Fear (a young writer’s journey)

My teachers used to instil a sense of fear into me, when I was learning how to craft essays. I was never to use contractions, I never could write about violence, and trying to write in a fantasy realm was a definite no-go. There were so many rules to writing, so many rules I was so afraid to break. As a result, writing short pieces in school was a pain, for it was so boring — especially when the prompt was “About Myself”. Not that I am a boring person, of course.

If a teacher asked me to write about myself, I thought, should I not be allowed to break any and all of the rules that came with writing in school? But there was always that sense of being afraid of the teacher, for one, and having a real fear that if I broke the rules, I would come away without the skills I needed to ace my examinations.

This sense of fear became so ingrained into my mental processes that I almost thought not to question it. I have always been a voracious reader, and I noticed so many of my favourite authors using “don’t”, and “shouldn’t”, and “wouldn’t”, and worst of all, “ain’t”. Still, when I was in school, I would always dismiss those things as “bad” writing, rules that these authors could break because they were paid professionals.

This changed when I was in secondary 4. I remember reading a novel that featured such intense violence and action that I had a vivid dream about it. It was a novel that took place in a skyscraper, that had the protagonist running up the stairs of this building. I dreamt it, all hundred-and-some storeys of it. I remember waking up not only tired, but exhausted, and in some strange way, exhilarated. If an author — who celebrated violence in his writing — could make me feel this good, and bad, with a single piece of writing, I was going to try to be like him.

The next essay I did in class, I threw caution to the wind and wrote about a massacre. There were hangings, there was shooting, there was a car chase, and even a scene where my narrator jumped from a helicopter onto a moving truck. (Thank you, Hollywood.) It felt like a release, breaking that violence rule. Of course, now that I had broken the rule, I did not expect to get a terribly high grade.

When I got the essay back, I was gratified to see that I had gotten a very high mark. My teacher had written something to the effect of “I’d say try to avoid violence, but you do it very well, so I don’t know”, and I was absolutely delighted with that. Not only had I broken the rules, I had gotten approval for it.

That was the point when I realised that rules about writing were meant to be broken, sometimes, by some people. I had overcome my fear of breaking the rules, and my grades improved for it. No longer did I have to think about creating some boring story about going to the market to buy vegetables with my mother, I could write about disembodied voices (reason: schizophrenia), violence (reason: political unrest), fistfights (reason: violent criminals), and so on.

Overcoming that fear caused me to make some mistakes, of course, but learning how to break the rules wisely was probably the start of my journey as a writer. If I had never overcome my fear of breaking the rules, I would probably have abandoned writing and indulged in some other activity instead, for I would have never started to thoroughly enjoy writing.



The Problem With Singlish and Singaporean Education

A fellow tutor-blogger has just written a piece about code-switching and the mastery of languages that anyone intending to master a language should read (that’s all of you, young ones). It jogged a few thoughts about a typical Singaporean student’s experience, and how badly disadvantaged they (we) are.

It is perhaps unfair to blame Singaporeans for speaking poor English. It is horribly rare to have a mathematics or science teacher who can speak “standard” English. Most of the time, they speak Singlish, or some kind of other patois. I remember my computer teacher in ACS(I), who was an effective teacher save for one little thing: it was almost impossible to understand what he was saying.

Things like that happened pretty frequently:
Teacher: (what sounded like) Click in the terminal.
Student: Uh, where in the terminal?
Teacher: (what sounded like) Not the terminal, the ferminal!
Student: What’s a ferminal?
Teacher: (Points at the file menu)
(Bonus points for those able to guess this teacher’s country of origin. Don’t look down on him, though. He taught Visual Basic well enough for the ACS(I) computers to be swamped with a whole host of prank programs, programmed by us students.)

A more Singlish-fied version of the above scene (with fewer misunderstandings) goes on in almost every classroom, every day. Students spend an hour listening to an English teacher, and five hours listening to Singlish in their other classes. Even as an English teacher, I didn’t realise I was pronouncing certain words in a Singaporean (and inaccurate) manner until I paid attention to my recordings as a singer. (You’d be surprised how difficult it is to get the “L” sound in “golden” to sound right. I kept on singing “gowden”.)

Perhaps teachers need to go for grammar or pronunciation classes, but I know that the problem students have with English and code-switching (whether it’s Singlish, Chinese, Malay, Tamil, or whatever language it is we mix with English) will not go away if we don’t change the situation in schools. It’s a massive task for the MOE, but I believe it has to be done.

So, until all teachers and systems become perfect (haha), remember: students are picking up Singlish like sponges in schools.

And that’s the reason for all that horrible code-switching.

What is your idea of a civilized society? Do you feel that Singapore has achieved that status?

A note on spelling:
I am aware that some people insist on spelling “civilized” as “civilised”, in the attempt to stick to a British style of spelling. However, I encourage everyone to check their Oxford Dictionaries for the word “color” (Br: “colour”) and compare that entry to the entry for “civilized”. Not all “z’s” turn into “s’s” when you use a British style.

When most people think of “uncivilized” societies, they often think of pre-modern tribes, tribes that are ignorant of the marvels of science and technology, that are made up of people still dressed in skimpy animal skins. In that sense, Singapore is undeniably civilized. Most Singaporeans have smartphones, and most people that I know of have stopped dressing in animal skins. However, I would like to think of a “civilized” society in the sense of it being refined and advanced. In that sense, perhaps Singapore is still a significant distance from being a civilized society.

A refined and advanced society, in my mind, cannot simply be one that enjoys the benefits of science and technology — it also has to be one that is compassionate and just. After all, a society made out of violent criminals could look very attractive and civilized on the surface, but underneath that facade, the violence and crime that would surely occur would force us to consider that society to be uncivilized. Looking around us in Singapore, we see some amount of compassionate behaviour. There are charities that attempt to help the unprivileged in society, that are well-supported by the general population. The government has also attempted to shape students into compassionate individuals by making community service compulsory. However, it seems to me that these efforts only pierce through a thin layer of injustice in our society. That we still have an army of old people collecting cardboard for a living is testament to a society that is not completely refined and civilized yet.

The injustices in Singapore are many. In addition to the above-mentioned army of old people, we have foreign workers being treated unfairly, and a worrying level of income inequality. A refined and civilized society would not accept these injustices, and would work towards making society a little bit more equal, and a lot more just. That some old people here have to collect old cardboard boxes for a living is perhaps only a symptom of the larger problem of income inequality here. I grant that there is already some level of civilization in Singapore, since nobody has to starve and die on the streets. However, in an Asian culture, many people value their pride (their “face”) as much as they do their lives — for some, their pride is probably even more important than their life! With that in mind, it is unacceptable how vast income inequality is in Singapore.

I use the word “unacceptable” in the sense that a truly refined society would find it unacceptable. There is a section of society whose children can afford not to work anymore, those who live in multi-million dollar mansions in secluded areas, and who sit on massive bank accounts. Then there is a section of society who cannot afford the privileges of having smartphones and nice clothes, even though they work their fingers to the bone — the lowest paid in our society, including the foreign workers and uneducated among us. Smartphones and nice clothes may be seen as unnecessary to some, but without these privileges, it is very difficult to participate in mainstream life — think about how difficult it would be to get a good job when you cannot send an email or a text message.

Therefore, even though on some level, Singapore is already civilized, it is not completely refined. As long as there are glaring levels of inequality and injustice in our society, we cannot say with conviction that Singapore is completely civilized. If we close our eyes to injustice, we cannot claim to be civilized.

(589 words)

A trip down memory lane, and how religion affects my teaching

I took my O-levels in 1999, after spending four years in ACS(I). It was a time when the administration and teachers seemed to take their Christianity very seriously. Even as a teenage boy, I could tell that the prayers did not come from a place of mere duty. The teachers did not seem to drag their feet when they prayed. They prayed with an earnest sincerity that made it seem like leading a public prayer was a privilege. (But I have to apologize a little bit, because even though I remember the way they prayed, for the life of me, I can’t remember their names.)

I remember that the non-Christian students among us never seemed bothered by the Christian-ness of the school. The strongest complaint we had was that some of these Christian rituals — chapel services, morning devotions, and so on — could be terribly boring at times (I say “we” even though I identify as Christian because we all had the same complaint). Nobody was, to my knowledge, coerced to do anything that offended their religious convictions. Everybody had to wear their ties to chapel, of course, but you did not have to pray if you did not want to. You had to show respect, but if you were a Buddhist or a “free thinker”, you never had to participate.

I remember that sensitivity to the multiplicity of religions in my school with great fondness. It was probably my first introduction to the idea of tolerance — it was a flawed embodiment of that idea, but a very good try, nonetheless. I had the good fortune of having a form teacher who would pray with our class very occasionally. He kept to the practice of not forcing prayer on any of the non-Christians in my class. I have a memory of him explaining to my class that prayer could be used as a way of calming ourselves before an examination, which was a brilliant way of including everyone. Not everybody prays, but I’m pretty sure everybody knows what anxiety is.

To my eyes, my school managed to convey the good bits of spirituality without the coercive, hateful parts. The impulse towards being Good (capital G!), the virtues of honesty and excellence (how different the world would be if everybody stopped telling lies), the calming power of prayer or simple meditation (prayer and meditation are not the same things, but very similar at times) — these are massively valuable lessons that could very well have been the reason for academic excellence, for many of us.

This principle — imparting the good without coercing — guides my own teaching. If I meet Buddhist students, I ask them if they have read any of the Dalai Lama’s or Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. I ask them if they have any idea what meditation is. If I meet Christian students, I use parables to illustrate the power of stories. I ask them if they understand what “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” is. I ask, but I avoid any hint of force like the plague.

I often ask students about their religious sensitivities, very early on, so that I know which lines not to cross. Some prefer not to talk about religion at all, so I talk about how neuroscience has shown that the brain’s ability to function under stress is diminished. Eventually we get to talking about conquering anxiety and exam panic, but I never need to resort to religion to teach them peace.

Teachers are called not only to get their students good grades. Our students learn from us, by the very virtue of the way we exist. If a teacher is perpetually overworked, domineering, and anxious, students learn something from that. If a teacher has self-discipline, is always well-rested, and never panicky, students learn something else from that. I try my best, but as old boys (and girls) from my old school like to say, with wry grins — the best is yet to be.

What would happen if everyone in the world became musicians, artists, writers, dancers, performers?

 I suspect that the world would carry on as usual, but with a lot more compassion, because most of us in these professions, these vocations, we can’t pay the bills just by being musicians, artists, and so on. If you meet a musician, s/he’s probably something else as well.

A musician and a teacher at a government school.
A dancer and a layout artist at a publishing company.
A composer and a piano teacher.
The list goes on.

When you understand what it feels like to have to struggle hard to make ends meet, your heart softens a little bit. Perhaps we need more of this:
Politicians who were once struggling artists, who therefore understand what it means to struggle to pay the bills.
CEOs who were once struggling musicians, who therefore pay their employees well.
Teachers who were once dreamers in school, who therefore are less harsh on students who daydream in class.

Perhaps we need a little less condemnation, and a little more empathy. Perhaps you can start right now, by picking up the guitar. Start small! 🙂

Always something there to remind me

I know, some of you are having massive nostalgic flashbacks now. I’ll wait, heheh. For the rest of you young’uns, follow me.

The slightly older people in Singapore (you know, those who still like to believe that they’re young) grew up during a time when Channel 5, the only English channel we got growing up, played movies about 5, 6 years too late. When we got around to watching Mannequin, the movie had to be already a few years old and out of date. But each Channel 5 movie experience was just that for me — an experience.

My family would sit around the television, usually with hot chocolate or milo, and just be comfortable, no matter what movie was on. It was less about the movie, and more about the sitting together, I think. Commercial breaks weren’t to be grumbled over — it was a time to run about like the children we were, a time for my parents to explain to my sister and I just what exactly was happening. And usually I would ask, “If you have watched it already, why don’t you remember how the story’s gonna go?” I could never understand why my parents had such bad memories, ha ha ha.

It was a time without the internet, without the thousand and one distractions we have nowadays, a time when the TV screen would produce a high-pitched whine that we were all accustomed to. (When I learnt what a cathode-ray tube was, and what it could do to your body, I got very anxious indeed.)

So, here you go, let me share some of my childhood with you:


This is a response to this writing challenge. It is part of a series of posts where I try to write simpler, easily-digested posts. I hope you enjoyed it!

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Something, somewhere, went terribly wrong (a short story)

The bloodstains seemed pretty obvious to me. The car was travelling against the flow of traffic. Or whatever traffic there would have been, if it hadn’t been so late. Human beings are 70% water, right? 70ish, anyway. And it was pretty obvious where this waterbag went “poof”, and where the impact came from.

“Sir, the fella lying la.”
“I know la, but.. this guy is rich. Facebook, YouTube kinda rich, you know?”

A shout from 50 metres away: “Sir, wallet! Got IC!… Uh, HDB address!”

— — —

“Come on, this guy’s a nobody. Look, I know his family’s gonna be sad. Let’s say they find 10 million dollars in their bedroom, and they leave me alone, OK? I’ll pass you the cash now, I can wire it to you. All you have to do is to let me disappear. I can have an alibi, easy, and we can all be happy.”

“But uh, sir, got witness la. You see my boys.. they know, la.”

“Well, why not let’s make it 20 million, and we’ll call it even, alright?”

“Uh.. OK, OK. Thank you, sir.. I.. Umm.. You transfer the money now?”

“Yes, I’ll do it right away, not to worry, my man!”

— — —

It was finally classified as an unsolved hit-and-run. We were there. We saw the scene. We saw the man. 8 million for the family, the other 12 million split equally among the three of us who were there.

He believed that we were all less than human.