Friday, September 30, 2011

Au Petit Salut

One day as a treat after the exams in September, we brought the kids to Au Petit Salut for lunch. It's a French, fine dining restaurant which offers an excellent set lunch for $32++. Not only is it great value, more importantly, the quality of the food is simply top notch.

Our family loves French food and one of the highlights of Au Petit Salut is their half dozen baked Burgundy snails with tomato and garlic butter. Words cannot describe how yummilicious this is - after you've eaten the snails, you soak up the garlic sauce with bread. Heaven!

Another entree, orange and pink peppercorn salmon tartare with baby spinach salad. This one is good too but not as good as the snails.

Lesley-Anne ordered the soup of the day, which was pumpkin soup. I didn't take a photo of it as it didn't look very special but oh golly, was I wrong. It is simply the BEST pumpkin soup I've ever tasted, no exaggeration. We went from "why would you order soup here" to "we must order the soup the next time!"

This is one of our favourite main courses - red wine braised beef cheeks with carrots, mushrooms and parsley potatoes. Melt-in-your-mouth tender. Mmmm...

Kenneth ordered the pork shoulder stewed in wholegrain mustard with creamy polenta. It's not something you can get everyday, the polenta is a lovely change from regular mashed potatoes. You probably need to be a pork fan though. I prefer the beef cheeks.

And finally, dessert. Homemade strawberry shortcake and raspberry coulis for Andre.

Crème brulée infused with fresh Madagascar vanilla beans.

If you're a chocoholic like me, there is only one dessert you have to try - Petit Pot au Chocolat. It's a pot of ultra-smooth chocolate mousse topped with hot chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

The portions are un-Frenchily large, I can barely finish one set lunch without feeling like I'm going to bust the seams on my pants. At $32++, it really is wonderful value and obviously we're not the only folks who think so, judging from the number of diners at this place. Reservations strongly recommended, if you don't want to be disappointed.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Focus on values - Heng Swee Keat

Yesterday, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat gave a speech at the MOE Work Plan Seminar. In it, he gave some broad strokes of his plans for education. This is the first major announcement on education he's made since he took over the position, so I'm sure it was eagerly awaited by many in the industry.

You can read the full speech here and it's also covered in the Straits Times today. Basically, he calls for a more holistic, student-centric education system and outlines some initiatives he will be rolling out.

One of the key points of Mr Heng's speech is the focus on values. He wants values and character development to be at the core of our education system, which is something I totally agree with. But even he acknowledges that it's difficult to implement as it's not something that can (or should) be examinable or assessed. I'm sure he knows it's a mindset issue, not something you can simply institute. But for a start, he's telling principals and teachers that they should not cannibalise civics & moral education periods for remedial lessons. While this is may be a small gesture, I appreciate he's trying to signal the importance of values.

He's also stressing the importance of CCAs for character building. I'm a little skeptical. While I totally agree that CCAs can build character, these are often waylaid in the chase for medals. As I mentioned before, many schools are so obsessed with the medal tally for sports and performing arts, to the point that these override values such as sportsmanship, diligence, discipline, etc. Unless schools completely transform their world view towards CCAs, character building will continue to be an accidental outcome rather than an objective.

This whole issue of prioritising values is a thorny one because it requires a shared mindset among parents and educators. For eg, I was told an incident where a parent hired a professional consultant to help with her child and his friends' school project. Eventually, the project won an international competition. This is clearly an ethical issue and my question was, did the teachers know the kids didn't do the project themselves? And even if they did have their suspicions, would they have probed or just turned a blind eye? The parents clearly had no qualms about what I consider downright cheating. Such is the message we're sending to our kids - win or do well at all costs. I think if we say values are important, the system needs to stop consistently rewarding achievement over values.

The third initiative in the area of values is the introduction of a new Character and Citizenship Education curriculum. I don't know enough details about this to make a comment. Let's wait and see. My personal wish is that our schools will open up many more creative opportunities for the students to help others on a regular basis, the way international schools do it, so that social consciousness becomes part of their psyche. Going to the old folks' home once a year just doesn't cut it.

Yesterday, a Straits Times reporter called me to ask if I had any comments on the new homework policy Mr Heng was calling for. Basically, he says that all schools should study the needs of its students and define how much homework students should be assigned at the different levels. I told the reporter I had no issues with homework. At both my kids' schools, homework is generally manageable and not excessive. I'm quoted in today's ST page A8, by the way. It's not much of a quote, I'm surprised they included it.

My issue with stress at school is not with homework but with the single-minded focus on results and the accompanying kiasu-ism, as previously laid out in my letter to the Minister. When I met up with Sim Ann, Senior Parliamentary Secretary of MOE, following the letter for a chat, she mentioned that she felt the underlying cause of this competitiveness is the scarcity of university places. Mr Heng obviously shares her view as he has tasked his Minister of State for Education to look into this.

I'm not 100% convinced this is the root of the problem. I still think using KPIs to assess schools and teachers is a huge contributing factor and I'm a little disappointed Mr Heng didn't address this at all. I suspect having to overhaul HR is opening another super-sized can of worms and MOE has enough on its plate at the moment.

Incidentally, I found Sim Ann to be a lovely person - warm, genuine and with a great sense of humour (so important!) Not at all stuffy and pompous like some civil servants I've encountered in the past. She invited me to be part of a dialogue earlier this week which I was unfortunately unable to attend.

I think it's safe to say that Mr Heng and his team are taking parent and teacher engagement much more seriously than their predecessors. Perhaps they don't have much of a choice, considering the currently politically charged climate. Nevertheless, I'm encouraged that they have at least acknowledged and taken into account viewpoints from both parents and teachers, and not just at face value.

Is this education reform in the making? Or just a review? I want to be optimistic. As I told the ST reporter (can't believe I'm quoting myself), every little step counts.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Uncovering the Terracotta Warriors

During the one-week September school holidays, we brought the kids to the Terracotta Warriors exhibition, currently on at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Time for a dose of history and culture!

Brief history of the terracotta warriors: in 1974, an army of thousands of pottery soldiers and horses was unearthed outside Xi'an, near the tomb of the First Emperor of China. This amazing architectural find revealed a great deal about early China and Chinese art. This is a picture of the actual site.

An installation showing how the terracotta warriors and horses were made.

It was an ambitious project. Heads, limbs and torsos were made separately from terracotta and then assembled. Figures were originally painted in vibrant hues but these have decomposed over time.

This is the main display with a good representation of the major figures - the one right in front is the general.

Nearly 150 suits of limestone armour were found in the tomb. However, limestone is too fragile and heavy for battle so historians suspect they were purely symbolic.

Soon after the death of Qin Shihuang in 210BC, the Han dynasty began. The Hans rejected the life-size soldiers of the Qin dynasty and instead, opted for more modest figures purely as symbolic gestures. These are soldiers with shields.

In the tomb of Jingli, the 4th Han emperor, archeologists unearthed not just soldiers and horses but also animals, farming tools and everyday utensils. This is the mould for Han coins.

Figures were almost androgynous in nature but also featured women. Silly question of the day: Guess which is the woman and which is the eunuch in this picture? Andre thought this display was rather obscene, bwahaha!

There is an accompanying exhibition to the Terracotta Warriors - an installation by local artist, Justin Lee which blends Western pop art with traditional eastern sculpture. Very dramatic and cool, I thought!

The exhibition is very educational and definitely worth a visit. Even though it's smaller than I expected (45 mins is more than enough), it's still interesting, especially if you have no plans to visit the actual site in China!

Kids from local schools enjoy free entry and if you hold a Passion card, you get 50% off adult ticket prices. Pretty good deal. Exhibition is on till 16 October 2011.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Kason Age Group badminton tournament

This week was the annual Kason badminton tournament held at the Chinese Swimming Club badminton tournament. The competition for this tournament is always fierce, as it's considered one of the most prestigious children's competitions for the sport.

Andre participated in the Boys Singles 11 and under and category. He only managed to get to the second round but what we're pleased about is that his competition performance has improved and he seems more confident on the court. Hopefully it serves as a motivational boost for him.

Here are a couple of video clips of his 2nd round match. He's the one wearing orange.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Combat laser tag with dad

Last Friday evening, Kenneth and Andre went on a combat laser tag adventure. The activity was organised by a fathers' group from Andre's school. This group is part of the Dads for Life initiative, aimed at getting fathers more involved in their children's lives.

Conducted by Combat Skirmish, combat laser tag is a simulation game using infra-red technology. Each gun has a computerised system which indicates how many targets you've hit or killed. It also projects sound and lights when you are "shot". Perfect for active little boys who've always dreamed of being in a war scenario... without actual physical contact.

Here's Andre getting suited up.

There were so many highlights of this activity for him, but one of them has to be this oversized gun.

Testing out the equipment.

Not many pictures of father and son in action. Hard to fiddle with the camera when you're in the midst of battle. Apparently, the two of them were aggressively charging and shooting at their opponents throughout the game. Andre proudly declared to me, "I killed more than 10 people!" Truly an outlet for male testosterone.

According to him, the girls were "hopeless" as they merely huddled behind the trees, waiting to get shot at. Now you know why girls and national service don't mix!

I think it's a fantastic activity that packs a punch. It lets boys live out their war fantasies without any danger, unlike say, paintball. It also allows for great family bonding time or at least father-son bonding time, if your daughters aren't too keen.

Thumbs up!

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