A clarification: the PAP-led government didn’t buy the 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos.

In my previous post, I complained bitterly about what I saw as a S$1,300,000 waste of money. Apparently some of my readers misconstrued what I was saying and thought that I was blaming the PAP-led government for this S$1.3m waste of money. This is simply a misreading of my text. Perhaps it’s because people have the (erroneous) perception that The Straits Times, SPH, and the PAP are all part of the same “government”? Hmm.

What I wanted to allude to was the fact that legislation like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, together with regulatory agencies like the Media Development Authority (MDA), work together to create a monster like the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). SPH publishes the two newspapers that are organizing the Sing50 concert: The Straits Times and The Business Times.

Going by Straits Times reports, there seems to be no tax money going towards the Sing50 concert, which is linked to but separate from the larger SG50 celebration. This reminds me: SPH is linked to, but separate from, the PAP. As Cherian George has observed:

Singapore’s news industry is dominated by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), a corporation created by the merger of two newspaper groups. While not government-owned, it is closely supervised by the political leadership. (link)

To recap: the PAP is not responsible for the Sing50 concert, but it is responsible for creating the conditions conducive to SPH’s current shape, which has resulted in 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos being purchased for the Sing50 concert organized by two newspapers run by SPH, for S$26,000 each, at the total cost of S$1,300,000.


Now, one might ask: why is Mr Seah getting so angry over S$1.3m being spent, since this isn’t taxpayer money? Good question — even though I asked it myself. Ha!

Here’s why I’m so upset — I think spending taxpayer money implementing lousy legislation is just money badly spent. This money with evil powers (if I may use a really strange metaphor) has resulted in our current media landscape, one lacking the voices of the Breakfast Network and Sintercom, two casualties of censorship in Singapore. The absence of loud competing voices has allowed SPH to grow as it has, and has thus allowed it to Sing50 as it has.

In my previous post, I observed that there was a shortfall of S$952k. I added:



Let me make a point in a more civilized manner.

The general elections in Singapore are coming soon, and our social media feeds will soon be full of GE-relevant articles and essays. But discussions about politics shouldn’t just be contained to election periods. All of us need to be politically aware and active so that we don’t end up having shit like this our taxpayer monies misused, or having policies enacted that few of us actually are happy with.

Everything is political. If we appear apathetic about our politics, politicians can and will assume that they can get away with anything, because no one’s watching, and no one cares.

Nowhere did I say that the government was funding this using taxpayer money. I’m just hoping that not one cent of my tax money goes towards ST’s and BT’s Sing50 event.

It’s enough that my government uses my tax money to create conditions that end up having my country rank 149th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Therefore, I repeat my point.

Everything is political. If we appear apathetic about our politics, politicians can and will assume that they can get away with anything, because no one’s watching, and no one cares.

I think the rage that people are expressing over the 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos stems in part from the frustration over the lack of press freedom here. Of course, it’s much easier to say wah piang waste money la! than it is to say the legislation that has allowed SPH to thrive is inappropriate given current conditions and citizen sentiment.

So I’ll say it again… WAH PIANG WASTE MONEY LA!!

I’m thoroughly disgusted with the Sing50 concert, and there are S$1.3m reasons why

You might have seen the headline already and thought, hmm, well done, supporting local music! The headline’s innocent enough: “$348k boost for home-grown music“. Wow! More money for starving musicians! Excellent!

The only problem? This.

The first initiative by the fund will be to buy 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos, at $26,000 each, for use at the Sing50 concert on Aug 7, which is organised by The Straits Times and The Business Times.

After the concert, the pianos will go to 50 primary and secondary schools for music education and choir practices.

Wait, what? 50 STEINWAY PIANOS??

If you have no idea what a Steinway is, here’s a short summary. A Steinway is a piano that sounds so good, most prestigious concert halls carry them. For example, the Esplanade Concert Hall has four Steinways that probably sound like God himself designed them.

Do any of the schools actually need the Steinways? And why 50 GRAND PIANOS, for —-‘s sake? Do any of them have concert halls as well designed as the one in the Esplanade?.. (A comment below pointed out that these may not be grand pianos, but upright pianos which are still double the price of a very good Yamaha upright. Thanks, Josephine!)

Here’s an idea: buy 50 pianos from a local company, and support a Singaporean business. Instead of China’s Lang Lang, brand the pianos with a local pianist’s name, and support a Singaporean musician (I randomly did a Google and found this lovely award-winning pianist, Abigail Sin).


(I’m a wee bit pissed off now, yes.)

OK, maybe I don’t have the complete picture, and maybe having Steinways in schools will actually help home-grown music. Somehow. But here’s the thing — home-grown musicians are making sacrifices and suffering for their art, and they’re only getting very minimal support for it.

The family that scrimps and saves just so their beloved daughter can study music — they could use S$1.3m.
The rock band that’s good enough to play at overseas festivals, but can’t because they have to work at their day jobs — they could use S$1.3m.
The entire local music industry that few people pay attention to — it could use S$1.3m.

It’s true that “home-grown music” is getting some funding. But S$1.3m is a huge pile of money to most Singaporeans, and getting 50 Steinways that will probably end up being underutilized just sucks. And where’s the remaining S$1m gonna come from? I HOPE MY TAX MONEY ISN’T GOING TOWARDS THAT.

Cost of 50 Steinway pianos is — S$26,000 x 50 = S$1,300,000
The fund currently has S$348,000.
Shortfall is — S$952,000.)

Let me make a point in a more civilized manner.

The general elections in Singapore are coming soon, and our social media feeds will soon be full of GE-relevant articles and essays. But discussions about politics shouldn’t just be contained to election periods. All of us need to be politically aware and active so that we don’t end up having shit like this our taxpayer monies misused, or having policies enacted that few of us actually are happy with.

Everything is political. If we appear apathetic about our politics, politicians can and will assume that they can get away with anything, because no one’s watching, and no one cares.

I hope the Sing50 concert planners do something to redeem themselves. If they have big budgets to play with, perhaps they could spend the money in ways that actually help the nation. Perhaps I should complain less and actually contribute more.

Ah, I’m a musician, perhaps I could play for the concert!

sigh pie

The Sing50 concert FAQ


Oh. Sigh pie…


I realize that some of this money comes from well-intentioned individuals and private companies. Generosity is a lovely thing, and anyone who gives a gift from the heart should be lauded. I am not finding fault with these generous donors. If you’re someone who contributed to this fund with the intention of helping local music, thank you. There are just so many other better ways to support home-grown music, and that’s what gets my goat.

Edit 2:
Let me be very clear about this, since some people seem to be misreading my writing. I’m not blaming the government for this. (The Sing50 concert people are the ones being a bit silly.) I’m implying that the power structures of our country allow for this kind of wastage, and that these structures exist because too many people are apathetic about politics. Everything is linked, but these links are very often invisible even to the people who use them.

Edit 3: See my follow up post here. People are misreading my post, and it’s bothering me. As far as I know, no taxpayer money is being wasted here.

I could have used the IB’s Theory of Knowledge: my unnecessarily traumatic intellectual journey

I stumbled across one of the May 2015 Theory of Knowledge (ToK) essay titles recently, and found myself wishing that someone had asked me questions like this when I was a teenager:

There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. (ibo.org)

I could have saved myself years of intellectual and spiritual turmoil, just by framing the questions I had about Christianity differently. Instead of asking questions framed by an atheist point of view (Is God real? Was Jesus really that special?), I could have asked questions framed by centuries of Christian struggle with faith and rationality (What is the nature of God? How far is logic relevant to my experience of God?).

My story (the short version)

After barely surviving my A-levels (I’ll need to blog about that soon), I decided that I would use my time in the army as a chance to prepare for university, so that I would not need to struggle through any examination ever again. So, I started reading everything I could lay my hands upon (thank you, National Library Board).

At that time, I had been in church for all of my 18 years, with my faith grounded upon what some might call a “fundamentalist” view of the world and the Bible. I believed that God was essentially an omnipotent (absolutely powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and benevolent (absolutely loving) being. I believed that the Bible was inerrant, and that we should interpret it literally.

When I encountered the first objections to this version of the Christian faith, my young, fragile, and immature faith was completely and utterly shaken. It was, ironically, by reading Carl Jung that I first saw an objection to my faith. I see this as ironic because Jung is now viewed as a key figure not only in psychoanalysis, but also as the father (in an indirect way) of the New Age movement — another (non-homogeneous type of) “faith” that can collapse under close scrutiny. I eventually left my church, partially because I could no longer reconcile my intellectual conclusions with my faith.

I now see that leaving the church was an unnecessary step to take.

I did not realise that there were different flavours of rationality, and that there were people of faith with robust intellectual lives. Our epistemologies (incomplete definition: how we decide what knowledge is valid) can be different. The assumptions that Karen Armstrong, Philip Yancey, and Christopher Hitchens make about “knowledge” are all slightly different.

The questions that they ask are never neutral.

In praise of the ToK syllabus

This brings me back to the IB’s Theory of Knowledge program. The questions that they ask can potentially give students a way to reconcile faith and rationality, if they receive the appropriate guidance at the appropriate times. The ToK syllabus planners probably realised this, which may have been the reason they added faith, intuition, memory, and imagination as “ways of knowing” in their updated syllabus.

Of course, if a student is guided by a teacher who is firmly atheist, the information fed to the student will always tend to nourish an atheist point of view. No matter how we try to systematize a syllabus, the human element of education can never be taken away. But this is exactly why I find myself admiring the ToK syllabus — even a stubbornly atheist teacher will have to admit that there are different kinds of knowing, some of which support and nourish intellectually mature versions of faith, especially if a student asks (pro-tip: don’t be shy about asking questions in class).

Admittedly, a stubbornly atheist teacher will always be able to find a way to destroy any religious view — there’s that human aspect of education again.

ToK tuition

I’ve been receiving requests over the past few months to tutor students in ToK, but I’ve also been trying to find ways to avoid the subject because of my unfamiliarity with the syllabus. But the more I read about it, the more I feel like I should be accepting these requests. This is a subject that gives teachers and students a chance to ask questions that are relevant even away from the realm of academia — and that’s something worth getting to.

Admittedly, I am new to this field. So, to prospective ToK students, here’s the deal.

Things I can offer to ToK students:
– guidance with essay structures, logic, and argumentation
– guidance on research (where to find resources, what to read)
– critique of work already done (especially with grammar, style, logic)

Things I cannot offer:
– any guarantees of an A grade
– resources for you to plagiarise (i.e. I will not do your work for you!)

A final word

I do not attempt to indoctrinate my students. As I’ve said before, I prefer to present my students with the relevant information, and to give them the tools to make up their own minds. If you’re a parent looking to engage my tuition services, just let me know your concerns, and we’ll work through them together.

‘The best things in life are free.’ Write about some of the occasions when you have found this to be true. (English O-level 2014, Syllabus 1128)

‘The best things in life are free.’ Write about some of the occasions when you have found this to be true.

Let us start with the proposition that it is often not easy to do the right thing. Yet, almost by definition, it is a good thing to do the right thing. It often costs us no money to do what is morally and ethically right, but these difficult things that litter the paths of our lives often prove to be the very best things in life.

I once found a fifty dollar note fluttering about in a car park, back in primary school when my daily allowance amounted to a grand thirty cents. This find obviously was an unbelievable fortune to my young eyes, a fortune I was loath to part with. My father turned to me and asked, “What shall we do with that now?” In school, we are trained not to take something that is not ours, and so, painful as it was, I replied, “I think we should give it to the police in case someone lost his money and wants to find it again.”

This decision may not have cost me any money in a technical sense, but in the moment it certainly felt like it did. Nevertheless, my father and I headed to the police station, where I am certain the adults traded many “I’m trying very hard not to laugh” smiles while trying to act with the necessary gravitas (dignity) to properly reward the child with good intentions. The police listened to my story, and — shockingly, to my present sensibilities — told us that they would keep the money for three days, just in case someone came forward to claim the money. They told us that if the money went unclaimed, I could rightfully claim it as mine, because of my honesty.

Psychologists (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind) have found that getting the approval of socially significant others — such as parents and the police — has a very significant effect on self-esteem. Our brains process this as a kind of pleasure, and indeed, on this occasion I enjoyed the collective approbation (approval/praise) of adults I both feared and respected. This experience proved to me that the best things in life are free. Incidentally, we managed to retrieve the money after the three days passed; the difficult and rewarding thing that I did indeed proved to be free.

On another occasion, I decided to help a stranger, a decision that cost me nothing and brightened the day of a complete stranger. I had been having an extremely stressful day studying in the library, when I decided to head to a snack vending machine to give myself some kind of snack boost. I was thoroughly preoccupied with panicky thoughts about the upcoming examinations while waiting for my turn. The girl in front of me stood aside with a strangely distressed look on her face while rummaging about for more coins. It was then that I noticed her choice of snack hanging off the edge of the vending machine’s shelf without being dispensed — a vending machine failure! She quickly realised that she had no coins left, and was about to leave without the snack she paid for when I told her to wait. There was an easy solution to the problem at hand. All I had to do was to buy the same snack that was hanging off the shelf — sugared peanuts — instead of the more expensive cookies I originally wanted. So, in a way, this decision not only cost me no money, it helped me save money. Her resulting smile was the ray of light I sorely needed that dark and anxious day, and I had no need for a psychologist to tell me that my brain processed this experience as pleasurable.

In our age of mass over-consumption, many of us need the reminder that the very best things in life — whether they are decisions, experiences, or objects — are often free, costing us no money. It may not always be easy, but it is a good thing, as comedian Russell Peters has famously said, to do the right thing.

(667 words)

Russian student takes the O-levels in Singapore, and makes good. An interview with Roman Tarassov of Shades In Grey!

I first met Roman Tarassov in my early twenties, when we were part of the same rock band. Roman is now the lead singer and mastermind of Shades In Grey, a rock band that has played in places as diverse as Japan, Taiwan’s Spring Wave Festival, and the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Singapore.

Listen to the band as you read the interview!

Who is Roman Tarassov?

I’m a full-time guitar instructor with 6 years of experience in working in various music schools, as well as providing private lessons. I also play guitar and sing in a rock band and write my own songs.

How was life as a student for you?

Life in school in Singapore was actually quite fun. Coming from a different country at the tender age of 15 and doing Sec 3 and 4 and O-levels in a local school was a very interesting experience. Although I knew the basics of the language, I had never really spoken or used any English prior to coming to Singapore, so initially it was a challenge. Having to do the Sec 2 exams and having to do them well before I could be admitted into Sec 3 as a foreign student was tough. Thankfully I managed to pull through, but still struggled a little bit with my English grammar for the next 2 years. Being in a science class didn’t help either as we were always pushed by our teachers to do better as we were the cream of the crop of the whole school.

I think my English teacher was a little bit tough on me, because she knew my background and therefore she wanted me to be even more hardworking in order to succeed and do well. I have to admit that even now I’m a bit of a lazy bum! Down the road, she was right to push me as I scored a solid B3 in O-level English, from just doing the language full-time for 2 years. Not bad, considering she would hardly give me anything more than a C5 in my other in class assignments. Her “tough love” for me was justified in the end.

How’s the English language for you now, away from school?

I still struggle occasionally with the English language, when it comes to writing lyrics. The music part has always been easy for me. So I think its important for anyone who’s looking into songwriting as a hobby or even being a professional in the field to be able to take in as much inspiration as possible during the study years. Just as its important for musicians to listen and to play as much music as possible, its very important for lyric writers to read and take in as many books, poems, novels as they can. Inspiration may come during the time when we least expect it, and it’s important to have a source to draw from, like the books we’ve been reading.

Mr Seah’s ending remarks!

Roman is perhaps being modest about his abilities. He also works as a voice talent, both in Russian and English. He attributes his vaguely American accent to his early English teachers, who were mostly American. If you ever meet Roman, ask him to do his Russian villain accent, it’s hilarious.

Over and above that, Roman writes lyrics that can be surprisingly good. My favourite line of all time, from his song “I can tell you” goes “You say that my life/ Has no meaning/ You are not completely right”. Wowza!

To engage Roman as a guitar teacher or voice talent, contact him at roaltar@gmail.com or 9six-six9-five-zero-zero-3.