Monday, June 29, 2009

Have your cake and eat it... literally

I love cake. But in recent times, I feel that it's getting more and more difficult to find cakes that really wow me. Most of the cafes persist in serving gargantuous hunks of ultra rich and cloyingly sweet cakes that score high on the jelak scale. On the other end of the spectrum, there are cakes that are so dry and unsophisticated that I feel it's a waste to allocate calories to them. On top of the unpalatable experience, you're often left with a bill that matches the size of the cake.

It's no wonder that I started making my own cupcakes.

So it was a pleasant surprise when we stumbled upon Pine Garden bakery in Ang Mo Kio while we were visiting my aunt. This is not my kampong so I didn't know that this little heartland bakery had been winning the hearts of food critics from major print and tv media, as well as foodies.

What caught my eye most was the unusual selection of cakes. When was the last time you came across a HDB bakery with tantalising concoctions like Orange Apricot Blossom Cake, Brandy Cherry Cake, Creme Caramel Crunch Cake and Bird's Nest Cake? At 8.30pm, the little nondescript shop was doing a bustling business, dishing out slices and taking orders for whole cakes.

I picked out four and mind you, it was no easy task deciding what to get! They all looked so delectable.

Citrus Drop Cake - lemon sponge cake with lemon curd layers. I bought this with Lesley-Anne in mind, as she loves anything sour or tangy. She lapped it up although she says she still prefers Temptations' cheesecake. Andre took a taste and wanted more!

Cocotero - vanilla sponge cake with coconut custard pudding layers, topped with coconut strips. I'm not a fan of coconut but I used to be crazy over Seah Street Deli's Coconut Cream Cake and haven't been able to find even a remotely close replacement since they stopped making it. This one is still not like Seah Street Deli's but it's pleasant. The coconut custard tastes exactly like coconut agar agar which I'm sure would sit well with locals.

Lychee Martini Cake - lychee cake with martini-soaked lychee filling. This is (as we found out later), one of Pine Garden's signature cakes. The sponge is light yet moist and the lychee filling is very strong and creamy. Kenneth was quite impressed.

Pulut Hitam Cake - sponge cake with pulut hitam mousse layers, topped with pulut hitam. I left this to last because this is hands down my favourite. I love pulut hitam and having it cold on a cake in mousse form is just heavenly. The pulut hitam on top complements the taste perfectly and what I like best is that it isn't overly sweet. Believe it when I tell you that after I'd finished the slice, I craved for another! Best cake I've tasted in a long time.

Apart from the fancier creations, Pine Garden also offers the usual favourites like black forest, strawberry cream cake, tiramisu and kaya cake. According to reviews, their Cat Mountain King Durian Cake is to die for, but they weren't selling it by the slice the night we were there.

Forgive the pun but the icing on the cake was the price. Each of these slices only costs about $2.50 - high end cafe quality at HDB bakery prices! Maybe it's lucky I don't live in the Ang Mo Kio vicinity, otherwise I'll be getting real fat on cake.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

All things Russian

You'll have to bear with me as I find excuses to write posts that are image heavy and text light. Hey, have to experiment with my new camera, right!

So here is a post on goodies from Moscow. What's the link to kids and education? Well, I just met up with Lilian who returned from Moscow and brought me these goodies. And we all know by now Lilian has kids who get on famously with my kids and both us mothers are suffering the education system together. Tah-dah!

Apart from being terrific company, Lilian also came bearing one of my favourite type of gifts - chocolates. We were so spoilt, we received two boxes of these Russian chocolates, one for the kids, one for mummy. Lilian knows me so well - I don't share chocolates!! Who cares about the unpronounceable name, the contents are YUMMY. Each box contains four different types: cashew, caramel, coffee and pistachio. Calorie rich but so worth it!

During her last trip, Lilian brought me a Matryoshka doll. We have quite a few of the pseudo ones from China which are more like kids' toys and clumsily made, but this is the real McCoy. Like all authentic Matryoshka dolls, there are 10-in-1, the last one smaller than a finger nail (but still has a face, it's not simply a blob of wood). Each of the dolls are meticulously painted with little beads painstakingly pressed on the largest one.

Simply gorgeous! Well, if you can't travel to these exotic places, the next best thing is to have someone bring a piece of the culture to you. Thanks Lilian!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Viva la friendship!

It's funny to think of Lesley-Anne having an "old friend" since she's only 12 but I sense that the affection and nostalgia usually attached to the phrase apply to the way she feels about Brian. It's not just the fact that she has known Brian since she was in k2, he was also one of the rare playdates I'd arranged for her (though come to think about it, they were normally initiated by Lilian.)

The two of them have a lot in common, they're both quiet, reflective and bright, and they liked the same types of games like board games and soft toys. Even though Brian drew a blank when he tried to teach Lesley-Anne chess! So it was with some regret when Lilian and family had to leave Singapore. Both kids were only in p1 then.

Well, both of them are now in p6. How time flies! It was with great anticipation that Lilian, Brian and Sean paid us a visit yesterday. This post is mostly a duplication of Lilian's post but I really wanted to record the visit. I was wondering if it would be awkward between Brian and Lesley-Anne since they haven't met up for such a long time. But no, they seemed to get along reasonably well, probably helped by the spontaneity of their younger siblings.

Here they are playing with the hamster (left) and a board game (right), although Sean lost interest after a while and was perfectly content chuckling to himself while reading Calvin and Hobbes.

Lunch was baked pasta (see how much better the photo is with my new Canon Ixus!!)

Tea was banana chocolate chip cupcakes, which I'm happy to say, was a great hit with Lilian. No talk of diets at my place, Lilian!! The photo was hers, by the way, mine were all blurry. Seems like my tremulous hand can subdue even the best camera...

We had an absolutely fabulous time and I'm not just referring to the kids. Chatting, gossiping and grousing about DSA with Lilian was just what I needed to relieve stress. Nothing like having an empathetic companion! Aside: although Lilian knew each other from way back during our NUS days, we weren't close until we became neighbours and enrolled our kids in the same primary school. Since I started my blog and consulted her, the blog guru on technicalities, we've grown much closer and I think it was a surprise to both of us how much we have in common in terms of outlook and beliefs. Thanks a million for the friendship, Lilian - you're a godsend in this pressure cooker world of exams and obstacle courses!

Of course we had to capture a shot of Brian and Lesley-Anne for old time's sake. Here's a picture of them back in 2004.

And here they are now. All (almost) grown up! The stuffed elephant next to Brian is the same one he's holding up in the picture above.

And here's a shot of all four rascals together.

"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one." - CS Lewis

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Understanding the NAPFA test

Since I've been talking about fitness, I thought I'd expound on the NAPFA test that all primary school (from p4), secondary school and pre-university kids have to undergo every year. NAPFA, or National Physical Fitness Award, has existed from way back in my time. It's a standardised assessment of overall fitness for the masses and for lack of a better measurement, is quite a good gauge as to how fit your kids are.

The test is held in August for primary schools and April for secondary schools. It comprises a series of six items designed to test fitness, strength and flexibility:
  1. Sit-ups (in one minute)
  2. Standing broad jump
  3. Sit and reach
  4. Inclined pull-ups (for females and males up to 14)/Pull-ups (for males above 14)
  5. Shuttle run (4x10m)
  6. 1.6km/2.4km (primary school/secondary school and pre-U)
The last item is usually tested on a different day from the other five items.

The child's performance for each item is compared to a chart based on age and gender, and graded from A to F. I've since posted the score charts for primary school and secondary school/pre-U, if you need to refer. If you score at least an E for every item and at least 6 points, you get a Bronze award. At least a D grade for every item and 15 points, you get a Silver award. For Gold, you need to score at least a C grade for every item and 21 points.

Here's the tricky bit: the critical word is "every". Meaning that if your child scores A for five items and fails one item, he's considered to have failed the NAPFA test. This is a sore point with many people who can't master one of the items, often the standing broad jump or sit and reach, due to lack of flexibility.

Although participation is compulsory, there are no academic consequences if students fail the NAPFA test. Of course you are encouraged to pass it and hey, there's the personal satisfaction of knowing that you're fit. Boys have an added incentive to do well - if they attain at least a silver grade at age 18, they only need to undergo just two months of Basic Military Training (BMT) in their National Service instead of three. That's an attractive proposition if I ever saw one!

Many kids try to aim for an award - Lesley-Anne is one of them. The 1.6km is the toughest item for her, so Kenneth trains her for it by bringing her to the stadium and helping her work on her stamina and timing. Despite this, she usually finishes one of the last in her class. Still, she has managed to attain the Gold award for all three years from p4-6 and I'm proud of her achievement because she had to really sweat for it. By the way, when I was back in school, I hated, hated the NAPFA test. It's a miracle I passed at all.

Since there's no escaping the NAPFA test, might as well give it your best shot. Go for it - I'll be cheering you on from my sofa.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Breaking in my new Canon Ixus A480

So finally, my lao yah Nikon went kaput. It probably died from lack of appreciation and/or old age (3 years). Just to spite us, it konked out 2 months from the expiry of the extended warranty and less than a week after the PC Show where there were bargains galore.

No matter - it was the perfect excuse to get a new camera! We checked out reviews on the Internet and finally decided on the Canon Ixus A480 because it appeared to be the best buy among the budget range. We really just wanted one of those "point and shoot" kinds, nothing fancy. More importantly, it had to be able to take good macro shots, partly to appease Lilian who has been complaining that she has to view blur photos of my kids' drawings. The A480 can take macro shots as close as 1cm and at only $219, the value can't be beat.

To celebrate Father's Day, we went for a Japanese ala carte buffet lunch at Momoya Restaurant, which was the perfect occasion to break in my new toy. The food was pretty good although the selection wasn't great - over abundance of rice and noodle items (not so subtle way of trying to fill you up?) Lesley-Anne didn't qualify for the child rate any more but it was still reasonably priced at $26+ (adults), $15+ (child) for lunch.

The Canon Ixus met all expectations and more. The close-up shots are 100 times clearer than my Nikon even with my shaky hand. And so, here's a visual display of some of the items we had.

Sashimi platter (we omitted the octopus). We had three of these platters plus another four portions of just the salmon sashimi. We just love our sashimi!

Ebi tempura and pork belly Tokyo style (tender and oh so delicious! We devoured six pieces of this).

Age dashi tofu and Edamame beans

Fried unagi (doused in a strange spicy sauce) and fried capelin

My food shots have never turned out so good! I'm a happy camper. Happy Father's Day!

Friday, June 19, 2009

My water babies

As we all know, holidays are notorious for weight gain. This is true not just for adults but also for kids. Andre especially, has a propensity to expand his girdle during the school holidays, since he doesn't engage in the usual running around like a mad fool at school and has ready access to snacks at home. This is despite his badminton training.

So these June holidays, I decided to nip the problem in the bud. I instituted an "exercise everyday rule" for Andre, ie he has to engage in some physical activity of at least half an hour everyday, whether it's badminton, jogging, swimming or cycling. As it turned out, it's been like a sauna lately - some days, it's simply unbearable to be sitting at home in 32 degree heat and humidity. So the kids have been spending a lot of time in the pool.

And I've re-discovered all over again what a great skill swimming is. It really is one of the best sports around - it uses a wide range of muscle contributing to overall fitness, it poses practically no risk of sports injuries and it gives cool relief to boot! In one of my early posts, I shared how my kids learned swimming. I can't stress how important it is to have kids learn this invaluable sport at an early age. Somehow, when they acquire this skill young, they take to it, pardon the pun, like a fish to water. That's my sense anyway.

For Lesley-Anne, exercise doesn't come easily. She lacks stamina and her bane is running 1.6km under the annual NAPFA test. Swimming is therefore an ideal sport for her. Even though I didn't impose the daily exercise rule for her, she recognises the value of exercise and has initiated going down to the pool to do laps. Each session, she swims anything from 20-30 laps (1-1.6km) which is a great workout. Funnily enough, she says she finds it easier to swim 1.6km than run it!

Andre loves the pool. For him, exercise is not a chore, it's fun and swimming is a great way to supplement his badminton training.

What Kenneth does is to make Andre swim laps (from 8-16) and in between laps, he climbs up the side of the pool and does some crunches and push ups, as his badminton coach has commented that he needs to work on his strength.

So in the end, he enjoys himself, develops his fitness and builds strength all at the same time.

And the best part? In the water, sibling rivalry is almost always forgotten!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Appetite enhancer? No thanks!

Recently, you may have seen a new product launch at local supermarkets - Yang Sheng Le. Basically, it's herbal soup in a bottle. Instead of having to spend hours boiling and double boiling traditional Chinese herbal soup, the folks at Nestle have cleverly pre-packed Eu Yan Sang herbs in a concentrate. Just add water and the accompanying sachet of wolfberries, bring to a boil and voila! Ready to drink herbal soup.

You may wonder why I seem to be doing an advertising spiel on the product. Self-promotion lah - I wrote the text for the packaging and marketing materials. As I don't often do writing for retail products, I was quite eager to see how it would turn out. So when the NTUC auntie asked if I would like to try the sample, I readily agreed, even if just to get a closer look (and taste).

Yang Sheng Le comes in four flavours and retails for $6.00 – $8.50 per jar which serves four. When this particular auntie saw that I had kids with me, she immediately served up Liu Wei soup for them, saying it's to "补胃口" (increase appetite). Upon which I exclaimed, "不用了! 他们胃口太好了!" ("No need! Their appetite is very good!") She looked at me like my kids were from outer space (or maybe she thought I was from outer space), and dished out the Cordyceps soup instead (for nourishing lungs) which my kids promptly slurped up and declared very delicious.

You see, both my kids are foodies. From age 2, Lesley-Anne would dictate her own menu - "milk!" "macaroni!" Bringing her out was a breeze - from age 5 or so, I could just bring her to a cafe, order a large serving of pasta and she would polish it off, leaving clean plate. Travelling is easy too since she's always game to try new cuisine.

Andre had a fussy start but once he entered p1, he started eating like he was making up for lost time. In fact, thanks to my very good French pal Isabelle who has over the years, invited us to her place to sample French food, my kids have become willing gastronomic guinea pigs, from foie gras, escargot, stuffed peppers, greasy marinated duck but most of all, cheese. Blue cheese, camembert, brie, goat cheese, boursin, my kids can eat a truckload of them.

Last week, my sister and brother-in-law treated us to the Tung Lok ala carte seafood buffet and Lesley-Anne gamely tried a raw oyster, with a hint of lemon. I can't stomach raw oysters myself, much as I love seafood, so I couldn't believe it when she loved it so much that she downed three. Andre tried one and made a face. By the way, whenever we order or lua (oyster omelette), the kids would attack the oysters and us sua ku parents stick to the flour and egg LOL!

Having foodies for kids has its downside though. Some families can just tah-pao 4 packets of wan ton mee from the coffee shop as a quick Sunday dinner but for us, a dinner decision can be as complicated as trying to negotiate a Gaza Strip peace settlement. It's hard to find something from one coffee shop that will please the discerning palates of every member of this family.

When parents ask me how to get their kids to eat, I don't know what to tell them except it's hard not to love food when you're born in a makan-crazy family! Kenneth's family especially, live to eat - before they've had lunch, they're discussing where to go for dinner. For now, my kids are still within a healthy weight range but Andre is teetering dangerously on the edge, having been identified for TAF club. I'll have to keep an eye on him to ensure it doesn't become a problem.

In the meantime, I'm just slightly comforted to know that at least I won't have to worry about my kids having eating disorders anytime soon... unless over-eating is considered a disorder.

Andre demolishing his favourite pork ribs from Cafe Cartel.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The extremely reluctant writer at work

Andre simply dislikes writing compositions. I can't understand this because he has a vivid imagination and I would have thought that he'd enjoy creating a story. But to him, it's hard work. He'd rather do three assessment papers than write one composition.

Since he didn't fare too well for his composition in the SA1, I thought I'd better give him some practice during the holidays. So last week, I assigned him one. To my exasperation, he started whining and crying. At first, I tried the encouragement route but after 20 minutes of complaining and kicking the table, he'd only written one paragraph. Exit nice mummy, enter fire-breathing dragon mummy. "If you don't stop whining and get to work, I'm going to make you write one composition everyday!!"

I don't know how he managed to write anything amidst the torrent of tears. Wah, macam like the flood surrounding Noah's ark. He was weeping as if someone had unleashed a sledgehammer on all his favourite toy cars.

Anyway, below is the final piece, based on this picture:

It was a perfect day. Tim's mother and Tim were at home. His mother was in the living room sewing Tim's cloths.

Tim complained, "I wish mother will play with me rather then just sewing my cloths." Suddenly, the phone rang. Tim's mother put down her things and went to the teliphone. When his mother was gone, Tim looked into the basket.

Tim noticed a round thing with four holes. He mumbled, "Maybe it's a sweet, Yum." Tim took the button and ate eat. When he went look at his mother, he felt like he could not breathe propely. Tim held his neck and could not say a word.

Tim's mother saw what had happened. She hang up the call and dialed the ambulance.

"Quickly, please help me!" Tim's mother yelled. After a while, the ambulance brought them to the hospital.

When Tim and his mother reached the hospital, The doctor immediatly brought Tim in the X-ray room. The doctor was terrified when he saw the button. After two days, Tim was brought home with his mother. He had learnt his lesson. He promised his mother if that thing is a sweet or not.

Andre took a grand total of 1½ hours to write this, although he rushed to finish the last paragraph in 5 minutes cos he had to leave for badminton practice. You probably can tell from the incoherent last sentence. But I have to admit, I laughed myself silly at "Tim held his neck". I bet at that moment, Andre was feeling exactly like the boy in the picture! Too bad you can't give marks for entertainment value.

Lilian says maybe it's a boy thing, Brian is also a reluctant writer. I really don't know, some of my friends' sons seem to enjoy writing. Trying to work on ability is tough enough but I think the biggest obstacle with Andre is the lack of interest and motivation.

He did try to justify himself: "I don't like to write compositions because I don't want to be a typewriter." Well! That explains everything.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Leonardo Da Vinci - a legacy of greatness

On Thursday, we paid a visit to the Da Vinci exhibition now on at the Singapore Science Centre. This is an international travelling exhibition that celebrates the genius of Leonardo Da Vinci.

What's totally amazing about this guy is that he seemed to be extraordinarily gifted in so many fields. Here's a quick summary of his achievements in the various fields:
  1. Artist: Most people know him for the uber famous Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. The exhibition has a large area dedicated to the Mona Lisa, which thanks to French Engineer Pascal Cotte, you can now see a close-to-perfect reproduction of the painting in actual size. And you get to see it up close which is better than seeing the original at the Louvre in Paris cos that's behind thick glass and in a cordoned off area. Plus you have to fight off the throngs of people jostling for a closer look.

  2. Scientist: Da Vinci believed that science was the basis for everything, including art. His notes showed that he was fascinated with just about anything from flight to walking on water, from making pulleys to lift loads and ball bearings to reduce friction.

  3. Engineer and Inventor: Da Vinci was way ahead of his time. He conceived items that would become reality only centuries later, such as the helicopter, parachute, bridge, camera, submarine, even the robot! All painstakingly jotted down in notebooks.

  4. Strategist: Even though he was a pacifist, he was sought after as a military strategist and created many instruments that were used for war, such as the tank, the steam cannon, the bullet and moveable bridge.

  5. 5. Biologist: In a day where dissecting human corpses was disallowed, he managed to dissect some 30 bodies and come up with fantastically accurate, intricate drawings of the human body, from the skeleton and muscle to internal organs. The form and style of his drawings would eventually be followed in the medical bible, Grey's Anatomy. His famous drawing, The Vitruvian Man (featured in the banner above), is a study of the perfect proportions of the human body.
If that's not enough, he was also an architect, adept musician, sculptor, philosopher... phew! Forget the sensational rubbish of the Da Vinci Code, this man is the real deal.

I highly recommend visiting the exhibition. It's not very big but it's eye-opening and educational. The exhibition is on until 16 August. Tickets go for $16 (adult) and $11 (child under 16) but there's a family package of $45 for 2 adults + 2 children.

That night when Andre was saying his prayers, he said "Thank you God for a good day today. We went to see the Da Vinci exhibition. I learned a lot about Da Vinci... even though I don't know him." Sounds like it made an impression!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Life cycle of a mealworm

You can tell my non-affinity with science from the one measly post on it since I started blogging. Well, I now have another! Yay!

Andre has been learning life cycles for science as part of the p3 syllabus. He has been taught that some insects have a four-stage life cycle as depicted here:

To make the lesson come alive, his teacher gave each of her students two mealworms to bring home (below). When I first saw them, I said, "Eeeeee! Don't put them near me!" Sorry, my bug phobia always takes precedence. To compensate for my open disgust, I decided to dutifully note down the dates when the mealworms metamorphasise. He brought them home on 20 April. Obviously this is not the egg stage, so they're already at the creepy larva stage.

One week later on 27 April, Andre peered at the container in astonishment - there seemed to be THREE mealworms instead of two. Nope, they didn't clone themselves, one was just the skin. The mealworms were moulting.

Then for over a month, the mealworms did nothing but eat. We fed them bread, mostly. They ate steadily, shed their skins several times and by the end of May, finally one of them went into the pupa stage. It's the lighter coloured, shrivelled looking one. You can see the remnant of the skin it had shed next to it.

And finally, on 5 June, Andre let out a shriek when he went to check on his mealworms. One of them had become an adult (mealworm beetle). By the way, it's orange because Andre insisted on feeding it carrots.

Eeeeeeeeeeee.... it's uglier than ever. Plus now, it can fly *shudder*. I've suggested to Andre that we feed it to his carnivorous hamster but he insists he needs to bring it back to his teacher. In the name of science, I'll tolerate that bug in my home for the rest of the school holidays but I'm putting my foot down if the teacher gives him a cockroach next.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Les Miserables - the gold star of musicals

Susan Boyle made headlines when she recently appeared in Britain's Got Talent. Her powerful rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" catapulted her to international fame. For me, the song transported me back to my undergraduate days when I went on a student tour to Europe and had the opportunity to catch Les Miserables at London's West End.

For the benefit of those who are unaware, Les Miserables is a musical based on the 1862 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. From Wiki: Set in early 19th-century France, it follows the intertwining stories of a cast of characters as they struggle for redemption and revolution. The characters include a paroled convict named Jean Valjean who, failing attempts to find work as an honest man with his yellow ticket of leave, breaks his parole and conceals his identity; the police inspector Javert who becomes obsessed with finding Valjean; Fantine, the single mother who is forced to become a prostitute to support her daughter Cosette; Cosette, who, after her mother's death, becomes Jean Valjean's adopted daughter and who eventually falls in love with a revolutionary student named Marius; the Thenardiers, the unscrupulous innkeepers who initially foster Cosette, and who thrive on cheating and stealing; Eponine, their young daughter who is hopelessly in love with Marius; Gavroche, a young beggar boy; and a student leader Enjolras who plans the revolt to free the oppressed lower classes of France.

In my opinion, Les Miserables is probably one of, if not the best musical to ever have hit the stage. It's the intricate plot, richness of characters and complex web of human emotions that make for a compelling story. Not to mention the wonderful, wonderful music. "I Dreamed a Dream" is but one of many in a string of memorable songs. Since its first London performance on 8 October 1985, Les Miserables has become both West End and Broadway's longest running musical to date, longer than Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

Inspired by Susan Boyle's performance, I borrowed the Les Miserables 2-CD set from my sister and introduced it to Lesley-Anne. She downloaded the music to her handphone and after listening to it end-to-end twice, she was seriously hooked. She said she couldn't get the songs out of her head and by day three, she practically knew all the lyrics by heart.

I caught Les Miserables on the stage for a second time when the musical travelled to Singapore in 1994. It still gave me chills. I'm hoping it will come again, I'd love to bring Lesley-Anne this time. If you haven't heard the musical, I encourage you to get the original album.

Below is a video of Lesley-Anne's favourite song in the musical, "One Day More". This song sums up the intricacy of Les Miserables. Each character wonders what the new day will bring, from hope and optimism to doubt and despair. This recording was part of the Tenth Anniversary version performed at the Royal Albert Hall in October 1995. The singers are the original London cast members.

I feel that the songs by themselves are less meaningful than when set in the context of the story, so if you're a Les Miserables newbie, I recommend getting the original album, not the Tenth Anniversary one, which just features the songs performed in concert. But hopefully this video gives you a flavour of the beauty that is Les Miserables.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Integrated Programme (IP) or how to legally skip a national exam

This is a post on IP schools, a follow up from my post on GEP at the secondary level. As mentioned, an IP school is one which offers a through-train secondary and JC education, skipping the GCE 'O' levels. This frees the kids from the time and effort in preparing for a national examination, allowing them to focus on fun things like projects! Or research! Or more homework! But seriously, exam-preparation in Singapore is so mentally and physically draining that I'm for any system that can give my kids a free pass.

An IP can be 6 years or 4 years. A 6-year programme is where the child enters at sec1 level and follows through till JC2. A 4-year programme starts from sec3 and lasts till JC2, meaning you have to apply for admission at sec2.

As of today, there are 11 schools which offer the IP. They are:

6-year IP

  • Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) (ACSI) *
  • Dunman High School (DHS) *
  • Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) *
  • Nanyang Girls' High School (NYGS) *
  • National Junior College (NJC)
  • NUS High School of Mathematics and Science (NUSH) *
  • Raffles Girls' School (RGS) *
  • Raffles Institution (RI) *
  • River Valley High School (RV)

  • 4-year IP

    1. Temasek Junior College (TJC)
    2. Victoria Junior College (VJC)
    Within these 11 IP schools, there is a myriad of different combinations of programmes and educational paths, so it can get slightly confusing. I'll try and sort them out for you.

    First, if your kid is in the GEP, he'll be encouraged to apply to schools which have the SBGE because those schools offer a curriculum designed around the needs of gifted kids. (Don't know what's SBGE? Refer to my previous post). These are the 7 schools with the asterisk *. The other schools offer their own IP which is not equivalent to the SBGE.

    The only two girls' schools on the list - NYGS and RGS - offer 4 years of secondary education before the girls join the HCI and RI family of schools respectively for the remaining 2 years of JC education.

    If you enter any of the schools marked in red, you will eventually sit for the GCE 'A' levels. ACSI students sit for the International Baccalaureat (IB) exam while NUSH students are awarded the NUS High School Diploma. From what I hear, you may opt to switch from one IP school to another at sec3 or JC1, you'll still be exempt from the 'O' levels. But a successful transfer would depend on the grades and other achievements obtained in your original school.

    Some parents have wondered whether it's wise to opt for an IP since their kids won't have the fall-back of the 'O' level certificate should they not do well in the IP. My advice is: you have to make a judgement call based on the ability of your child.

    In general, my sense is that the IP is more taxing than the regular 4-year 'O' level programme - it offers a broader curriculum with lots of other learning experiences. Again, I stress that putting your child into a "branded" school may not necessarily be a good thing if she can't cope with the programme. I've heard of kids who get into the top schools via DSA but whose PSLE results later fall significantly below the cut-off point. So while they have a place in the school, they later struggle to keep up with the work. And for all these schools, there's still a minimum grade the kids have to maintain to be promoted to the next level each year - it's not automatic! So think carefully.

    But if your child is clearly high ability or gifted, the IP might be a feasible choice because realistically, the 'O' levels won't be the end of the academic road for her, so there's no need for a backup.

    The local education system changes as quickly and drastically as Linda Evangelista's hair colour, so this information is only valid for now. I'm pretty sure more schools will offer IP in the near future, so do keep a look out for any changes or new offerings.

    Saturday, June 6, 2009

    Super simple baked pasta

    Last week, I came across the range of Leggo's Pasta Bake sauces at the supermarket. I read the recipe included on the side of a jar and it looked easy peasy to make. Plus my kids love eating baked pasta at Italian restaurants so I thought it was worth a try.

    There are several flavours, I bought this one - the Pasta Bake sauce in Tomato, Ricotta and Spinach, a 575g jar.

    We made the dish on Tuesday night, served it with corn on the cob. The kids loved it! So as usual, only when a recipe passes my kids' taste test, it gets blogged about here.


    250g pasta
    1 jar Leggo's Pasta Bake sauce
    5 strips back bacon
    1 cup mozzarella cheese

    Baked Pasta with Bacon

    1. Boil pasta until al dente. Drain.
    2. Fry bacon and cut into small strips.
    3. Place pasta in shallow casserole dish. Add bacon.
    4. Add whole jar of sauce and mix well.
    5. Cover top of pasta mixture with cheese.
    6. Preheat oven to 200 degrees celcius.
    7. Bake for 20 mins.

    I used bacon but I guess you can substitute it with chicken pieces, mushrooms or whatever ingredients you like. I also used shell pasta but macaroni will work just as well.

    Here is the final dish. There were no leftovers!

    Thursday, June 4, 2009

    On cars and marriage by Andre

    Last week on the way home from badminton practice, Andre was flipping through a car catalogue. He's crazy about cars and always picks out the ones he likes best on the road. I wasn't in the car that day but Kenneth told me he said, "When I grow up, I don't think I'll buy a big car, since I'll only be driving my wife... and you."

    "Eh? What about Mummy?"
    "Oh. Ok lah, maybe I buy one like your car now."

    I was an afterthought!! Chucked aside in favour of an imaginary wife!! He's lucky I wasn't there, otherwise he'd have gotten a smack on the head.

    It's funny to hear him musing about his "wife" though. Even as late as last year, he still thought he was going to marry Lesley-Anne. When I told him he couldn't marry his sister, he protested, "But Auntie Anne said 'next time when you two get married' what..."

    "She didn't mean to EACH OTHER lah!" Hai...

    You should have seen Lesley-Anne's expression. I'm sure she was thinking, who in the right mind would want to marry Andre? LOL!

    But you can't stay mad at Andre for long. He had to fill in a school worksheet about himself and I caught sight of what he had written for one item:

    Awww.... he may be a sotong but at least he knows what's important.

    Wednesday, June 3, 2009

    When perfection is not enough

    In the 2008 GCE 'A' levels examinations, some 918 (or 3 in 4) students from Raffles Institution (JC) scored at least 3 Distinctions in content subjects and 421 (or 1 in 3) students received a perfect University Admission score of 90 points. Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) was a credible second, with 7 in 10 students scoring at least 3 Distinctions, almost 200 students attaining 7 Distinctions or more, and 69 perfect scorers.

    ACS (Independent) (ACSI), which offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) instead of the 'A' levels, performed just as admirably. In 2008, which saw just its second graduating cohort of IB students, had 252 (or 62%) of its students achieve 40 points or more and 9 students with a perfect score of 45. Internationally, a score above 38 would qualify you for entry into Ivy league universities, making ACSI one of the top IB schools in the world.

    I don't know about you but these numbers blow my mind. 30 years ago, students who received straight As for 3 subjects at the 'A' levels would make headline news. 20 years ago, this bar was raised to students who received straight As for 4 subjects and 2 Special (S) papers. Today, students are taking up to 13 subjects at 'A' levels, with options of Advanced papers and God knows what else. And they are STILL getting their straight As.

    What has happened here? What is most apparent to me is that Singaporean students have been getting the better of examinations for years, no matter how many challenges are added along the way. When such a large number of students are able to achieve perfect scores, it indicates that these examinations can no longer adequately measure the performance of the top echelon of students. Faced with the impossible task of differentiating between the incredibly super and the merely terrific (LOL), what do the authorites do? They REDEFINE perfection.

    This trend scares me silly. The local education landscape is gruelling, to say the least. As one teacher noted, Singapore's education programme is an accelerated one. On top of that, we offer accelerated paths for those who are thriving in the accelerated programme. By the JC level, the kids who have managed to make it to the academic elite schools like RI (JC), HCI and ACSI have likely been accelerated a few times. And they are further accelerated within these schools! By the time they graduate, they're like speeding bullets.

    My concern comes in because I wonder if there are any undesirable side effects from this. It seems these kids can do everything. Ace their academics, ace their CCAs, win competitions, are natural leaders and do 101 external activities. I wonder, how's their social life? Do they sleep? How often do they see their parents? Are they warm, generous people? But I'm afraid to ask because the answer just might be that they manage all these areas competently as well.

    The thing is, we probably won't know because these are not areas that are easily tested or assessed. We have become a nation obsessed with numbers. Eg. if we hear that a child has scored 18/20 for composition, we automatically believe that the child is able to write well. But maybe that child just happened to memorise a good essay that was tested? If someone tells us, "my daughter can play the piano", we immediately ask, "what grade?" (if the parent hasn't already volunteered that information). It's like that number validates the ability.

    Going back to the more than 500 kids from RI (JC), HCI and ACSI who achieved perfect scores. Are they all equally brilliant and in exactly the same way? Probably not. But how can you tell? Are we really a nation of geniuses? If so, shouldn't we be ruling the world by now? I don't want to diminish the achievements of RI (JC), HCI and ACSI - I believe Singapore has very bright kids who work very hard and I applaud them. In fact, I wonder if those 500 odd kids feel a little bitter because even after achieving perfect scores, they find that they still have to compete with so many for scholarships and places in the Ivy league universities! And what about all those with less than perfect scores? Next to these perfect scorers, three Distinctions sounds almost common-place.

    RI (JC) and HCI have already recognised the perfect score quandary and are awarding their own diplomas in addition to the 'A' level certificates, to a percentage of the top students, taking into account other achievements and qualities. Perfection being redefined yet again. I was joking to Kenneth the other day, "Pretty soon, to be considered an A student at the university, you'll need to find a cure for cancer."

    I'm just musing out loud, I don't have the answers. My gut feel is that the examination system needs to change but with Singapore being an extremely exam-smart nation, I don't think that's a long-term solution either. I also don't think the situation is unique to Singapore, but perhaps to Asian countries.

    Recently, I told a friend who was contemplating having a second child, the biggest incentive for having kids early is that the later you have them, the harder the exams will be! Pretty soon, the target to meet will be 5 A* for 4 subjects at PSLE. Impossible? Not for Singapore, I bet!

    Monday, June 1, 2009

    GEP at secondary school level

    A couple of years ago, the local papers reported that the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) in secondary school was to be scrapped. This led to quite a bit of confusion as most Singaporeans thought that there would no longer be a differentiated programme for gifted kids after primary school. I was one of them, until I learnt more about it after Lesley-Anne got into the GEP, so I thought I'd write this post for parents seeking clarification in this matter.

    Previously, the GEP curriculum by MOE was offered by selected secondary schools in Singapore, so primary school GEP kids who made the grade would join this programme. However, many these top schools gradually became independent, giving them the autonomy to develop their own curriculum. Some of them also became Integrated Programme (IP) schools, meaning the students are offered a through-train to the GCE 'A' levels or International Baccalaureate (only for ACSI) or NUS High School Diploma (only for NUS High), by-passing the GCE 'O' level examinations.

    As expected, the IP schools became highly popular with GEP and high ability kids because it exempts you from a national exam. Not to mention, these are the generally the prestigious schools to begin with. Since the primary school GEP kids prefered to go to the IP schools, the MOE-run GEP track in regular secondary schools became redundant. As such, the programme was phased out by 2008.

    However, and this is a big however, the GEP essentially still carries on at the secondary school level except it's now in the form of the School-Based Gifted Education (SBGE) programme, designed by the specific school that offers it. MOE continues to advise these schools on the SBGE programme and curriculum, so you'll find that it is very much aligned with the GEP at primary school level.

    Here is where it gets slightly confusing: There are some non-IP schools which offer School-Based Special Programmes (SBSP) for GEP kids (similar to SBGE but you still have to take 'O' levels) and there are some IP schools which DON'T offer the SBGE. Whaaaaat? I know, I know, it took me a while to understand this. Plus the rate at which new schools and programmes pop up each year is just mind-boggling.

    I will elaborate on IP schools in another post. Meanwhile, this post is just to highlight the point that GEP kids can still continue with their gifted education track beyond primary school. In order to do this, they need to maintain their GEP status, ie it's not guaranteed. To maintain their GEP status, the child must:
    • have performed consistently in the GEP from p4-6, including a pass in Social Studies
    • have a good attitude
    • perform reasonably well at PSLE
    Notice the criteria are rather vague. I think this is deliberate because MOE does conduct assessments on a case-by-case basis. At Lesley-Anne's school, the teachers constantly stress the importance attitude, ie if a child shows a willingness to learn and shows great leadership or teamwork, they usually allow him to continue in the programme even if he doesn't meet the baseline in one subject. According to MOE, majority of GEP kids meet the criteria for retaining their GEP status.

    If the child maintains his GEP status and gets into an Independent School with IP or SBSP, he automatically earns a scholarship or subsidy of school fees, which is very attractive considering the fees of Independent Schools are considerably higher than those of government or government-aided schools.
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