Monday, August 22, 2016

Scholarships and universities - letting God lead

This post is a testimony on Lesley-Anne's scholarship journey. Some of you may recall that I blogged about how Lesley-Anne would only go overseas for her university education if she could secure a scholarship.

While most students think of the scholarship bond as a burden, Lesley-Anne holds a different view. Since she's looking to study Liberal Arts or Literature (which don't necessarily have the best job prospects), she sees the bond as an advantage because it would guarantee a job upon graduation. I guess she's unusual that way.

So when exploring scholarships, she applied only to organisations where she was interested in carving out a career. One particular organisation stood out as her first choice. Funnily enough, it has nothing to do with the arts. What she found out about their role and work intrigued her. She was invited to go for the first round assessment centre and the process was rigorous. Lasting a full day, she had to analyse real industry papers, present recommendations, participate in a debate and do a written test. While it was exhausting, she found the content fascinating. That reinforced her belief that it would be interesting to work for this organisation.

From our past experiences, we have learnt not to just pray for something as what we want may not actually be good for us. So we asked God to grant her this scholarship and create a place for her ONLY if this organisation was right for her.

Lesley-Anne must have done well in the assessment centre because she received a call-back the very next day to attend the first round interview. Yay!
We were hopeful but the interview didn't turn out the way she wanted. She came back all moody and said "I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT." Later, the kaypoh in me managed to pry a little out of her. She said the HR director, who was the main interviewer, started off cheery but as the interview progressed, he didn't seem to like some of her answers and started looking bored. At one point, he even slumped in his seat.

She was deeply discouraged but I reminded her of what we prayed - if it's right, God will make it happen. If it's not, then it's actually a blessing in disguise not to get it because it wasn't right for you.
To be perfectly honest though, we all kinda thought it was a lost cause. She was shortlisted for interviews/assessments with other organisations, so she began preparing for those.

It was also around this time that Lesley-Anne had to consider which university she wanted to go to. She had received 4 offers from UK universities to study Literature, including UCL and University of Edinburgh. Apart from those, she also had an offer from Yale-NUS, the only local university she had applied to. If she didn't manage to secure a scholarship, the choice would be clear because we had told her we would only be able to fund a local tertiary education. However, if she did manage to get a scholarship, she would have to indicate her preference.

One attribute about Lesley-Anne is that she's terribly indecisive. If we left her to decide where to have dinner, we'd probably starve. On one hand, she knew that going overseas would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. On the other hand, she was very attracted to the Liberal Arts programme in Yale-NUS, with its broad-based curriculum, international student mix and incredible opportunities for overseas exchanges.
There she was, swinging like a pendulum from one to another, unable to decide. In the end, she added a request to God - if she were to land a scholarship, let the organisation tell her where to go. I could just imagine God smacking His forehead and going, "Aiyoh, this girl! Everything oso must specify until liddat." (Yes, in my imagination, God speaks Singlish).

Then out of the blue, the first organisation called her back. She had been shortlisted for a final interview with the top brass! It was an unexpected and fantastic surprise. I don't think the interview panel knew what to make of Lesley-Anne. She's just so different from their usual candidates, most of whom chose to study fields relevant to the industry, like engineering, law or economics. Here instead was this girl who had written books, enjoyed dance and applied to study Literature and Liberal Arts. She was an outlier if ever there was one.

But clearly, they must have seen something in her because in the end, after a long excruciating wait, they offered her the scholarship! We later found out that the organisation only gave out 7 scholarships out of 1,500 applicants this year. (I'm glad we didn't know the odds beforehand as she might have just given up due to the sheer improbability!) What was even more amazing: hers was the ONLY award where the organisation specified the university - they wanted her to attend Yale-NUS.

God answered every request she had made. Tell me that's not divine intervention. Everything happened with such uncanny leading that we could scarcely believe it.

A little more related information: after she was offered the scholarship, she was shortlisted for a final interview with the CEO and Chairman of another organisation. My gut tells me she would probably be successful in that application as well, as the people there like her and it's an arts-related organisation. Plus that scholarship would probably allow her to go overseas.

Some people may think, oh why not try for it then? But Lesley-Anne turned down that final interview with our blessings because she knew what the right path was. Isn't it great when God has shown the way so clearly, that you know that's the one to take? There's no better feeling.

So long story short, Lesley-Anne did get her scholarship but the irony is that she won't be going overseas after all. Sometimes, God is funny that way. And it's all good.

Monday, August 8, 2016

5 things I'm thankful for this National Day

Ah, Singapore. Sometimes, we love it, other times, the claustrophobia living in this tight 719 km² of space makes us want to run (swim? fly?) screaming. However, since it's National Day tomorrow, I thought it would be timely to reflect on some of the things I'm thankful for in this country. It's by no means a complete list, just a rojak aggregation of items that came to mind.

1. Healthcare

Healthcare tops the chart on my list because I don't think Singaporeans know how good we've got it. In many countries, especially in the West, people don't go to the doc for coughs and colds, partly because it's very expensive. In addition, Western docs are sometimes tight-fisted with meds. A couple of friends recounted that they went to the doc with a hacking cough or painful sore throat and all they got from the doc was: "Go out and get some fresh air! Your flu will cure by itself." Getting antibiotics from the doc is almost unheard of.

Even in specialist treatment, I've seen again and again how public healthcare staff really care for patients. Recently, I discovered that if you're referred to the National Cancer Centre, whether you're a subsidised patient or not, you will receive an appointment within 6 days. Do you know how unusual that is? I was even more amazed when I found out that the NCC sees 70% of cancer patients in Singapore. In most other countries, you wait yonks to see a specialist and when you finally get to see one, they treat it like it's your privilege to see them. A friend who was living in Los Angeles for a few years finally received an appointment for her special needs son to see a child psychologist, after months of waiting. The appointment lasted only a few minutes and they were treated very condescendingly. The psychologist asked a few bored questions and dismissed them with barely any explanation or diagnosis...and a bill for a couple of hundred bucks. In contrast, when my mil goes for her Singapore National Eye Centre consultation, her doc, a very senior specialist, always treats her with respect and sometimes even waives consultation charge because of her age.

The efficiency and service are even more admirable when you consider the quality of healthcare we receive. The standards of our docs, treatments and equipment really are top notch. An aunt living in Perth always comes back to Singapore when she needs medical treatment because she's wary of the Australian healthcare system and how it commonly botches up simple things and records, leading to wrong treatments being given to wrong patients, for example.

And it's not just the medical service I appreciate. I'm amazed that whether I need to go to KK Hospital or SGH or the National Skin Centre, there's always a shuttle bus from an MRT station. FREE. The fact that the hospitals care enough to provide patients even with transport - that's huge.

2. Food

Of course, food! We're not a nation of foodies for nothing. Eating out in restaurants here is expensive, I'll grant you that. I hate that the GST and service charge significantly increases my food bill so I end up paying more than I expect (although in the US, you have to add a minimum of 20% service tip, which is also enough to make you cry). I don't see why many other countries can have GST incorporated in the menu pricing so you don't get saddled with the extras, but ours has to be charged separately.

But the appeal of Singapore's food is simply its abundance of cheap local food, and the variety is staggering. When we were in Hong Kong, which many consider a food haven, we got bored after 5 days. Seriously, what they have is nice lah but how much dim sum and roast meats can you eat? After a while, we were longing for prata and carrot cake.

2013 photo of Andre enjoying an Indian meal
And prices - gosh we were quite shocked. They don't have hawker centres so the closest to street food would be those little hole-in-the-wall stalls. A bowl of noodles in an ordinary no-name shop would cost at least S$8. Milk tea (which is nowhere as nice as our teh, in my opinion), is S$3. And I hear that in Hong Kong, they think nothing of raising prices every year. Whereas in Singapore, people complain when a hawker raises the price of fishball noodles from $2.50 to $3 after 6 years. For me, I'm so glad I can get Indian rojak down the road, next to the bak chor mee, almost any time I want. Wash it all down with a $1.20 cup of teh tarik.

Funny story...Lesley-Anne's ang moh schoolmate: "This bread I bought from the bakery is unbelievable! So soft and delicious. Singapore has the best bread ever!" It turned out to be chiffon cake. :)) Bread or cake - it's cheap and good!

3. Internet

Cannot live without. No internet for a couple of hours and I start to experience withdrawal symptoms. Cannot check Facebook! Cannot check email! And for some friends, cannot play Pokemon GO! How??

I often hear Singaporeans complain about how slow our internet is and jeer when they read that Singapore has one of the best internet connections in the world. Seriously, you have no idea what it's like in many parts of the world. When I was in Australia and New Zealand, I was completely taken by their scenery and pace of life. Such serenity and beauty! But by the time we had left, I decided that I could never migrate there because their slow and expensive internet connection would make me want to drown myself in one of their picturesque lakes.

By the way, when we were in Hong Kong, we visited a cafe which advertised "free wifi". By the time we had ordered, polished off the dim sum and paid our bill, we were still waiting for the wifi to connect. Mega fail.

4. Online Services

We probably have one of the largest number of government services available online and as a child of the internet, I appreciate it loads. Whether it's opening a utilities account, renewing my passport, declaring my taxes or renewing library books, I can do it quickly and hassle-free online. No need to queue up for half a day or fill in onerous forms. I even get reminders via SMS or email which is such fantastic service.

For me, because I run my own business, I appreciate online services even more. I can make my CPF contributions, bid for government jobs and send invoices without ever leaving my desk. And because all government records are centralised, I don't have to keep refilling forms asking for my particulars. A real time-saver.

5 Transport

This one is a hot potato. We all know the MRT system has its kinks and the breakdown rate is alarmingly frequent. We all complain about this (me included). However, the way you hear some people talk, it's like train breakdowns are unique to us. Guess what, you just have to google "train breakdown *insert country* and you'll find news of breakdowns all the time, everywhere. Yes, even in Japan and Hong Kong. In some countries, strikes compound the issue. I'm not saying it's an excuse - it's not. I'm saying some perspective would be good.

What I do appreciate about our trains is that they're very clean. I guess it's not something that immediately jumps to mind, unless you've seen trains in other parts of the world. The London Tube seats are filthy. And the Paris Metro? Gosh, it's not just the trains. The Metro stations stink to high heaven because people pee against the walls at night. And these are first world countries hor.

Our fares, while not the lowest, are also pretty reasonable, I feel. When we were in London two years ago, planning a Tube trip had to be as strategic as preparing for a PSLE Maths exam. A single ticket in Zone 1 (central London) cost £4.40! Yes, per person. Even for just 3 stops. That was more than S$9, by the way. Imagine a family of four. I hear prices have since risen.

As for road traffic, yes, the COE is a pain and yes, jams are a pain. But once again, traffic jams are not unique to Singapore - they're a problem in most cities. In London, we once moved 100 metres on a bus in half an hour. Of course, the Bangkok traffic is legendary. We were once stuck 20 minutes at ONE traffic light. Lesley-Anne took a nap on the coach and when she woke up, she found that we were still in the same spot. Singapore is such a tiny country and building more roads is not the solution. So until we can convince more people to go car-free or until we invent the flying car, I guess the COE and ERP are here to stay.

I'm not naive. I know Singapore is not perfect and there are lots of things here that could do with improvement. However, in the spirit of National Day, I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge that there are many things to be grateful for. #Championgrumbler for 364 days, surely I can spare one day to give thanks.

So here's wishing our sunny island many more peaceful days to come on her 51st birthday - wave your flag and be proud. Happy National Day!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Let's talk about sex, baby

Yesterday, The New Paper ran a story about how some NUS orientation camps have become increasingly sexualised. Some of the activities the kids had to do were just plain disturbing. Even when I was in NUS yonks ago, there was a tendency to push activities down the boy-girl route. I remember in the NUSSU camp, a musical chairs game where the boys were the "chairs" and the girls had to sit on their laps. That was as far as it got though and considered mild by today's standards, if the news reports are anything to go by.

But more than the games themselves, which are horrible enough, what's even more appalling to me is that the students who organised these games didn't see what's wrong. In this article, there were students who said some girls just like to complain, accused them of being narrow-minded, or said they could simply sit out, what's the big deal.

It IS a big deal. And it bugs me to see that 21-year-old men who have served NS and considered adults, are unable to see that trivialising rape culture and objectifying women are NOT OK. It reminds me of those frat parties in the US where your alpha males and females will subject noobs to demeaning activities so they can belong to a club. I suspect it's the same here - just a small group of individuals looking to boost their own egos and power by humiliating the freshmen. It's called bullying. Why should someone, who joined an orientation camp to get to know more people and the university, have to choose to sit out of doing a cheer? Just because someone thought it was funny to put in dirty words? By the way, that's not adult. That's extremely juvenile.

Part of the problem I feel, can be attributed to the woefully lacking sex education programme we have in Singapore. Unless you have enlightened parents who tell you what you need to know at home, you're going to learn nothing in school. Or at least, random bits and pieces that you struggle to make sense of yourself, usually in whispers among friends. In sec3, Lesley-Anne had a sex ed session in school. This was the video shown: a girl wanted to sleep with this guy who, unbeknownst to her, previously had unprotected sex with a prostitute. Both of them lie side by side on a bed fully clothed. They go under a pink blanket and emerge 2 seconds later, still fully clothed and not even touching each other. Voila! Two weeks later, they both have HIV and are going to die.

When Lesley-Anne told me about this video, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It's ludicrous beyond belief. What is the message we're sending to the confused kids? "You can have sex in 2 seconds without taking off your clothes!" "Sex leads to death!" "Pink blankets are dangerous!"

Lesley-Anne's teacher tried to make the session more educational by allowing for questions but the students were too afraid to ask much. One girl finally asked "How does it work?" (meaning sex). Unfortunately, the teacher thought she was trolling and didn't answer the question.

So here's the thing: why do we assume that kids know how sex works? Oh sure, most of them know the dictionary definition but how can that even be enough to address the messy and complex issue of sex? For example, the definition for oral sex is "to sexually stimulate orally". For a long time, Lesley-Anne thought that meant talking dirty or kissing. When you think about it, it does sound logical. How would you know what it was if nobody explained it to you?

By the time the students hit JC, the school assumes (wrongly) that the kids would know the mechanics of sex, so once again, sex ed is focused on the dangers of STDS, complete with graphic images meant to make the students wince. In fact, the talk Lesley-Anne attended harped on and on about the dangers of sex, how you can get pregnant, get all kinds of diseases and how even tests for STDs can be false negatives! By the way, it's so ironic that her JC principal at other times tell the students that it's their responsibility in the future to "go and procreate for Singapore".

This skewed form of sex ed means that most kids only have a vague idea about sex and are afraid to ask since the message they've been receiving is that it's dangerous and downright wrong. I feel that in Singapore, MOE is pressured to preach abstinence, either by religious groups or proponents of the "Asian values" camp. Hence, sex ed here is very moralistic and focuses on STDs instead of real information.

I think we've gotten all muddled because we're unable to distinguish between values and fact. Abstinence is a value. It is a choice to be yielded by the individual. It should not influence information-giving. I find it terribly parochial how some people feel national messages and programmes should only provide information in line with their own values. I especially take issue with alarmists who think teaching children about sex is encouraging them to have pre-marital sex. Aiyoh. That's like saying since I advise my daughter not to walk in alleyways after dark, I don't have to teach her how to defend herself. In fact, I shouldn't teach her cos that would make her want to go out walking after dark!

Do parents honestly think that in this age, they can realistically enforce abstinence by withholding information? When kids can't get information from official channels, they turn to unofficial ones - mostly friends (who are equally in the dark) and well, porn. And that's why you have student orientation leaders who think it's fun and perfectly ok to simulate rape and ejaculation, and get girls to lick cream off a boy's bare chest.

Sex is such a multi-faceted issue and the level of ignorance (coupled with the raging hormones) among our youth is simply trouble waiting to happen. Schools have the opportunity to educate students about sex - properly, responsibly and factually...and they're not doing that. We need to teach our kids what sex entails, how it affects them physically, emotionally and mentally, and also very important related concepts such as consent. Not constant fear-mongering.

As parents, it's up to us to cultivate the values we want in our kids. Honestly, if you're afraid that your child will engage in pre-marital sex once she knows more about it, then perhaps it's time to examine why the values weren't that well embedded at home in the first place. On the contrary, good sex ed teaches you how to value your body and yourself, and treating others with respect. That's a good thing and that's what we need for our kids.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reforms in PSLE scoring - good news for most

Finally, after much anticipation, MOE has released the new grading system for PSLE, to start in 2021 (meaning that those in p1 this year will be the first batch to be affected).

How it works is that scores for each subject will be calculated on 8 bands or Assessment Levels (ALs) as follows:
Source: MOE
Very simply, your PSLE score will be the total AL score for all four subjects. Eg. if you score AL2 for English, AL1 for Maths, AL 4 for Science and AL5 for Mother Tongue, your total score will be 12. It's very similar to how the 'O' levels are calculated, ie A1 for a subject = 1 point, B3 = 3 points and so on. For PSLE, the minimum score is 4, maximum 32.

The scores will then be used for secondary school posting. The better your score, the higher up your queue number is to select your school.  Which stream you will be eligible for depends on your total score as follows:

Source: MOE

A Step in the Right Direction

1) This banding scoring style is long overdue. From the time this move was first mooted in 2013, I've written about how the fine stratification of the PSLE t-score is meaningless and only serves to exacerbate the kiasu culture among parents and students, to chiong for every last mark. Banding sends the message that whether you score 91 or 99, you're considered equally high achieving in that subject.

Some people are curious as to why the AL bands don't all have a similar range of marks, eg. AL2-4 have 5-mark ranges while AL5 has a 10-mark range and AL6 a 20-mark range. After all, someone who scores 45 marks in a paper (a fail grade) can hardly be considered of the same achievement level as someone who scores 64 marks, even though they would both fall under AL6.

I've always felt that the PSLE is less of an ability gauge and more a school placement device. If every school was equally in demand, the PSLE would simply need to test if a student understood the fundamental concepts for each subject. If yes, then congrats! Off you go to secondary school. But that sort of Utopia exists only in Sesame Street and we're more like Harry Potter - everyone wants to go to Gryffindor and nobody wants Slytherin. Hence, my gut feel is that the ALs are carved out as such to facilitate school placement. In other words, whether you score 45 or 64 marks, it probably has less consequence on the range of schools available to you (because fewer people are vying for one or two particular schools).

2) Another major change in the scoring is the departure from t-scores to raw scores. I'd previously written in detail about the brutality of using the t-score in PSLE. The t-score calculates your score in relation to others'. While it's more efficient in determining placement for school posting, it encourages unhealthy competition because the more people you beat, the better you score. At that tender age when we're supposed to be nurturing kids, the t-score sends the message: To hell with helping my friends. Winner takes all. Kinda like the Hunger Games.

Raw scores, on the other hand, reflect individual effort and ability, not in comparison with one another. In other words, just do the best you can. However, banding based on raw scores means that many kids are likely to share similar scores, unlike in the past where your t-score can be differentiated down to decimal points. So MOE felt the need to impose three other criteria for school placement, in case of ties. These are (in that order):

2) Citizenship
3) Choice order of school
4) Balloting

I have to admit, I chuckled when I saw the last criterion. To me, that's like MOE subtly giving kiasu parents the middle finger. You see, I can just imagine how vexed MOE must feel, that every time they try to introduce a different initiative to create a more holistic system or level the playing field, some parents will find innovative and extreme ways to game the system. Take DSA, IP, niche schools, etc. By introducing balloting, getting into the school of your choice could come down to pure, dumb luck. Hah! Try getting around that!

Let the Angst Begin

As mentioned, I feel this change is long overdue and it's good overall. It's more holistic and kinder in its assessment of students' abilities. However, as with every announcement about changes in the education system, there is bound to be anxiety among parents, often due to the uncertainty.

One group would be the ones whose kids are consistently top performers and gunning for schools like RI/RGS/HCI/NYGH. Suddenly, a perfect score may not guarantee entry to these school. If these parents are protesting that it's "unfair to deprive a perfect scorer a place in a top school", may I be so bold as to suggest that the changes are necessary precisely because we need to change this sort of narrow-mindedness. For the better of society, we really need to move away from the prevalent mentality that 1) some schools are superior 2) because a kid beat another by 1 mark in an exam paper, he's somehow more entitled to go to that school.

A school is a conduit for learning. If a child is that good, he can do well and receive fantastic opportunities anywhere. In the past couple of decades, we've seen how the narrow funnelling of top scoring kids into a handful of schools have led to a proliferation of young adults who are completely oblivious that the world doesn't revolve around their middle-income families, paper distinctions, high end tuition centres and overseas stints. While this new scoring system may not completely solve this elitist mindset, it is more likely to spread the top scorers across a wider range of schools, allowing for better integration and socialisation.

Other parents might be concerned about how to choose schools, now that choice order is a consideration. For the first year at least, there will be a lot of uncertainty since there is nothing to refer to. If my child scores 12 points, which school should he pick as first choice? Or if my child scores 4 points, how many other kids scored the same? Should he opt for a less competitive school just to be safe? It's anyone's guess, really.

Even after the first year, we might not have a clear idea what the cut-off point for each school is. Since the points are now based on raw scores, not t-scores, the distribution of total scores for each year can vary quite a lot, depending on how easy or difficult the papers are. In fact, if MOE wants to play puppeteer, they can theoretically adjust the difficulty of the papers to affect the results. For example, set very difficult papers to restrict the number of 4-pointers or very easy papers to flood the market. Such manipulation will need to be handled with care though, because it could drastically affect the proportion of kids qualifying for the Express stream, for instance.

If they want to be extra sneaky, they can also "tweak" the raw scores, the way they've been doing for the current PSLE scoring. Whether you get an A* or A today is supposed to be based on raw scores (eg. 91 marks and above for A*) but in reality, the grades for each subject are based on a bell curve drawn by MOE. I'm wondering if they will resort to this down the road if the results deviate too much from projections. Anyway, these are all speculations. I suspect they will observe the workings of the system and adjust it as they go along.

Good...But Faster Can?

So yes, there are some kinks to work out and that's probably why MOE is taking so long to implement it. If I have one criticism of the initiative, it's that it will only be rolled out in 2021. Considering this was first announced in 2013, that's 8 years to implement what is a relatively straightforward system. MOE says they want to give people time to get used to the new system. I think they're being too kind. That's giving parents another 8 years to find ways to game the new system and chiong for DSA harder than ever. If it were up to me, I'd say rip off the band-aid and get over the pain quickly.

There are two gaping loopholes which I feel MOE needs to review quickly with this new announcement, namely the DSA scheme and MT exemption. While they were both implemented with good intentions and have their uses, again that hasn't stopped some parents from exploiting them purely to get into branded schools.

The stress that I commonly hear people complain about our education system is both a result of the system and parents' attitude. Changing the system itself isn't enough unless we change our mindsets, but at least we move away from rewarding and hence reinforcing kiasu-ism. For that, I would say we're on the right track.

Monday, July 4, 2016

What's the tradeoff?

Lesley-Anne will be starting university come end July, so naturally, the conversations over these past few months tended to include university selection and who's-going-where among her friends. Since Lesley-Anne attended one of the branded JCs, there might be some perception that most of her school mates would be studying overseas.

This turned out to be untrue. By far, most of the students I know are enrolling in local universities. In fact, some of Lesley-Anne's super bright friends, previously from GEP, top schools, etc, will be studying in exactly the same university and course as their peers who came from neighbourhood schools/JCs and didn't score as well as they did in the 'A' levels.

Why I bring this up is because I wanted to highlight how pointless this grade-chasing game is. Some parents are so hung up about their kids getting straight As that they have spent the last 12 or more years packing their kids to enrichment classes day and night, piling them with assessment books, etc, believing that the pie is so small that you have to do everything in your power to edge everyone else out. The truth is, many of these straight A students will end up in EXACTLY the same place (university-wise and at the workplace) as the less academically inclined students because, guess what - university applications and the workplace don't draw the line as myopically as these parents do in their heads.

Speaking to my friend who teaches at a JC confirmed my hypothesis. She says the kids in her mid-tier JC practically kill themselves volunteering for every possible community project and leadership opportunity, mugging till midnight, basically living their two years like a zombie, thinking all these extras will somehow matter in their university or scholarship application.

At the end of the day, for 95% of these kids, they won't. That's the kicker. The kids who get enrolled in the most sought after programmes are truly a minority and often, these are the kids who already have what it takes (I like to call it that extra spark). All the padding on your CCA is unlikely to make a difference. Even more so for those want a scholarship to study overseas - the success rates are miniscule and even straight A students with a fantastic portfolio often get rejected.

I'm not saying our kids shouldn't try and should just give up. It’s not a bad thing to try and do well in school and take on extra curricular stuff. The trouble is the lack of balance. It seems like the motto among some Singaporean parents (and students themselves) is: "If there's something worth doing, it's worth overdoing." Let's be honest - there's always an opportunity cost. What I see being sacrificed includes sleep, play, a social life, and important intangibles like curiosity, a love of learning, values, and time and the ability to think beyond what is given in a textbook. Do we even realise the enormity of the tradeoffs?

Some parents have the warped sense that the school years are a sacrifice and pre-payment for the reward they hope to eventually get. In the end, these formative years have become so detestable for our kids that they're exhausted and can't wait to be done with school. I find that very sad. The school years form an important part of the journey of life to be experienced (and ideally enjoyed). Our kids should be able to look back at them with fondness, not relief that they're over.

From my own experience and talking to others, I hope to reassure you that a lot of the chiong-ing is unnecessary and probably not have that much of an impact on the eventual result as you think. Work hard, but don't over-burden yourself to the point where you sacrifice physical, mental and emotional health. It's not worth it.

Today especially, on Youth Day, I hope we can remember that youth is a time when we should be celebrating vitality and discovery. Don't rob yourself (or your kids) of this very pivotal part of life. It's a time to experience and to be cherished. Happy Youth Day!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Holidays are for reading!

There's now a national effort made to promote reading and I must say, it comes as a very nice surprise. For far too long, the focus at home and schools has been skewed towards academic success at the expense of everything else and reading (not guide books or anything academic-related) has been pushed to the back burner. It's about time we recognise that reading as a habit brings about intrinsic, long-term benefits. While ideally, it shouldn't take a national campaign to "force" us to read, we all know that in Singapore, it always helps the cause when the government endorses something.

For Lesley-Anne, I'm thankful that reading has become a deeply entrenched habit, so it's not something I need to remind her to do. Last week, she was attending our church camp and during the free time, she spent it reading Sophie's World. Her friend commented, "only you will bring a book to church camp." Keke.

Andre needs a little more cajoling but I'm happy to say that he did get sufficiently interested in a series of books he borrowed from the library these June holidays, to spend a little time reading. Just in case you're wondering, the series is Taken by Erin Bowman.

Admittedly, he spent more time building his Lego, but hey, I'm always happy for small blessings! Yes, it's Andre's 'O' level year but I do believe that school holidays should have some protected time for leisure. (And I prefer Lego over phone gaming any time). I also know that Andre is 15 going on 16, but as he told me, "The box did say '7 and up'."

Since we're on the topic of reading, coming up in the next few weeks is Read! Fest 2016 organised by the National Library Board. I will be participating in two panel sessions:

1) Adventures in Parenthood: Penning the Agony and the Ecstasy! With me will be two other writers of "parenting" books. I use parenting in inverted commas because the books we wrote aren't really about parenting per se, more like our misadventures in parenting!

2) Immediately following that is another panel Publishing Adventures: It’s All in the Family! Lesley-Anne will be joining me in this panel and we'll be talking about our experiences writing together as mother and daughter.

So if you'd like to meet us, please do join in the sessions! Details below:

Date: Saturday, 2 July 2016
Time: 2-3pm (first session), 3.30-4.30pm (second session)
Venue: Bishan Public Library (Programme Zone)

Attendance is free but you'll need to register. Click on the above links to do the registration.

Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of the school holidays and remember, read, read, read!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Telling stories, one at a time

Recently, a friend of Lesley-Anne's asked her how many books she has written. She did a count and said (much to her own surprise), "I'm writing number 11 now." We usually just have the mentality of getting the next book out, so we never quite realised it was that many!

Yes, it's now officially 11 because we finally put to bed the manuscript for the last book (#5) of the Danger Dan and Gadget Girl series last week. I can't tell you how exhilarated we felt when we finally looked at each other and said, "it's done!"

It's a major milestone because when we first decided we would embark on yet another book series at the end of last year, the task felt monumental. Writing a book is tiring. Writing a series is EXHAUSTING (especially when you have a ton of other things to do). Plus we had targeted to finish writing all five books in the series before Lesley-Anne entered university this year, so it's akin to a book a month. Meeting that sort of timeline requires stamina, discipline and patience.

But we did it! And it's not just about finishing the manuscripts - we're honestly so very pleased with how the stories have come together. We set out to write a dystopian series for kids with humour, and I think we've succeeded on all fronts. On the surface, the series is fun and funny, but we hope that kids will also gain from and question the deeper underlying issues we cover on technology usage, science, the environment and societal values. 

It will be more than a year from now before the last book of the series hits the shelves, and there's a lot more of the process (illustrations, editing, etc) to go through but for us, the most difficult part is done. I'm especially proud of Lesley-Anne. She really got into the groove in this series. In fact, when we were writing Book 4, at one point, I was so uninspired that I became like a whiny teenager. She, on the other hand, would diligently write as much as 3,000 words in a day and then calmly tell me, "it's okay. Just fill in what you can." Talk about role reversal! I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to embark on this project with her.

Because I'm feeling particularly happy, I'm sharing a sneak peek of the cover of our next release, #2 The Watery Wipeout here today. Tadah! Doesn't it look fantastic? We're in love with our illustrator, Elvin's drawings! They're so dramatic and vibrant.

The book will be released next month. Stay tuned for details! As always, you can buy our books from Kino, Popular or online from Epigram Books or Closetful of Books.

Meanwhile, last Saturday, we were at Resorts World Sentosa as part of their Imagine Native event. Most of the kids who attend the event are pretty young, so we decided to have a story-telling session instead of our usual workshop. And since both Lesley-Anne and I are not exactly great with handling young kids, the task fell on Winston, marketing manager at Epigram Books.

Winston turned out to be a real natural and stole the kids' hearts. Here's one eager volunteer pinning Melody's hairclip onto Winston.

He even brought props! Lion mask and rubber chicken, no less. Andre got his five seconds of fame as a lion.

 Meeting the fans after.

We love being part of this team!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Making the push for reading and appreciation of Singapore literature

Reading has been in the news a lot lately. In March, Straits Times reported that an NAC survey showed only 44% of Singaporeans had read a book in the past year. This statistic is even sadder when you consider that for some, this one book could be 50 Shades of Grey. The common excuse given was lack of time, which I feel is rubbish lah. I constantly see people on their phones. If they have time to Facebook for hours, they have time to read.

A reading culture is best nurtured when young. Unfortunately, I feel our school environment doesn't help. The obsession with grades, tuition and studies leaves little time for much else. Our kids are so bogged down that when they have free time, all they want to do is zone out. It's made worse by the fact that many parents prefer to have their kids read only educational books (Guide to Acing your PSLE!) and fiction is considered simply a "nice-to-do" but unessential activity. How do we groom a reading habit with such practices?

It was therefore such a refreshing change when Lesley-Anne and I spoke at the Canadian International School last week and found out from the librarian that the kids there are avid readers. Last year, each student borrowed an average of 40 books. The librarian had set out a special Danger Dan borrowing box and all the books were out!

Here are more Danger Dan updates:

First, Secrets of Singapore was one of the finalists in the recent Singapore Book Awards (Best Non-Fiction Title)!

Even though the book didn't win in the end, we were happy to have made the finals list. We were even more thrilled that and even happier that our publisher, Epigram Books, was the big winner at the awards. Here we are the inimitable Mr Epigram Books himself, Edmund Wee, and Lydia, the designer for Secrets of Singapore.

To celebrate the awards, Secrets of Singapore and all other winning/shortlisted titles at the Singapore Book Awards are going for 20% off on the Epigram Books website, now till end of May! Coupon code: SBASLP2016.

In other news, the first book in our new Danger Dan and Gadget Girl series, The Animal Abduction, has already created plenty of excitement in schools, especially with the introduction of the new furry character, Power Paws!

Here's a review of the book by book blogger, Priscilla. She gave the book five stars and suggested it be included as supplementary reading for schools. Quote:

"Kids shouldn’t be kept in the dark when it comes to serious issues like global warming and wildlife conservation. But that doesn’t mean you should tell them bluntly in the face. Somehow, the mother-daughter writing team managed to keep the book light-hearted, educational, and engaging."

Finally, Straits Time reported in May that Singapore's literary scene was enjoying a revival. I'm not sure I would go that far but certainly, the increased publicity and focus on reading has helped. And I'm very proud to be associated with Epigram Books, which has been at the forefront, pushing for Singapore literature to gain recognition and acceptance in its own right.

Danger Dan got a small mention in the article as one of the most borrowed children's titles from the National Library Board. It's a modest achievement but we're always happy to hear that kids enjoy reading Danger Dan. It's what keeps us going. Here's hoping the trend will continue!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mum's the word

My mother passed away when I was 18. I write this as a matter-of-fact, without any self-pity because the truth is that we never shared a close relationship. She was an authoritarian figure, who believed her word was law, whether or not she made sense. And there I was, this questioning teenager who wanted to know the reason and rationale behind each action. It was a clash in worldviews that could not be reconciled.

Her parenting style was typical of parents that generation. You obeyed or you got scolded (or caned). They showed their love by providing food on the table, a shelter and other necessities. Providing emotional support was not in their handbook. Neither was consultation. My mother would sometimes throw away my toys when I wasn't home, and I wasn't allowed to complain. Her love felt conditional, like it depended on me doing well in school. I guess that's how they were brought up themselves and they didn't know any other alternatives.

I'm not saying the fault was all hers. As my sister sometimes reminds me, I was a broody, grumpy teenager. I wasn't exactly a ray of sunshine to live with either. But I remember that each time I felt my parents did something completely unreasonable, I would tell myself, "if I ever become a parent, I would never do that to my kids!"

Of course now that we're parents ourselves, we often laugh at our childish promises. Some of my friends tell me they have completely turned into their mothers. "Do you think money grows on trees?" "Cry? I'll give you something to cry about!" or more likely in Singlish: "Hah? You got WHAT in maths? Want to die issit?!"

But one part of me never forgot the promise I made to myself that I would try to be the kind of parent I wished I had (the operative word being "try"). I was fortunate to have role models in the form of my late piano teacher and an aunt. From them, I understood the importance of unconditional love and care, and strove to do the same for my kids. There have been many instances of failure, of course. I've lost count of the number of times I've yelled "Just do what I say!" when challenged by my kids instead of offering a reason. When I'm frazzled, tired or lazy, it's easier to snap, "Go away!" than answer their questions.

Still, I know my bond with my kids is way stronger than the one I ever had with my parents. And when Mother's Day comes around, I'm reminded of how blessed I am in this respect. To be able to chat with my daughter like we're best friends, despite her strong will and stubborn streak, and even write books with her without us trying to kill each other. To have the sweetest teenage son who shares his thoughts with me as readily as he shares his hugs.

I've spoken to many mums and I'm aware that some feel very distant from their kids. Yet, despite our human failings and imperfections, we can build beautiful relationships, if the intent and the commitment is there. Don't give up. That's the encouragement I hope to share with all mothers out there who might be wishing they had better relationships with their kids. It might take some time, it may seem impossible now, but I truly believe anything is possible. Few things in life are stronger than a mother's love and will.

So this Mothers' Day, I wish you the blessings of a child that's close to you. Love fiercely, continuously and unconditionally, so that your children may share your heart and shine brightly for others. Happy Mothers' Day!

Monday, April 25, 2016

You are what you eat

If, as they say, you are what you eat, then essentially, I'm a chicken. Oh wait, that's my Chinese zodiac animal! Cluck.

In our household, we eat very well, thanks to our long-time helper who has a fantastic knack for cooking. Her Chinese recipe repertoire, learnt from my mil, is pretty impressive. Anything from stir fried beef and popiah to curry chicken and char siew.

Sweet and sour pork
Kong bak pau
She's equally adept in the western food department, from recipes I've given her over the years. Shepherd's pie, lasagna, boeuf bourguignon - she's got them under her belt. She also makes a mean oxtail stew with mash. Better than the one from Jack's Place, in my opinion!

And just when we thought her cooking couldn't get any better, she ventured into Indian, learning from her friends who have Indian employers. Here was the spread she laid out for a gathering - mutton curry, brinjal curry, fried chicken and chickpea salad with homemade chapati.

So as you can imagine, we're very much foodies in our household. We'd never been part of the healthy eating camp just cos we love our food too much (and so much of what's bad for you tastes so good!)

Only Lesley-Anne was very careful about her diet and that kinda happened by accident. When my kids were young, I tried to impose vegetables at every meal (okay, every dinner). Actually, since we adults weren't so keen on the veggies either, it was usually a half-hearted attempt and if they'd eaten a few strands, we'd let it pass. I know, bad role models, us parents! Andre would eat his favourite dishes first, then plead to be let off his veg. Lesley-Anne however, who believes in saving the best for last, would always eat her veg first even though she didn't like it. Through this habit, she astonishingly enough, grew to love veg, so much so that when we eat out, we have to order veg for her. As time went by, she become more conscientious about taking care of her body. She would religiously work out and watch her diet, especially over the past year.

Then earlier this year, Kenneth's doctor advised him to cut out simple carbs from his diet to improve his health. That's when I realised this constant throwing caution to the wind regarding our food intake could not go on forever. We're not spring chickens any more and much as I would like to deny it, I knew this uncontrolled intake of sugar would only have detrimental effects.

When I suggested we make some changes at home, Lesley-Anne of course, cheered. Quite to my surprise, Andre instantly agreed as well. Influenced by his sister, he had started recognising the benefits of eating healthier. Since my mil lives with us, we had to go slow because I was afraid she wouldn't be used to the new taste. We began by changing white bread to wholemeal bread. My mil didn't take to the grainy wholemeal taste so we found an alternative - Sunshine Extra Fine Sprouted Wholemeal bread. It's still wholemeal but the bread is soft so it works for everyone.

Next was the rice. I wanted to change the rice to brown rice but again, I was afraid I would face resistance from my mil, since she's from that generation that believes unrefined food is inferior. Then out of the blue, one day she told me that if I felt changing to unrefined rice would be better for the family, she was open to it. That taught me never to assume anything! That pioneer generation is hardier than we like to believe.

So we tried the Fairprice Thai Rice Blend - a mix of white, brown and red rice. And whadya know, everyone in the family loves it! Andre declared it tastier than white rice (which he was never a fan of to begin with) and for the first time, started having second helpings of rice at dinner. It definitely has more flavour and more bite.

We're trying to take things one step at a time. More veg, less fried food. I have to say it's a lot easier when you have the support of the whole family. I'm most encouraged by Andre's attitude. First, you need to know that Andre loves food. I mean it - he lives for food. This is a boy who can't remember when his exam is but can recall what he ate at a restaurant four years ago. When we go to Sushi Express, he easily polishes off 17 plates. That's 34 pieces of sushi, by the way.

Pic from 2 years ago
Yet, he has embraced this healthy approach with gusto, for which I'm very proud of him. One Saturday, I brought him and Kenneth to my chef friend Tat Hon's restaurant The Bento People for brunch. I had written a review of the restaurant previously, about how I was pleasantly surprised to find that healthy food could actually taste good!

I was a little apprehensive but I needn't have been. The food there is honestly so tasty that my two boys gobbled it up and were happy campers. Since then, Andre has been clamouring to go back, so we returned again last Saturday.

This is our favourite combi - brown rice, salmon and broccoli in green curry. It's amazingly delicious and satisfying, and fills you up all the way till dinner. I suspect the Bento People will become one of our regular brunch haunts.

As Tat Hon once told me, make the change when you can still make the choice, not when illness strikes and you have no choice but to make the change. This way, the healthy transition will be more painless and once your palate adjusts to the taste of natural foods, you might find that you never want to go back to the processed and refined options.

Slow and steady, we'll get there!

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