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”.


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.

Smartphones: mind-controlling parasites we love

For a few years, I’ve been affectionately referring to my smartphone as my mind-control device. Let’s all admit that almost all of us are firmly addicted to our smartphones because of the tiny spurts of dopamine (one of the “pleasure chemicals” in our brains) we get when we see our “likes” increasing, or when we read an entertaining article, or when we — once again! — match three of those colourful candies/fruits/jewels. This reward system that has been designed into our smartphones has a huge impact on our thoughts and desires, and has caused what I call a “crisis of attention” in too many of our children and a considerable number of adults as well. For some, smartphones have become parasites.

Parasites are creatures that live by feeding off their hosts, at the expense of these hosts. Our smartphones feed off our attention (and addiction), and some psychologists have pointed to our devices as the reason behind many of us becoming even more stupid than we already are, with some students now unable to focus and sustain attention at a level that can be quite shocking. Of course, there are people who have more of a symbiotic relationship with their smartphones, using them in ways that are beneficial to their own lives, even if they are no less attached to their devices. However, the way I see some of my students use their smartphones worries me — there are students who jump straight to their smartphones after lessons, to feed their faces with whatever video, game, or social media post that catches their fancy. I suspect that for most of them, the smartphone is more parasite than symbiotic helper.

I have this suspicion because I also am surgically attached to my smartphone.

For a period of time longer than I care to admit, I was a little bit too interested in social media and gaming on my phone. As a result, I was slowly but surely growing even more stupid than I already was. Reading still occupied a considerable amount of my time, but much less than it should have. It was a distressing experience realising that I was losing my ability to focus, knowing what to do about it (i.e. not letting social media and games ruin my brain any further), and being unable to actually stop myself. I found myself repeating this cycle over and over again: I would resolve to do something productive, stay on task for half an hour, get distracted by something on my smartphone, and two hours later, realise that I had wasted all that time on something completely trivial.

My solution to this problem was to fill my phone’s home screen with apps that served as reminders for me to make better choices: three dictionaries (Oxford Dictionaries, Cambridge Dictionaries Online, and The Free Dictionary), Pocket (an app to save articles for reading later), Overdrive (an eBook reader that allows me to borrow eBooks from the library), and so on. I still spend hours on my phone, but at least most of that time is spent away from trivial games and social media.

I experienced my own crisis of attention, and I am seeing some of my students struggle with theirs. It is simultaneously heartening and saddening when a student gets frustrated with himself because he wants to focus, but finds himself unable to actually do it. Beyond the fact that I can be very boring at times as a tutor, I think that some students are actually now unable to sustain attention because of the way the smartphone structures their experience. When we use our smartphones, our attention needs to be cut up into tiny pieces in order to keep track of the multiple elements that are crying out for our attention. (Click like! This article will amaze you! 5 facts to entertain and amuse you!) This ability to split attention is important especially in our digital age, but if we are not careful, this ability will come at the expense of our power to sustain attention.

The fact that games and social media can sometimes be helpful complicates things (hello, all you digital entrepreneurs), but for most of us, it would probably be healthy to take a good, hard look at what our smartphones are doing to us.

I now spend hours reading on my phone (the National Library Board’s Overdrive is the most wonderful thing), but it sometimes makes me forget that the sensuality of reading a physical book is just so much more enjoyable. My smartphone, perhaps, still controls my mind a little bit too much — but at least it serves me now. Be careful, people, be careful. Do not let your smartphones be your beloved mind-controlling parasites.

The cyclist who knocked down the 3-year-old boy in a park connector is an idiot.


Ouch 😥

If you haven’t been keeping up with the news, a speeding cyclist recently knocked down a 3-year-old boy who was jogging for the first time at a park connector (PCN) with his father. The father estimates that the cyclist was riding at 40 kmh (!) at the time. The accident knocked out one of the boy’s teeth and left him with bruises, a swollen lip and a 1 cm cut on his chin. And here’s the thing that really enrages me:

He (the father) had asked the cyclist why he did not stop.

The latter said his bike had no brakes and his feet were clipped to the pedals.

WHAT?! This is what we save vulgar language for (but I’ll try to restrain myself). He was probably riding a fixie (YouTube video on how to stop), and stopping distance at that speed with no brakes is really, really far (see, for example, this video at 0:32) especially if the cyclist didn’t know what he was doing (likely).

I’m an avid cyclist (~115 km in the last 5 days, woohoo!), and I ride mostly on PCNs. There are peak periods on PCNs — weekends, evenings, and so on — when families are out with little children who aren’t really aware that there are idiotic cyclists sharing the paths with them. Many cyclists are sensible, but some are somewhat lacking in common sense.

So, here are a few tips for cyclists on the PCNs.

(For the rest of you, just be very careful! Hold on to your children! Keep to one side!)

Tips for cyclists

1. Go fast only when the path is completely clear.

I’ll admit that I break the nParks speed limit (15 kmh) pretty often. But I only do it when I am absolutely certain that the path is clear. When there are human beings in front of you, slow down, especially if there’s a chance that they will suddenly swerve into your path.

Watch out especially for:
– toddlers
– teenagers who might playfully push their friend(s) directly into your path
– joggers who might execute U-turns into your path
– cyclists who aren’t paying attention

Even if you’re riding slowly, be very careful.

I was once cycling with my girlfriend, and we saw a toddler playing ahead of us. We slowed way down (jogging speed).  The mother of the toddler was telling him to be careful, and as she did that, the kid swerved right into our paths. It was a narrow miss. Even at that speed, you still have to give allowance for some stopping distance. God help you if your brakes are worn. (I have nice fancy disc brakes! :D)

2. Be aware that your bell can make people panic

When approaching joggers/walkers from behind, be prepared for people to jump into your path as a reflex, especially if your bell is loud or if you ring it too late.

I’ve found that shouting ahead (e.g. “Hello! Can I pass please?”) tends to give better results, since people can register both your position and speed with a little bit more ease. Saying “thank you” will also sometimes get you a cheerful response!

3. Keep your eyes open, all the time

I understand that some of us ride to near-exhaustion, and it gets very tempting to put your head down (i.e. staring at the pedals) at that point. Please, avoid doing that. Squishy humans can come out of nowhere, and you really, really do not want to be surprised by a kid running out from the bushes.

4. Keep to the left — but not all the time

There are certain PCNs where it makes sense to keep to the right, rather than the left. Exercise your judgement.

5. If you’re going as fast as a car, use the roads


Have a former HOD and current PhD candidate as your tutor!

A former HOD who teaches English and GP is looking for a few students. (Full disclosure: she’s my cousin.) She lives in the west side of Singapore, and is competing directly with me for students. Time for me to up my game! Here she is in her own words:


As I move into a new phase of life, pursuing my PhD in Special Education, I would still like to remain connected to the teacherly side of myself. Tuition, to me, cannot simply be cramming information into a poor student’s head for the sake of A’s; it has to be good quality teaching, though on a much more personal scale as compared to the classroom. Attached below is an account of my journey thus far. Come create new stories with me!

9683-2028 (SMS/whatsapp)

“Ms Wang, is teaching us the lowest point in your career?” A student asked me a few weeks ago. I burst out laughing. “Why would you think that?”

“Because it must be so difficult. We must be so difficult to teach,” the student sighed. I had just joined the school and been teaching the class for about 7 weeks. It was a writing class and most had a weak foundation and knew it, but I assured them we would get better at it together.

“Do you like teaching us?” the student continued, “Have you always wanted to teach?”

In fact, I had always wanted to teach, and almost applied for a teaching scholarship after my A-levels. I remember spending many hours of my early childhood at school with my father, who was a senior teacher, watching him interact with his students. He also entertained us with many stories of his sing-a-long sessions with his classes and the funny things that happened during the school day when he returned home from work. We often encountered his students on family outings and they would approach us to greet and chat with him. I listened to these stories and observed the conversations with much awe and wanted to be just like my father when I grew up.

My father knew I wanted to be a teacher too but felt it was not a vocation meant for everyone and could wait till when I was in a better position to make the decision. “Teaching is not quite the same as it was when Papa started on it years ago,” he told me, and moving from school straight back into school did not necessarily make for a better teacher. “Gather some bit of experience outside of the school environment first,” he suggested after I had graduated. So that was what I did. Years later, I was to see how my experiences outside of teaching helped to shape my competence as a teacher and mentor to my students, and after three years “out there” with the Ministry of Defence and social service sector, I joined the Singapore Education Service in 2001.

In the early years of my teaching career, I had in my mind the image of a teacher that was conceptualised through the advice of many senior colleagues at my first school. “Always be stern when you meet a class for the first time,” was one such piece of advice. “It’s a good thing to teach in a neighbourhood where you do not live,” was another. The reasoning was that students needed to fear you, not fancy you; physical distancing helped you keep the “right” perspective of this relationship. Knowing them too well could only serve to disappoint because it was not uncommon for disciplinary cases to become criminal cases at this school. Besides, there was always this sense that chasing relationships with students was akin to running for a popularity contest which mature and serious teachers just did not do.

Consequently, I constructed an image of myself as a friendly but firm teacher whose decisions must not be questioned. I was also assigned to be an officer and teacher-in-charge of an all boys uniformed group, which worked very well in cementing that image. My voice could be heard from one end of the parade square to the other and I demanded absolute discipline from my boys. Students caught smoking were not simply brought to the general office but dragged by the collar to receive discipline. In my mind, I had to be tougher than the parang-wielding kids in my school.

Then, in my final year at school before I was to leave for a posting at MOE Headquarters, a student in my class came to me after lessons one day and asked to speak in private. What he chose to confide in me became a criminal case involving the police. I spent many after-school hours thereafter escorting the student to hospital to meet with the medical social worker and ensuring that the student was handed over to his parent after each session.

Invariably, I started to learn more about the student and his family, as well as his daily routines and social activities outside of school. I began to understand more of his inner life, the very real anxieties of his parent, and how these affected his development as a student and a person. Through this I came to value that every student has a story that cannot be casually disregarded in a proper student-teacher relationship. I started to think that perhaps if I had spent more time knowing my students as individuals rather than as products of a conveyor belt system for grades and paper qualifications, they might not find themselves in as much trouble or pain as they did. A teacher is one part of a community of students, families, and educators. Teaching is a community activity.

In 2004, I accepted a transfer to the Policy Wing of the MOE and spent 2½ years staffing the ministers, writing cabinet papers and attending parliamentary meetings as a notetaker for political leaders. I took up the position in a bid to determine for myself if the classroom was indeed where I wanted to be, or if I had prematurely dismissed a desk-bound job. Maintaining relationships with students in an attempt to mentor them was tiring and I understood why senior colleagues advised distancing. Teaching students required stamina and passion.

During that time at MOEHQ, I heard about a new Specialised Independent School (SIS) to be set up with a new mandate – to be different within the confines of National policies and other such agendas, different with regard to the type of students it admitted and the criteria it used for admission, different with regard to the taught curriculum and delivery of it. The prospect of joining a school with as blank a slate as this offered was an exciting notion, and the timing seemed perfect – I was halfway through my HQ posting and it was time to think about where I wanted to be at next, so I applied for a position there. And got it.

I joined the new SIS in June 2006 and spent 8 years there, the longest I had ever been at any job or appointment. They were the most significant years of my adult life to date. It was the time I returned to the classroom and became a mother of 2. I also introduced Social and Cultural Anthropology as a subject in a national school and got acquainted with the field of research in Sign Linguistics as a volunteer. My academic past in Linguistics and Sociology seemed to be converging and the number of social connections I was making started to expand at an intense pace. In the process, I started to renegotiate and reconstruct myself as a teacher.

Part of the work I undertook at the SIS was the development of a new Humanities and Social Science curriculum. Central to the curriculum was the idea of relevance and authenticity. We wanted the students to embrace the discipline and find a personal connection to the issues. The stories they read were stories that were lived, and the students were to learn that through our delivery of the programme. In the course of teaching the classes and thinking through how relevance and authenticity could be understood, I started telling my students stories about myself and my experiences. Every lesson found a connection to a personal event or encounter; every story related invited another story in response from them. In time, my  “public” persona as a teacher and my “private” life where I existed as a mother, sister, daughter, wife, sign language researcher, sign language interpreter – all of that – started to collapse into a single person.

My students started to become intimately familiar with who I was outside of the classroom. They knew I liked Hello Kitty and Star Trek. They knew I spent a lot of my free time with the Deaf community. I had chosen for them to study “Deaf in Japan” as part of their coursework and as we went through the ethnography, I would tell them my own stories about the Deaf in Singapore. They knew my life did not revolve around them. I told them often about my two children and always reminded them that they could never be as cute as them. A small group who didn’t stay too far from my place came over for extended lesson consultations – their school schedules kept them there late, but I wanted to go home to my children. We could always meet later near home and have supper together after. Sometimes, they would come over just to play with my children. Once, they brought a kitten over because my daughter had told one of them we were looking to adopt a new cat.

My students shared in my life as much as I shared in theirs, attending their performances and exhibitions, text chatting with them through the day about whatever it was that caught their fancy. No question was out of bounds to ask; every answer was openly clarified. And they weren’t the only ones with questions. I had questions too. That changed the way I understood my relationships with my students, which invariably changed the way I taught. The teacher was no longer at the front of the classroom dictating and prescribing. The teacher became a true member of the community, being advised as much as she was advising.

When I first started teaching, my practicum supervisor told me that I should not be a friend to my students. “That’s not what they want or need. You must be a teacher and keep those lines clear.” I continue to believe that indeed, students need a teacher first and foremost, and that must be the primary role I play in a school. As a reminder to myself, whenever I met a new class for the first time, I would write my name on the board, salutation included, and then draw a line under the name I would like to be addressed by – “Ms [Family Name][Given Name]”. The name by which you are addressed creates a clear boundary of relationship and status. The name by which you ask to be addressed establishes and maintains a certain social structuring, providing an easy set of rules that would govern interactions. In this single act, my students understand the basic relationship I present to them – I am your teacher, you are my student.

Yet the symbolic understandings of what that “teacher” or “student” is needs still to be created, clarified and consolidated in the minds of those within this community. In the process of getting to know my students and them getting to know me, these rules and structures would be taken down and questioned, redefined and then reconstructed. My credibility as a person and the advice I give, whatever it may be, rested very much on my understanding of them as individuals as it did on their knowledge of who it was that was speaking to them. When they complained about having to write that 4,000-word essay, I complained about having to write mine. When they whined about having to read Geertz’s paper on Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, I told them how I always count the pages of bibliography in every article before I start reading. They know what is on my iTunes playlist; I know that G-dragon is their “bias” and who they’re “shipping” at the moment. They ask me if I miss them; I tell them I do. And I ask that they never regard me as a stranger, and always to say hi whenever and wherever.

Three batches have since graduated from the SIS and I continue to be in touch with a number of them even though I too have already left the school. They update me about life during National Service and university. Some still consult me on academic issues. Just last night, one texted to say “one of my biggest regret is not taking notes during your class on Weber’s Social Action Theory.” I remain their teacher.

Some weeks ago, I met up with one of my ex-students from the first batch of students at the SIS. We had kept in touch through his National Service years and he was now preparing to start on his undergraduate studies. As always, we would talk about most anything that currently had our attention – the school, former classmates, what we were up to, television shows we each thought the other absolutely had to watch. He left me with a small gift he bought while he was on a family trip to Japan a while before – a Hello Kitty keyring and bookmark. In the style of social media, I uploaded a picture of the gift onto Facebook with the message, “#Thankful for the gift; #grateful for the #friendship.” A few days later, he texted me. “Just saw the photo on fb. You’re most welcome, Ms Wang. I’m incredibly grateful as well.”


[ENDLESS ROAR — Riga] Programme notes for https://youtu.be/a3FOOFPspS8

In the winter of 2015, I took off my tutoring hat and put on my musician’s hat to join my old friend and ex-bandmate to create the musical project Endless Roar. We don’t play music that people are used to — have you ever heard of semi-improvised electro-acoustic ambient post-rock? Yikes.

Our music may be a little bit strange, so here are some tips for how to enjoy the recording of the performance.

  1. Make sure you can focus on the video for an hour, undisturbed.
  2. Put yourself into the frame of mind you have before an orchestral performance.
  3. Prepare your best sound system (because the quality of our recording wasn’t the best :P)
  4. Enjoy! (Optional: glass of wine)


Tuition teachers are NOT the enemy. Bad teachers will be bad teachers, whether in the school system or not.

This past year has seen the publication of numerous articles on Singapore’s S$1.1 billion private tuition industry, a significant portion of which paints the tuition industry (and tuition teachers) in a bad light.

We have Ryan Ong from The Middle Ground (TMG) saying:

WANT to know how long it takes to destroy a childhood? Here’s a rule of thumb: it often happens by the time you reach the “E” in “Your tuition teacher is here.”

We have The Straits Times with the panic-inducing headline:


And there seems to have arisen a consensus that:

The growing prevalence of tuition is a worrying sign…

Let me stick my head out and say this: the discussion surrounding our tuition industry borders on idiocy at times isn’t of the highest quality. Some writers may be indulging in disingenuous hyperbole, but my head feels like exploding when I see things like this (from the TMG article):

The thing to grasp about ad-hoc tuition is that it almost always degenerates into rote memorisation. It’s practically impossible for it not to. Here’s an example from English literature, which ad-hoc classes usually cover one book at a time (yes, it’s basically paying $85 an hour for Cliff’s Notes) . . . So the ad-hoc lessons just ignore the context: don’t bother knowing all that, just remember to write that the lion and the lamb are important nature images in the essay. . . . there isn’t time to get a holistic picture, so you just have to memorise the details on topic X and not ask why.

Firstly, any teacher who avoids explaining the whys and wherefores of any interpretation of a text simply isn’t doing his job. As far as I’m concerned, I’d fail a student who gives me a series of interpretations similar to that mentioned in the article (e.g. Hamlet is indecisive; Hamlet is insane; the ghost is important) without actually being able to show me why.

Furthermore, a good literature teacher should push his students to think clearly about their texts, hopefully getting the kids to engage with their texts on a personal level. After all, students should react with some mental agility to whatever question they choose to respond to in an examination. And it IS possible to push students in that direction within a few lessons (it would then be up to them to build on what they have been taught).

What the TMG article quoted above is describing is simply bad teaching. And try not to be surprised, but bad teachers DO exist in our school system as well. I will be the first to admit that I’m an imperfect teacher, and that even after years of teaching, I still feel like I’m figuring things out. But there needs to be some level of professionalism, and a tutor who stops at the point of giving CliffsNotes material is just… a waste of money.

At this juncture, I should note that the writer of the TMG article was probably being disingenuous to get his clicks, since he admits that there is the “occasional inspired tutor”.

But let’s take a step back and just acknowledge that there are good and bad teachers. There are effective and ineffective teachers. There are teachers who make you hate a subject, and there are those who make you love a subject. And that’s all tuition teachers are — teachers with all our strengths and imperfections.

I hold several strong memories of a particular teacher who taught my class very effectively:

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. (From “How religion affects my teaching“)

And guess what? He is now also a tuition teacher.

Some of the doom-and-gloom articles about the tuition industry have one thing right: that we should be concerned about the size of the industry. However, we cannot look at the tuition industry in isolation, away from the school system and the structure of society itself.

It may be a topic for another time, but the way the tuition industry is structured is indicative of a massive wealth and income gap in Singapore. The median monthly amount that families spend on tuition is apparently between S$155 to S$260 (source). The bulk of tuition teachers who give one-on-one lessons charge considerably more than that. So we are in a situation where some families are able to spend much, much more on private tuition than the average family. We see the same kinds of mathematical distributions when we look at household incomes in Singapore (see especially Chart 5 on p6 of the document).

The moaning and groaning over the tuition industry is, I suspect, just a symptom of the larger dissatisfaction that our society has over the wealth and income gap. So if we’re going to examine the tuition industry carefully, please, let’s not do it with blinkers on. Let’s not fool ourselves about the extent of the problems in our world today. Tuition teachers are not the enemy.

George Yeo reminds politicians about poverty and responsibility in a post labelled “To read before 11 Sep”

On the 7th of September, former Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo posted a link to this article, with the note “To read before 11 Sep”.

In the article, Pope Francis is quoted as saying:

I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! Politicians who look after the vulnerable: the hungry, the unemployed, the homeless, immigrants, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly left alone and abandoned, children who are still in their mother’s bellies. All those who are exploited and those whom today’s throwaway society has turned into waste, “leftovers”, because in today’s “economy which kills”, “people are less important than the things that give profit to those who have political, social, economic power.

What exactly may Mr. Yeo be thinking about? Maybe he’s thinking about the roughly 387,000 people who live at or below S$5 a day for food and transport (source). Or perhaps he’s troubled by the cardboard collectors we’re all a little bit too familiar with. Personally, I keep on thinking about the elderly toilet cleaners I see in our MRTs and shopping malls. I always am embarrassed by the fact that young people like me live in a society that forces such old people to clean our piss and shit.

Regardless of his private thoughts, it is a timely reminder by the former Minister. Not only is there a political need to deal with poverty, we have the moral and spiritual need to do so. We keep on hearing that Singapore is free from corruption, and on some level, this is true — there are very few cases of bribery that see the light of day. However, the Pope points to a different kind of corruption — a spiritual kind. As he notes in the article:

the corrupt are those whose hearts have hardened to the extent that they no longer hear the voice of God and are blind to people’s needs, showing an interest only in their own affairs and the affairs of their party.

Whoever gets into Parliament, I hope they heed George Yeo’s reminder. Thankfully, this isn’t idealism that only looks good on paper. Singapore can do what the Pope and our former Minister recommend — the numbers have been crunched.

Why I am a selfish good-deed ninja, and why you should be one too

I am a good-deed ninja. Whenever I step out of the house, I keep my eyes peeled for any opportunity there is for me to swoop in and help someone. Pick up a shoe bag? Done. Provide directions? Done. Pretend to be angry at a misbehaving child so that his mother can get a moment’s peace? Done. Commit acts of random smiling and waving? Done and done.

Someone trailing me might even accuse me of being artificially and annoyingly positive.

It’s not because I’m some kind of angel that I do this (my girlfriend would say that I’m more devil than angel). I do this because it gives me a performance advantage. When I manage to help a stranger, I feel happier, sharper, more engaged with the world and my work, and in some strange way, even more capable than I probably am. I feel much more positive. And the science is out — while the numbers should give any critical reader some pause, author Shawn Achor has amassed a wealth of evidence to bolster the claim that a more positive brain gives us “23% more energy, 31% more productivity, 3x more creativity” (source).

While I’ve only just started consciously looking out for “good-deed ninja” situations, the power of a good deed for the doer, and not just the recipient, was already displayed for me in university. I often tell stories of how I used to be a nervous, anxious wreck after serving my national service (NS), when all of a sudden I was thrust into a situation where I wanted to excel, wanted to get straight A’s, wanted to be the best in the grand old National University of Singapore — in stark contrast to my army experience where I was a lowly corporal who didn’t have much to do beyond obeying orders (not much demand on the brain there). Imagine walking around school permanently on anxious high-alert, always on the edge of panic. I was that person.

Then imagine me, sitting and reading anxiously in the NUS library, with my throat constricted and my heart racing because I needed to get through my reading and I needed to get started on my essay so that I could get the A that I thought I really needed. I was sitting near one of those vending machines filled with snacks, because I spent most of the day nauseous on caffeine (got to focus!) that I couldn’t eat much beyond M&Ms and sugared peanuts.

Some poor girl then broke me out of my anxious trance, as she stood facing the machine, staring at it for an unreasonably long time. So I got up to see what the matter was and saw that she was about to have a meltdown because her snack got stuck in the machine and she had no more coins left (crisis!). I selflessly (inoticedshewasattractive) offered to buy the same snack so that hers would get unstuck, over her refusals (“eh no need no need!”).

When our snacks fell out of recalcitrant machine, her undisguised smile broke through my fog of panic. Her smile was a complex mixture of relief, gratitude, and (probably) hunger. I think the pleasant shock of the panic-fog clearing was great enough that I stood speechless, staring at her for an extremely awkward length of time, forcing her retreat from the very strange good-deed nerd.

When I tell this story, my students always ask me if I got her number (“You owe me money now, let’s swap numbers so you can settle this debt.”), but the truth is, I was just marveling at the fact that I no longer felt anxious. The attractive girl had faded from my consciousness, because I was so relieved that my heart was no longer racing, my throat was no longer restricted, and I felt sane.

A single good deed was more effective than any dose of Valium — with no side effects! This is just one example of how powerful a good deed can be, especially when we take joy from the positive effect that we can have on people through actions that cost close to nothing.

The conclusion of the larger story is a little bit more mundane, with me abandoning the quest for grades (because the anxiety was driving me crazy) for the rock band quest. If I had paid greater attention to my mental health, I probably would have ended up with a better degree than the one I have now.

This should not degenerate into empty self-help platitudes about positive thinking, but the fact is that genuinely happy people do have a neurological advantage over perpetually unhappy people — and that’s why I am a selfish good-deed ninja.

My more mature students might want to consider:

  • What makes an action selfish or altruistic?
  • Is it a contradiction if I selfishly try to be altruistic? Am I just being selfish?
  • Should I have asked for the girl’s number?

Singapore’s Community Chest reveals the gut-wrenching price of poverty in 4 minute video

GP tutors may talk about inequality till their mouths run dry, but there is nothing like grounding it in a local context that really drives home what it is like to be poor. If you let a few tears fall in response to the video, take heart; you’re not depressed, it’s just your body responding to the complex mix of extreme emotions you were probably feeling. (Google “why we cry when we are happy”, if you’re curious about this phenomenon.)

The video raises so many questions. Why can’t this family afford a S$28.90 treat? Where are the children’s parents? Why has the older man lost the financial means to buy a cake? Why are we living in a society that forces some members to forgo cake?

The problem of poverty is a complex one; speak to any social worker and you will learn that poverty in Singapore is never simple. Sometimes there are gambling debts; sometimes there is addiction; sometimes there is a toxic culture in the family; sometimes there are medical problems. The family in the video is a kind of “ideal” family when it comes to poverty. They speak English, seem well-educated enough, seem to share the values of mainstream society and seem open to receiving help. It would be relatively easy to make sure that the children get the nurturing they need (education, nutrition, proper shelter, some level of mental health care) that will enable them to escape a poverty trap. In the real world, however, things aren’t so simple.

The two Chinese males clad in business casual are symbols of economic productivity in our culture. (Hmm..) We look at them and think, “Ah, those must be working men, they surely will be able to afford cake.” The video cleverly throws this into question — the old man, presumably having spent a productive life working, is now wheelchair-bound and at the mercy of the mechanisms of poverty. The choice of the filmmakers to put him in the wheelchair suggests that the family’s financial situation is due to some kind of medical crisis in their past, and it also should make us wonder: will that be the fate of the younger working man as he ages?

The sad fact is that this video isn’t unrealistic. We know that people can fall into poverty for any number of reasons, including the fact that we are all subject to economic cycles (booms and recessions) that can often render whole swathes of society un- or under-employed. Moreover, even if someone works diligently through his/her productive years, sometimes s/he can be left with insufficient funds for retirement in life’s final stages. This needs to change. When a family can’t afford a cake, guess what else they’re probably skimping on? It is possible that they are trying to save money by not visiting the doctor even when they need to, by avoiding house repairs, or by buying cheap but unhealthy food — strategies that will not only impact the children’s health and safety, but also their long-term development, behaviour, and performance in school.

The instances of generosity in the video are uplifting and terribly heartwarming to witness, but a cake is only a poor plaster over a gaping, festering wound. Yes, we need to be much more generous, and we also need to ask if we can accept a society that is structured in a way that creates this level of poverty. We may have to jettison neoclassical economics and its ill-advised focus on productivity, and go through a complete examination of our society’s conscience — tasks that will not be achieved only at the voting booth.

Still, the video carries an important lesson for us all: a simple act of caring creates an endless ripple. Let them eat cake.