Performance vs Precision

Mr Seah circa 2008

Mr Seah circa 2008

One of my old band members once said of me: “The reason I like Kevin’s playing is not that he’s technical. He’s not. He’s not the fastest player I’ve ever seen, I think (our old bassist) was faster. But while (our old bassist) was faster, Kevin’s playing is just more entertaining. With (our old bassist), it felt like I had to hit every note precisely, but with Kevin I feel like I can rock out.”

I think that’s the task for every kind of performer. If you’re a teacher, it doesn’t matter that you speak with imprecise grammar, as long as your pass your passion for your subject on — even if you’re an English teacher (but only to the extent that your speech can still be labeled as “international” English and not Singlish, la).

So many singer-songwriters I see these days are just concerned with hitting the notes. Come on. Musicians are not just called on to be precise machines, we are called on to entertain, to shock, to amuse, even to enlighten. If listeners really wanted precision and nothing else, midi-controlled music would be dominating our airwaves. But we still have armies of singers and bands performing live, making the mistakes and ‘mistakes’ that identify us as living, breathing, feeling human beings.

If you’re a performer, go out there and perform. That’s your calling.

The Problem With Singlish and Singaporean Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On tuition, pricing, and schools

I’ve recently been discussing tuition and pricing with a whole bunch of people — relatives, potential students, tuition centres, and also fellow tutors. Money can be a sensitive topic, so my apologies in advance to anyone I may offend. But here’s the thing. Bad tuition is just a waste of money, even if it’s $1 per lesson.

What parents and students should be looking out for is the value you’ll be getting for your money, and that’s true for any purchasing decision one could make. When you’re thinking about food, you don’t just go for the cheapest thing available (e.g. food in the garbage). In terms of tuition, what you want is someone who can get you what you want, be it grades or a greater ease with the subject matter.

Let’s change gears for a moment and think about how teaching is done in our schools. It’s so cheap to be in most schools here, it’s practically free. But parents here obviously don’t trust schools completely, if you take the sheer size of our private tuition industry as a measure of that (lack of) trust.

Students DO have the option of staying after school for extra coaching. And as overworked as MOE’s teachers are, we know that many of them will sacrifice their precious time to help their students (kudos to them). Still, parents all over the country have voted with their wallets, and have decided that tuition can give a safety net that schools can’t give.

I really wish the education system here will one day become a gentler, more nurturing version of the behemoth it now is. Both teachers AND students are overworked in our system, can you imagine that? Childhood is supposed to be a time of play, wonderment, discovery and fun, but what has it become? A time of worry, toil, and suffering. Something’s not right, eh?

Good private tutors plug this gap. We have enough time and energy to give our students the attention they need to be nurtured into fine young adults, the kind that will give you help when you need to learn how to use Adobe InDesign CS6 (thanks James). Bad tutors just do the same ol’ useless crap, and too bad for you if you’ve paid money for them, because you’ve wasted it.

It has been said before, but it’s worth saying again: a higher price doesn’t guarantee a higher quality product. If you can find someone better for your child at a lower price, you should go for that! But experienced tutors know that they have to set their prices at a certain point for tutoring to be a viable use of their time. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to teach for money, if the teacher cares for the students. We’ve all heard about bad teachers, and we may even remember some from our own schooling — how much money do they deserve?

I’ve long said that if our national education system was thoroughly fixed, I’d sign up as a teacher again in a heartbeat. But in the meantime, I blog from my own little corner of the world, and try to do what good I can.


Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

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