Monday, May 30, 2011

Letter to Heng Swee Keat Part III

The third and final installment of the trilogy! Today, I received the eagerly-anticipated reply from Minister Heng. It reads like this:

Dear Monica

Thank you for taking the time and effort to share your thoughts with us. These are important inputs that we will study carefully.

It is my first week at the Ministry, and I am studying the many observations and suggestions that I have received.

Warm Regards to you and your family,

Heng Swee Keat

I know for some of you, this might seem rather anti-climatic but to be honest, I did expect an answer along these lines. I mean, there really isn't much he can say at this point. It would be irresponsible for him to make any promises for reform before he has studied the system in detail.

The plus point is that he has read it and given the public outcry, I believe he has to acknowledge the need for change. It's just a question of when, how much and in what direction.

I have appealed to the Minister to read the 500+ comments on my FB note, to hear the heartfelt and sincere views of parents, teachers and students. Thank you for speaking up and I encourage you to continue to share your feedback with MOE. We can all be agents of change. Really.

"Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative... Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end." - Elie Wiesel, April 1999 address to President Clinton and the US Congress

Friday, May 27, 2011

Letter to Heng Swee Keat Part II

"Your letter has gone viral. Better clear out all your Kate Spade pics."

My very funny friend texted that message to me on Wednesday, after I'd posted my letter that morning. My original intent was rather innocent. I had wanted to take the opportunity of a fresh polls, new Education Minister and the promise of transformation by the PM, to share my concerns on the local education system. Usually, I would just post it on my blog but this time, I thought if I also posted it on Facebook notes, it might attract a few more readers.

You know that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Indy singed the soles of his feet in the mine shaft, yelled for water and to his horror, was suddenly faced with a roaring tidal wave? Well, it felt a little like that.

The outpouring of angst completely caught me off guard. I mean, I knew there had to be parents who shared my feelings but I definitely did not expect the flood of responses. My first frivolous thought was dang, I should have checked my grammar more carefully.

Apart from comments, I also received a deluge of emails, many relating personal and heart-breaking accounts of their kids and encounters with teachers and schools. Suddenly I was inundated by friend requests (sorry guys, no offence but I prefer to keep my FB friends to folks I actually know). I also received a few comments commending me for being "brave", which puzzled me. Maybe if I was a teacher, I would be brave for voicing out against the system. Why was I brave to speak up as a parent? Was there some menacing threat I didn't know about?

I started feeling a little antsy when the letter took on a life of its own. I received emails calling for me to lead the charge in education reform. Some people started scrutinising and picking apart every sentence I wrote, often reading too much between the lines. The arguments veered into obtuse directions with people hotly taking sides and as another friend put it, "they're feuding over things you never said." It was spiralling out of control.

Maybe that's what people meant by being "brave" because suddenly, I was feeling rather nervous. I wrote on my friend's wall, "Ok, I had my 5 mins of fame liao. Where's the Stop button?"

But I thought since I opened the Pandora's Box, it would only be responsible of me to try and clarify some of the issues that have been raised.

1) Many teachers wrote in to express their agreement with me but a few mistakenly thought I was blaming them for not teaching our kids well, possibly from this sentence: "If half your students fail in an exam, it doesn’t reflect badly on the student – it reflects badly on the teaching." What I meant was when students across the board get low scores, it makes the school’s teaching abilities look inadequate (ie it’s the school that looks bad, not the students). I certainly don’t blame the teachers, in fact I did say quite clearly that it’s because the exams are set at an unrealistic level.

2) Some readers accused me of pushing the responsibility of instilling values in children to teachers when they should be shouldered by parents. Where in my article did I ever make this assertion? I fully agree that cultivating values is the job of parents. However, since our children spend a large proportion of their waking hours in school, I would like an education system that is conducive to this endeavour and complements my efforts, instead of a conflicting one that emphasises competitiveness above all else.

3) Others accused parents like me of molly coddling our children, making them soft. Oh come on. This is the same kind of argument some folks like to use, usually starting with "In my time..." What would constitute tough enough? In fact, some say our maths standards are still behind those of Japan and Korea, so does that mean we should still be leveling upwards? Trying to create some balance doesn't automatically turn all our kids into weaklings. It's precisely this enslavement to standards at the expense of our children's well-being that I'm against. Of course there will always be over-protective parents. But to assume that all parents are irrational and therefore don't know any better, is just condescending.

4) Some comments said that I merely complained and didn't offer any constructive suggestions. First, all I planned to do was to write a letter. I didn't intend to present a thesis with supporting figures, supporting research and recommendations. It's just a letter!

Second, sure, I'll volunteer recommendations for change if I can come up with something brilliant but I take issue with the idea that before I can raise my concerns, I have to have a ready solution. To put it bluntly, isn't that the job of MOE? As parents, we are important stakeholders in the education of our children but we often don't have all the necessary information and research to make national level suggestions. If I'm feeling unwell, I'll go to the doctor and ask him to heal me. I shouldn't have to tell him what medicine to prescribe (and indeed, I don't have the required knowledge and resources to do so). And surely, not being able to prescribe my own medicine doesn't negate my right to say I think something's wrong.

5) Some commented that my letter was lopsided, that I only highlighted the things that are bad about our education system, not the things that are good. Well, yeah, I was trying to get Mr Heng to initiate changes. What's the point of listing all the parts that don't need changing?

6) Incidentally, I'm not advocating the US system as the one to emulate. The US system was mentioned only in relation to my remark on the interview with the Vice-Dean, Education of Duke-NUS, who is part of an American system. My point was that I liked how they don't assume the straight 'A' student is necessarily the best candidate (and this is for medical school!) If you like, you can read the article here (pages 6-9). In case you're wondering, you won't find the quote he made on Singaporeans because it wasn't included in the edits.

Perhaps what astonished me most about this whole episode was that there were so many Singaporeans who felt the way I did. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of what I'd unknowingly triggered. They expressed a torrent of frustration and what I sensed was this overpowering sense of helplessness (and increasing anger) over the education system. But if so many people felt this way, why hadn't they spoken up before?

To be honest, when I hear things like, "oh, say also no use, nothing will change," I get a little impatient. Of course nothing will change if nobody ever says anything! We need to shake ourselves out of this apathy. Here's a nugget of information: this is not my first time trying to engage MOE. In fact, many of the issues I wrote about in the letter came from old posts on my blog and I've previously emailed a couple of them to MOE but not received a reply. I have a strange feeling my name is marked at MOE under "pot-stirrer".

Why do I still continue? Maybe because I'm dogged. Or a sucker for punishment. In fact, any changes now probably won't benefit me anymore since my kids are already in sec 2 and p5. But somebody's gotta speak up. And I can't help wondering if MOE would have been more open to changes if all these parents and teachers had been more vocal about their concerns. I love one of the comments on my letter: "I think we need to break this cycle that says "Someone has to do something about it although I doubt it". We need voices brave enough to speak up... if this is affecting your children? Why wouldn't you? Would rocking the boat be that bad?"

After this long rambling post, you probably just want to know whether Mr Heng has replied to my letter. Sorry to disappoint you, folks, nope. To be fair, he's only been on this job a week and I hear he's been busy making his rounds at schools. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and update my post if he replies.

And yes, I did check my grammar more thoroughly this time.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Letter to Mr Heng Swee Keat

Dear Mr Heng

The recent polls have triggered many dramatic changes, the biggest of which is PM’s consistent refrain for transformation.

In this spirit, I’m writing to you to ask whole-heartedly for a transformation of our education system. If not a complete transformation, at least a holistic review of some of the basic tenets by which education policies in this country are made.

As a parent with one child in secondary school and another in primary school with contrasting abilities, I have, over the years, become increasingly frustrated and disturbed by many areas of our education system which I feel are not edifying to the development of children. At the risk of sounding like one of those domineering, opinionated mothers, let me try to persuade you, from the point of view of a concerned parent, why a change is due.

Education is not a business

Many have felt that Singapore in the past few years has been run like a business and this mindset has filtered down to education. These days, teachers are ranked against each other measured by KPIs. If their students don't perform up to par, then they drop in ranking. I assume this affects their appraisal and promotion prospects. Principals are also under pressure to keep up in school rankings (and not just in academics), hence they push their teachers to achieve better results.

Here's what happens when schools are run like businesses. Teachers become workers assessed and ranked according to quantifiable output. The principal is like the CEO, answerable to a higher authority based on numbers. Students become products, they are valued only according to the quantifiable output they can contribute, everything else is peripheral or redundant. Everything is reduced to numbers.

Therein lies the problem. When you run a business, the focus has to be on results, preferably quantifiable results. Don't get me wrong, I think it's well and good to try and assess the effectiveness of a school. But instead of seeing how we can better assess the effectiveness of schools, we run the schools to make them easier to assess.

Education administrators love this because it's so neat, structured and orderly. But the problem is education is about moulding of individuals. And neither individuals nor learning is neat, structured or orderly. The process of education is not and should be like that of manufacturing, taking place in a factory.

A friend of mine who volunteered to lead a character module at her son’s school was taken aback when she was asked for KPIs. I have other friends who are teachers have expressed frustration at being assessed purely by how well their students score. If we take this route, there is no "business" value in helping a student overcome his learning disability or giving special attention to a child from a difficult family background because the outcome is not quantifiable. We're leaving it to the assumed social conscience of the teacher and the school to step forward in such instances. But realistically, ensuring ‘A’ students continue to get top grades will likely get priority because it directly impacts on the teacher's KPIs.

Obsession with results

The inevitable outcome of an education system that is run by KPIs is the obsession with results and by this, of course I mean quantifiable results. What happens then is the focus is shifted from the process of education to the end result of scoring, because that is what is measured in the end.

For example, I find that the way many subjects are taught in schools are based on the marking template, understandably because if the objective is to maximise scores, then you teach to fulfil this objective. I’m a corporate writer and one of my biggest pet peeves is the way composition writing is taught in primary schools.

Many teachers today are told to mark the language of a composition based on how many "good phrases" are used. In my son’s school, a commercial book of good phrases is part of the syllabus and the kids are told to learn these phrases, even for spelling. These phrases are often so bombastic and pretentious that nobody in real life would actually use them. Yet the students are taught them because “ticks” are given for each “good phrase” and added to their vocabulary score.

I remember during a parent-teacher conference, I raised my concerns to my son's English teacher. To my utter surprise, she agreed with me. She said that once the school started imposing the memorising of good phrases for composition, she ended up with 44 scripts of almost identical introductions (mostly about the "fiery sun in the sapphire sky"). Unfortunately, her hands were tied.

I know why this is imposed - it's to make marking simpler. This way, schools don't have to depend on the arbitrary standards of each marker and the marker just has to follow a matrix. It's certainly more orderly but don't mistake it for creativity. I don't know any other education system which designs its curriculum around the grading. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

To me, attempting to come up with a template for creativity is simply oxymoronic. Ironically, we’ve managed to suck the creativity out of creative writing.

This obsession with results extends outside of the classroom. In my daughter’s school, the performing arts groups are given funding according to how well they perform in the SYF. Likewise, bigger budgets are given to sports that bring in medals. The list goes on. What this breeds in the race for medals and results is that schools often prioritise these over values like effort, sportsmanship and character building.

Even otherwise worthwhile activities, such as CCAs and community service, have lost their noble intent somewhat, as many students now perform these duties clinically for the sake of window dressing their resume.

Valuing people based on academic results

As a direct outcome of a school system that emphasises scores above all else and uses these scores to dictate the child's educational path at a very early age, Singaporeans have become obsessed with chasing grades. While I don’t deny grades are important, for many, they have become life-centric, meaning kids spend every waking hour performing tasks that will help them better their score.

The mindless pursuit of academic achievement has become so over-arching that many parents are now sending their kids for what I call indiscriminate tuition – tuition in every single examinable subject whether or not the child actually needs it. My daughter is in an SBGE (School-Based Gifted Education) class and her classmates were either from the GEP in primary school or top scorers in the PSLE. So I was startled when she told me that most of her classmates have tuition in 3 or 4 subjects. Tuition has become a crutch - even if the kids are doing well on their own, parents fear the consequences of doing without it.

The backlash is that our children’s self-worth and perception have become intrinsically linked to their academic grades. Teachers, peers and possibly parents judge the value of students according to their academic ability. I know children whose self-esteem is low simply because they don’t do as well in school as their classmates. In the “branded” schools, it also breeds elitism because these students deem others less academically-inclined as somehow inferior. When my daughter attended her first day of school in sec 1, many of her new classmates, meeting her for the first time, didn’t ask “what’s your name?” but “what’s your t-score?”

This treatment of academic prowess as a “superior” skill can be seen throughout our system. Although we profess to embrace all talents, it’s often lip service. Prefects and student leaders are usually chosen first on their academic ability before their leadership skills. In many DSAs for sports, schools still ask for academic results before they will even entertain the child for a trial. The message we seem to be sending is: we'll look at your other talents IF you have the academic ability.

Putting standards above learning

In my son’s recent p5 mid-year exams, in one class, every single child failed the math paper. This is a common scenario among some of the popular schools. Obviously, it’s not because the students are intellectually deficient. It’s because the papers are often set at a level designed for only the top 25% of kids. In fact, one question required a method that had not yet been taught to the students. It’s a mockery of the “teach less learn more” motto – does it mean the teachers teach less but the kids somehow have to learn more on their own? No wonder tuition centres are flourishing!

I’m tired of hearing the age-old excuse from schools that this will spur the children to work harder. Incidentally, this is not supported by fact. I suspect it's an urban legend spread by schools who wish to justify their "high" standards. I meet many parents and students who are more demoralised than "spurred" by their consistently bad results.

What is the point of this? The age gap between my two children is only three years and yet I can see that what my younger child has to learn at his age is markedly more difficult than what his sister had to know.

Perhaps this constant accelerating of the educational syllabus is a knee jerk reaction to the influx of brilliant foreign students, but this is no justification. We need to recognise that these kids have completely different motivations. They are here purely to study, to carve a better life for themselves, much as our students work harder when they study overseas. Do we then use these as benchmarks to whip Singaporeans into shape?

No education system is a one size fits all but we need to consider the best interest of the majority of students. If half your students fail in an exam, it doesn’t reflect badly on the student – it reflects badly on the teaching. I find that in setting the curriculum and exam papers, there seems to be some semi-sadistic streak in MOE and schools, to trip kids up and make them feel stupid. It's as if someone is saying, "Aha! I managed to set a question that no one could answer!" There will always be a small percentage of brainiacs who can ace any exam, no matter how difficult. That is not a logical benchmark by which to design curriculum or exam papers.

Plea for a more meaningful system

In the course of my work, I had the opportunity to interview the Vice Dean, Education of Duke-NUS. It was, in my mind, one of the most inspiring interviews I’d ever conducted. In his words, “We don’t just want the straight ‘A’ student. Does having one less ‘A’ make you less of a person? We know Singaporeans are already great at memorising facts – we’re looking for passion, dedication and the ability to see a problem through different angles.”

I feel we could use more of that mindset here. Singaporean educators are often proud of our high standards but let's be honest, we're good at ticking off checklists, exams and competitions. We laugh at the laissez faire American system for its laxity but in truth, they have churned out more innovators and thinkers from their messy system than we have (even after adjusting for size and population).

I will be the first to admit to occasionally suffering pangs of anxiety when my child doesn't do well in an exam because it's hard to stand firm in the onslaught of a tsunami of kiasu-ism. But at the end of the day, I try to keep reminding myself his character and happiness matter more. I want a kinder system, one that encourages my child to explore the world around him, not closes it up. One that shows him the richness of issues and topics out there, not limits him to four subjects.

I want a system where I can encourage my child to enjoy music, art, sports for their own sake, and not with the pre-requisite that he does well academically. I want him to want to help others, and not because it counts towards community service hours in his report book. I want to groom a child with integrity and respect towards others, and I hope others can appreciate him for these values.

I am doing as much as I can in these areas but I cannot fight against the education system. I'm writing this in the hope that as you now helm the Education Ministry, you can make the transformation happen.

Thank you very much for your time.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Revisiting maths models

I haven't written a maths post in ages, since Lesley-Anne finished her PSLE, actually!

However, this year, I found that Andre frequently had difficulty with problem sums that featured two different variables in numbers, eg. number of coins vs value of coins. Somehow, he couldn't grasp the method that is commonly taught in school and used in assessment books. I guess it doesn't help that these sorts of sums tend to look very complicated and that gives him a mental block.

After some experimentation, I found a way to teach him using the model method and I'm happy to say, it really works! A similar question came out in his mid-year exam and he could solve it. Ironically, the teacher didn't understand the method and put a question mark next to it, which annoyed me a little. As long as he could arrive at the answer, I thought it shouldn't matter that he didn't use her method.

Anyway, I thought I'd share it here, for the benefit of those kids who might face the same difficulty. This probably works with kids who are visual learners.

1. In a coin pouch, there are 12 fifty-cent coins more than twenty-cent coins. If the total value of the fifty-cent coins is $21 more than the total value of the twenty-cent coins, find

a) the number of fifty-cent coins in the pouch
b) the total value of coins in the pouch

As a starting point for the model, assume the number of the coins for each denomination are the SAME and draw your model based on the VALUE of the coins, This is easy cos in terms of value, 50cts will always be 5 parts and 20cts will always be 2 parts.

Next, you draw in the value of the extra coins, in this case the 12 fifty-cent coins (always, always remind them that they're looking at VALUE, not number. This is critical!)

So you find the value of 12 fifty-cent coins, ie 12 x 0.50ct = $6 and add that to the model.

Now, you're told the value of the fifty-cent coins is $21 more than the twenty-cent coins. This is represented by the portion as drawn here.

Clearly, $21 - $6 = $15 -> 3 parts, so 1 part -> $15 ÷ 3 = $5

To find the number of fifty-cent coins simply take the total value and divide it by 0.50

$5 x 2 + $21 =$31
$31 ÷ 0.50 = 62

Answer: a) There are 62 fifty-cent coins in the pouch.

Finding total value of coins in the pouch is also a cinch, just find the value of the twenty-cent coins and add it to $31.

2 x $5 = $10
$10 + $31 = $41

Answer: b) The total value of coins in the pouch is $41.

This type of question can also be in forms other than money, eg. number of animals vs number of legs, or in this next example, number of vehicles vs number of wheels.

2. In a carpark, there are motorcycles and cars. 5/7 of the wheels are the wheels of the cars. There are 12 more cars than motorcycles. How many wheels are there in the carpark?

Similar to Question 1, first assume the number of both types of vehicles are the same and draw the model based on the number of WHEELS (4 wheels per car, vs 2 wheels per motorcycle).

Next, add in the additional wheels for 12 cars, which is 12 x 4 = 48.

Now, the question states that 5/7 of the wheels are the wheels of cars, meaning 2/7 of the wheels are the wheels of the motorcycles.

Looking at the model, there are already 2 parts to the motorcycles vs 4 parts to the cars, therefore 48 has to be equivalent to 1 part.

So total number of wheels is 48 x 7 = 336.

Answer: There are 336 wheels in the carpark.

For those of you new to my blog, I'm a firm believer of using models for maths as they've helped my kids, who are both visual learners (and algebraically-challenged), tremendously. If you're interested, you can visit some of my old posts on how to use math models (click on the 'Mathematics' label under the Blog Contents column on the right).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Andre's ode to mum

Two weeks ago, Andre's English tuition teacher assigned him this writing task - to write a poem about his mother. It was actually intended as a present for Mother's Day but since Mr Procrastinator never got around to doing his work till yesterday, it came belated.

It was a task that flummoxed him, since he'd never written a poem in his life. After much whining (and some pleading with his sister to give him some "clues"), this is what he came up with:

My mother is the best
She never takes a rest
She likes to read a book
And she is a good cook

She is so loving
And also so caring
She makes us laugh
And she is part of hedgehog's staff

She is very smart
And she can create a piece of art
She is very nice
She likes to give advice

I know it sounds incomplete. This is because he was supposed to write 10 verses (which I thought was rather ambitious of the teacher) but he declared himself brain dead by the time he had churned out 3.

It was finding words that rhyme that he found terribly tough. In fact, for the last line, he had a couple of alternatives: "She doesn't like mice?" "She has a lot of lice?" Obviously my threats to throttle him made him reconsider the latter.

William Blake he is not, but it's still poetry to my heart ♥

Monday, May 16, 2011

A library of memories

This post really came about because a friend posted this picture on her Facebook account. Doesn't it bring back tons of memories? Not too long ago, borrowing books at the library meant queuing up at the counter, slotting the book's borrowing card into your own library card and then bringing the book to the librarian for the due date to be stamped.

This was the ritual I grew up with as a faithful visitor to Marine Parade Library (not the current one, this one was at the site where a spanking new NTUC Finest now sits.) We were then only given 4 cards each, so I would often use my parents' cards to add on to my precious weekly allocation.

Lugging home my hoard, I would dive right into the selection, even at the dining table and late into the night. To say I was a bookworm would be an understatement. Since I only received books as gifts on my birthday, the library was a necessity to to feed my reading obsession. In fact, my childhood would have been miserable if I didn't have access to the library.

The selection of children's books at the library wasn't terribly inspiring but I grew up reading many of the perennial favourites by Beverly Cleary, Mary Norton, LM Montgomery and Elizabeth Enright, for example. Each time a new book was released onto the shelves, it would be snapped up eagerly. Shows you how many kids were hungry for reading material back then.

Back then, all books were bound in sturdy hard covers with glossy sleeves wrapped in plastic, unlike the paperbacks in the library these days which get dingy and torn so easily. Somehow, I feel that modern libraries have lost a part of their essence without the musty smell and rich texture of hard backs.

Nowadays, borrowing and returning books is a simple affair, all automated at self-service machines. The convenience can't be beat, I have to admit, but a perverse part of me misses the librarian stamping the due date on each book with such convincing authority. Growing up, I actually thought being a librarian must be one of the best jobs in the world because you get to read all day (besides stamping the books, of course).

As proof of how much the library was a part of my youth, I still have these in my possession:

My old library cards!! How many of you still have these? Go on, call me a hoarder. In my defence, I only hoard the really important stuff.

"I remember being in the public library and my jaw just aching as I looked around at all those books I wanted to read. There just wasn't time enough to read everything I wanted to read." - Charles Kuralt

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The value of paper qualifications

What's up with Blogger???? This post was up on Thursday 12 May and suddenly, I find it's back in my draft box, unposted. GAAAHHH. To all those who left comments, sorry, I think they've inexplicable disappeared.

Over the past two weeks, I've been trawling the internet for GE news, like thousands of other Singaporeans. One of the blogs I like to visit is Mr Wang Says So. Apart from the fact that he writes insightful political pieces, he's also a terrific writer. By terrific, I mean his writing style is simple but engaging. If I'm not wrong, he's a lawyer working in the financial industry but what captured my attention is that he's also an award-winning poet and a published author.

About a year ago, I was startled to discover that he's the brother of my friend and ex-business partner. My friend is a supremely talented artist so it looks like the creative streak runs in the family. Singapore is a tiny place.

Ok, commercial over. The reason I brought this up was that in the midst of reading Mr Wang's blog, I stumbled across this post on the value of paper qualifications. I love it because it proves what many people like me have suspected for many years - paper qualifications are really not worth that much. The humour is that Mr Wang had to literally lose them to confirm the point.

As he says, when you're young, "the most important purpose of a certificate is to help you get another certificate (for example, the PSLE cert helps you to get the O-level cert which helps you to get the A-level)." After that, certificates are most often needed for employment.

At some point, even this ceases to matter because what's important is how we perform on a job, not a piece of paper. Curiously, that's where I find that people sometimes err - by equating their own value with their certification. When I was still under employment, I sometimes came across individuals who would spout things like, "I have an MBA from ChicagoU." Which would be ok if it wasn't said in a tone that implied I should be impressed by that fact alone.

A paper qualification is a paper qualification. The important thing is what you have learned in the process of acquiring it and how you are applying the knowledge. The fact that you possess it is often irrelevant. Worse, some people actually believe that having that extra certificate means they automatically make better decisions. Trust me, you can have a Harvard degree and still make mistakes that cause organisations to bleed money. (I'm pretty sure the bankers and financial experts involved in the US sub-prime mortgage crisis didn't buy their qualifications from the black market).

I wrote this post because I feel many Singaporeans have become obsessed with grades and paper qualifications. From the time our kids are 12, we push them to conquer every paper hurdle, starting with the PSLE. While these certificates may be important, they shouldn't be life-centric, meaning your kids spend every waking hour performing tasks that help them achieve the next piece of paper. I hear of so many sec 1 kids who, meeting new classmates for the first time, don't ask "what's your name?" but "what's your t-score?"

It is a mindset that continues into adulthood and is easy to spot - the adults who still bring up their 'O' level performance, academic awards or how they scored an 'A' in a subject, in their conversations with you. These are the folks stuck in the paper mode. Their self-worth is embodied in these achievements so they have to constantly remind others of them, even if these events happened some 30 years ago. It's a little sad to see.

Paper qualifications are merely the tools to help us achieve our goals. Realising that these qualifications don't define us also helps us to be less judgmental towards those without. Let's have some perspective.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The best Mother's Day

Saturday morning, Kenneth and the kids brought me to Epicurious Cafe at Robertson Quay for a Mother's Day breakfast. It's a quaint, family-run cafe popular for its weekend brunches and relaxed riverfront setting.

The food was unpretentious and tasty, the perfect way to start a lazy Saturday. Here's what we ordered:

Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, sausages and roasted potatoes (we had two platters to share)

Pancakes with fruit and syrup

English breakfast tea with a complimentary serving of banana cake

The kids made me a lovely Mother's Day card (although Andre became rather evasive when asked about his contribution). As always, full of creativity and love.

But the absolute best Mother's Day gift for me was this:

Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images for the Guardian, UK

It took 22 long years but our nation has finally awaken from its slumber and made itself heard. The voices can no longer be ignored or brushed aside. Part of our pledge reads, " build a democratic society, based on justice and equality." Powerful words and it gave me chills to see people standing up for these values.

As I told Lesley-Anne, it's one thing to read about Singapore's history in history books, it's another to see history being made. And no doubt, 7 May 2011 will go down in Singapore history as one where the people grasped the reins and steered the massive political mothership through sheer willpower. I feel immensely proud of my fellow Singaporeans.

Stand up for Singapore!

Afternote: Came across this well-written political essay by Singaporean author, Catherine Lim. Worth a read.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Lesley-Anne's CAP portfolio 3

Sorry for the side-track over the GE but hey, it happens only once every five years so I think I'm entitled to get a little excited :)

Anyway, back to education, here's a third piece from Lesley-Anne's portfolio for CAP (and the last I'll be posting). It's another poem, this time one that expresses her concern for the environment - one of her pet causes. Although it may not be superbly brilliant in terms of language, I give her props for her passion and conviction.

What if…

Humans didn’t ever exist?
I think the earth would probably flourish
All of this man-made machinery
Would be replaced by lush greenery

Where there were factories, cars
And streets of hot melting tar
Would be forests, flowerbeds
And thriving animals instead

What if…

All of nature could talk, scream and shout?
Only then, might we understand
That all this hunting we could do without
As the blood of these animals wet the land

All the felled trees would lie there groaning
The sky, filled with toxic air, would be choking
Mother Nature, is honestly going to die
But why won’t you stop this, why won’t you try

Who cares?

Well you’re a fine one to speak
But even now, surely you feel the heat
The earth’s heating up, the icecaps are melting
A few years on, the heat will be sweltering

Some countries will flood as sea levels rise
If you own beach houses say your goodbyes
But in other countries, there is no water about
It’s the opposite of a flood, it’s a drought!

So what?

Haven’t you been listening all this time?
Don’t you understand the severity of this?
To ignore this would be a serious crime
As this problem is too apparent to dismiss

Entire ecosystems are dying
Why aren’t you even trying?
To save your own home and life
As well as your dear children and wife

Oh no!

Oh yes! Don’t you hear the anxiety in my voice?
My heart breaks when I see what we’ve done
Your own life’s at stake, you’ve got no choice
It is your duty and from it, please don’t shun

Don’t think “But soon, I’ll be dead and gone
It won’t affect me; I’ll carry just carry on
With my own work and my own business”
‘Cause then, your children will inherit this mess

But, but…

Your business in fossil fuels will have to fold?
Well, that’s a price you have to pay
Earth’s call of help can’t be put on hold
Please respond to it, don’t turn her away

All this that I have said is true
The earth’s in a sorry state
Do your part now, I implore you
Before it is truly too late

But how?

Well, I am so glad you asked
Since saving the world isn’t an easy task
But do things bit by bit and start small
And you’ll help the earth in no time at all

By just recycling a ton of paper
You will save 380 gallons of oil and 17 trees
As well as 7000 gallons of water
And 4000 kilowatts of energy

That’s amazing!

I’ll say! And you don’t have to stop there
You can also help spread awareness across the nation
Maybe by starting an earth-saving trend somewhere
Or even better, join an environmental organisation

So you see you don’t need superpowers to save the earth
But the effort you put in will be of immeasurable worth
For even though we live in different places
Or are of many unique, special races
When we all unite just for this one cause
We’ll accomplish things worthy of Mother Nature’s applause

Monday, May 2, 2011

What the GE means for me and why I want to vote Ngiam Tong Dow as President

It's GE time!! I'm sure you're as excited as I am. I feel sorry for those in the Tanjong Pagar GRC because I think more than ever, I sense that people want to have a voice in how our country is being run. This is a good thing for the obvious reason that apathy never did anyone any favours. It means there is no motivation to get things right because nobody cares if things go wrong.

The widespread awakening across the ground also signified something else - that people have been feeling unheard. The frustration resonates with me, personally, I have gotten terribly indignant over certain policies but no matter how much (or how many ordinary citizens) might rant about them, we can do absolutely nothing about it. It's like seeing a bulldozer slowly heading towards your car, but no matter how long and how loudly you yell at the driver to stop, he doesn't. All he does is tell you why your car HAS to go and why it's good for you somehow.

Like many others, I've been following the coverage online since it appears to be the more credible source of news these days. While there is lots of fiery debate, some of it is almost akin to emotional blackmail (on both sides).

So it was extremely refreshing to read this interview with Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, the ex Head of Civil Service. Even though the interview was done way back in 2003, almost a decade ago, it's uncanny how relevant it is today... and how he predicted the way we're heading. It's sensible, without the usual dreary rhetoric and dare I say, visionary.

What really blew my mind was that he managed to crystallise my thoughts about our political system - thoughts that were previously an incoherent jumble. After I'd read the interview, it all instantly clicked, "yes! of course!" If more of our civil servants had even half this guy's intelligence, ethic and guts to speak his mind, I'd say Singapore's future is bright.

He also talked about education in his interview and then, I understood that the way our education system is run, is a mini model of the way our country is run. He briefly mentioned the problem he finds with our education system:

"Each year, the PSLE creams off all the top boys and girls and dispatches them to only two schools, Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls' School. However good these schools are, the problem is you are educating your elite in only two institutions, with only two sets of mentors, and casting them in more or less the same mould."
...and its parallel in our political administrative system:

"So far, the People's Action Party's tactic is to put all the scholars into the civil service because it believes the way to retain political power forever is to have a monopoly on talent. But in my view, that's a very short term view... You have to allow some of your best and brightest to remain outside your reach and let them grow spontaneously. How do you know their leadership will not be as good as yours? But if you monopolise all the talent, there will never be an alternative leadership. And alternatives are good for Singapore."
Herein lies the problem, our leaders have become so entrenched in their dominance and ingrained in their ideology that they are unable to consider an alternative universe. No wonder some leaders have resorted to threats. When they say "Singapore will suffer", what they really mean is "PAP will suffer". The sad part is I think some of the leaders truly believe this because they have, maybe without realising it, come to equate the two. It would explain why they feel it is perfectly justified to have the entire civil service, stat boards and PA serve party interests.

And that's why my favourite sentence in Mr Ngiam's interview is this: "I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP."

At the end of the interview, Mr Ngiam gave this analogy of the Greek systems:

"Singapore is like Sparta, where the top students are taken away from their parents as children and educated... When I first read Plato's Republic, I was totally dazzled by the great logic of this organisational model where the best selects the best. But when I reached the end of the book, it dawned on me that though the starting point was meritocracy, the end result was dictatorship and elitism. In the end, that was how Sparta crumbled. Yet, Athens, a city of philosophers known for its different schools of thought, survived."
I now realise that with my vote, I'm signalling more than just my like or dislike for a particular party/candidate/policy. I'm making my view heard on how I want the country to be run, not in an abstract way, but the manner in which our education, housing, healthcare, transport, etc is approached. All of which affects us directly (on an infinitely larger scale than the short-term upgrading of my estate, which incidentally may not have as big an impact as you might think, according to this writeup).

I no longer believe that Singapore will fall without the PAP, like I was brought up to believe. I believe that our citizens are savvier, more resilient and care more about Singapore than the leading party wants us to think. Ultimately, I believe that Singapore is larger than the PAP... and the sooner the ruling party recognises this, the more respect I will have for them.

I encourage you to read Mr Ngiam's interview in full before polling day. It might give you pause to re-think what Singapore really needs to thrive. For years, the PAP has told Singaporeans that change and competition are good for us. Perhaps it's time for them to lead by example.
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