Monday, February 25, 2013

Lit assignment on Macbeth

Last year, Lesley-Anne studied Macbeth for literature and this seems to be a popular Shakespeare text for sec 3 and 4.  One of the more interesting assignments the kids were tasked to do was to write an original sonnet based on a theme in Macbeth.

As part of the challenge, it had to fulfil the standard requirements of a sonnet, ie:
  • 14 lines
  • each line with 10 syllables
  • ABAB rhyme scheme with last 2 lines a couplet
  • Iambic pentameter, meaning each unstressed syllable must be followed by a stressed syllable
 Lesley-Anne chose the theme "Appearance vs Reality" and here's what she came up with.

Concealed within the walls of Inverness
Are dangerous desires and lethal lies
Ambition grows while shrouded in darkness
And martlets cloak the owl's ill-fated cries

A mask of innocence disguised Macbeth's
Intent to execute an evil crime
While Duncan slept and drew his final breath
Up ambition's ladder did Macbeth climb

Although unshaken did Macbeth appear
Throughout his quest to win the regal throne
The only things he gained were guilt and fear
The forest came and he was overthrown

When order hides the chaos and despair
It looks like fair is foul and foul is fair

Lesley-Anne didn't score as well as she'd hoped cos the teacher commented that the reader wouldn't have understood the sonnet if he or she hadn't read Macbeth. All I can say is that the assignments these days are really tough - I wouldn't have been able to come up with much at sec 3.  However, I do feel it's a lot more thought-provoking than merely having to write another analytical essay.  Certainly forces you to dig deep into your imagination and harness your creative juices.

Wish I had lit assignments like these back then, lessons would have been more fun!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Baby maybe

It seems like babies is always topmost of the government's mind. After the last National Day Rally, new goodies were added to the Baby Bonus and in the recent White Paper on population, once again the recurring issue is our low fertility rate and how we need to sustain our population. Just yesterday, PM again urged couples to have children.

I don't want to touch on the hot potato that is the White Paper since a deluge of views has already exploded online. Rather, I want to share my views on some of the baby issues and why we haven't seemed to progress in this area. While some of my opinions are rooted in what I studied in sociology, much of it is based on my own conjectures and common sense, so feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

The Paradox of Wealth vs Fertility Rate

First, the sociological bit - we need to understand that declining birth rate is a developed world problem and is certainly not unique to Singapore.  You can sometimes hear this comment, "Some families so rich, can afford, dowan to have kids. Others so poor, can barely feed themselves, wanna have so many kids. What's wrong with people?"

There's actually a simple explanation for this and it's not because poor families are stupid. It's the treatment of the child as asset vs liability.  Poor families, especially in rural, underdeveloped countries, tend to have more kids because the kids are seen as assets. When the kids grow up, they either become much needed hands on the farm or work to bring in extra dough. They are considered future wealth.  In fact, for many poor families, having children is the only avenue out of poverty, so the more, the merrier.

Whereas in developed countries where individualism is emphasised, kids are liabilities - they sap rather than contribute to family wealth. Hence, the focus shifts from the benefits of having children to the costs. The primary motivation to have a child then, would be the emotional one - to have a child to love, to have a mini me, in some sense.  For most people, one or two would be enough to fulfil this personal need, hence the trend towards small families. In other words, the infamous Stop at Two policy, which has often been blamed for our low fertility rate, merely sped up the inevitable. It's not the real cause of declining family sizes in Singapore.

One analogy would be deciding to own a cat because you have rats in your house vs deciding to own one purely for companionship. The first places an intrinsic value on the cat, the second is intangible.  (Note, it doesn't necessarily mean the former owner loves the cat less, it just means there's a pragmatic incentive tied to the ownership).

What this implies is that looking to improve the fertility rate in Singapore purely from the cost aspect has its limitations. Folks who want to have kids will tend to still have kids, even if it's expensive. People who don't want to have kids see kids as a real liability - cramping lifestyles, creating inconvenience and chalking up enormous expenses. Reducing costs is unlikely to change their minds as it's still less costly NOT to have kids than to have one.
It's like a travel agency trying to sell you a holiday package, saying they'll give you substantial rebates. But here's the rub: no matter how much discount you give me, I'll still have more money if I don't go on a holiday to begin with. And that's the limitation with the Baby Bonus and all other monetary incentives.  If I consider having kids an unnecessary expense, no amount of monetary incentives will make me have one. (In fact, we should have serious misgivings about anyone who would have a child simply because of money).  Meanwhile, the ones who have already decided to have kids are happily pocketing the savings, thank you very much. 

Persuading couples who don't want kids to have them is an uphill battle.  The trouble is, the joy of having children is understood only by those who already have them.  It's something that can only be experienced, not fully communicable via words. For many parents, their kids are the best things that ever happened to them. You cannot realise the extent to which you can love another human being, until your kid comes along.  It explains why so many level-headed people turn into irrational beings when it comes to their children.

Preaching to the Converted

So if we can't convince childless couples to have kids, is there any other solution? Instead of trying to throw pebbles at a brick wall, maybe the authorities should instead focus on existing parents - those who already have at least one child. To me, encouraging couples who already have kids to have more kids, is a much easier task as you're preaching to the converted.  Having 3 children is not 3 times the work or costs as having 1 child.  If it's attractive enough and not too inconvenient, I'm sure many would give it serious consideration.

Take my own example. Kenneth and I wanted kids for sure. In fact, we had both our kids before there were any Baby Bonuses (Andre was born a few months shy of the introduction of the Baby Bonus, which I was always a little miffed about). We decided not to have a third child for various reasons:

1) 2 kids were already quite a handful and we were both working. I had to go back to work after 2 months of maternity leave and even though my understanding boss gave me a flexi work-from-home arrangement, it was stressful trying to run a household and head a department remotely at the same time.

2) My kids were already sharing a bedroom, adding another child to our apartment would be a squeeze.

3) When Andre was 2 years old, I started my own business and was running it solo. What many people don't realise is that entrepreneurs don't enjoy maternity leave. We have to take our own time off and suffer a loss of income. Worse, if we disappear for 2 months or more, we might end up losing all our clients. It was not tenable. Having another kid then would have killed my business.

Could I have been persuaded to have another child though? Maybe. If costs were reduced and I had better home and business arrangements, that would have helped.

In my opinion though, a big obstacle to having babies is that Singapore has become a very stressful place to raise kids and parents feel that keenly. To succeed in our baby policies, we need to create an environment that allows parents to raise their kids in a way that meshes with our worldview and lifestyle. While we have improved on things like flexi-work arrangements, maternity/paternity leave, greater subsidies for childcare, etc, I find that one of the biggest stressors of parents in Singapore have remained unresolved - education. 

The Education Baggage

I'm not sure if there has been any in-depth study on the link between education and fertility. But intuitively, we know that education is an enormous part of a child's life, consuming the bulk of his waking hours.  You may think, when a couple decides to have a child, won't their considerations be based on short-term issues, like will we be able to afford this child? Who will look after this child? etc.  In the past, probably.  However, in today's Singapore, education is no longer a distant consideration - with kids going to classes and getting enrichment younger, from as young as age 2, people are feeling the heat earlier. 

I've heard anecdotal stories of parents trying to book a place in a popular childcare centre before their child was even born. I once met a new father who said, as he was cradling his weeks-old twin daughters, "I'm wondering whether I should volunteer in a primary school so they can get entry."  I've also  received emails from parents of toddlers asking my advice on reading habits and primary schools.

What all these point to is that education is very much top of mind when a couple is deciding to have more kids... and currently, it is a huge deterrent.  I know many parents who simply hate the idea of having to send their kids into our education system.  I remember when Andre was 6, I so dreaded the thought of having him start primary 1 because I was sure that he would lose his carefree spirit to the system. Last year when he was going through his PSLE, my recurring thought was, "Thank God I don't have another child cos I can't go through this a third time."

It's about having your child shaped by a system that's not in sync with your own worldview, and knowing that you don't have a choice in the matter.  I imagine the idyllic family image in our heads is something like parents and children sitting around the coffee table, chatting and laughing. I'm pretty sure it's not hassled mum hovering over anxious kid doing homework and dad ferrying other kid to tuition centre. When both parents and children are stressed out, it's hard to create a well balanced and wholesome family life. 

Incidentally, education has also become one of the biggest costs in a family budget.  As Mr Yeoh Lam Keong, former GIC chief economist said in an interview, the Singapore education is seemingly cheap on the surface. School fees are very affordable ($11 a month for primary school, $21 for secondary school) and even university fees are subsidised.  But in actual fact, majority of primary and secondary school kids have tuition just to keep up with school. This jacks the real cost of education up to $1,000 a month or more. You can read the interview here (second half of the article, under the sub-head "The real cost of education").

In other words, without quite intending it, the education system in Singapore may actually be systematically disincentivising Singaporeans from having more children.  As long as education - a big part of child-rearing - is perceived as a burden that diminishes the quality of life rather than enhances it, it's not a long shot to suggest that it can influence a couple's decision to have children or subsequent children.

So here's a thought: instead of just continually throwing new handouts to couples, maybe the authorities should also re-examine this long-standing baggage we call education and better align it with parents' dreams for their kids. 

Note: I didn't touch on why parents are invariably stressed by our education system in this post since I've already written about it previously in Education stress - whose fault?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Festively in fashion

Chinese New Year is much celebrated in our household. For my mother-in-law, it's THE event of the year and over the course of two weeks, our kitchen is transformed into a military kitchen as she goes into a culinary frenzy, whipping up goodies from pineapple tarts to carrot and pumpkin kueh.

On top of that, we stock up on all the usual festive yums like love letters, kueh baulu, bak kwa, cashews, pistachios, sweets, etc etc (and only from the tried and tested shops) - enough to feed an army.

Apart from the food, we follow many other CNY traditions, like decorating our home with seasonal motifs (the Ikea snakes made a special appearance this year), buying CNY flowers and adorning our beds with new sheets.

No prizes for guessing what is Andre's favourite colour.  When he wears his red t-shirt and sits on his bed, the effect is pretty surreal.

Among all the CNY traditions though, the one I dislike is getting new pajamas and clothes. It's not that I scorn the custom, it's the shopping bit that I find a big hassle. That's right. I'm one of those rare specimens of the female gender who detest shopping for clothes.

Shopping for myself is bad enough - I usually put aside an afternoon wandering around a mall with maximum potential, hoping to score. Shopping for my kids is even worse. Both of them seem to share my aversion to buying new clothes and their busy schedules pose the perfect foil for escaping this yearly duty.

When I can finally get them to focus on the job at hand, it's a comedy of contrasts. Andre wants to stand out so we go looking for bright, bedazzling colours while Lesley-Anne prefers to blend in so we go searching for dark, sober shades that aren't too funereal for CNY.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook, "Mission accomplished - CNY clothing bought for everyone in the family. No one should offer any *feedback*. Just wear it."   Way to go, sista! Commandeer the project, Nazi style.

Actually, we did this with the pajamas this year.  Since it was tough enough finding the time to bring them shopping for clothes, we didn't bother with the democratic route for the PJs.  At the nearby pasar malam, we bought one set with a giant teddy bear for Lesley-Anne and Andre was presented with a Power Rangers set (which horrified him). I figure, nobody's gonna see you when you're sleeping so as long as they're comfortable, who cares if the print isn't age appropriate.

In the end, we did manage to get the day clothes to everyone's liking. Lesley-Anne even agreed to wearing a modern-style cheongsam as she needed one for a future school event. Job done for the year!

金龙腾飞辞旧岁 , 玉蛇起舞迎新春!


Monday, February 4, 2013

I think, therefore I write

2012 was a momentous year for me career-wise as it marked the 10th anniversary of my writing business, Hedgehog Communications. 10 years! It sure doesn't feel like a decade has passed. When I first started this enterprise, I wasn't sure it would even last a year. But lasted it has, and even garnered some very loyal customers along the way, for which I'm extremely grateful.

The business has allowed me to keep myself economically active while being there with my kids. It also let me make a living out of something I love - writing.

So to mark the occasion, I decided to print some notebooks as a corporate gift.  I didn't want just any commonplace notebook, so I sourced around and at a gifts fair, a particular one caught my eye. It's a notebook made from stone paper, something I'd never heard of. It's waterproof, tear-proof, smudge resistant and bio-degradable. How intriguing is that?

The decision was easy then. I decided to keep to a simple design with my logo on the back and went with a small print run.

In fact, a couple of my corporate customers liked the idea of stone paper so much that they had their own gifts produced from it. Always nice to be able to contribute to the green movement.

I wrote a 10th anniversary note for my website which I'll share here as it encapsulates my beliefs about the power of writing.

I think, therefore I write.

In 10 years, we at Hedgehog Communications have written 59 annual reports, 64 brochures, 28 websites and 35 newsletters. Not to mention the many speeches, advertisements and magazines… even the occasional mission statement. That's a lot of words.

But effective writing is never just about the number of words. In a world where we are constantly faced with a deluge of information, each piece demanding our attention, the power to communicate - clearly and convincingly - is more important than ever.

Over the past 10 years, Hedgehog Communications has discussed healthcare, debated over education and explained technology. We've crafted messages for CEOs, penned quirky headlines for posters and scripted lines for corporate presentations. Through it all, we've strengthened our belief that the pen (or in 21st century terms, the keyboard) is a mighty instrument. It crystalises the power of the written word - to shape thought, evoke emotion and drive behaviour.

10. It's just a number. But seen in the light of a decade of communications, if something we've written has given you pause for thought, made you smile or changed your mind just a little, then it was a decade well spent.

Thank you for being part of our journey.


In many ways, what I do at work has some parallel with my blogging.  My blog readers are often as supportive of me as my clients and so, I'm giving out 5 notebooks as a small gesture of appreciation.

If you would like a stone paper notebook, be among the first 5 to like this post on the Of Kids and Education Facebook page and write a message. Then email me (also on Facebook) to let me know where to mail the notebook to.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...