Monday, August 29, 2016

Overcoming the Chinese wall

During the Rio Olympics, one of the sports we followed closely was, of course, badminton, since Andre is a badminton player. The epic match was the semi-final between long-time rivals - Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan. It was cathartic to finally see Lee Chong Wei beat Lin Dan at an Olympic setting (Andre has idolised Lee Chong Wei ever since he could hold a badminton racket). Unfortunately, the fairy tale was still not to be as Dato Lee was denied the gold medal once more by yet another China player - Chen Long.

The less talked about match though, was the one where Viktor Axelsen, in his first Olympics, beat titan Lin Dan in straight sets to clinch the bronze medal. That was a real shocker and prompted some to say, perhaps Lin Dan tanked that match cos he didn't want to stand third on the podium.

I don't know if that's true but it certainly made me sit up and notice the 22-year-old Dane. Then he talked to a Chinese journalist after the match and that nearly made me fall off my chair. Because Axelsen spoke to the journalist in perfectly fluent Mandarin.

Later, I found out that Axelsen had only been learning Chinese for the past two years. WAH! Colour me impressed. I showed Andre, who struggles to get even the intonation of basic words right, the video. He watched it, mouth open, and mumbled, "What am I doing with my life."

The Chinese language was a topic of interest in our household recently because Andre had just completed his 'O' level Chinese exam last month. Studying Chinese has always been an uphill battle for our kids, even for Lesley-Anne who basically memorised her way to a B3 in Higher Chinese. Andre has even less aptitude and interest. Let's just call a spade a spade - we're a jiak kantang family lah.

For the Chinese 'O' levels, Andre flubbed his oral component because the topic was on water polo and he had no clue what water polo was called in Chinese. So we were mighty relieved when the results came in and he found out that he had managed to pass his Chinese exam. Woohoo! He was whooping so loudly when he received the results in school that his friends thought he'd scored an A. 😂 Hey, different strokes for different folks, ok? Don't judge.

For us, we're satisfied with his grade so he won't be retaking his Chinese exam at the end of the year. But we were surprised to find out that 90% of his school cohort intend to retake the exam. Except for those who had already earned their A1s, most of the students want a second attempt to improve on their score. In fact, for students like Andre who didn't want to retake the exam, the school asked for a parent's letter explaining why they should be exempt.

Where do I even begin? Here were the thoughts that were running through my head:
  1. After 10 years of learning Chinese, Andre's Chinese is still atrocious. What makes you think he can suddenly improve in 2 months? 
  2. We prayed so hard for him to pass. In other words, pass = miracle. If he takes it again, he might FAIL. 
  3. I dowan to pay for any more Chinese tuition. 10 years is enough. 
  4. He has 6 other O level subjects where he has a chance of doing better in. Can focus on those instead of flogging a dead horse? 
  5. Not everyone is like Axelsen.
In the end, I sent a polite version of this letter, thus marking the end of a chapter. Not that it's the end of Chinese in Andre's life, just the structured lessons bit. I'm sure at work or in life in the future, Andre will need to use Chinese at some point, and hopefully he'll be fine in this respect, outside of the academic environment.

Maybe the trick is just to find an Axelsen to play badminton with.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Scholarships and universities - letting God lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 8, 2016

5 things I'm thankful for this National Day

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

1. Healthcare

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

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

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

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

2. Food

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

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

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

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

3. Internet

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

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

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

4. Online Services

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

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

5 Transport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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