Saturday, 28 December 2013

Poverty in Britain

There is poverty and there is poverty.
A couple of days ago my husband told me about this new story:
Meet the unemployed mother-of-two who borrowed £1,700 from EIGHT payday loan companies to buy 'hundreds' of Christmas presents... and now she says she can't pay any of them back
Today a commentator made her point here:
PLATELL'S PEOPLE: A self-indulgent mother and the myth of 'starving' Britain

I used to get people like this at my surgeries. Because they do not work for wages, they spent time organizing, or thinking of organizing, parties for their children.

It was important for some mothers to ensure that their children have every material comfort they have. Never mind who ultimately pays for it.

They know that with young children they would be classed as 'vulnerable' which means that the council will not throw them out of their accommodation.

This is a downside to a comprehensive welfare state.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Straits Times edit: Marriage and manners

In view of the storm kicked up by a certain 'infidelity' website that wanted to set up in Singapore, I sent the following piece, exhorting the benefits of pre-marriage counselling (marriage preparation courses) to Straits Times which published a very watered-down version.

The original letter here, followed by the Straits Times version:

Marriage and manners

I am excited to be home soon to attend my nephew’s wedding.

I gave him and his fiancée the same advice I had found useful: Too many couples spend more effort preparing for their wedding day, and not enough for a lifetime of marriage. So, spend more time working on their marriage rather than on their wedding.

Older Chinese women used to say, “If you marry a chicken, follow a chicken. If you marry a dog, follow a dog.” Today this can be seen as belittling the position of women.

But at the heart of this saying is the very important concept of commitment. Commitment (along with family honour) was important. Parents ensured that children married someone who was well-matched to give their marriage a fighting chance.

The fatalistic chicken-and-dog saying is equivalent to the Christian marriage (not just wedding) vow to to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part”.

Keeping a relationship of whatever nature going is hard work. Marriage is hard work. There will be times when we feel that we are not ‘in love’ any more. That is when we have to make an even bigger effort to love.

Marriage preparation courses help us to anticipate and identify potential crisis points (illness, unemployment, money and children problems, temptation, etc). Fidelity comes from remembering that we have not married a ‘Mr/Miss Right’.

We are marrying a ‘Mr/Miss Left’: one who has left all others to stick with just one person. And this person – you and I – will never be perfect, never ‘always right’.

“Manners maketh man” sounds like an old English saying.

Yet good manners in word and deed (ie no physical or mental abuse) exhibited by husbands towards their wives (and vice-versa), and to their children and neighbours, will naturally become the behaviour that children will model when they step out of their family.

The Chinese call this jia jiao (family education), a derivative of the Confucian concept of li.

From this perspective, good manners is not merely about giving up one’s seat on public transport. It goes to the very heart of our relationship with our spouse, our children, the wider family, rippling out to the nameless thousands that we encounter in our lifetime.
I thought, "Not bad, in under 400 words I was able to tackle a current issue 'marrying' my Christian understanding, the 'manners maketh man' adage which I had been contemplating, and good old Confucian ethics. So I was disappointed to read this version (reduced to 254 words) on Straits Times Online, leaving out the most crucial point about marriage preparation courses:

Marriage is hard work, try good manners

MY NEPHEW is getting married soon and I gave him and his fiancee some advice that I had found useful.

Too many couples spend a lot of effort preparing for their wedding day and not enough for a lifetime of marriage. More time should be spent working on the marriage.

Older Chinese women used to say: "If you marry a chicken, follow a chicken. If you marry a dog, follow a dog."

At the heart of this saying is the very important concept of commitment.

Keeping a relationship of whatever nature going is hard work. Marriage is hard work. There will be times when we feel that we are not "in love" any more. That is when we have to make an even bigger effort to love.

Fidelity comes from remembering that we have not married a "Mr or Miss Right".

Instead, we are marrying a "Mr or Miss Left" - one who has left all others to stick with just one person, and this person will never be perfect.

An old adage states that "manners maketh man". Indeed, good manners in word and deed exhibited by spouses towards each other and to their children and neighbours will naturally become the behaviour that children will model after when they step out of their family.

From this perspective, good manners is not merely about giving up one's seat on public transport. It goes to the very heart of our relationship with our spouse, our children, the wider family and everyone we encounter in our lifetime.


Moral of the story: Straits Times Forum letters are often so edited that it totally loses the objective of the letter writer. Reader, beware.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Inspiration for Servant Leaders

The notion of servant leadership is not new to Christians. Jesus came to serve and not to be served. So there he was, washing his disciples' feet.

While attending a very private ceremony, attended by a very small number of people, I was overwhelmed not only by the sense of history but also a deep sense of gratitude to God. I was possibly the oldest mother there.

Given that so few would have experienced this event I wrote 'Servant Leaders' to share with fellow Singaporeans. Straits Times Forum ran it as 'Respect those who serve us' (13th September 2013). It is unusual to have two words edited into five words.

As expected, the brickbats came from 'forummers' who imputed a less-than-honourable motive to my writing.

First of all, there is nothing wrong in being proud of one's offspring. I will not apologise for expressing my pride in his achievement.

To pretend that I was not proud of his achievement would be dishonesty and gross injustice to a young man who had worked very hard to overcome his physical, intellectual and emotional obstacles -- painstakingly, one by one -- over several years, and also the part played by his school teachers, special educational needs co-ordinator, music tutors, pastoral workers, etc. etc. who had implicit faith in him.

More importantly, if forummers cannot see what I am actually trying to say to, and about, the people that matter, then I am -- slowly but surely -- losing hope in the future of Singapore.
Respect those who serve us
ON SUNDAY, my husband and I were very proud parents as our only child was "admitted" to the roll of scholars at the oldest independent school in Britain.

What caught my eye was the place of the head porter in this ceremony - he led the party in and out of the venue.

During tea, I observed how polite the head boy and officers were to the catering staff.

These school leavers are likely to go on to become the movers and shakers of society, yet treated the servants with utmost respect.

What would the world be like if all leaders - political, commercial and intellectual - behaved in the same manner?

Contrast this to my frequent observations of how our domestic helpers are treated as "invisible" beings.

If we want the world to be a better place, then we must teach our children to respect those who serve us. If we need to bring in people to take up the jobs Singaporeans shun, is it because we have become too difficult to serve?

Respect, like charity, begins at home.


In anthropological literature we read of 'rituals of status reversal'. For example:
"Men use the authority vested in their office to misuse and abuse the incumbents of lower positions and confuse position with its incumbent. Rituals of status reversal ... are thought of as bringing social structure and communitas into right mutual relations once again." (Victor Turner 1969:178)
These rituals might involve leader-designates being humiliated by the people over whom they are about to rule, or when there has been dissension so that the 'unity that has been sundered by selfish strife and concealed ill-feeling is restored by those who are normally thought of as beneath the battle for jural and political status' (Turner, 1969:184).

Some might say that these are merely symbolic and only entrench hierarchy. Be that as it may, this does not detract from the fact that my husband and I were suitably impressed by the good manners displayed by senior staff and pupils towards those who are usually considered of lower social standing. Eat your heart out, Max Weber.

To be fair, the editor kindly sent me a draft of his edit. But I was away at conference and was not able to respond to him before it was published. The original letter, for what it's worth here:

Servant leaders
Last Sunday my husband and I were very proud parents as our only child, a special blessing considering our age at marriage, was ‘admitted’ to the roll of scholars at the oldest independent school in Britain. We were witnesses to a ceremony that has taken place for more than 600 years!

What caught my eye was not so much that the old school boy, a renowned banker, who laid hands on my son proclaimed words of authority in Latin, but the place of the Head Porter in this ceremony.

He led the party in and he led the party out.

During tea I also observed how polite the head boy and officers were to the catering staff.

I was hobnobbing with the elite of a very elitist school and leavers are likely to be the movers and shakers of society, and yet the lowest servants are treated with utter respect, and at times, ceremony. How marvellous is that?

What would our world be like if all leaders – political, commercial and intellectual – are all prepared to cross the road to help someone who had fallen into a muddy ditch? Metaphorically.

Contrast this to my frequent observations of the invisibility of some of our nameless home helpers.

If we want our world to be a better place, then we must teach our children to respect those who serve us. If we need to import people to run our services because Singaporeans are refusing to take on these jobs, is it because we as paying customers have become too difficult to serve?

Respect, like charity, begins at home.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

'Central area weighting' for low-wage workers?

After an international anthropology conference I came home from Manchester in a train full of tourists who were taking home expensive Man Utd merchandise and found one of my letters has been published:

'Central area weighting' for low-wage workers? [not sure how long ST would keep this online]

After the last letter which I had complained sounded anaemic after editing, the editor had kindly (bless his heart, and many thanks if you are reading this) shown me an edit of the letter before it was published. I was even able to add in a further sentence towards the end.

The published version here (just in case ST takes down the original link above):
DURING my recent three-week visit to Singapore, I could not help but notice the many posters seeking staff at retail and food and beverage outlets.

A staff member told me it was almost impossible to hire anyone to work in the "central" area as job-seekers consider it too expensive to travel and eat there.

Employers do not like hiring students because they tend to quit soon after being trained, while older workers look down on the $5.50 an hour offered to them.

I pondered over whether it is possible to live in Singapore on a monthly wage of $1,500 for a year. After deducting the Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution, that would mean having a take-home pay of $1,200.

The cheapest room I could find for rent was one in Bukit Merah, going for $800 a month.

If I were to live on $1,500, would I be able to travel to the "central" area and eat with my remaining $400? Remember, there is often a "no cooking" rule when renting units.

I decided that on $1,500 a month, a worker could do two of these - rent, travel or eat - but not all three.

Then, there is the cost of leisure activities (for good mental health), clothes, toiletries, tax, training (for a better job) and putting aside something for a rainy day.

Of course, there are the periodic Workfare payouts for some. But what other help do workers get at the end of every month?

Are Singapore employers allowed to give workers a "central area weighting" or other kinds of subsidies not subject to tax or CPF deductions, just as some employees get a "London weighting" to ameliorate the costs of working in London? This should be restricted to low-wage earners so that the privilege is not abused.

More importantly, are consumers willing to pay more for their goods and services, so that workers can afford to work?

The original had a mention of 'minimum wage':

I am not a fan of the ‘minimum wage’ either. It is a heartless policy.

Oral history accounts tell of how employers took into account the personal circumstances of their trusted employees and often raised their wages when employees got married or had a new baby.

Minimum wage in the UK means employers think that meeting the legal requirement should be the full extent of their generosity. Taxpayers now make up the shortfall with ‘Working Tax Credit’ while employers (unfairly) keep all their profits.

My husband was furious when he read some of the online comments on the Forum page. (Let's just say we are very protective of each other.)

I cannot understand why every time I write something in the press in support of the downtrodden and disadvantaged in Singapore, I get slammed for being 'elitist' and told to 'go home'. So I am particularly grateful to those who write in support.

Clearly Singapore is my home -- I have a passport to prove this when I could have become British many years ago -- and I write and critique what goes on because I feel passionately about and for the people who call themselves 'Singaporeans'.

Incidentally I think working adults should be entitled to having their own rooms and not have to share. Particularly where people might work on shifts, for good mental and physical health, it is not ideal to share a room with someone who's not a spouse.

So, what have I done wrong this time to warrant such negative comments from some readers??

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

What's so 'maju' about this 'Majulah Singapura'?

Just back from three weeks in Singapore where Google refused to let me log in because I refused to give them my (brother's) mobile phone number.

Putting the new National Day song aside, I sent this to Straits Times, but they were not interested:


Dear Editor

As soon as I heard the first words of ‘Majulah Singapura’ I instinctively stood to attention, as I was taught to do in school.

Funny, I thought, I missed hearing the distinctive drum roll and the fanfare introduction.

I had stumbled upon what appeared to be technical run-through of the NDP while on the roof of the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay.

Less than half-way through, I could take it no longer and started ranting at my companions.

I was appalled by this dirge-like rendition of ‘Majulah Singapura’ which was aspiring to be ‘God Save the Queen’.

Mr Zubir Said wrote a rousing national anthem that expresses vigour, vision and vitality.

 It admonishes singers and listeners to move forward, aspire, reach for new collective goals.

If the original ‘Majulah Singapura’ represents a purposeful march towards a prosperous future, the rendition I heard was a slow, aimless amble, much like the young Singaporeans around me who drag their feet as they propel their flip-flops forward*.

I thought lowering the key of the original composition to make the high note more reachable – thus showing a poverty of aspiration – was bad enough.

The plea from this proud Singaporean: Would the NDP organizers please, please revert to the original tempo?

National Day is the time to rally Singaporeans together. We need an anthem that helps drive a vision, not a folk tune to slow-dance to.
I wonder if the rendition I heard was merely an accident. Do you know of anyone who attended rehearsals and might be able to tell you about the slow-burn Majulah Singapura?

*Is it the heat or just a lack of general purpose? But we were struck by the way many people, particularly the younger ones, appear to amble about, oblivious to other pedestrians who need to be somewhere else fast.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Make your daughters read this (!)

I sent this to Straits Times knowing that they were unlikely to publish this. They have not. 

Six inches behind time (the way students dress)

I chanced upon a link about the way female students at a local polytechnic dressed.
Only after I had cast my ‘anthropological gaze’ at it did I realize that the story was at least a year old.
I am more than six inches behind time.
Where are the mums and dads who are supposed to say “You’re not going out dressed like THAT!”?
Have they abdicated in unison?
From the photos it appears that while most young Singapore girls dress quite modestly where their tops are concerned, they seem intent on flaunting their legs and knees and thighs.
I would hazard a guess that these are all actually ‘good girls’. They are conscious of how breasts have been sexualized. So they cover up there.
But these are innocent girls. Naïve even, with no sexual experience, and therefore they do not – yet – understand the attraction that exposed thighs have on men.
Why is it not unusual for women in some tribal communities to walk around with their breasts exposed? Yet post-puberty women always have their pelvic region covered.
Breasts are for nurturing babies. There is no shame in letting them hang out.
Thighs, on the other hand, are something else.
In ironic contrast, breast-feeding in public is frowned upon in Singapore but young girls feel free to wear very short, very tight shorts, or belts masquerading as skirts.
I am not saying that young Singapore girls should only wear burka-like tents.
The favourite excuse is that the hot weather makes girls resort to shorts.
Take it from me, sister, that the coolest, most comfortable way to dress in this weather is a loose-fitting dress in old-fashioned (preferably organic) cotton, silk, linen or new-technology fabric that wicks sweat away.
Cinch the waist with a scarf or belt to smarten up.
Flip-flops say you are slip-shod. Ditch them.
Some people say that we should dress such that other people would respect us.
I say we should dress ALSO to show that we respect others.
If there is convention or a dress code stipulated, follow it. [see below]
Love your neighbour as yourself. So think: how much do I love myself?
My son and I attended our first 'Black tie' event last week. It was his 'Leavers Dinner'. We had to go to a suit hire place to hire his 'dj' (dinner jacket, or tuxedo). (Until he stops growing there is no point in buying/making him his own dj.)
His dad was alright as he was used to such events and had a wide selection of cummerbunds, matching bow ties, etc to go with his 'Black tie'.
Hours before the event, son said, "A few boys in my class thought 'Black tie' meant wearing a black tie."
True enough, a couple of boys and dads came wearing a black tie (reserved for funerals, actually), and one dad came in denim jeans and waist-coat. Their sons were in Black tie, though.
Our young men looked terribly smart and us mums could only look at them with such pride.
In modern urban society the school has done well to organize a series of 'rites of passage' activities.
The boys had all been away for a week on an adventure trip: separation from normal society, the first time that many of these boys had been away from home for this length of time.
They experience all sorts of testing: transition, learning the skills for adult life, overcoming sense of trepidation -- will they succeed in rowing two days down a river. Much less painful than circumcision.
Black tie dinner: they are reincorporated into adult society, wearing adult clothes, practising adult etiquette. They could even choose 'red' or 'white' non-alcoholic drinks.
Goes back to one of my 'parenting slogans': time and place for everything. 

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Wool over left-wing/right-wing

I disagreed with an 'Opinion Writer' about his definition of 'left-of-centre' in a recent piece. This letter was published in Straits Times online today:

ONE can hardly qualify Singapore in the 1960s to 1980s as "clearly left-of-centre" ("Are Singaporeans ideological prisoners?"; last Saturday).

In Britain, where I now live, being left-wing means expecting the government to do everything. Being right-wing means one is expected to look after oneself.

If Singapore had ever been left-of-centre, then my late father would not have had to borrow from loan sharks to buy textbooks and school uniforms for his children.

One notion of the left-wing/right-wing divide blurs into the socialist/capitalist dichotomy.

Yet, leaders of British trade unions who lead the socialist section draw obscene salaries, supported by the ordinary man in the street, who earns a pittance.

My preferred definition of the left-right divide in Britain today is based on risk.

Leftists take no risks. Many of them draw larger salaries than the prime minister.

No amount of right-wing ram-raiding could break through these cosy - some say "incestuous" - relationships within such close-knit, closed-shop citadels of left-wing power.

When local chains of high street shops failed, it was entrepreneurs who risked their own money to reopen shops and rehire staff.

Higher risks often lead to higher profits. Left-wingers neither like nor understand that.

When people take on low-paying jobs instead of relying on benefits, they are taking a gamble that their work ethic would rub off and make a difference to the lives of their children.

When my father borrowed from loan sharks, he was taking a risk to invest in his children.

When he went to the abattoir every morning, he had to decide: one pig or two, and which pig to pick/risk to ensure the highest return on his investment.

This was not left-of-centre behaviour.
It's an anaemic and soul-less version of the original below:

One could hardly qualify Singapore in the period 1960s-1980s as ‘clearly left-of-centre’.

Left-wing where I now live means ‘expecting the government to do everything’. Hole in the ground, leak in the roof, obesity in young people, generations of poverty, it’s all the government’s fault.

Right-wing equals an expectation to look after oneself. It also has the negative connotation of supporting the bankers, businesses that pay no tax, and overpaid politicians who make fraudulent expenses claims.

If Singapore had ever been left-of-centre, then my late father would not have had to borrow from loan sharks to buy textbooks and school uniforms for his children.

One notion of the left-wing/right-wing divide blurs into the socialist/capitalist dichotomy. Yet leaders of trade unions who lead the socialist section draw obscene salaries, supported by the ordinary wo/man-in-the-street who earns a pittance.

My preferred definition of the left-right divide in the UK today is based on risk. Leftists take no risks: trade union leaders, senior civil servants, CEOs of local councils and NHS hospitals, directors in the BBC.

Many of these people draw larger salaries than the Prime Minister. Imagine that happening in Singapore. It is not as if we have a choice of not paying our income tax, council tax or TV license.

Left-wing academics (and there are many) do not even have to risk their reputations. When an academic paper about my organization was published and I found it to be riddled with factual, methodological and logical discrepancies, they refused to publish my response.

No amount of right-wing ram-raiding could break through these cosy – some say ‘incestuous’ – relationships within such close-knit, closed-shop citadels of left-wing power.

When local chains of high street shops fail, it was entrepreneurs who risked their private money to re-open shops and re-hire staff.

Higher risks often lead to higher profits. Left-wingers neither like nor understand that.

When people take on low-paying jobs instead of relying on benefits they are risking a gamble that their work ethic would rub off and make a difference to the lives of their children and children’s children.

When my father borrowed from loan sharks, he was taking a risk to invest in his children.

When he went to the abattoir every morning he had to decide: one pig or two, and which pig to pick/risk to ensure the highest return on his investment.

This was not left-of-centre behaviour.

Why bother to insist that writers use under 400 words -- which I did -- and then reduce it to 300 words? 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Did Khaw call Lim 'you'?

Whoa! Is it true that a Singapore MP/Minister actually said this in Parliament?

"This is self-righteous and - pardon me for saying so - arrogant. Many of us in this House have been serving Singapore for decades, long before she entered this House.  Please, don't behave as if you're the only patriot in this House."
Surely this would have been deemed language that is not acceptable in the House and for which the Speaker should call the Right Honourable Member to order?
In the British House of Commons where Members of Parliament debate, there are strict rules about how a fellow Member is to be addressed.

Speeches are directed at the Speaker (theoretically in a non-partisan role), not to fellow Members, and fellow members should be addressed as 'Member for [name of  constituency]' or referred to as the 'Right Honourable Gentleman/Lady'.

Technically even the 'she' used is out of place, and the 'you' is definitely unParliamentary language for which the Member should have been censured by the Speaker.

Did this happen?

Monday, 6 May 2013

How a left-winger became right-wing

Attached below are links to two articles by Melanie Phillips.

These are timely as I had been pondering what left-wing and right-wing means in this country.

Ms Phillips writes about how children are not taught knowledge but are encouraged to imagine. I have written elsewhere that Knowledge alone is not enough. Little children do need knowledge to begin with.

One learns to tell a dog is not a cat, a simple fact [knowledge], understanding the differences between dogs and cats [comprehension], in order to know how to look after a dog (take it for walks) differently from a cat (it goes walkies on its own accord) [application].

Then we can talk about the different types of dogs and cats, what makes a type of dog different from another in some ways, but similar to cats, and other animals in other ways [analysis].

We can then put these facts together and say dogs, cats and other animals have such properties and behave in these certain/different/unusual ways [synthesis].

Then we can consider how dogs, cats, other animals relate to human beings and discuss cruelty to animals in relation to warfare (food security, famine, etc) and why we need to care for animals (all animals, some animals, animals bred for experiment, etc) [evaluation].

In Singapore we push teaching of facts (I have been told).

In the UK some schools do not teach facts, but how do young people debate higher-order questions when they have no basic facts with which to debate?

Part 1:
Why the Left hates families: MELANIE PHIILLIPS reveals how the selfish sneers of Guardianistas made her see how the Left actively fosters – and revels in – family breakdown...

Part 2:

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Parenting a gifted teenager

Last Friday was a really strange evening. Son had spent the early part of the week sitting a scholarship exam at a school where 'it's OK to be an egg-head'.

After a test and interview two years ago for which he received no coaching he had been offered a place at the school subject to a 'common entrance exam'. It means the chances of him failing to gain admission were very remote.

As he is miles ahead of his mates at current school, he decided to sit the scholarship exam, to find out where he stood in his ability.

He did receive some coaching this time from his school teachers. Their responsibility was to get the pupils to the school of their choice. However the 'school of their choice' was decided in conjunction with the Headmaster, the teaching staff and parents.

The Headmaster would not have supported our son's application for a sports scholarship, for example.

One of the most popular posts on this blog is that of raising a gifted child.

That gifted child is now a teenager. Ooh-aah!

When 'trouble' began due to his inability to cope with the slowness of lessons, I put my career on hold for the third time.

For a year or two we did not discuss schoolwork AT ALL. My 'job' was to debrief him straight after school.

'Tell me three things that made you happy at school.' Sometimes he struggled, but I helped him to see the good side of experiences. Only then was he allowed to tell me what was so wrong/bad at school.

Bed-time: I went through an emotions check-list with him every day, to help him identify what he was feeling and talked about how he coped with it. Did he do well or did he do bad, and what he could do better the next time.

He often descended/crumpled/disintegrated into an inexplicable knot of incoherent mumblings about life and how it was unfair to him. There were times I could not 'reach' him at all. Very (very) dark times.

It was tedious. It was not something I could farm out to an employee. Still, slowly we noticed that there were more good times than bad times. He was clearly maturing. His emotions were catching up with his mind. His confidence grew.

At the end of what we call Year 6, when he had just turned 11, he was invited to take a Maths Challenge with the oldest boys in school. Knowing that he would not take part if he were the only Year 6 boy, the teacher wisely invited two other Year 6 boys to take part as well.

The most able mathematicians from Years 6, 7 (aged 12) and 8 (aged 13) took part. He managed to beat the top Year 8 boy. The teacher approached me to say, 'We have discussed amongst the staff, and with your and your husband's permission, we are going to move him up one year to do Maths next year.'

All the staff knew how I was against 'accelerating': making him learn the syllabus of a higher grade earlier. They have our permission to 'extend' him but not accelerate. Because he would be bored again the following year if he were merely accelerated.

Extension was much harder work for the teachers. They have to find a different type of work for him to do. But I heard him moan so much about Maths that I jumped at the chance for him to skip Year 7 Maths. I was assured that when he goes to Year 8, he would be found suitably challenging Maths to do.

It was with some apprehension -- to us, his teachers, and himself -- when he joined Year 8 in Maths. But he soon proved himself, always scoring well enough to rank amongst the top three. And the Year 8 boys? They loved him. (One boy kept copying answers from him.)

He became good friends with a couple of the older boys and was sad when they left for senior school. That year he also starred in the school play, speaking, singing and dancing with great confidence.

And just as we thought, 'Ah bad times are over,' it hit.

Just after this time last year, life was the pits.

I had anticipated difficulties in the run-up to his teenage years, but when they happened, it knocked us out for six. He had just turned 12. He was miserable. I was miserable. His dad was miserable.

The problem was his emotional development could not keep up with his intellectual growth. His mind was making him ask those questions we all ask come adolescence, but his emotions did not yet have the range and depth to cope with the answers. It was HELL.

We prayed. Family prayed. Friends prayed. How could bad things happen to good Christian people?

We sought professional help. And we, thank God, was led to good professional help.

My son needed not a psychiatrist but someone outside the family to talk about these things. You know when I was a teen I could not tell my parents a lot of things. I talked instead to teachers and church counsellors, older siblings and aunties.

My poor child does not have older siblings or even an auntie or uncle he could turn to where we live. So we had to find him a surrogate aunt. The fact that she is a trained counsellor helped.

As his emotional development caught up, he was back to his happy, witty self.

Part of this struggle was the exams he was scheduled to sit. We did not tell him to sit those exams. The teachers checked and the counsellor checked. My son was the one who wanted to do those exams. We kept saying, 'Forget those exams. Just sit the ordinary exams.'

But he wanted to do the scholarship ones.

And here's the catch. These scholarship exams do not test knowledge. They tell us right from the start it is not that sort of exam that you can study for.

Knowledge, comprehension, application, these are the lower-order types of knowledge according to Bloom's typology of knowledge. The scholarship exams require him to analyze, synthesize and evaluate.

Translation: It's no good knowing all the elements in the Periodic table, all the names of rivers and their tributaries, etc. That is knowledge, knowing facts, factoids, trivia. We have the internet to check knowledge, but what can one do with this knowledge?

When the teachers gave him scholarship exam papers to 'try' at home, he was stunned that he could not answer the questions. The answers could not be found in the text, between the lines, etc. He needed to evaluate, form an opinion, and he was not used to doing that.

Over the year he realized that often there were no single correct answers to these questions. We used the term 'open-ended'. He could be as simplistic or complex in giving answers.

Of course he needed to know the knowledge as well, but knowledge is not good enough for this scholarship exam.

So it was that when this time last week (Sunday) we dropped him at the House where he has already got a place, he was cool as a cucumber, totally relaxed.

Monday he was told at the start of the exam, "We do not want to know what you know. We want to know what you think." He had more than six hours of exam in one day.

Tuesday he turned 13 without any fanfare. Interview and audition.

Wednesday evening he was a happy bunny when we picked him up. He had made friends, learned that watching football on TV could be fun, and enjoyed (enjoyed!) sitting those exams. He decided that he would also be happy to be an ordinary student because the boys at this House were so cool.

Last Friday: we were told that successful candidates would be notified by phone after 6pm. We waited, a bottle of champagne was being chilled for the occasion.

No phone call. 6.30pm I said to son, "That's it. I don't think you got in."

"That's OK, Mum. I enjoyed it, any way."

We cooked, ate, rationalized. (Honestly I could not believe that my son did not make the cut.) Ah, the non-scholar House would be more fun. The Master is in charge of hockey. Perfect for our son (who incidentally won the 'Most Improved Player' in hockey this year).

We sat down to watch TV at about 9pm. Phone rang. Went dead. Phone rang again. Husband took the call and walked away.

When he eventually came back he disclosed it was the hockey-playing Master of the House that son was staying in. He rang to say how sorry he was that son will not be in his House come September.

Why? My husband asked.

"O! Haven't you heard? He's been given a scholarship."

All hell broke loose. My son 'danced his epic dance of danceness'.

Later on I emailed the Master of the scholars house, giving him our phone number. He rang back straightaway. He had been calling the wrong number.

We slept very little that night. Adrenaline on overdrive.

So for parents of gifted children out there, be prepared for that transition to teenagerhood. Don't give up on them. Give them someone they trust they can talk to.

Being a teenager is difficult enough. Being a gifted teenager ... well ... if you are/were one, feel free to add your thoughts.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Baishou qijia (raising a family with one's bare hands)

Having read so much pro- and anti-Thatcher rhetoric recently I began a process of introspection to try to understand why I am pro-Thatcher.

What's wrong with me? I asked the husband. Why is it that despite reading all that left-wing media as a student, despite working amongst left-wing academics, I am still what I am?

Why is it that 'people up north', after the mines had closed for decades, not got up to do something different for themselves?

Why is there this entrenched hatred of all things capitalist?

It is the capitalists who pay the taxes that pay the schools. When Jessops the high street chain of camera shops went bust, who came to its rescue? A capitalist risking his own money.

Risk. Is that the key?

People moan, there are no jobs. But surely there are jobs: window-cleaning, car-washing, ironing, charring (house cleaning as it used to be called), et cetera.

My father came to Singapore virtually penniless. His older sister had arrived before him. There were a few contacts. He went into labouring work.

I understand that he tried to start a business, but was swindled, and ended up for most of his life as a butcher at Alexandra Road wet market (now demolished).

It was as butcher that he raised six children, with no help from a welfare state. He borrowed money from loansharks to buy textbooks and uniforms for my older siblings. He raised money on other occasions through tontine rings, but always paid back.

Channel 4 News ran a series on how people were affected by Thatcher. Two people said they got her message to do something for themselves and they did. One guy invested the £100 he had buying stuff (anything would have done, he said), sold it, made a profit, and within three to four years was turning over seven figures.

Another decided to leave his safe job to start his own business, and started hiring within two years. But the other two talked about how Thatcher killed industry and communities.

I think anthropologists could make themselves useful by understanding what are the cultural barriers to people striking out on their own. Or even what is the cultural capital that can be harnessed to raise financial capital within communities.

When I went to secondary school I was desperate to join the school band because I wanted to play music. My parents could not afford to give me the piano and ballet lessons I so wanted. I could not afford the band uniform after I fought tooth-and-nail to get in there.

So I bought loaves of bread and made sardine sandwiches to sell them to other girls. I managed to pay for the band uniform after two years.

What is there to stop people from raising capital by making things to sell? Make things out of waste, stuff from charity shops, and start. Buy seeds and compost. Sow them at home. when they are slightly bigger, sell them to neighbours at profit. Once you have made some profit, that bug would bite and you would want to make more.

Here's an example of a website that has useful information:

There are also lots of government grants available such as New Enterprise Allowance. What you need is determination and a willingness to take a risk.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Lady Thatcher's Funeral: random rants

Or thoughts, really. Further to my earlier rant.

On celebrating someone's death, an unpublished letter to The Telegraph:


In Confucian thought there is the junzi (gentleman) and the xiaoren (small man).

A junzi will never dance on the grave of the newly deceased, even if the latter is a xiaoren.
It brought to mind the occasion when a Singaporean politician died and his sons received a 'letter of condolence'.

Britons out to protest the cost of the 'not-a-state funeral' said to cost £10 million.
  • There will be winners and losers, as in any free market: caterers, waiters, drivers, policemen (apparently some volunteered), cleaners, public transport workers, etc. will be taking home more money this month as a result of the additional hours they are working.
  • A mother with pink hair interviewed by BBC was vociferous about spending 'our money -- taxpayers' money' on the funeral. I wonder how much tax mother-with-pink-hair pays personally every year. Most of us are too busy working to earn the money to pay the tax to attend a protest. Many of the spectators lining the streets of London are workers, taxpayers, yes, who work in the City (plus tourists, and many others who took time off to pay their last respects). And those of us who work can very rarely get away with pink hair.
  • Isn't it funny that when people are arguing for better benefits they use the term 'government spending', but if it is for something they do not support, it becomes 'taxpayers' money'? There is no such thing as 'government money'. It is taxpayers' money. Next time you ask for more spending, remember it's 'our money -- taxpayers' money'.
  • So they are against the cost of the funeral. What do they do? They threatened to demonstrate. More secruity needed to be deployed, thus jacking up the cost. ???
  • I am sure if 'the government' made it possible for people to contribute (if they wished) to the funeral: £2, £5, for those watching at home, £10 for those lining the streets, or £100 a head for all those inside the Cathedral, say, with any receipts above the actual cost of the funeral going to charity, there will be very many people happy to pay.
People say that the Queen as Sovereign should not have attended the funeral of a mere commoner.

Anyone spotted the flaw in this logic yet?

Hello! What's the point of being Queen if she could not choose to attend the funeral of any of her subjects (or ex-subjects)?

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Singapore’s most famous student?

I sat up when I read from The Telegraph this bit about Lady Thatcher's funeral:  
Among the protesters was David Winslow, 22, a student from Singapore who is studying anthropology at Durham University.
He was holding a placard featuring a tombstone with the inscription, "Rest of us in poverty" and wearing a home-made t-shirt with the words "Power to the people" on the front and "Society does exist" on the back.
Mr Winslow admitted he was too young to remember anything about Lady Thatcher's time in office but said he had seen first-hand how people were suffering under the Coalition's cuts.
He said: "I have nothing personal against Margaret Thatcher. I never met her. But what I do oppose are her policies and the continuation of the policies that she started under the current Tory Government.
"These are policies that I believe are causing great harm to society."
He said he would be turning his back when the cortege passed, adding: "We want to maintain a dignified protest and not have people cat-calling and jeering. I would not like to make this about her personally.”  
It is a great embarrassment to me as a Singaporean and also as an anthropologist.

I have nothing personal against Mr Winslow. I never met him. But what I do oppose are his blinkered views about:

"Rest of us in poverty": He can hardly be impoverished as a Singaporean student at Durham University. He wants to know poverty, I will show him poverty. Did his father have to borrow from loansharks to pay for textbooks? No, delete that. It is not kind of me to drag his father into this discussion.

Is he referring to Britons who are impoverished? Clearly he knows nothing about the benefits system. I do. (Just read any of my recent posts.)

"Society does exist”: This is clearly referring to what Lady Thatcher was supposed to have said that there was no such thing as ‘society’.
I worked alongside people who said, “Why bother to save? ‘Social’ would take care of that, right?”

‘Social’ refers to ‘social services’. So forget contraception. Have a baby at 15. ‘Social’ will take care of me.

Today The Bishop of London clarified (again) what she meant: Don't blame 'society'. We are interdependent. We each need to be responsible for ourselves and our neighbours. Do not  expect ‘Social’ or ‘society’ to pick up the tab when we ruin our lives. The problem in Britain today is many people cannot face up to the consequences of their choices and actions. It is always someone else’s fault.

What is wrong with preaching some self-respect and responsibility?

‘Coalition's cuts’: The welfare budget has not been cut. Now if you and/or your spouse are working 40 hours a week and just about make ends meet. You have not had a holiday for three years. New shoes? Only because your only pair had worn out.

Then you find neighbours who do not work and take home more in benefits by choosing not to work, or pretend to be too ill to work, or have another baby so they do not need to work. Yes, there is a cap on benefits. It means that people on benefits do not get more than the average income of an average worker.

A newly-qualified teaching (with postgraduate diploma) gets about £25,000 before tax. There are workless families getting more than £26,000 (net) for not working. How can you create economic growth when people are richer on benefits than when working?

“Too young to remember anything about Lady Thatcher's time in office”: Well, I was not. I was a sociology/anthropology undergraduate/postgraduate and read the left-wing Guardian and New Statesman at NUS Library (Current Periodicals). But I evaluated the data and came down on the side of Thatcher.

I would not like to make this about him personally.

I am sure he was quoted out of context just as Lady Thatcher was often quoted out of context.

Why would a 22-year-old Singaporean -- born after the Lady left office -- with no recollection at all of Thatcher hold such views?  
  • Because he has been brain-washed by the left-wing academics in Britain?
  • Because he is a product of an education system which only regurgitates what the teacher says?
  • Because the freedom to protest is O! so liberating?
  • All of the above?

Update 19th April 2013 17:22: Two people posted comments below. Neither identified himself/herself sufficiently so I am minded to delete both posts. Please, ha, if you want to say something, don't hide behind a veil. However as I support freedom of expression I shall leave these in, for now.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Welfare or Illfare? Six children dead

[NB I can only use links to newspapaers not protected by paywalls. Just in case you are wondering.]

Sadly and by some coincidence this story puts into context what I had been saying:

His story throws into surreal relief the row between the Tories and Labour this week about Iain Duncan Smith’s much-needed benefit reforms. While the Left and the Church cry that they are unfair and immoral, the Government argues calmly that what is immoral is leaving families such as Michael Philpott’s to languish on benefits for generations.

Indeed, Philpott never even attempted to find a job. The children owed their existence to his desire to milk the welfare system.
[Read and weep.]
Lots more hand-wringing today from journalists:
Welfare reform: It's class war, but not in the way you'd expect (Telegraph)
Writer says it's the Liberals who are far, far removed from the welfare system who are crying out for such reforms. The poorest and proudest actually do not wish to be trapped in a cycle of benefits-poverty.
Pity the poor, unthanked middle-class warrior for welfare rights! These lonely campaigners have come up with all sorts of theories to explain the poor’s failure to get off their lardy derrières and defend welfarism. Their favourite is the idea that the less well-off, being a bit dim, have been brainwashed by “scrounger”-hating tabloid newspapers.

The implication in all the hand‑wringing commentary is that the less well-off should, by nature, be pro-welfare. And if they aren’t, they must be brainwashed by “the Right”. Yet Britain’s struggling communities have never been fans of welfarism, and for good reason: unlike columnists and campaigners, they’ve seen with their own eyes the devastating impact it can have on community life.
So, all you well-to-do campaigners for welfarism, there is no need to be bemused by the poor’s indifference to your battle. For what you love about welfarism – that it insulates the so-called “vulnerable” from the chaotic, often unfair world of the market and struggle – is precisely what the poor hate about it. And what you hate about IDS’s cuts – that they remove the “safety net” that many experience as a trap – might just be what the poor admire in them.

The truth is that the real ‘welfare dependency’ problem is with politicians on the Left. They rely on the distribution of handouts to their client state to remain in power.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

April Fool's joke? No!

Yesterday we woke up to BBC Radio 4 flagship 'Today' programme in which a man claimed that after the recent changes to benefits, he is left with £53 a week. He wanted to ask IDS (Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions) whether he could survive on £53 a week.

The interviewer John Humphrys (also known as the 'rottweiler') did just that, but he also kept interrupting the Minister who was trying to answer the questions and this really annoyed my husband: Why don't they ask me on radio to talk about how I don't want my taxes to be wasted on such people.

Today, we learn from a newspaper, that the man who claimed to be left with £53 a week was not all he made himself out to be. More crucially, it shows the left-wing bias of BBC in allowing this benefits claimant the air-time.

Those of us in Singapore who grew up on the BBC World Service might be surprised to learn that BBC is very much derided, hated even, by many in the UK because we pay a 'licence fee' which is akin to a tax. The head honchos at BBC make obscene sums of money, and they are clearly left-leaning Labour Party supporters.

Take this guy who challenged IDS. As a market trader he must surely earn quite a bit more than the £200 a month he claims. But that's a good figure to claim, making him 'self-employed' enough to claim Working Tax Credit, but not enough to have to pay Income Tax or National Insurance. At some point, for whatever reason, he also qualified for Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit.

He talked about how he worked '70 hours a week' and still did not make ends meet. Then he said he was only able to trade 21 days in three months. Hello! Inconsistency there. Either he was very hard-working and shortchanged (working 70 hours a week) or he was unfortunate (only able to trade 21 days in three months = about 70 hours a month).

If he worked only 70 hours a month then his number of hours would be short of the 25 [correction: should be 30] a week he needs (as a single person, as his ex-wife looks after his children) to qualify for Working Tax Credit. If he is working more than 16 hours a week, he also does not qualify for JobSeekers Allowance. So I wonder on what basis this man claimed benefit. ???

Elsewhere we read of churches coming forward to voice their concern with the 'benefit cuts'. I'm afraid these church leaders do not speak for me.

British Christians cannot be selective in their use of the Bible to support their views. One group talks about taking inspiration from Jesus clearing the temple to support people who are exploited and marginalized.

They include amongst the 'exploited' those in the "Workfare" programme requiring benefits claimants who have not worked for years to work in the community for 30 hours a week or lose their benefits (face 'sanctions'). The aims of the programme is to give such claimants some skills and even the habit of getting to work on time which is alien to many claimants.

Objection is particularly vociferous from those who believe that benefits claimants should not be made to work 'for free' for supermarkets and big retailers. To get £71 for 30 hours of work is exploitation.

Hello! No such thing as a free lunch, OK? Claimants usually get more than just the £71 a week. Housing/Council Tax benefits are several times £71, so don't kid yourself. Who is exploiting whom?

Why should my husband work 40-50 hours a week and we only take one real holiday once in two-three years while some people sit on their butts all day long in front of their satellite TV?

What does the Bible say about responsibility for oneself and one's family? About the holy state of matrimony? About not stealing, because benefit fraud is theft.

No jobs, you say. Why then the influx of East European migrants? Why are employers crying for workers to work in restaurants, care homes, farms, etc.? Jobs or no jobs: mutually exclusive categories.

Employers not paying a living wage, you say, better stay on benefits. That's the point, isn't it? We pay one lot of people the minimum wage to do the jobs that are there because the locals do not do those. Then we pay the locals to stay on benefits.

Employers and taxpayers are effectively paying two lots of people. If we paid only for one lot then we can afford to pay this one lot double the amount, right? To do that we must reduce the welfare bill.

About 80 per cent of the clients I see are 'single mothers'. 'Better off' not working. Suffers backache and cannot work.

When clients say they are single mothers and they've just had a new baby, I have to ask whether there was any violence involved. They say 'no'. So it's not like they were forced to have a baby. Modern contraception is very effective, you know. But having a child under five keeps you on Income Support, you see.

I don't want to be included in the group of Christians who condone such irresponsible lifestyles.

There's free healthcare, free education. How could families be three generations out of work? It beggars belief.

Eradicate the fraudsters, the feckless, and give my hard-earned taxes to those who are really not able to help themselves. Please.

Welfare reform isn't about hurting poor people 

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Welfare entitlement

Yesterday was manic at the advice bureau, which has to close its face-to-face drop-ins soon due to a drastic drop in funding. The building we now occupy is going to be demolished by the local council. To do what? I don't know.

So I was not happy when our queue was clogged up by people who are fully capable of doing things for themselves: make phone calls, write letters, etc. Instead they came to us expecting us to do this work.

Crutch mentality.

An older man, very fluent in spoken and written language, was in for the third/fourth time, for advice on how to get his Pension Credit which he insisted was underpaid him. He wanted to know whether he should sue the government (Department of Work and Pension) for their tardiness in looking into his appeal.

This is what I had meant in previous posts about 'mission creep'.

Pension Credit is "designed to provide those over qualifying age ... with a minimum level of income and give extra cash to those aged 65 and over with modest incomes who have made savings for their retirement".

This man is not poor. He has assets to the tune of thousands of pounds from the sale of his house. Sure he has spent much of this on a 'medical holiday' (ie going back to India for cheap treatment and care) and repaying a previous mortgage, etc. But he still has capital, quite a lot of it, well above £10,000.

PC is calculated upon the person's savings/capital. He claims that he should be awarded more than £150 PC (a week). Instead, after all the deductions, he only gets £65. He has been fighting for the additional '£90'.

I refused to give Mr G an appointment to see an adviser. He has the means to go to a solicitor.

The point is Mr G is getting more than what a lot of people are getting. (He and his wife have other benefits.) But no, he felt that he was 'entitled' to a much higher PC. If he and Mrs G were destitute we would have bent over backwards to assist him. Not when he has the means to go on 'medical holidays'. Mr G does not need this PC but is expending lots of his energy and the time of civil servants to get his 'entitlement'.


My fellow volunteer was bursting to tell me about her client who faces a bill of £60,000 in overpayment. That means this client has claimed and was given more than £60,000 in error and the government is now clawing it back.

In other circumstances -- if fraud can be proven -- the client might have been taken to court.

When people claim benefits, they are reminded with virtually every letter that they must report 'change of circumstances'. Many pretend to forget or plead ignorance about having to inform the authorities. Clearly because they know that if a change is 'for better', their benefits will be reduced. If in doubt, report, and let the authorities take the responsibility.

For instance if someone who had broken a leg, or claims to have one, gets a huge amount of benefit, and then gets better, he/she is often tempted to keep quiet about their improved health. IF our civil servants are doing their job, these claimants are caught.

This client is 'lucky' it is only a demand for repayment. The newspapers are full of reports about people being jailed for fraud.


Two weeks ago I saw a client who attended in anticipation of changes in the system for advice on how to prepare for them. I like people like this. They bother. They are proactive.

I think the word 'guileless' is good to describe her. She claimed to have some mental health issues. When I explained to her the changes that might affect her in the long run, saying that she might wish to put in effort to get herself mentally back into a condition which makes it possible for her to find work, she said, 'Yes, I want to get well so I can work.'

She said she was not aware of the different benefits she might be eligible for. She takes what is given her. She came across as being a person who is not manipulative.

This is completely opposite to the client I saw earlier who insisted that she cannot work, presumably ever again. The doctor has certified her backache and she thinks she now has a life-long passport to benefits.

This is welfare entitlement.

Welfare should always be a safety net, not a lifestyle choice. But preventing the former from morphing into the latter is almost impossible when the attitude of entitlement has set in.

It was refreshing therefore to read -- briefly -- about the Singapore Budget. Workfare is an interesting concept. It is an incentive to work. But we have to be careful it does not morph into a benefit that subsidizes big businesses.

Which is what minimum wage and Working Tax Credit seem to have become in the UK.


Monday, 11 February 2013

Where university is a different universe

Another letter to Straits Times that did not make the cut pre-Punggol East election, but had been too busy/ill to post:


At Tiong Bahru Primary my Brownie Owls organized a Christian group and we once met at a flat where I saw framed photographs of young people in funny gowns and hats. Someone explained to me they were graduating university.

University? It was a different planet.

Years later I told my mother I worried about not being able to afford to attend university. She said, “Don’t worry. You could get a scholarship.”

You see, every year at Raffles Girls we were encouraged by reading of sons and daughters of taxi-drivers and housewives winning prestigious scholarships.

I did not get a scholarship. Like most of my mates I was supported by generous family and friends, and worked as a private tutor.

As a research student I became a participant observer in a garment factory. The women on the shopfloor wondered why a ‘da-shuei’ (university) student was working for $9 a day.

One day the best machinist in the factory asked, “Is ‘da-shuei’ the same as ‘zhong-si’”? (Is ‘university’ the same as ‘secondary four’?)

In her world, school did not extend to secondary four and so university, much like secondary four, is a totally different universe.

Clearly, my university world and the world of the factory workers were light years apart. Had no one explained those graduation gowns to me, how different might my life have been?

Some people say that naming top scorers in public examinations would only cause people to think that only the academically inclined are honoured. They have conflated two issues here.

Young people need role models, particularly those from disadvantaged or ‘humble’ backgrounds, to spur them on, as it did me.

Conversely had mum only seen scholarships being awarded to sons and daughters of the rich and powerful, she would not have given me hope.

The other issue is that news blackouts on academic successes are merely treating the symptoms.

If you have (say) cancer, do you want the doctors to only stop the pain, or would you rather they killed the cancer?

So, what has changed in the meritocratic system that has helped people like Chan Chun Seng, Koh Poh Koon and me to get to university?


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

I don't want to work!

After having seen hundreds of clients regarding their benefits, one cannot help but notice the different attitudes with which these have come for help.

There are those who are really sickly, breathless, unable to walk, depressed, etc who only ask for some help to get better. Some are so ill I would suspect they would never be able to work.

There are also those who are very sprite, very vocal, very well-dressed and very adamant that they have decided that they are not well enough to work for the rest of their lives. So someone else must pay for their livelihood and several children.

[It also puzzles me that women who claim to be so ill they could not work are not too ill to have children with men who are not their husbands.]

Yesterday my first client was from a country where he has no rights to benefits if he is not self-supporting. He is homeless and has been sleeping in a park and the temperature has been sub-zero for days. He had been a hardworking person until he lost his job. Somehow managed to get onto Jobseekers Allowance (JSA, which he is not actually entitled to), found a job, informed JobCentrePlus (JCP) as one should, but lost his job again.

When he tried to apply for JSA he was told that the rules had changed. They had not changed. Someone at JCP made a mistake. Now this man thinks he is eligible for JSA because he had been on JSA. My manager has to step in and even then did not manage to sort him out. (Manager has special numbers to call.)

Then Z, single mother with two teenage children and a five-year-old. She had been moved from Incapacity Benefit to ESA (Employment and Support Allowance), and in the process her income has dropped drastically. She has also to apply for Child Tax Credit (CTC) to make up the shortfall. She receives Housing Benefit (which pays her rent) and Council Tax Benefit (which pays her Council Tax).

She had seen another staff member whom she insisted on calling the 'manager', implying that I was not good enough for her. [Did she think that because I am Chinese and not white like the other staff I was inferior? Was I facing discrimination?] She wanted me to call the tax office to harass them to expedite her Child Tax Credit application. Her situation was dire. She had received her ESA payment but it went straight via direct debit to pay her gas and electricity.

I said, why are you paying so much for gas and electricity? She explained that there is a lot of damp in her house/flat. When I checked with my manager later, she suggested that Z stopped paying her gas and electricity for a while if she did not have money to feed her children. Z said she was afraid that she would build up debts.

She had been previously advised to apply for a 'Crisis Loan' but client said it is only for £100 and it will not be enough. Enough for what? I thought. If she does not have money for food or shoes for her son, as she claimed, then she must apply for the loan. In her notes we also read that she was referred to a food bank, but she refused to go, saying that it was too far.

No, she wanted me to call and harass the Tax Office. I said they have asked her to submit some evidence and it was best that she did it as soon as possible rather than having me call them, taking up time they could use to process her case. Then she went on about how the previous manager who saw her knows all about her case and wanted to see this person.

When we see clients running from pillar to post trying to plug gaps in their finances on a regular basis we normally say, let's stop for a moment and think how we can try to resolve ALL these inter-related issues. One of these would be the damp in her house. That means she might need to move to another property.

I asked if she was fit to work and she said she was clearly not fit to work as the doctor says she is not fit to work. I looked at her medical certificate and it says "Back pain", no other details.

So I said, if money is always so tight, it may be worth her looking to doing some work in the future when her health has improved.

"O no. I came here today for help. I didn't come here today to be told that I have to look for work."

You know, by this time at the interview, I was not surprised at this comment. She had been very reluctant to divulge details about her medical condition, and kept saying the previous manager (who is not a manager) knows all about it.  She refused to leave my office and so another manager (a real one) had to step in. (Two 'fails' in a day. That is a record for me.) 

The manager told her to call the number I had given her to see if she could get an emergency CTC, which was what I told her. The manager promised to follow up the next day (something that I cannot do), and she finally left.

The truth is sooner or later her case will be up for review with a WCA (Work Capability Assessment) and she would almost certainly be deemed suitable for work being young, fit and quite healthy, and she will be back again, asking for help to appeal her case. She refused to contemplate working when she could work up to 16 hours a week and still keep most of her benefits.

Back pain is relative. I put my back out some years ago. The pain was excruciating. As soon as I could I started on Pilates classes to strengthen my back, and learned how not to strain my back muscles by using my abdominal muscles instead. For my own good health and peace of mind. For crying out loud I might live till 90 this side of eternity.

My knees have been bad for most of my life. I blamed it on the basketball I used to play and the cross-country I loved doing. They are so bad these days that if I did ANY running the knees swell up and the GP said it's the body telling me I must stop running on hard ground. So now, a bit like Mo Farrah, I can only run under water! Never did I think that I should sit back and do nothing.

But this client, probably 20 years younger than I, has no intention of getting better because she knows that her benefits will be reduced. What sort of warped thinking is this???