives are supposed to follow. What about the husbands?"

The lecturer said, without hesitation, that what God expects of the wife, He also expects of the husband.

Now we are not going to debate that here as it shades into the region of 'equality' and how equality is not the same as 'sameness', but some of the comments to this news report also suggest that men also expect women to be 'gentlewomen'.

Kindness, politeness, graciousness, awareness of others, both men and women are free to give these 'gifts' away. So why not give as generously as possible?

Instead just yesterday I saw a young lady speaking in a very agitated manner with her neck sticking out, finger jabbing in the air, as she told her companion (or victim?) what she was most unhappy about in a very loud voice in a very public place.

I  see groups of older and younger teenagers, boys and girls, swaggering in the shopping precinct effing and blinding, eating and talking loudly, throwing rubbish onto the ground, etc. I often stopped my son if he were with me to say, "On no account do I want to see you or even hear reports of you behaving like that."

Worse, if I may say so, "If a girl behaves like that, then she is not worthy of you."

Manliness? Sometimes young men think that to be seen as kind or polite is to be seen as being weak, a wimp, not macho enough, etc. The truth is it takes a big man to be kind, and polite, and gracious and all that.

Because a big man knows that when push comes to shove, he is (probably) bigger, stronger and more courageous than those who merely talk. As my primary school teacher told me once, and I have never forgotten, empty vessels make the most noise.

If we had a daughter I would also expect her to be all that.

When I was young I read about girls being sent to 'finishing schools', to learn etiquette and the manners to help them get on with life.

I wonder if there is a market for my next business idea: a 'prep school' for young men and women as they go into the world, and as they prepare to settle down in a relationship. How many of our young book-smart people are able to live independently, keeping house, managing budgets, cooking, cleaning, ironing, etc without a live-in 'foreign domestic worker'?

Manliness? I think it begins at home. When dad shows that it is not beneath him to make tea and coffee, cook, etc.

What about 'womanliness' then? How does one practise womanliness without shading into flirtatiousness? I think that is a more complex matter.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Say "Sing-nga-pore"

A Singaporean says in ST Forum that we should learn to pronounce "Singapore" correctly. And I am with him.

However he goes on to say how it should be pronounced as "singer", which threw me.

Where I live one often hears people pronouncing 'singer' as "sing-ger" and 'singing' as "sing-ging" instead of what I would say as "sing-nging". (And 'drawing' is pronounced "draw-ring".)

I am almost certain that I am pronouncing it wrong as I often do, but my 'singing' sounds a bit like on this link: , and I believe this is the way the writer meant.

Interestingly on the same site, you will also find "Singapore":

which gives an alternative "American" pronunciation. Here it could be "Sing-nga-pore" or "Sing-ga-pore".

I am 'old school', and with a legacy of Bahasa Kebangsaan would prefer to say "Sing-nga-pore", which means that it is not pronounced as written. I think it sounds more elegant, less vulgar. But that's only my opinion.

I worked very briefly in Jakarta and noticed that a particular person in the office spoke Bahasa Indonesia in a very lilting manner. My colleagues said it's because she's from a certain part of Indonesia (eastern Java? I don't remember exactly) where they spoke more gently there.

My conclusion is the letter writer's quarrel is not "sing-guh" or "sing-gah", but the writer is asking for Sing-nga-poreans to use the more gentrified(?) 'ng' sound.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Today at the advice charity (3)

I can deal with mental illness (client #1). I can deal with debt (client #2). But I find it most difficult to deal with clients who are homeless.

It does not faze me when clients behave strangely, usually from a nervous tic, as a result of their physical or mental issues. She listened, she took notes, and she was going to do what I told her to do in order to help herself. "God bless," she said, when she left.

I was most impressed by the client who listed all his outgoings neatly and asked how he was to find the additional £200-£300 every month to make up the shortfall in income. This is certainly something that we could help with, and so an appointment was made for the client to return. Again, I sent him away with some 'homework'. He has to do the preparatory work before we could help him.

[Then an adviser told me how she had just seen a client I had interviewed. This client told her that I had done nothing for her. The adviser explained that I had been so concerned with her that I had phoned the manager to organize an appointment for her to see an adviser. She asked the client if she had done as I told: phone those people who would be able to advise her.

Client said "no". Adviser told her that she is the one who must make the phone calls. We are here to empower, not do their work for them. Adviser did give her a sample letter that she could use. Client apologized for making the comment about my being unhelpful.]

Then, two young homeless people. My heart went out to them.

I do not know the whole story, but I think the girl had been thrown out of her house by her mum, possibly because the mum was not happy with her relationship with the boy.

They have been messed about by a potential landlord after being supported by a homeless charity for a short period. The local council said it was "too late" to extend any help that day. They had to return the following day. The girl was petrified by the prospect of spending a (cold) night on the streets.

I rang around but could only leave her mobile number for the shelters to call her back.

Finally we found a shelter (the same one I phoned this time last year) that would take them if they could get a 'police referral' from a police station. They have extra beds, but only beds, to cope with the demand for shelter this winter.

On her notes I read that the couple had gone to Housing Services and she was told that she was not deemed 'vulnerable' unless she was pregnant or had a child.

Again, we see people are incentivized to have babies in order to access benefits. (She already has benefits, but needs housing.)

I said, "You are not planning to get pregnant, I hope." No, she said, they are both still in education although clearly neither has been able to attend class. She seems a really level-headed young woman and I pray and hope that they would settle somewhere soon, get their training done and find a job.

I very nearly offered to pray for them in my interview room, but I don't think my charity would accept that. However they could see how distressed I was by their plight.

"You know, I am a mother, too."

So I turned to my FB to ask friends to pray for these two.

As we come to the end of another year when we tend to take stock, I must count my blessings. It has not been an altogether smooth year. There was a major heartache right in the middle of it, but at least we have our little family to cling to.

For others, for the many I meet at the charity, the meaning and experience of family is quite, quite different

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Better off on benefits

I am not shocked by this headline:

When George Osborne delivered the Autumn Statement last week, announcing that benefits will be raised only by 1% for the next three years instead of in line with inflation, there were understandably mumbles (and stammers*) from the Opposition.

The truth is for a few years now benefits claimants have seen increases in their benefits that are not in line with inflation faced by those in work.

The rate of inflation is calculated on the rate of inflation of a particular month in the preceding year, usually September. So while the rate of inflation (CPI) for September* in a previous year has been 5.2%, meaning that benefits claimants saw a 5.2% rise in their benefits, the rate of inflation for the WHOLE YEAR has been much lower, and those who are in work saw their wages adjusted to a rate much lower than 5.2%.

* 19/12/12: Link and these words added.

Last September the CPI (Consumer Prices Index) was 2.2%, but the average pay rise will be 1.5%. So if benefits were raised in line with CPI, those on benefits would be doing far better than those in work.

I see clients who tell me that they 'cannot afford to go out to work' because they would be earning less than if they were on benefits.

These are usually single mothers with one or more children under 16. They get Child Tax Credits on the basis of being single parents.

In other words they are incentivized to become single parents.

Where is the logic in this? None whatsoever.

When Gordon Brown introduced these tax credits, many, many people were happy to vote for his party to remain in office.

There are also Working Tax Credits. So if you work minimum hours (used to be 16, now 30 if in a couple) the taxpayer tops up your pay.

Result: people work minimum hours in order to benefit. Why work 40 hours when you could get nearly the same by working just 16 hours?

On the other hand people who work 40 hours on minimum wage only get £12,875.20 BEFORE TAX. The unemployed woman in the linked story above gets an untaxed £15,480 (according to the report).


When was the last time you enjoyed a six-month holiday?

One of our clients took his parents (all three receive all sorts of benefits) on a six-month holiday back to India. He even came back with a wife. If he could afford to go on such a long holiday, surely we are paying too much in benefits.

I also have clients who come to complain their electricity and gas bills are too high. "It cannot be right. I was not living there. I was on holiday in Sweden for a month."

I suspect clients like this are also claiming benefits in Sweden because governments do not share data, cannot share data, lots of claimants, it is rumoured, have wives in different countries, where they claim all sorts of benefits as single parents while the fathers flit in and out of these various countries, having more and more children and getting richer on benefits.

Can this be right?

31/12/2012: Do read IDS's article and reports. A writer commented:

I could have told IDS this many years ago. I remember a couple with three children taking on a £1200 a month mortgage. They weren't particularly hard working or in lofty positions or one's to skimp on things. When I asked them if they worried about meeting the payments they told me their tax credits more than paid for it.

So like many other millions they were being awarded living standards which they in no way deserved by the welfare system.

At the same time people were turning down overtime and promotion because the tax credit system made them worse off for doing so. It really is an unfair and extremely wasteful system which distorts the proper functioning of the labour market.

Which begs the question of why IDS is only raising this issue now and why they  haven't abolished them completely. We managed and fared much better without them.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Today at the Advice Charity (2)

Actually it's this week and last week.

Woman from a middle-east country had not one, not two, not even three, but SIX penalty charge notices (PCNs) all for the same offence of turning into a road reserved for buses and cycles.

The first PCN was not sent out till two weeks after the first offence during which time several more of the same offence was committed.

They were all committed by a friend visiting from a Scandinavian country. Client had loaned this friend her car to go to the gym. She herself did not go because she could not afford the entry charges. Now she is faced with £65 fine, multiplied by six.

Surprise, surprise, the friend who has returned to her Scandinavian country, has refused to pay.

The offences were committed basically because the friend did not have enough English to understand the clear notices that said private cars are not, has never been, allowed on their stretch of road.

The plight of this client weighed so much on my mind that I phoned the manager the following day to ask if she could offer the client a debt management appointment, so that someone could help her write a letter to the council who served those notices, in order to negotiate a repayment plan.

A neighbour (actually) turned up for help with a 'sanction'. This is a penalty for people on JobSeekers Allowance (JSA) who have not done enough jobseeking or have violated other contractual terms.

This woman was poorly served by the JobCentrePlus (JCP) and I think was sanctioned because 'tis the season for sanctions.

How do you measure the performance of staff at a JCP? All they do is make appointments for JSA claimants to be seen every two weeks (called 'signing on') and then check if they have applied to at least x number of jobs.

One way to measure performance is to monitor the number of sanctions given: by spotting how many JSA claimants have been lazy in their 'job-seeking'. The funny thing is every single person who has come to me for help with their sanctions is the nice gentle sort who would not say 'boo' to a goose.

I've never seen someone who is a bully or looks remotely menacing being given a sanction, or at least they have not come to me.

JCP staff try to 'up' their performance by coming down really hard on those who are newly unemployed (do not know all the rules) and who are easy, soft targets who won't retaliate.

This week I saw someone who was made redundant and never got round to starting to make claims, leading to a court summons for non-payment of council tax. No one at the council office bothered to tell her/her husband that because she is unemployed (after having worked for 20+ years) she is entitled to benefits, including housing benefits, help with mortgage interest, and council tax benefit (CTB). Instead she is being taken to court when she's been borrowing money to pay the tax, etc.

It is very rare that people do not realize that they could in fact claim. I mean, just a few weeks ago I had an elderly woman who had more or less just stepped off the plane who came in to say, "Please, help me get those benefits."

She had not contributed a single penny to this country but is the widow of an immigrant who had gained British citizenship, and she holds a British passport. In this instance she does not even need to pass the HRT (habitual residence test), I suspect (I may be wrong), but how can this country afford to support everyone who comes to this country on the basis that she felt insecure in her homeland after being robbed!

Then I tried to help a mini-cab driver whose driving licence was cancelled. Actually an arrest warrant could have been issued due to his non-appearance at court for a minor driving offence. He was lucky not to have been arrested on entering the country, thanks to lazy bureaucracy.

He and his cousin listened most attentively and responded politely as I tried to explain what he must do. In their own country I would have been shot dead for trying to get an education. So I hope it makes them think how useful it is to educate women as well.

Saddest of all was the client whose one son had died and the other son has been sent to prison. She was so, so sad and wanted to get out of the house she now now lives because of all the sad memories. She also does not want to have anything to do with the remaining son.

I suspect that she has married outside her ethnic group. I encouraged her to get her mind into the right condition to face the future. (She did not believe that she is younger than me.) She has another half a life-time ahead of her. She has to start thinking what she wanted to do with it.

She shed quiet tears and promised me that she would do something. I said I would pray for her. She said "Thank you".

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Reading Marxist Lefebrve and writing triads

Or Why you so cheem, hah?

The following version of my letter was published in the online section of the Straits Times Forum:


Nature, nurture and the PSLE

WE SPENT eight hours driving, often in blinding rain, to attend my mother-in-law's 80th birthday bash. My son was spooked by having to wade through floodwaters to get back to our hotel. I explained to him: "Family-benefits-obligations" - Where there's family, there are benefits as well as obligations, and this was an obligation.

Inspired by the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, I have been thinking up my own "triadic dialectics", ideas based on three-way relationships.

Lefebvre infused space and time (Kant's "necessary conditions") with energy to give us "space-time-energy", thus transcending the limitation of "space-time" analysis. By his positing a "melody-harmony-rhythm" dialectic and the analysis of rhythms, anthropologists can now circumvent the problem of time being either only "social" or "clock" time.

I thought of British (national and local) politicians caught ripping off taxpayers, top earners hiding their wages in offshore schemes to avoid paying tax, and benefits scroungers exploiting the system. In one voice, they claim that they are "doing nothing wrong".

Yes, on a "rights versus responsibilities" basis, they are within the rules.

But on a "rights-responsibilities-morality" dialectic, their rationalisation fails.

Marriage, contrary to received wisdom, is strongest when it is a relationship between three partners. Christians believe these to be "husband-wife-God". Marriage (as an institution) is sustained by "husband-wife-something else". The "something else" could be religion, family obligations, collective conscience, social convention, economic necessity, or whatever.

Take away any one of these three prongs and the marriage (and family) risks failing, as we see it happening all over the world, not just in Western cultures.

In a similar vein, I pondered the old chestnut: "nature or nurture". The triad "nature-nurture-opportunity" would put to rest the "either/or" arguments that do not help in the resolution.

No matter how many chances my son is given to play football, he will not excel because it is just not within his nature. You cannot nurture what is not there.

On the other hand, if we had not given him the opportunity of a private education, his natural talent would also have been stymied in a state school. Nature without nurture will be wasted.

Ergo, it is crucial that every Singaporean child is given every opportunity to nurture their nature-given talents, most of which cannot be showcased by Primary School Leaving Examination results.


The nature of some of the responses was not unexpected. 'What's the meaning of "cheem"?,' my husband asked.

I was surprised that the editor actually ran a piece that contained the words 'Marxist' and 'triad'. It was interesting to see how some readers think he should not have bothered.

Others said it was convoluted, gobbledygook, etc. Try developing an argument where you have to:
  • grab attention by relating to a current event
  • explain the ideas of a philosopher that is probably not very well-known in Singapore
  • indicate how his ideas have helped to move thinking along in philosophy and anthropology
  • illustrate how his ideas could be developed to evaluate current social issues
  • demonstrate how the work of thinkers and academics can (must?) have a practical application in the real world, as in helping to understand what is lacking in our discussion about the PSLE in Singapore
All in under 400 words.

Granted, the Fog Index (indicator of readability) of this piece is higher than usual. But I needed to use multi-syllable words instead of several more short ones to keep within the word limit. In another time and place (space-time) I could develop this into a 5,000 word essay, pre-empting all those comments that have been raised.

Also, this follows a previous letter which the editor chose not to publish. Really I cannot see the point of parents putting their children through tuition to get them into the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). The point is if your child needs tuition, then he/she is probably not that gifted, really.

Worse, when they get into the programme and find that they cannot cope, you are setting your children up for a miserable life.

Was the letter suitable for the target audience? Probably not. So "thank you" to Mr Yap for being so brave in pushing the envelope, as one might say. Thanks also to 'unewolke' and 'jousterr' for their kind support in the Forum discussion.

When you have considered all those hours that I spent as an undergraduate trying to come to grips with Kant and this space-time conundrum, you would understand why I think Lefebrve is fab.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Kama Sutra

I came back from running errands in the rain to my weekly helper going, "I think I should show you what I found in your son's room."

It was a pocket version of the Kama Sutra.

I laughed, more so from the look on her face than anything else, and said, "O! That's alright. It's our copy."

"We want to be the ones teaching him about these things rather than let him learn from people we don't know whom."

Apparently our son was the only one who managed to keep a straight face when the new Science teacher taught them human reproduction.

We've always said that we must teach him about sex, about responsible sex, and other related values ourselves and not expect someone else to do it, or let him learn from reading pornography, or whatever.

The control over when to do this was taken out of our hands when he heard the TV news report of a British woman (and the man as well??) being taken to court for having sex on a Dubai beach. I did not manage to change channels quickly enough.

"Dad, what is sex?"

Dad gamely stepped up to the plate and did a very good job explaining. The mechanics.

On other occasions when the context was right, we reinforced the values.

Now, nearly 13, he's learning about his growing body and anticipate the massive changes ahead. Dad enlightens him about experiences that only dads have.

Back to mechanics again.

So why not the Kama Sutra? And also the Song of Solomon in the Bible?

There is the occasional "Yuck!", but he's established that Mum and Dad are the ones to talk to about these things.

Job done?

Not quite. I've started praying for a Godly woman that God would nurture to support my son in his adult life.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Escape FROM the Country

My husband and I had been thinking of moving to the country when he retires and we dream of keeping honeybees and chickens and growing our own vegetables, etc.

Last night we were in Devon to celebrate his mum's 80th birthday. We had a great time but I was nervous about travelling knowing how treacherous the weather promised to be.

Thankfully husband drove well (as usual) and I suspect given the weather warnings, only those who needed to travel, did, and the roads were pretty clear. Still the rain beat down.

We checked into a riverside inn in Bovey Tracey, rested, and met up at the pub restaurant for the party.

When we were leaving after the party the staff told us that the road we arrived by was flooded and traffic was not getting through. So husband, who knew that area well, chose a different route.

Once we got into the car the local radio notified us of various flood spots and, of course, that the river had burst its banks at Bovey Tracey. Ah! What do we do?

Son in the back was panicking. We managed to calm him down.

But we reached the point where Police closed the road and husband was shown what the road looked like: a river! We were told to park up and walk.

So we did, in our party clothes! Thankfully I had opted to wear boots to keep me warm.

"County Rangers" were putting out sandbags and we were told, "You don't want to go that way. The water is waist high."

That frightened me a bit.

Thankfully after wading about 70-80 yards in not quite knee-deep water, we got to the bit of the road which was actually a bridge over the river and surprisingly our pub/restaurant/inn was quite dry considering that the river runs under it! We got back to our room.

Son was petrified that the flood waters would rise even further. He was just very tired and began to imagine the worst. So I comforted and reassured him that with the police down the road, the worst that could happen was they would evacuate us. He soon fell asleep.

This morning we found that it was "just another day in Bovey Tracey" (after Phil Collins) and people were out and about walking their dogs and getting their newspapers. The river level had fallen although the road was still 'puddley' right outside our room (which was in a dip).

Husband returned his abandoned car to the inn, and we packed up and left without even stopping for breakfast, keen to get out before the next rains appeared.

That first squelch (is that the right word?) of water inside one's shoes took a bit getting used to.

Mighty strange to think how instead of an 'Escape to the Country' we literally escaped from it.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Leaving Primary School

The following letter was sent to Straits Times Forum on 5th November 2012, one of the many letters that have not been published. I have been too busy to put this up on the blog and so have not made any further comments.

Please feel free to do so:


Our son is transferring to senior school in September. The system in the UK independent sector is rather complex: offers are made based on a permutation of 13+ Common Entrance Examination (CEE), interviews, school reports, individual school entrance exams, scholarship exams, etc.

The most important advice we have been given is:

  • Our son must be happy in order to thrive at senior school, so shop around.
  • If your son requires tuition to pass the specific school entrance exam, then it is not the right school for him.

Boys from his school have won scholarships to senior schools based on their athletic skills, or talent in art, drama and music. However, everyone still sits the CEE and the results are used by the senior schools to customize teaching.

There is no shame in going to a ‘less academic’ school because the minimum academic standard is still there.

Entrance to state schools is different. Grammar schools still require excellent 11+ exam results. However, grammars are finding that pupils that have been coached to pass exams struggle to keep up*.

Other schools are required by law to be non-selective and offer places on the basis of distance from schools. When performing well in exams is not a passport to a ‘good’ school – as only the rich kids can afford to live near such schools – children lose incentive and then self-esteem, leading to a race to the bottom.

It is sad that parents (and children) think that Singapore only has a place for those proven to be academically gifted by the time one is 12.

Singapore must find a balance. Precisely because we are a small country we must nurture the natural talent of every child and educate each to the appropriate level to make each a contributing citizen.

In addition, society (you and I) must respect, appreciate and reward justly the part played by “we, the citizens” and every net contributor, not just the educated and well-heeled.

How miserable would life be if we do not have safe bus and train drivers, knowledgeable and polite sales/service staff, efficient and hygienic hospital cleaners and porters, keen-eyed and dextrous factory workers, etc?

Those who have risen to the top courtesy of a meritocracy now have the moral responsibility to ensure that the best and brightest of each cohort, from whatever background, also have the opportunity to do the same.


Bright children failed by a 'cult of the average', CBI warn

Private schools are demonised in Britain but are the envy of the world

* Grammar school tests to be made 'tutor-proof'

Thursday, 8 November 2012

What's the point of HRT?

This is not about hormone replacement therapy, sorry, but the "Habitual Residence Test".

I saw a client this week who was refused benefits on account of her failing the HRT.

Born somewhere in the Middle-east she became a citizen of a Scandinavian country and had lived there many years. Then she decided to come to the UK where she has family.

She was clearly in a lot of pain when she saw me and could not sit for more than a few minutes without having to change position. She told me she had come here so that her family could look after her.

But EU/EEA citizens cannot just arrive on these shores and claim benefits. They have the right to reside but they must be able to support themselves by being employed or be self-employed, but they do not have the right to benefits. I think the objective is that people do not simply move to a country with better benefits, ie shop around for better benefits.

Truth is, people do.

They come here and worked for a bit, claimed illness, and then go on benefits indefinitely. It has been known.

When I later looked at this client's notes I realized that she had been seen by our most experienced adviser who told her the 'rules'. I said, you know, you could go back to your country and you'd be able to claim all the benefits: health, care, education, housing, etc.

She wouldn't countenance that idea because she wants to be in the UK. Her son requires special medication and has special needs. Her children have been in school here. Etc.

When I looked up (just) at the HRT I learned that there is a chance that this woman may now qualify and it makes me angry.

If you intend to stay and if your children have been put in school, you are habitually resident, and therefore you can now claim benefits.

She worked for a month when she first arrived and was dismissed. She kept dropping plates in the restaurant because she was depressed. She suffers from arthritis in several places, etc.

And the UK taxpayer has to pick up the tab. Why? She had no intention of working here. She wanted to come here so that her family could look after her because she is ill. That's what she told me. And yet if she drags the procedure out for a bit, simply by refusing to go home, claims that her children are settled here, etc. she would pass the HRT. And thousands of pounds of benefits would roll in, not counting the medical bills we are already paying.

Also, she was sent to us by her social worker! The taxpayer pays the social worker to look after vulnerable people. The social worker sends her client to my advice charity, run by volunteers.

If you paid for a medical service would you be happy if they say, 'Sorry, cannot help you there. Please go to the Red Cross or St John's Ambulance people.'

I cannot understand a welfare system where people could fleece it without having first contributed to it. Does Singapore really want this sort of welfare? Be careful. It would be good for a few years. Everyone would be happy. But there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Look at Greece. Apparently they retire in their 50s while Britons cannot retire till at least 65, or 67 in my case. But they want their pension and for much longer. They are out on the streets demonstrating again.

Do they not understand that we have to work to keep the economy going in order to pay benefits?

We have decided that we will leave this country as soon as we can. Job offers, anyone?

Monday, 22 October 2012

Say what, PM Lee?

Difficult night. Menopausal, I suppose.

Busy afternoon at advice charity dealing with, amongst others, a disabled, breathless but ever so polite Iraqi, a tearful Brazilian woman bullied at work, a mother facing repossession, Kosovan man who felt he was being badly treated by a local council, etc.

Thankfully husband had dinner ready when I got home. What a nice change!

Feels like I'm coming down with a cold. Bah!

And then I read PM Lee pays tribute to NSmen with $100m of vouchers in which he 'described NS as "a universal rite of passage" for every male Singaporean, noting that it had become a national institution'.

Does that sound familiar? Didn't someone just make that point recently? O! It was me.

Here's the rest of what I could find on Straitstimes online:
National service is a defining part of the Singapore identity, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as he called on younger generations of Singaporeans to do their part to defend their country and understand the strategic realities it faces.

PM Lee on Monday paid tribute to the more than 900,000 men who have served the nation, as he announced $100 million worth of vouchers and free NSmen club memberships to recognise their efforts at a dinner that capped year-long celebrations of 45 years of national service.

He described NS as "a universal rite of passage" for every male Singaporean, noting that it had become a national institution. He also praised NSmen for serving faithfully.

Mr Lee added that he was "cautiously optimistic" that the region will remain peaceful, but warned that Singapore cannot take its present peace for granted, and stressed continued efforts to build up the Singapore Armed Forces and Home Team.

I wonder if PM Lee was inspired by my letter or that he, too, had been thinking anthropologically and decided to use Van Gennep's concept of 'rite of passage' to make his point.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

National Conversation: Rite of Passage?

Back in my advertising days I learned to always do an "overnight test" on my copy. Something made me write the following piece in a matter of minutes and submitted it without the overnight test.

It was published in the print section of Straits Times Forum today.

It's not a perfect piece of writing, but please read between the lines.


THIS is my contribution to the national conversation.

In thinking anthropologically about why there was a distinctive corporate culture where I used to work, I decided that the three-week residential training I had in the United States at the beginning of my time with the company constituted a "rite of passage": a time of separation, transition and re-incorporation, similar to the rites of passage in some cultures.

If one ate, slept and breathed nothing but corporate culture for three weeks, it was difficult not to accept the company ethos for what it was.

I returned to Singapore, thinking and acting like every other employee who had also been through this ritual and, together, we maintained that "culture".

Nations that have been through a national crisis can also be likened to have undergone a rite of passage.

In Britain, all those who went through one or both of the world wars hold a certain perspective. People of my parents' generation who suffered during the Japanese Occupation also hold a distinctive perspective.

My generation of Singaporeans did not suffer war. But we had the rituals and ceremony of pledge reciting and flag raising. For half the population, there is national service.

So when we see a young man, or large groups of them, in their fatigues being transported in three-tonners, or marching along the road with their rifles and backpacks, we say: "Ah! My brother/father/husband/son has also gone through that."

We wave and cheer them on.

Rites of passage cause us to believe that we have earned our status: the trepidation as we approach the time of separation; the liminal stage as we undergo transition, wondering whether we will make it out alive; the re-incorporation stage as we return triumphantly - and the boy is now a man.

Because they are our sons and brothers, female family members also share in these anxieties.

I concluded that corporate culture cannot be "talked" into existence. It has to be "done".

The litmus test of citizenship is not the colour of our identity card. It is if would-be citizens are willing to "do" Singapore culture - curry smells, void deck weddings and funerals, getai, joss-stick burning and all.

Let the "doing" begin.


The point is a rite of passage reinforces the idea that a status is achieved or earned. It is not an entitlement.

Britain has tried to implement a kind of 'rite'. Previously new citizens merely had their British passports posted to them. In recent years they have to attend a citizenship ceremony.

Oddly enough, despite learning and passing (ostensibly) tests on language, history and customs, candidates are asked whether they are happy to shake hands with the dignitary handing out the certificates. Apparently some women candidates object to making skin contact with males.

This is Britain. It is a ceremony to welcome them to British citizenship and they would not shake hands with a male mayor. ???

In my voluntary role at the local advice charity I get too much of people going, "But I am EU citizen, I should be entitled to this benefit."

Or "I am a single parent, I should be given this."

Or "But I have diabetes, I cannot work."

I often think, but cannot say aloud, "What would you do if you were still in your home country and there is no welfare to look after you? What are your options?"

Meanwhile each of these is convinced that I (and fellow taxpayers) have to support them indefinitely. Would a proper rite of passage set right this sense of entitlement?

What 'rite of passage' could we fashion for our new citizens in Singapore? Let's have a think, shall we? Remember there are three stages to a proper rite of passage (according to Belgian ethnologist Arnold Van Gennep): separation (from normal familiar contexts), a liminal "betwixt and between" stage, and a reincorporation stage.

How about speaking either English and/or another official language?

Doing voluntary service in schools, hospitals, libraries, other charitable organizations (MENDAKI, SINDA, CDAC, etc.)?

A test on Singapore history? Understand that local-born Singaporeans have a certain affection for things Singaporean. (I still cannot believe that female at Bras Basah Kopitiam told me off for using the term "chendol" instead of some Chinese transliteration.)

Should we take a busload of them to a pulau somewhere and make them speak Singlish? Make them undergo BMT?

Monday, 15 October 2012

Today at the advice charity

I had a Rwandan lady who has visited the charity countless times. She has been living here 18 years but still cannot speak very good English.

Basically she needed someone to read her letters. Credit must be given her for anticipating problems such as with her gas bills, etc. and having been in debt before she seems to have learned how to manage quite well.

Our charity aims to empower so I had to tell her she must learn to read English better. She cannot expect to come in with every letter she receives and expects someone to read and respond for her. At least this time she came with five questions, not just one.

Another lady for a East European country thought she was marrying a Pakistani young man for life -- just as his student visa was running out. Then he wanted to move to a bigger property, buy a car, buy a bigger car, etc.

Then she persuaded her to combine their loans to benefit from lower interest rates. Then he wanted to divorce her. She managed to get him to take responsibility for half the loan (which is still larger than her original loan). Now the young lady thinks he probably only married her for the visa.

This young lady has had a lucky escape as he signed the divorce papers before he disappeared from this country. I hope that she does not get saddled with his debts as well.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

English as it should be writ (Part 7)

Or "Singapore got Olympic medals in rowing meh?"

3rd of August 2012, sent this to Straits Times. Of course, it has not been published.


What shuttlers and paddlers are not

I know this letter will not be published as I complain, yet again, of how Straits Times (as a mass medium) commit[s] crimes of mass murder (ie massacre) against the English language.

Why do you insist on using “paddler” when referring to a table tennis player?

One paddles in water, using an object shaped like an oar, usually.

A table tennis player uses a “bat”. If the logic for using “paddler” is that table tennis players play with a “paddle” (and they most certainly do not), then why not use the term “batter”?

“Shuttle” means “frequent travel between two points”. Thus we have shuttle buses, shuttle flights, and until recently a space shuttle.

A “shuttler” would suggest a reference to someone who engages in such shuttling.

Why do you insist on using “shuttler” when referring to a badminton player?

A badminton player uses a racquet (or racket). If, following the paddler logic, badminton players are referred to by the equipment they play with, then surely the appropriate term should be “racqueter” (or “racketer”).

On the other hand if you wish to refer to the object badminton players propel to one another (ie the shuttlecock), then surely the correct term is “shuttlecocker”?

What about people who actually paddle in canoes and kayaks? They are rarely referred to as “paddlers”, and are definitely not “boaters” (which are hats) or “oarers” (as they use oars).

Why then do you inflict this murderous nonsense on the English language by calling people “paddlers” and “shuttlers” when “table tennis players” and “badminton players” would suffice?

As I write I notice that squiggly red lines appear under “paddler” and “shuttler”. Now any seven-year-old would be able to tell you that those squiggly red lines indicate wrongly-spelt words.

Quite enough said.


Just for the record, note these headlines:


S'pore's women paddlers through to quarter-finals

Published on Jul 31, 2012

Olympics: Good day for Singapore's shuttlers in singles events

Published on Jul 30, 2012


Olympics: S'pore women's table tennis team through to quarter-finals

Published on Aug 04, 2012

Olympics: Singapore men's table tennis team to face China

Published on Aug 04, 2012

But then,

but they have since reverted to 'paddlers'. Sigh.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Culture of entitlement or pure naïveté?

Yesterday I encountered a case I cannot get my head around.

A mother, widowed, came to the UK with two children to give them a good education. She sold everything she had intending to work in the UK to support her children.

She lived in an expensive house in an expensive area paying more than £1000 a month for 14 months, and then ran out of money.

She insisted that she does not want benefits but in the same breath said someone has to help her because she has no one to turn to.

In all the time she was in the UK she has not been able to work because she did not have the right documents.

Yes, she paid a private landlord a lot of money, all her money.

Yes, she has been trying to find work. But her English is so limited she was not able to get any. She also appears, ironically, to be quite 'middle-class', and has refused to interact with people from her own country ... which is the most likely way of finding work.

Who's responsible for her and her children now?

She thinks that "someone" should. Who should this "someone" be?

Just because some migrant spends all their savings in this country and has become homeless as a result, should the taxpayer pick up the tab?

Already the children have been educated for free and she has been receiving Child Benefit, is this right?

No one has benefitted from her time here, except the landlord who has kicked her out illegally by changing the locks, and now risk legal action.

I don't know what happened to this family as it was too complex for me and was taken off me by the manager. We do not, typically, deal with cases where immigration status is questionable.

In her previous visits and in her interview with a law centre she had been told that she could either get a job, become self-employed or return to her own country. She has failed to do the first two but refuses to consider the third.

I think her son was saying to her in their own language that they could return home, but she insisted that "I want to stay in England."

On one hand there is a determined, if ill-informed and naive mother wanting a good education for her children. On the other we have a woman who was totally unrealistic about her chances of succeeding in a foreign country where she does not even speak the official language properly.

I feel really sorry for her children who were impeccably behaved but you can see how stressed they are. They have had no food for some time, but immigration rules are immigration rules.

What does one do?

After Gintai's comment:

Unfortunately hers is not an isolated case. I had to see so many clients after this I didn't have a chance to get an update on her case, but will try to do so later. There were so many in the waiting room a 'community' had formed, and clients were returning to waiting room after being seen to say 'goodbye' to one another. (They usually exit by another door.) Weird.

Anyway, loads of people come into UK on whatever grounds possible and then try to scrounge on benefits. People come in, sponsored by spouses who then promptly kick them out of their homes. Taxpayers or charitable organizations inevitably have to help them (see previous post).

One man, prone to drinking and womanising, complained that his wife wouldn't share her benefits money with him (o, what a surprise!) and asked how he could gain more money. We said, the only way is to separate with the intention to divorce her. "OK, please help me to divorce her." Just like that. No English. How is he going to survive in this country? Taxpayers again. So Legal Aid would need to be called in to help him divorce his wife so that he could gain more benefits. These are the rules and we have to follow them.

Go figure.

Update 3rd October 2012:

Forgot this woman as life got busy, but I ran into her and her daughter shopping at Marks & Spencer. They were both very smartly dressed. Talked to my manager later on to get an update on her story.

It appeared that we told her the state is not responsible to her, but social services would look after her children and she was asked to return to the waiting room to wait. After the manager had spoken to several people on the phone to try to organize shelter and intervention for them, this woman said she had made a few phone calls and now had a job.

For 14 months she could not get a job. So we had to do something, she insisted. Then when her children were at risk of being taken away from her, she found a job.

We don't know what sort of a job it is. Mothers do make huge sacrifices for their children. We can only wish her well and say a prayer for her children.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Do you believe in free enterprise?

The Telegraph is running a series called "Britain unleashed". Bookmark this link.

This article Britain unleashed: it's not money that matters - it's markets. A good read.

Check out also: business mustn’t apologise for making a profit

Today Sir Terry Leahy, who worked his way to the top at TESCO from a humble background, reminded us that Truth and courage can power an economic recovery

The Olympics starts on Friday. Bang on cue, the unions representing public transport and immigration staff are calling strikes and work-to-rule.

Here's one chance to show the world what a wonderful nation (?) this is. But union leaders, who are paid obscene sums of money, are going to ruin it for their own personal gains (ie power base).

I wonder if "Britain unleashed" would discuss how the welfare state and trade unions are having a stranglehold on this nation.

I wonder how many have noticed that the pervasiveness of welfare provision has led to the "survival of the unfittest" (and feckless).

But should 'free enterprise' be introduced into education?

This morning we learned that even the top universities had to give their incoming students remedial Maths lessons, and that "20 per cent on engineering courses in 2009 had not completed an A level in maths".

Someone who commented on this gave a link to a GCSE paper: "Read it and weep", he/she said. The first question required the candidate to tell the time. I kid you not.

Another question required the candidate to identify the highest and lowest value from a list of numbers.

My 12-year-old looked through the paper and found it a doddle. 

The race to the bottom began when someone thought it was a good idea to have a market for exam boards. Schools choose the exam board that would give their students the best results. The result was a dumbing down to the point that British school leavers do not have the basic skills that their counterparts from the rest of Europe do.

How does Britain think they could compete with the rest of the world?

Please don't let us have a comprehensive welfare state in Singapore. And please don't let us have a market for exam boards.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Mega-church = mega-ego. Beware!

Some notes before I forget:

What's the point of a mega-church?  I commented about this in previous two posts.

Some observations:

When members of a church devote themselves to one charismatic leader it is not a church any more. By sociological definition - if I remember my SOC 309 (or whatever it was) - it has acquired a cult existence.

Some members of this church however have truly been touched by the work of Christ and I do not wish to belittle this. There is a danger for anyone looking in from the outside to assume any kind of homogeneity. No, not all members are carbon copies of one another.

There are some who have a true faith, probably gained at another church, and have found a home in this church, for now. Their faith will be bigger than the history of this church. They will move on and continue their journey of faith, elsewhere if necessary.

There are some who have known no other church. These are the ones who need nurture and comfort during this trying time. Some amongst these might lose their faith, like the plants derived from seeds sown on shallow ground in the parable of the sower.

There are others who form various types of "groups", children of parents who have true faith, children of those who had blind faith, etc. They would have to find their own faith.

Shaken, not stirred

God is a God bigger, much BIGGER, than all of these. Man's (and woman's) failings notwithstanding, God has allowed growth amongst those who heeded his Word, no matter how thin or tenuous the teachings from the pulpit might have been.

God promised that his Word will not return to him "void". From Isaiah 55:11:

"... so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it."

Even God's word that was preached by a man who might in due course be found in a court of law to be unworthy of his title would not return "empty". It shall "accomplish".

This is why I have faith that even in the largest, most mega of churches where the pastors have proven to be something less than godly, the word of God could still take root and grow. God's word is not limited by human failings. There will be true believers even in such churches.

These true believers might be leading small groups and doing a really wonderful work amongst the sheep of their small flocks.

Some might have been shaken in their faith. Let us pray that many more will be stirred to right actions.

Power/Money corrupts

I am trained to view the world in context. When I read about the achievements of Mr Kong I have no doubt that he was (once) used by God to draw people to him. There was a point in history when this servant of God had his heart in the right place. (One could say the same for his wife.)

Comments have been made that suggest (to me) that he remains deluded about his current situation. It is almost like those British politicians we know who have told their lies so frequently, so consistently that they had begun to believe them.

Mr Kong seems to be blinded ... by what?

Honestly which husband would want to see his wife gyrating in skimpy clothing in music videos mouthing words that are not spiritually uplifting? Let alone a pastor of a mega-church. Hey! Reality check needed, mate. Urgently.

Too late now.

I want to give this man the credit that is due him, for those times that he really made God's Word real to those who need it most. But then, at some point, it seemed he stopped worshipping God.

Instead he worshipped his wife, or her potential, or money that might come with it, or fame, or what? I am not sure. Could early success have led to an ego trip that went too far?

This does not mean that I have already judged him guilty of the crimes that he has been accused . I am merely making a statement about his lifestyle (the expensive clothes and homes) that was clear for all to see.

Sun/Son of God

I learned a significant lesson while travelling 16 hours "hard seat" from Guilin to Beijing many years ago: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." (Luke 9:58)

Even King David was not immune to temptation.

The critical point for me is: would he do a Zacchaeus?

Like Jesus said, those who are not sick, they do not need doctors.

"If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8:7)

Are my inconclusive thoughts at the moment.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Re-post: Charity and a culture of dependency

This is a copy of a blog post from October 23 2008:


This is an edited version of my letter published in the Straits Times in Singapore:


Oct 22, 2008
Charity and a culture of dependency

IN READING what Mr Willie Cheng had to say about the non-profit sector, ('Good Principles', Oct 12), I was struck by the following point he made: 'Charities should seek extinction rather than growth. The mantra of business is growth.

'The opposite applies to non-profits. Non-profits are created to achieve societal change. Ultimate success occurs when the non-profit's mission is achieved and its existence is no longer needed.'

What a timely reminder amid the current context of big banks (formerly 'cooperative building societies') becoming 'super-banks', the dependence on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in disaster zones, and nearer home, the 'mega-churches'. I realised that NGOs, mothers (and fathers), teachers and missionaries have one aim in common: to work ourselves out of a job.

Last week, our eight-year-old (already responsible for keeping his own space tidy) offered to clean the dining area. Hurrah! I have one role less to play.

The first violin teacher of famed Israeli violinist Maxim Vengerov said that there was nothing else she could teach him after two years, and she sent him away to find another teacher. If teachers do not encourage their pupils to move beyond what they are able to teach, we stunt the pupils' growth.

Mega-churches? What's the point?

If a church has non-profit status, that is, it pays no taxes, then it too should heed what Mr Cheng has to say. They must achieve societal (or spiritual) change, and move on. If the church leaders are doing their job well, that is, working themselves out of a job, then there should be new cohorts of church members willing and raring to pioneer churches where the needs are greatest.

If they choose instead to run themselves as a business by using tithes to seek growth and profits, then they must cease to call themselves a church or a charity.

Be that as it may, all these groups would do well to 'seek extinction'. There is a term for the phenomenon of institutions which start ostensibly as 'helping hands' to those with specific needs, but then develop mechanisms that make the needy even deeper in need. It's called a 'culture of dependency'.

See Mega-church = mega-ego. Beware!

Tears in Heaven

I've copied, chopped and pasted from a previous post in another blog of September 23, 2008:


The words 'big' and 'mega' have been in the news all around the world.

The big banks and other massive financial institutions have fallen, or are falling.

I could not understand how Fannie May and Freddie Mac could become so big that they are not "allowed to fail". (They were 'born big', being instruments created by the American government.) And the likes of Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers.... Big does not mean invincible.

In Singapore recently the spotlight has also fallen on the 'mega-churches', non-denominational churches led by very charismatic personalities that now boast of thousands of 'attendees' (apparently not all are 'members') in sparkling new buildings with massive carparks, state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, huge auditoriums, etc. with millions of dollars in the pot. This scrutiny is partly due to the fallout from a few major charities where the accounting has been found to be somewhat less than transparent. (My ex-boss first blew the whistle.)

I have been thinking also about 'whether size matters' in the area of education. While the Labour government is pushing for 'city academies' where thousands of students can be educated in more sparkling new buildings, I wonder if in the area of education and other 'affective endeavours', small is actually more beautiful.

Economy of scale makes sense in certain aspects of life. So if I needed to fit out a 100-room hotel I buy furniture and fittings in bulk. The supplier saves on cost of transport, profits from a higher-volume sale and the customer gets a discount. It's a win-win situation.

[... case of school being better smaller...]

Churches. I am always wary of big churches. I am not saying that they are all bad. But the experiences of many such churches and the scandals involving their leaders in other parts of the world is history we must not neglect. (Why do Christians have such short memories?)

My first question is why does a church wish to grow so big? Churches with under 200 members struggle often for critical mass. Once they break that 200-member threshold it seems, they could grow exponentially.

(The advantage of being in a big church is that one could become pretty much anonymous, practise 'spectator Christianity': I go to church, I tithe, someone else can do the work. Talk to my boss about Jesus? You must be kidding! He only uses that as a swear word. )

Then what? Bigger churches? More pastors? Bigger carparks?

Do we read the Apostles in Acts saying, 'OK, mates, we'll stop with Antioch. Those who wish to learn more about what this Christianity is all about are now welcome to trek to Antioch where we would have a state-of-the-art 5000-seat amphi-theatre, spa baths for dusty feet and food and drink to satisfy the hungry and thirsty'?

The Apostles travelled - from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth - to where the people are to share God's Word with them.

If my church were to grow to 2000 I would suggest to the leadership that we planted new churches in places that need the Word of God. That is why there are so many churches in the red light district in Amsterdam. Christians have seen the needs there.

Instead of putting up new expensive buildings where tens of thousands need to drive to every Sunday, to queue up to get into an air-conditioned auditiorium, etc - just imagine the carbon footprint - would it not be easier to have smaller churches where members could simply walk to?

In Singapore there is a particular problem in that it is difficult to get planning permission to raise a church. I understand that. But what about setting up community-focused services like free clinics where the space could also be used for other purposes?

There are three things I would warn against as far as mega-churches are concerned:

1) I cringe when members of such mega-churches refer to their church as 'So-and-So's church'. Or more commonly it is the name of the church, followed quickly by the name of the pastor. It is no more God's church, but 'that very charismatic leader's church'.

2) I get wary when these charismatic leaders set up businesses (often called 'ministries') named after themselves. Where is the separation between the church they minister to as God's calling and the personal (financial) benefits they reap as a result of God blessing this church?

They are welcome to write books to share the success of their ministries, but when their own name becomes the selling point, much more important than God's name in this whole venture, I become suspicious.

3) Most importantly when such churches teach a lop-sided gospel, be it prosperity, health, grace, or whatever the buzzword might be, I would stand back to take stock. I have been a Christian for nearly 40 years and sometimes the going IS tough. Churches must preach the whole Bible, the whole gospel, minister to the whole person.

[... 'the LOVE OF MONEY' has been shown again - the root of all evil.]

Many people have benefitted from this financial crisis, let us be clear about this. They have gambled with the money of ordinary folks (not their own) and made a bundle (obscene bonuses) and a quick exit. We, the taxpayers all over the world, have now to pick up the pieces, mend the broken-hearted.

A commentator noted (with clear disdain in his tone) that the failure of AIG is due to this 'insurance company pretending to be a bank'. Another analyst said that with the boom and bust cycles in business, someone always has to pay. This time it was the turn of the banks.

Christians are to be 'in the world, but not of the world'. There are clear teachings about not serving God and Mammon, not turning the House of God into a den of thieves. There is ample warning that 'the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour' (I Peter 5:8)

If churches forget their God-ordained purpose to be 'the body of Christ' and prefer instead to run themselves like big banks or big corporations because it 'makes business sense' then let them be aware that when the chickens come home to roost (when boom goes bust, as boom WILL go bust), there will be - as Eric Clapton sings - 'tears in heaven'.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Time and Place for making students think

The last few weeks have been fraught at home so I have not been keeping in touch with Singapore news as much as I would like to.

I was stirred from my inertia after watching videos showing how DPM Teo Chee Hean kept batting questions back at students at the recent Pre-U Seminar with "What do you think?"

First of all, let's examine the "Pre-U Seminar". Things might have changed. In my time only the top "student leaders" were invited to this event. As I failed miserably to get myself elected I was, of course, not "invited" to this seminar.

DPM Teo was facing the potential leaders of tomorrow and what he did was use a staid "What do you think?" with the excuse that he wanted the young people to think.

You know these are smart students when one young man, obviously having heard the "WDYT?" question several times, emphasized that he wanted the DPM's view and even called him "Sir" after giving his own view.

I am not sure if "Sir" answered that particular question, or if he batted it back.

The whole point of the Pre-U Seminar was that the participants get to ask the guest speakers questions. Hopefully intelligent questions, but nevertheless the guest speaker's role was to enlighten, give his views, explain, provide the big picture.

I was especially annoyed that the "Arts" student who spoke so eloquently did not seem to get her answer. So let me say to her, arts and classics students are the most respected students in the UK: the best students study arts and classics, the next best study science. Of course those who are good in science do not think that way.

However, in the real world, we need both scientists and artists and classicists to make the world a better place. (And the best are social anthropologists, needless to say.)

I digress.

I often say to young people that knowing the answers is important. One must know one's times tables, basic science and all that. But the most intelligent people are not those who have all the answers, but those who ask the best questions.

Good research is not led by knowing the answers. There is no need for research if you already have the answers. Knowledge is advanced by scholars who know which questions to ask.

And I heard good questions from these students. It was most frustrating that the guest speaker did not rise to the occasion, to enthrall them with his wisdom and inspire them to think about duty, responsibilitiy, government, governance and sundry moral questions that were clearly important to them.

I asked my son, do you call this the Socratic method? He said sometimes his teachers would do the same. "Look carefully (at the map, at the picture, etc) and tell me what you think."

But at his age (12) the teachers are dealing with imparting information at the "knowledge", "comprehension" and "application" levels. Socrates wanted his pupils to think about moral issues, about matters where there might not be right or wrong answers. The Pre-U students wanted a discussion on the level of "analysis", "synthesis" or "evaluation" (according to Bloom's taxonomy of knowledge).

Cleverly posed questions lead a student to the conclusion that the teacher wishes him to draw. But each of these questions would provide a clue or hint to lead the student on such journeys. This is sound instructional methodology.

A generic "What do you think?" in response to sincere questioners who really wanted to know what the DPM thinks is a cop-out.

It is no different from the two-year-old who responds to every new bit of information with "Why?" when in fact they wanted the who, what, where, when and how, but two-year-olds are usually not clever enough to do this, and settle for the generic "Why?" which drives most parents crazy.

We asked for your opinion, Sir, and you are the only person who owns the opinion. We can't get inside your head.

We wanted to know the "big picture" and you, Sir, as a government minister, has the whole picture. Why did you not share it?

We wanted to know how your government views certain trends which are troubling young Singaporeans, and you, Sir, in government is why we have come today to listen to you.

To say "What do you think?" and pretend that he was trying to get students to think is tantamount to ...

... What do you think? :-)

Next year, Pre-U Seminar participants should learn one of these retorts: "With respect, Sir, I would very much like to hear your opinion."

Or, "Never mind what I think, Sir, we would like the big picture from your vantage point. Sir."

Or, "Sir, we have come all dressed up to meet you in anticipation of learning from you, how can you so liddat, not tell us what you think?"

No, delete-delete the last one, OK. Say, "We are young. We are ready to be fired up. All we need is a spark. Sir, have you anything to say that would inspire us, set us on fire? "

Or, "Sir, the Singapore education system has made us into robots and it seems that the government make us out to be unable to think for ourselves. So I'm asking you, a minister, to please enlighten us. Leh."

Don't say Auntie did not teach you. Go and tell your friends, OK?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Gunning for charity

This morning I learned why Arsenal Football Club is called what they are called.

Then I found this link to their Charity Ball.

The pictures show Arsène Wenger and his team wearing the pocket squares I made specially for them.

It's great to know these footballers are doing their bit to raise funds for charity. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Age of boys going into secondary school

My son goes to a school where the boys transfer to "senior school" at 13+. Theoretically. (They turn 14 in their first year of secondary school.)

Some parents transfer their boys to schools at 11+ (they turn 12 in the first year of secondary school), especially when they wish to opt out of the independent system back into the state grammar school system.

Also, the "Common Entrance Exam" at 11+ is much less stressful than the one at 13+ as the children only do three papers (I think) as against five or even seven (or something like that) at 13+.

Because I used to hang about the school premises a lot, I hear a lot of what other teachers and parents have to say. This was the real bonus of running the PTA back then.

I was convinced that transferring at 13+ was more beneficial to my son than at 11+.

First, boys would have some experience of leadership at this school before transferring.

At 13+ most of the boys would have had a chance to become a prefect, a monitor, house captain and vice-captain, or a wide array of other responsibilities (librarian, music monitor, games monitor, lunch-time monitor, etc).

They would have had several years of taking part in the House "hustings", at both asking questions at the hustings as well as standing up to say why someone should vote for them.

When they transfer to secondary school, although they lose their senior status to become the most junior at school, at least they have had a chance to learn to stand up for what they believe in.

Boys transferring at 11+ simply move to another school and often have to wait several years when they get nearer the top of the school to even get a whiff of leadership opportunities.

Most significant of all is the fact that 11+ boys are often pre-pubescent. They are often physically small. When they transfer to a school with girls at the same age who are much bigger than they are, it takes quite a bit to adjust to.

Even if they went to an all-boys school they run a higher risk of being bullied due to their being so small and young.

If the school has an ethos of supporting and mentoring the youngest boys - as some do - then they might have a great time. If the school has a culture of bullying, especially if schools are very large, then the new boys need to find protectors.

Sometimes these "protectors" are predators, members of gangs outside the school, as well as in the schools.

13+ boys often already have their voices broken, or they would have bulked out in readiness for growth spurts. Emotionally, too, they are going into a different stage of their development.

The teachers in my son's school tell me how nice it is to have the boys for an additional two years. They can see them maturing - OK, some get really annoyingly moody - but they feel that the boys gain so much confidence that they are more ready to take on the new challenges thrown at them at senior school.

At 11+ my son is still going through what I call "the silly stage".

On one hand he's trying to grapple with simultaneous equations. On the other he still chuckles with wild abandon at Spongbob Squarepants.

Some days he is very grown up, and we discuss some very serious societal matters. Most days however his mind is pre-occupied with the games he gets to play on the computer.

It has long been acknowledged that boys and girls mature at quite different speeds. I find it very difficult to understand that this in not considered when designing school systems.

Here in my London borough schools used to transfer children at 12+, an anomaly as far as the rest of the state schools are concerned.

They "corrected" this anomaly by lowering the age at which all children transfer. Just so that it would fit better around the national testing regime (called 'SATS' which I think stands for Standard Assessment Tests).

The bureaucrats overlooked completely the natural physical and emotional development of the the children. Instead they adjusted the school system so that the children could fit around a man-made bureaucracy.

Looking at the PSLE in Singapore I wonder how many boys would do much better if they took a streaming exam at 13+ instead of 12+ as they do now.

Of course there will be boys who would do extremely well even at 12+ or even 11+. These are the boys who have been drilled and trained into doing hard work by their parents: Does not matter if you are not naturally gifted in piano-playing, you will practise an hour every day and two hours for the four weeks before an exam.

Boys (and girls) who, for whatever reason, have been trained to practise will do well in exams, whatever age they sit for them.

But would a larger proportion of boys be streamed more accurately if the exam took place just one year later? When their emotions are more in sync with their growing bodies?

I don't know. But I think a later exam age would be advantageous to boys who are gifted but somewhat lazy, a bit like my own boy.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

"I'm not Superman"

I don't know if readers are familiar with the comedy series "Scrubs" featuring a doctor and his surgeon best friend and all kinds of weird and bizarre video sequences are inserted into their thought processes. Hilarious.

The theme song features the words "I'm not Superman".

This week I received an email with the subject: "Save me............. :-)"

I thought, "Ah! One of those "I'm on holiday and was robbed of my passport spam mails." I was so close to chucking it into SPAM when I decided to open it and found that it was NOT one of those SPAM mails.

It was from a man working in a very reputable engineering company in London whose second wedding anniversary falls tomorrow, a bank holiday. He needed a handkerchief embroidered for his lovely wife in double quick time.

I emailed, "I'm not Superman." I had packed away all the equipment that day after having started work at 7.45am or thereabout. I was tired.

But he came back again and because he was obviously desperate and a desperate romantic, I relented. Even if that meant having to download a royalty-free embroidery design from a website, checked that my design was OK by this customer, and drag out all the equipment again.

I was down to the last 200 stitches or so when something went wrong and the handkerchief was ruined. Had to start all over again. It was OK this time. The next day I had to take the order to the Post Office and post it by Special Delivery to make sure it got to the customer in time.

Conclusion: I managed to "save" a life. (Really?)

But a bigger challenge this week was to save some "face" at the Arsenal Football Club. Late last week I was asked to do an "urgent job" for them. I looked at their requirements and replied, "Would really love to do it, but can't. Not enough time. Too complex a design."

Meanwhile I actually came up with something they had not asked for and sent the design to them saying, "perhaps this might be of interest to you, for future reference".

Guess what? They came back and said, how about this instead. I said, "No, still too difficult, and not enough time. I'll send a prototype in two weeks' time."

In the end, instead of 25 hankies I agreed to do six. I made a prototype and sent a photograph. They loved it, please make six like that, and please could you do five more with another design?

Again I struggled with the design, mainly finding the font required. Fortunately I have my graphic designer to call upon for advice. (She did my business logo for which I paid her a handsome sum of money.) It took me a lot of time to clean up the logo given to me and experimented with different fonts, layouts, etc.

Eventually I got the six and five hankies done and put them in the post yesterday. Relieved.

No more custom hankies for a fortnight, I told myself. I must write up those conference papers.

Then a French actress emailed: Could you please do three of these and deliver by next week? I had to email to say, sorry, not this time, and hope she has taken it well.

Being able to help two out of three people is not so bad, I guess.

Still, not quite Superman yet, but glad to know that I can provide a unique service.

Happy wedding anniversary to JT and I hope the First Team at Arsenal are able to enjoy that annual charity ball, and raise lots of money for their charity.