Do I say “migrant workers” or “foreign workers”? What’s the difference?

[This question came up in a chat group I’m in. My response below.]

Let’s think about how the words “migrant” and “foreign” are used.

When I am dealing with an idea that is completely unfamiliar, I say that “the idea is foreign to me”. When an object that does not belong in a human body enters it — like a sharp piece of something — we say something like “the foreign object entered his body, causing injury”.

When we think of “migrants”, on the other hand, we think of migrant birds, migrant animals — or the fact that the vast majority of us (Singaporeans) are either descendants of people who migrated from lands some distance away or first-generation migrants.

Describing people as “foreign workers”, therefore, foregrounds the differences between “us” and “them” — they are foreign, they are alien, they are something other than us.

But when we say “migrant workers”, we leave more linguistic space to acknowledge commonalities. They are migrants, and we are migrants and the children of migrants.

Mr Seah’s plans for giving tuition during Singapore’s Covid-19 April 2020 “circuit breaker” (with some additional thoughts)

[Summary: things are getting serious, and I’m moving all my lessons online. I hope everyone is OK with that!]

SOME PRELIMINARY THOUGHTS ON THE COVID-19 SITUATION IN SINGAPORE AND THE WORLD

I think PM Lee has been right in his evaluation of the coronavirus. It could take years of us living with these social distancing measures, until a vaccine is found, or perhaps until the virus becomes endemic and less likely to kill people. This means we’ll have to get used to staying home much, much more.

I suspect we’ll end up thinking of yesterday’s announcements as a little too gentle for how the crisis will play out in Singapore, and part of why I’m saying that is because I really hope that I end up wrong (my immediate family members are in the at-risk groups, and I really hate that). I think Malaysia’s decisions have been more appropriate in comparison to ours, and even more than 2 weeks after their MCO or movement control order (remember the mad causeway rush?), their Covid-19 cases are still increasing rapidly. They announced their MCO on 16 March when they had 566 cases, and Singapore announced our “circuit breaker” on 3 April, when we had 1114 cases. Quick maths: considering that Malaysia’s population is roughly 6 times of ours, we have considerably more cases per person. And our version of their MCO is still less drastic than theirs, with the Malaysia arresting those who refuse to go home, but with no mention of Singapore doing the same.

I fear we will see quite a huge rise of Covid-19 cases here within the next two weeks, because Malaysia’s more drastic measures have seen their cases continue to rise, even though their reported cases may be significantly lagging behind with under-testing. The more Covid-19 cases we have, the more likely it is for any of us to get it and unknowingly spread it as asymptomatic carriers. As the spread of the virus gets wider, the more likely it is that my family members may get that (and remember, I hate that because they’re in the at-risk groups).

To remind us of our government’s message from yesterday (even though I clearly don’t agree with the extent of our measures):

Credit to CNA

Members of the public are strongly advised to stay home and avoid going out unnecessarily, except for daily necessities, essential services or urgent medical needs. Social contact should be limited to immediate family members in the same household. (Not I say one, is gahmen say one.)

MR SEAH’S CIRCUIT BREAKER

It is with sadness, therefore, that I have decided to move all of my tuition sessions online. I will be using a combination of Google Drive, video calls on various apps (Zoom, perhaps), and my usual practice of answering questions over text.

It is a sad thing to do, because I really value my time with my students. (I hope they do to!) When I don’t feel overworked, tuition sessions are a highlight of my day. I get into a flow state, and I suspect that some of my students do too. As a tutor, I always pay careful attention to non-verbal communication, which includes everything from body language to eye movements. I think my body language probably conveys a whole lot of information to my students, and we’re going to lose that. We’re also going to lose the joy that we get from the fact of face-to-face social contact.

Because non-verbal communication is so important in my teaching, I suspect that the quality of my teaching will drop, at least for awhile, while I learn how to teach at the same level as I would in person. I’m going to be learning as quickly as I can, that I promise.

I understand that some of you may not want to pay the full rate for tuition online, and that some of us may be having financial issues as this crisis drags on. While I hope that everyone continues paying my full rates, I won’t be dropping any student if their parents decide not to pay me in full. However, we all have to continue to pay our bills, and I will eventually have to give priority to those who pay me in full.

I welcome questions and comments from everyone. Agree or disagree with my choices and evaluation of the situation? Let me know! Let’s hope this all plays out as happily as it can.

Social media brings many benefits. Discuss.

Even schools and teachers use social media these days, with lessons, assignments, and whole-class discussions conducted on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. Clearly, they think that social media brings many benefits. I agree that it does, but we have to be careful to bring nuance to our understanding of social media, not just because it poses profound dangers for individuals and societies, but because it also has an immense potential for good, a potential that unfortunately only has been fulfilled in very limited situations.

Like any good tool, social media brings many benefits when used well. Students who already have good learning habits (e.g. the ability to ask meaningful and exciting questions; the skills to pursue answers to these questions; the know-how to share knowledge with others) can leverage social media into becoming powerful learning tools for themselves. A student who is aware, for example, of communities of experts who share their knowledge for free on forums like StackExchange, and who also has the cultural and digital literacy to take advantage of these forums, automatically has an advantage over a student without these skills and knowledge. For experts in a field, it can be innately rewarding to share one’s knowledge, even for free; at times, it also forces the expert to come to a deeper knowledge of his domain when s/he has to break down complex concepts and ideas into simpler ones for the purpose of teaching an amateur. These benefits of social media are especially important when they concern communities that otherwise would not be able to form or communicate, like the handful of musicians in Singapore interested in avant-garde post-rock improvisation — there are social connections, art, and frissons of joy that would not otherwise be in the world, without social media to connect these individuals.

Unfortunately, the power social media has to connect individuals has resulted in the worst kinds of people finding each other and gaining power for themselves. Most reprehensible are the communities that glorify racism, sexual assaults, and other kinds of injustices not fit to mention in polite company. While much attention has been given to how rumours, lies, and various kinds of other propaganda have spread on social media (i.e. fake news), less attention has been given to Facebook’s complicity in the Rohingya genocide not far north of Singapore’s borders, in Myanmar (Myanmar’s military has been using the darker tendencies of social media to allow posts that inflame our tribal tendencies to stoke hatred of Muslims).

Moreover, the negative impacts on students can be legion. Teachers and parents continue to be concerned about children who unknowingly sexualise themselves on social media while simply trying to fit in with internet trends, with sexualised girls seen as less intelligent and less worthy of help than other children, among other consequences. Let us be clear: if sexual assault were the only problem, many of us would be baying for the blood of rapists and molesters, instead of victim blaming. But the consequences of the sexualisation of children are present even without the presence of such criminals, and so we worry. The problems of addiction to social media also are well known, with predictable negative effects on student performance and health.

Still, we have to acknowledge the power that social media carries that can be used for good. It has many benefits, but many problems which are inherent to digital technologies at large (especially since they are embedded in a larger context of profit-driven capitalism). Social media is a tool — we have to use it well.

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Write about a time when you felt anxious. What did you do to cope with the feeling?

At the end of my Secondary 2 year, I did badly enough for the end-of-year examinations that I was almost not promoted to the next year. When my teachers were going through the examination papers, I had to beg and plead for a few marks for my Mathematics and Science papers so that I could ensure my promotion. Thankfully, I succeeded in that effort, barely getting through the promotion criteria. After this experience, I promised myself that I would not put myself through that anxiety ever again; paradoxically, that made my Secondary 3 year one of the most anxious years I had ever experienced. I coped, but just barely, both in healthy and unhealthy ways, and has been to this day a very important learning experience for me.

Entering the Secondary 3 year, in order to avoid the stress and anxiety of the previous year, I started studying even before classes had properly started. While my friends would play football or go out together after school, I would head straight home or to the library to study. After a few class tests, the results started showing — I started to get straight-A’s, something I had never achieved before. My friends were happy for me, but they started expressing concern for me. What had happened to the playful and social teenager they used to know?

Unbeknownst to them, I had carried the anxiety of my Secondary 2 year straight through to the Secondary 3 year; the anxiety of needing to fight so hard for my promotion was so hard to shake off, I had actually studied straight through my November and December holidays. Not only had I continued studying, I also had developed a very unhealthy caffeine habit, mainly via the consumption of up to six cups of coffee a day. Because of this bad habit, my anxiety did not abate during the holidays. I believed that by studying hard through my holidays, I would do well in my Secondary 3 year, therefore doing away with my anxiety. This proved to be true, in some way; since I was doing well in school, I was no longer anxious about my results. However, I was still anxious — I was anxious about anxiety itself! (How silly I was.)

After the mid-year examinations, I started to cope in more healthy ways with this anxiety. Instead of spending as much as possible of my free time studying, I made sure that I spent enough time with my friends and my hobbies while ensuring that my grades did not suffer that much (an occasional B was really no cause for worry). I also made sure to get fitter, while drinking less coffee, because these changes would help me feel less anxious while also giving me more energy. Life finally got better for me, because I realised that I would rather get a few B’s than feel anxious all the time. I had fun with my guitar, my band, my friends — and my studies were doing decently, even though my grades were no longer all perfect.

This kind of balance in life is the key for me, to avoid the extremes of perpetual anxiety and the ennui that precedes failure. If I only I could teach my younger self this!

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H2 Economics vs General Paper: and why I’m taking the H2 Economics examination in 2018

[W]hy do we study perfect markets, where firms are price takers? One reason is that they provide a useful approximation to the real world and give us many insights into how a market economy works. [. . .] Another is that perfect markets provide an ideal against which to compare the real world, since in perfect markets we see resources being used and allocated efficiently. (John Sloman, Alison Wride, and Dean Garratt. Economics. 8th Edition, Pearson, 2012. Quote from p.32)

H2 Economics vs General Paper: and why I’m taking the H2 Economics examination in 2018

In plain English, when we say that something — let’s say, the way a society is structured — is “efficient” and “ideal”, we are making a normative statement, or a value judgement. We are saying that the society under discussion makes such a good use of its resources (and hence is efficient) to the extent that we see it as so good and desirable, it might as well be perfect (and hence is ideal). Of course, Sloman et al. are not saying that “perfect markets” are ethically, morally, or aesthetically perfect. They are simply “perfect” in a very limited sense delineated by the field of economics, which includes the idea that firms are “price takers”, meaning that firms do not have the power to set the prices of the goods they sell themselves.

[Note:
Sloman et al. use the word “efficiently” in the sense that “efficiency is achieved when each good is produced at the minimum cost and where individual people and firms get the maximum benefit from their resources” (p.10). I want to argue that “ideal” here means “existing only in the imagination”, but given their reasoning (“since in perfect markets we see resources being used and allocated efficiently”), I find it difficult to make that argument.

To me, what is most suitable — and therefore, ideal — for the global society is a market system that is regulated to the extent that we bring the full force of our human capabilities to combat the ills of unsustainable human activity (i.e. climate breakdown, over-production/over-consumption, etc.), and to build a society that is inclusive in the most profound sense. Of course, to make that argument, I would have to pivot away from the discipline of economics as it is taught and examined in JCs in Singapore!]

In the hands of the wrong student or teacher, confusions between value judgements and value-free statements (i.e. normative statements and positive statements) can proliferate. Bombarded by words like “maximum satisfaction”, “perfect”, “efficient”, and “ideal”, many students end up thinking that what their economics teachers are talking about is some kind of utopia designed by economists that the real world has failed to live up to. In the hands of a clumsy student, information from the H2 Economics syllabus can appear in a GP essay with disastrous results. Some students end up defending the value of competition, for example, by saying that more competition will result in greater productivity.

(If only I had a dollar for every time…)

When I get new students studying GP and H2 Economics for the first time, I usually have to work to chip away at these types of misunderstandings that crop up with alarming frequency (alarming because I see H2 Economics as one of the propaganda tools of the neoliberal movement). In 2017, I thought to myself: why not tackle these misunderstandings at their root, and teach both H2 Economics and GP?

I started thinking aloud with some of my students, and close to the end of 2017, I ended up making a promise to them: that I would take the H2 Economics examination in 2018. While I feel a slight feeling of regret creeping in (the Sloman textbook is remarkably boring), I’m finding motivation by telling myself that beyond expanding my customer base by expanding my teaching repertoire, I will be uniquely positioned to battle the misconceptions (that just so happen to be helpful to the neoliberals) that so many students end up with — and with the amount of stuff that I post online, perhaps I can be of help to the larger community as well.

So stay tuned, Mr Seah’s H1 and H2 Economics tuition is coming soon!

Tackling student sleep issues (Book recommendation!)

For a number of my students every year, one of the first things I have to do is to make sure they are sleeping properly. The signs are easy to recognise: when they are trying to solve a particular problem (let’s say, figuring out how to respond to a question), their eyes sometimes glaze over. Sometimes they blink and keep their eyes closed a beat too long. Sometimes their eyes are red the moment I see them.

Students with sleep issues can often be very high-performing students, but the fact is, they could perform much better if they were sleeping better.  Some poorly performing students can even make a jump in their academic performance just by being more mindful of their sleep. In fact, I am willing to bet that when they become more disciplined about their sleep, their lives get better in general.

I’ve written about sleep before, but this is such an important issue, that I feel the need to write about it again. To be perfectly honest, I sometimes suffer from insomnia — I’ve been calling myself a semi-regular insomniac for years. In the last month, I’ve actually had a number of weeks of bad sleep, to the point where I realised that I had to deal with it head-on. In the past, my go-to solution had been to go to my doctor for sleeping pills, but this time I wanted to get to the root of the issue. I wanted to really understand why I was feeling and sleeping so badly.

It was therefore with immense pleasure that I found The Sleep Solution by W. Chris Winter, a specialist sleep doctor. The science he presents in this book has been so helpful to me, I’ve been recommending it to my friends and family (particularly those who complain about not being able to sleep). It’s an added plus that Winter writes with a conversational tone that is often laugh-out-loud funny, even if some of his jokes can fall a little flat.

You can read a review of the book here, and you can check the availability of the book at the NLB (Singapore) here. People who have an NLB Overdrive account can get the book here (but most of you should go with the physical book since comprehension tends to be higher).

If you’re a parent or student dealing with sleep issues, go read the book. Well, if you’re human, just read it anyway. You’ll feel better. I’m not even finished with it, and I’m sleeping better already — I’ve even let go of my identity as a “semi-regular insomniac”. It’s that good.

An educator’s perspective on “fake news”

I intend to send this in to the Select Committee that has been formed to tackle fake news in a few days. Comments and suggestions are welcome, but I also encourage my readers to send in their views.


I am a private tutor who teaches General Paper (GP), and new students sometimes say: “I thought I wasn’t allowed to criticise Singapore’s government in my essays!”

When it comes to misperceptions of the world, my new students start off with plenty. It’s already an uphill battle to fight these errors, and I believe that introducing legislation aimed at battling fake news will only further stoke needless fear into a populace already unsure of those (in)famous “OB markers“. This would especially be so if the legislation is aimed at social media, the ground for so much of our political discourse these days.

I completely understand if politicians think that this fear of authority, particularly the fear of speaking out against authority, is a good thing — surely it makes a population easier to control, in some ways. However, considering the current government’s goals, this fear that has worked so well in the past may prove counterproductive now, especially when we consider Singapore’s economic productivity.

Already we are struggling to attain a level of productivity comparable to other developed countries, but this makes no apparent sense: aren’t we topping the charts when it comes to the famed international student assessment benchmark, PISA? Why is this not translating to high levels of productivity in the workplace? My opinion is that the fear of authority — which is so effectively worked into Singaporeans via the education system, national service, and our national bureaucracies — plays a huge role in this lack of productivity.

The economy from here on out is going to be ever-shifting and unpredictable. The current government correctly places an emphasis on lifelong learning, since it is those with the ability to react effectively to such changes who will be more productive in this new landscape. It isn’t just knowledge that is important. What is crucial is the ability to use that knowledge, to test data against reality, to tell falsehood from truth — in short, we need to know how to solve those inevitable problems that arise daily for the modern worker.

The fear of authority acts against this skill of problem-solving that necessarily involves some level of risk-taking, and therefore the risk of angering authority, especially in the context of the modern office.

Witnessing history unfold before us with the presidency of Donald Trump and the attendant phenomenon of fake news is worrying, but we must be careful of knee-jerk reactions that will only set us back as a nation. What we need to combat fake news is a Singaporean public that can think critically for itself. It may be a public that’s more resilient to persuasion, but isn’t that the goal here, to have a public that can resist manipulation by malign forces?