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.