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.

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?

Video games and the factory worker ethic

On Tuesday I had the good fortune of meeting an airline pilot by chance, who told me something that I had suspected but never confirmed: you can learn some of the skills involved in flying a plane with certain flight simulator games (he used Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator X” himself). These games are challenging and fun, and according to the pilot, mastery in such flight simulator video games is looked on favourably if you apply to be a trainee pilot. Play, in this case, is not just for its own sake but also for some kind of utility (i.e. learning how to fly a plane). This stands in stark, stark contrast to most video games out there on the market today, especially smartphone games (Flight Simulator X happens to run on non-mobile platforms).

Most mobile games nowadays have a learning curve that plateaus rapidly, usually within a few hours. Take any first-person shooter game for example — most games out there feature simplistic swipe-and-tap mechanisms that are miles away from the experience of firing a real gun. These games are usually “pay or grind to win”, requiring that a player either put in real-world currency (pay to win) or repeat certain actions/stages multiple times (grind to win) before they are allowed to advance. The use of “grind” exposes how this sometimes feels for players, with a game sometimes taking on a boring, tedious quality before bestowing on the player a reward that often requires more grinding to exploit fully.

The idea of grinding in games isn’t a new idea. I did it myself as a teenager when playing in multi-user dungeons (MUDs), but at least I had plenty of people to chat with in-game when grinding (the reason I type so quickly nowadays is that as a teenager I learnt how to type as quickly as possible to grind efficiently and chat online at the same time). What is new, I think, is the typical teenager’s view of these games.

Unlike 30-somethings today, most of our teenagers grew up in a world dominated by video games. When the phrase “childhood play” is mentioned, what do you think of? I think mostly of chasing people around in void decks and playgrounds, digging in the sand, and a very dangerous night of inadvertently creating a bomb with sparkler powder and a milo tin. Yes, it is mixed in with afternoons spent at the video game arcade (Alien vs Predator, woohoo!), but it is dominated by self-directed, physical play. Teenagers these days share some of my childhood experiences, but also will have experienced a whole host of computer-aided play — whether it be the old Pokémon games, Xbox games, or whatnot.

We need to interrogate what “play” means to us, especially because we have moved firmly into the smartphone age, and are moving into an age of augmented reality gaming (i.e. Pokémon Go). When thinking about mobile games that require grinding, I realise that I have almost completely stopped processing them as “play”. The gamer is forced into the mindset of a factory worker, logging the hours to “create” a product (with the sad irony that no product is created, other than an experience that the gaming company hopes will lead you into giving them money to avoid playing certain parts of the game).

That play should be fun is a point so obvious that it seems to need no discussion, but we have millions of people who work at mobile games that can feel like a factory shift, all the while thinking that they are indulging in play. In a strict sense they are participating in a game and are thus playing, but because so many of them are not actually having fun, I want to reframe this in-game grinding as factory work for the game companies. I have to admit the possibility that some gamers grind while entering into some kind of peaceful, focused, meditative space, and for them I would admit that this is play. (Meditative space is fun space!) Yet, I assert that this experience is rare because most people have no idea what this meditative space feels like in the first place.

Moreover, play in digital space is inferior to play in a physical space. Consider almost any kind of offline play, and you are bound to encounter something that will help people learn outside of the zone of play. If you play the guitar, if you play football, if you play with fire, if you play in the sand, if you play with your friends, you will pick up and refine your abilities in the musical, physical, visual, kinesthetic, social, and even intellectual realms. As children, many of us were introduced to the concept of fairness when deciding on the rules of the games we played together, after all. For most of us, it is innately rewarding to play these games and learn in these realms. It is just a vulgar accident in a vulgar society that learning in these realms helps us to get better grades and jobs. (Yes, I believe that society should be arranged in such a way that most of us get to act like rich people who do not need to work.)

Playing certain video games makes us more likely to want to get jobs, so that we can earn more money to pay for “luxuries” like in-game currency, so that we can unwind from the stressful jobs we work at. Playing in the offline world has the advantage of usually being cheap, requiring less money for us to have fun, while giving us the skills to earn more money in less time.

It is unfortunate that I keep on moving back to the necessity of making a living, but this is the world we live in, and we need to deal with it. I believe, however, that play can be our guide in deciding what to do with our lives. We need less of the factory worker ethic when playing, and more of a child’s wonder and excitement. Play should be fun — just like teaching can be fun. Are you having fun yet?

My Twitter is back up!

Sometimes students look at the articles I’ve saved on my own reading list app (I use pocket), and they wish that they had a nicely curated series of articles (like mine) to read. So I’ve revived my Twitter account! I’ll be posting tweets with links to articles that I think people should read.

If you’re doing the O-levels, you should understand the vocabulary in these articles, at the very least.

If you’re doing the A-levels, you need to go one step further: please be able to analyse each article, and be familiar with all the underlying issues.

Happy reading!

Oh shit, oh SHIT: “about two in five of the teens surveyed had paid for sex” — Straits Times, 10 April 2016

In the first-ever study of Singapore youth who have had sex with prostitutes, it was found that about two in five of the teens surveyed had paid for sex. The interviews were conducted with some 300 heterosexual boys aged between 16 and 19 who went to a government specialist clinic that treats sexually transmitted infections (STIs), between 2009 and 2014.

More teenage boys paying for sex: Study

 

Thankfully, the 40% of teens who paid for sex do not come from a random sample of teens — this sample was selected from boys who had already sought treatment for sexually transmitted infections. Still, the numbers are staggering — and these are only the boys who have sense enough to be worried about their health. What about the more oblivious ones?

These boys may be in the minority (given that there are over a million youth in Singapore), but the interviews published in the Straits Times suggest a male youth culture that has been poisoned by pornography and misguided peer expectations about sex:

“These boys want to feel accepted and want to boost their ego. They may not have a girlfriend to boast of, but they can pay to ‘conquer’ a prostitute. . . . The boys say their friends dare or urge them to go to a sex worker to initiate them into manhood.” – Associate Professor Wong Mee Lian

“My army mates talk openly about their sexual experiences and visiting prostitutes. And if you have nothing to share, they tease you. . . . I was a bit embarrassed (about being a virgin) and I wanted to fit in.” – 19 year old boy, who had his first sexual encounter with a prostitute last year when he was 18.

— Allure of paid sex for teenage boys

Over in Australia, researchers have found that girls as young as 15 are having to deal with porn addicted boys — pornography is shaping the behaviour and expectations of young teenage boys, and girls who are unfortunate enough to have to deal with them are crying out for help (source). I would be thoroughly surprised if this isn’t happening in Singapore as well, since pornography is also cited as one of the key reasons why our teenage boys are patronizing sex workers. (“Never having had a girlfriend, or one who is sexually active, and watching pornography frequently are the two strongest reasons why teenage boys turn to prostitutes, according to the first study here on teens who pay for sex.” — Allure of paid sex for teenage boys)

All of us — parents, teachers, children — cannot hide our heads in the sand any longer. We ignore these issues at our own peril. This isn’t just an issue about STIs, this affects children’s mental health too: teenagers who indulge in casual sex are more likely to suffer from depression than their peers who avoid casual sex (source).

This isn’t solely about sex education as we commonly conceive of it, either. We need to give our young ones a comprehensive education about love, even if we adults haven’t figured that out yet. At the very least, we need to tell them (and show them with our lives) that the most rewarding forms of sex often take place within loving relationships. We need to talk about pre-marital sex. We need to explore with our children why some married people stray from the boundaries of their marriage to commit adultery. We need to talk about pornography. We need to speak openly of these issues so that our children are as prepared as we can get them to negotiate the minefields of human sexuality. And yes, we do need to teach abstinence, but together with all of the above.

The more conservative segment of Singapore cannot scream and shout about abstinence-only sex education. Too many studies have shown that this kind of approach is “scientifically and ethically problematic” (source), to put it mildly. Our society will survive this crisis, of course. But what kind of romantic world will we be leaving our children to inherit, if we take no action?

Singapore Children’s Society chief executive Alfred Tan states the obvious (in the ST article), but his statement is no less important for it: “We have to start talking about sexuality issues with our children, to let them know what’s right and what’s wrong, when they are as young as possible.”


PS. I have to apologize for the clickbait title, but I feel that this is an issue more crucial than any change to the PSLE t-score or whatnot. The habit of looking for instant gratification is exactly what’s wrong with our society, and not just in terms of sexuality.

 

The musical I co-wrote will be performed this weekend, 1-3 April 2016!

This is just a shout-out to people who would like to see the other side of my work. I wrote the lyrics to My Love is Blind, a musical about a man who goes blind in his twenties, and had my sticky fingers involved in the music and bits of the script as well.

See what The Online Citizen had to say about the showcase last year:

“Let The Blind Lead The Blind”: Local musical confronts stereotypes of the visually impaired

Tan Guan Heng wrote his first novel My Love Is Blind in the early 1990s. It was a painstaking process: he had to first type his manuscript out in Braille, then record himself reading it aloud, before sending the tape to a typist for transcription. The book was published in 1995.

“It’s semi-autobiographical,” he said about the novel, which revolves around a young man learning to carry on with life after losing both his sight and the love of his life. “About 70 per cent of it comes from my own life.”

Twenty years later, his story is close to coming to life on the stage. Stella Kon – a Singaporean playwright who wrote the well-loved Emily of Emerald Hill – had helped him edit his novel all those years ago, and thought of it as a good story for a musical. Through Musical Theatre Live! (MTL) – a non-profit organisation of which Kon is chair – a team was put together to life the story off the page and on to the stage.

Get your tickets here — http://ticketingmtl.peatix.com/

Of course, if you want special ticketing arrangements (limited number of guest tickets lah, nod nod wink wink), feel free to contact me.

PS. If you get free tickets, please consider donating to the production company — writers, actors, set designers, sound crew, etc. need to pay their bills.

PPS: Dear friends and family. DON’T SAY BO JIO OK? 😀

On ignorance and politics in Singapore

A fellow tutor-blogger recently wrote one of the loveliest and funniest sentences I have seen recently, a sentence that possesses such an impact because it is simple and true:

If you are a Singaporean GP student and you don’t know what GRC stands for, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late. — Mr Steven Ooi (https://gptuitionsg.wordpress.com/2016/02/04/updating-singapores-political-system/)

While younger students could be forgiven for their ignorance, what is less forgivable is the profound level of ignorance among some Singaporeans, an ignorance that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong references in the speech Mr Ooi links us to:

By design, the President has no executive, policy-making role. And this remains the prerogative of the elected Government commanding a majority in Parliament. But in the last Presidential Election, many people didn’t understand this. I suspect even now, quite a number of people still don’t understand this. — PM Lee (http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/updating-the-political-system)

Mr Ooi has quite rightly pointed out that the speech linked above is engaging, and if one actually reads the entire thing, the speech does inform us of several important aspects of Singapore’s political system. However, one thing Mr Ooi (kindly?) neglects to observe is the way in which PM Lee’s speech plays upon the very ignorance that he has observed. PM Lee’s words, outside of Singapore’s political and historical context, sound very pleasing — but one has to remember that our PM is, after all, a politician. And you know that joke about politicians and lawyers…

I am not accusing PM Lee of being a liar, of course, but of obscuring the true state of matters by selectively ignoring several troublesome aspects of the performance of his government so far.

For example, PM Lee points out that our government has “(invested) in education at all levels” for many years. This is true: the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been funded enough such that we have seen teachers’ pay rise over the last few years. This has supposedly allowed people to “achieve their aspirations for themselves and for their children”.

Really?

Those of us in the education industry know very well the systemic inequalities that have been worked into the system, whether intentionally or not. Our school days are short enough such that a billion dollar tuition industry chugs along, rewarding richer families disproportionately; it is not an accident that students from the top schools tend to come from these families.

All over Singapore are students who aspire to enter a local university — and many of them will fail to achieve that aspiration. I do have to note that our education system is strong enough to see students who have never received private tuition go on to get degrees, but it remains true that you can pay top dollar for a tuition teacher who can give a child a level of attention that other students will never get in a typical classroom.

It is not just attention from a teacher that matters, of course; the quality of teacher also matters. I have repeatedly heard horror stories of teachers who barely do any teaching in class (ask the students around you about teachers who screen videos in class without any accompanying discussion, or about teachers who choose to complain about their personal troubles without linking it to any teaching point, etc). Then we have “English Literature teachers” who cannot tell the difference between an author and a narrator (shudder…).

PM Lee references many more issues in his speech, and beyond education, another issue that really irritates me is the way the word “multi-racial” is used here:

Fourthly, our political system must uphold a multi-racial society. Multi-racialism is fundamental to our identity as a nation because we have three major races in Singapore. We have all the world’s major religions in Singapore, and race and religion will always be fundamental tectonic fault-lines for us. If we ever split along one of these faultlines, that’s the end of us. — PM Lee

I fully agree that our society has fault lines, but even our young students are aware that we use the categories of “Singaporean” and “foreigner” much more frequently to point out difference, as compared to the Chinese/Malay/Indian/Others (CMIO) separation that was more evident here in the 1960s. PM Lee is definitely aware of this issue, but still he chooses to emphasize the CMIO classification, which has been criticized as a hindrance for Singapore. It is as if PM Lee is gearing his speech towards an audience whose political education has been dominated by “Social Studies“.

GP students have to be engaged with the world around them, and being able to engage with the issues mentioned in PM Lee’s speech is necessary. (If you are a Singaporean GP student and your knowledge of Singapore does not extend beyond what you have learnt from your Social Studies textbook, you are ignorant about your own country, you’re in a hole where your GP is concerned, and you’d better dig yourself out before it’s too late.) It is also necessary for the citizenry to be well-informed, in order that we have the “good politics” that PM Lee ostensibly desires.

Unfortunately (or fortunately,  depending on your perspective), Singapore remains the gilded cage that makes it too easy to set one’s political awareness at the level of “blissfully ignorant”. I fully agree with PM Lee when he says that “No ruling party or government must ever be afraid of open argument” — but what does this ruling party have to fear when the vast majority of Singaporeans are neither willing nor able to participate in that argument?

My student’s perspective on those parasitical smartphones

This is something a 13-year-old student wrote about smartphones and how his friends use them. The fact that smartphone addiction can feed on a person’s character and social life completely eluded me when I was writing my previous post. In his own words:

My friends spend their whole recess not by playing soccer, not by exercising, but by playing games on their phones. When I play soccer, I feel refreshed. Although a little smelly (probably very), I feel healthier after a good game. However, as for my friends who play with their phones the entire day, their brains are dulled and their character changes. They become more obsessed with their phones and spend less time with their friends. As a result, they lose friends, are less healthy, and they become less intelligent. The reason they lose friends is because instead of spending time with their buddies, they choose to let their phones consume their time. While people are bonding and having the time of their lives, they are addicted to their phones, and not socializing (omg). From my perspective, their phones are their jailers as they prevent them from interacting with others.


I should have realized this before, but of course people who spend too much time staring at screens end up with much less time to spend with other people. How sad.