Thursday, December 6, 2012

The China workers are rightly punished

For some reason that I cannot understand, most netizens seem to oppose the government in everything it does.  A psychologist looking at this behaviour will probably understand it better but I'm not a psychologist.  It may very well be that we humans naturally take the side of the underdog and the government of any country is never seen as the underdog.

Take the example of the SMRT bus drivers from China who participated in a strike recently.  A few of them were prosecuted and some of them were repatriated.  Going on a strike is illegal in Singapore.  One may or may not agree with such a law.  The same applies to all laws.  Not everyone will agree with them.  But laws are not laws only because there is a universal consensus among all citizens.  And besides, these bus drivers are all foreigners from China.   Personally, I like many of the laws in Singapore but I don't like some.  It's the same with everyone and in every country.  But my duty to obey the law is not restricted to only laws that I personally agree with.

These China workers came to Singapore for an obvious economic reason.  They love it here.  They are paid considerably more here.  When their Malaysian counterparts are paid slightly more, they hit the roof.  They forget they are given accommodation while Malaysian bus drivers are not.  In their utter selfishness and egocentricity, they didn't factor in this additional cost.   They take it upon themselves to break Singaporean law.

I laud the government for taking a firm stand against these miscreants.  If the government hadn't done anything, it would mean that the laws in Singapore can only be broken by foreigners with impunity.  That would be totally unacceptable.  I have read what some Opposition parties have said regarding this matter and I think they should be ignored.  They will take a stand against the government anyway.  I don't care two straws about Hong Kong workers demonstrating in front of the Singaporean embassy.  They can stop work in Hong Kong for a year and demonstrate day and night for all I care.  Going on a strike and demonstrating are things up their street anywhere so they should go ahead and do what they are good at.  This is a free world.  Nobody forced these China workers to come to Singapore.  If they don't like it here, they can get the hell out and a repatriation order does precisely that - it tells them how to get the hell out in the speediest possible way.  They can't come here to work, enjoy the much higher remuneration, break the law here and hope to be let off because they are foreigners.

Singaporeans who take the side of these migrant workers should ask themselves what it is they really want.  Are we cutting our nose to spite our face?  I know there is a rabid, anti-government and anti-establishment culture among netizens everywhere in the world.  Let's be rational.  If we oppose a particular law, it's Parliament that should change it.  To allow foreign workers who come here for monetary reasons to break the law with impunity is to show scant respect for the process of law in Singapore.  The voice that decries our easy immigration policy and denounces foreign talent is the same voice that now says it's all right for foreigners to break our law.  Even if we must be insanely anti-establishment and contrary, we should at least, be consistent.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

ISS again

The message from NASA this morning read: " Wed Dec 05 7:20 PM, Visible: 6 min, Max Height: 60 degrees, Appears: SSW, Disappears: NE".  Sure enough, at precisely the minute, I spotted the International Space Station again, this time a lot more clearly.  First I took a pic of it but it was not clear as you can see below:

It's the white fuzzy dot close to the centre of the pic. It's fuzzy because I have unsteady hands. 

I then took a video clip of it.  It's moving to the left of the screen.  The erratic movement you see in the video is because of the movement of my camera.  I foolishly moved the camera to centralize the object which I ought not to have done.  The white dot seems sometimes to take on a life of its own and it flits about the screen.  Again, it's the movement of my hands and not the ISS which moves steadily across the night sky towards the left of the screen.  Here's the video:

May God bless our new Bishop

The new bishop who will be consecrated this week is someone my wife and I are fond of.  It was he who solemnised our matrimony and it was he who blessed our first home.  I will be playing with the church orchestra at his consecration service and I managed to rope my kids in.  Early this morning, my kids and I ran through the pieces.   My poor wife can only play the piano and pianists are always sidelined.  Only one person is needed to play the organ / piano. 

May God bless our new bishop.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Got this message this morning from NASA: "Time: Tue Dec 04 8:12 PM, Visible: 2 min, Max Height: 43 degrees, Appears: WSW, Disappears: NNW" and I immediately set my alarm to ring at 8pm.  When my alarm rang tonight, I went directly to the balcony armed with my camera and binoculars but the view wasn't good.  So I went to the children's playground and stood on top of a slide.  It was cloudy and I tried my binoculars but the range of vision was too limited.  Anyway, the International Space Station can be viewed with the naked eye.  So I stared at roughly the right clearing in the sky.  I ignored the red flickering light from a plane.  Sure enough I saw a white light in the sky.  I saw it for about a second before it disappeared behind a cloud.  It was soon 8:14pm and the show was over.  But I have seen the ISS with my naked eye.  It was just a brief white light, fainter and thinner than I thought it would be but it was the real thing.  It still amazes me that humans can place a space station into orbit which can be seen from the Earth.

Genesis tells us that God hung the stars and the sun on the firmament (sky).  How right it is to say we bear the very image of God in that we too are able to hang our own "stars" in the sky.  Truly, how great we are!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Quantum Quack

Deepak Chopra
File from Wikimedia Commons
Date: 13 November 2011

I really don't know much about Deepak Chopra except that I remember having seen his books on spirituality and faith healing ever since I was a boy.  As far as I am concerned, faith healing really means nothing more than quackery or shamanism and of course shamanism is just a longer word for the more familiar "sham".

PZ Myers puts it very well.  I couldn't help laughing when I read Myers description of Deepak Chopra as a quantum quack.  I'm inclined to think that term suits Chopra admirably because he does try to insert quantum physics into his mumbo-jumbo jargon of faith healing.  If you want to read PZ Myers' well-written post in his blog, there are two places in which his post appears:  here and here.  They are identical and it's prudent of him to have his blog in two places.  If one site shuts down, there's still the other site and we won't be deprived of his wisdom.

Myers is laughing at Chopra's review of Dawkins' book, The Magic of Reality.  In his review, according to PZ Myers and I have to depend on what Myers says since I make it a point never to read books written by witch-doctors, Chopra uses words such as "obnoxious" and "ignorant" in his tirade against Dawkins' book.

Having long ago seen a video of an interview of Chopra by Richard Dawkins, I can easily understand the reason for Chopra's burning anger for Dawkins.  You see, Dawkins exposed Chopra in an interview a couple of years ago and held him up as a charlatan and fraud.  If you are interested in seeing the interview, click here.

Observe how Chopra is very careful when he talks to Dawkins, a real scientist, about quantum physics.  He begins by saying that he employs the term "quantum physics" merely as a metaphor.  But when Dawkins is about to seize on that (presumably because Chopra claims to "use" quantum physics in his "healing"), Chopra immediately talks about some disagreement among physicists.  This is a common ploy used by faith-based people who try to find fault with science - they harp on the lack of consensus among experts in some esoteric scientific field (and there is always some area of science which is in dispute) and somehow they appropriate for themselves a vague validation of their faith even though the dispute among the experts may have nothing to do with the claim of their faith.

Jumping on the bandwagon of science's uncertainty is not uncommon for "spiritual" people.  Some New Age devotees make constant references to quantum physics and Schrodinger's Cat as some kind of validation for their New Age belief but in very vague terms of course. Apart from quantum physics, astronomy is another fertile ground for faith believers.  The origin of the universe is an exceptionally good area to go into.  I've heard an argument that the String Theory proves the existence of God.  My own bishop once mentioned dark matter in his sermon.

I have often wondered why religious apologists don't really make it clear how an uncertainty in science can possibly prove the truth of their beliefs.  Perhaps they can't afford to be any clearer because clarity on such a subject can make their whole argument appear ludicrous.  For us believers, ambiguity and haziness work to our advantage.  For example, my bishop did not explain how the postulation of dark matter by scientists can in any way forward the religious claims of the church.  If he were to say that scientists had to postulate the existence of dark matter to account for the mass in the universe when this mass is actually the mass of God himself, that would certainly make his point clearer but it would also at the same time elicit laughter from the congregation.  Perhaps my bishop meant to point out the fact that scientists were uncertain of many things in the universe and so it's not implausible that they might have overlooked God lurking somewhere in the background.  It is no good making any reference to science unless one shows clearly how that can affirm the truth of religious claims.  Chopra, at the start of the interview, claims he uses quantum physics as a metaphor for his faith healing.  What good is a metaphor to prove the efficacy of faith healing?  Anyone can use scientific metaphor but that means nothing.  A voodoo magician can call his needle a laser beam or a nuclear bomb but that won't change the fact that his voodoo needle has no effect at all.  But there is some good in making references to science even if one doesn't show how that can advance the religious cause.  Using scientific jargon in a sermon does lend some respectability to a mindless belief system that is not backed by evidence.  Parishioners usually don't pay close attention to a sermon anyway and there is no time given for questions and answers after a sermon.  Bear in mind that I am not for a moment saying that a mindless belief system that is not backed by evidence is necessarily false and untrue.  I make no pronouncement on its truth; I'm merely explaining the reason for this need to make allusions, however vague and unrelated, to the more difficult aspects of science.

I was once approached by a polite chap while I was walking on the Millennium Bridge and he invited me to see a short movie.  Now, at that time, what I really needed most was the toilet and as any Singaporean knows, as long as you are out of Singapore, it's very hard to find available toilets anywhere outside your hotel.  I thought to myself that if there was a movie, there ought to be a toilet too.  The chap led me to a plush and stately building not far from the Millennium Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral.  It was a building owned by the Church of Scientology.  The toilet was just as opulent as the rest of the building and having visited it, I thought it would have been churlish to just leave the building without at least obliging the guy by watching his movie.  The movie was screened in a small but well-furnished hall and although there were many seats, the only audience consisted of me and a Canadian man who was similarly accosted on the street.

The film with the preposterous title of "Dianetics" was hilarious and silly and it was all about the Church of Scientology's belief in faith healing.  The choice of the word "dianetics" is obvious.  It has a scientific ring to it.  Even the name of the church is calculated to give it a veneer of science.  But the film was far from scientific; it made medical doctors appear like conspirators who were out to harm patients.  The teaching behind the film was simply not to have faith in medical science but rather, to trust in "dianetics", ie their brand of faith healing.  At the end of the screening, the Canadian man and I were invited to buy a book on Dianetics which we of course politely declined.

Pedlars of superstition and faith healing usually resort to masking the silliness of their superstition with science.  They may use names which sound scientific but people should be on the alert when they see mumbo-jumbo dressed in sci-fi garb.  The New Age beliefs draw heavily on such scientific-sounding words.  Whether they advocate the use of the mind to make things happen by magic or they talk about being in direct contact with intelligent beings from other planets - the contact is always a human channeller who endeavours to speak in a strange voice that can be pretty hilarious to the uninitiated - the names and ideas are almost always identical with what you find in science fiction.  Older beliefs aren't so fortunate.  They are stuck to ancient and sometimes barbaric concepts such as the propitiation of a God by blood sacrifice but these older religions too do not let the scientific grass grow under their feet - their defenders and apologists tap deeply into the more difficult and less settled areas of science such as the String Theory and dark matter as I've mentioned above.

If I may go back to the video of the interview of Chopra by Dawkins, notice how Chopra moves from saying that he uses quantum physics as a metaphor for his faith healing to his direct attack on science as "arrogant".  It is clear to any viewer of the video that Chopra starts out intending to accord to his faith healing the respectability of science.   But when Dawkins makes it hard for him to carry on with this charade, he takes a different stance and attacks science with a viciousness that shows quite unmistakeably that his faith healing and science are really poles apart.

A charlatan though he may be, Chopra is probably an honest man.  This is my view of faith-based people.  They genuinely believe the truth of their belief system.  What has Chopra to gain by cooking up a false belief system if he doesn't himself believe in it?  These faith-based people are truly sincere and well-meaning and while they may cloak their beliefs with the respectability of science and may make allusions to science or use scientific jargon as a metaphor, they will not hesitate to attack science altogether if it stands in the way of their faith.

Chopra was a medical doctor before he went into faith healing. Non-medical people are often of the mistaken notion that medical doctors are scientists with a scientific frame of mind.  Time and time again, we see medical doctors believing in ludicrous superstitions and faith healing.  If you scour through this blog, you will see a few examples that I have brought up including that of a brain surgeon who came up with the most nonsensical statement about life after death.  See this.  It is not that medical doctors are more susceptible to believing in nonsense; they are just no different from the average person when it comes to falling prey to evidence-less belief.

I know a medical doctor who is a fervent advocate of creationism including the belief that the earth is only 6000 years old.  Actually, young-earth creationists (as they are called) believe in more than just a 6000-year-old earth.  They believe in a 6000-year-old universe!  All I had to do was to show her the compelling evidence for evolution and for an earth that exceeds 4.5 billion years in age and she immediately accepted the obvious truth.  But not everyone is willing to abandon their cherished belief in creationism even a whole universe of evidence is shown to them.

Some features of the human anatomy mirror the truth of evolution.  To believe that a Divine Being created humans out of nothing or, as Genesis tells us in its allegorical language, out of the soil of the earth is to believe that this Divine Being was guilty of a bad design.  What I find incomprehensible is the fact that medical doctors who are students of anatomy do know all about these anatomical flaws that are perfectly consistent with and explicable by evolutionary theory.  How then can these doctors abandon their knowledge and insist on being creationists?  Her reply was interesting - a doctor's main goal is to heal the body.  When you look at the flaws in the "design" of the human body, you do not ask philosophical questions like "Is there really a Divine Maker who is guilty for such architectural and design flaws?" but rather you address your mind purely to the treatment of the body bearing in mind at all times the flaws that are inherent in our bodies.  They have too much to think of in the treatment of the human body to bother about our origin and to link what they know of the anatomy to evolution or to see the implausibility of creationism.

For Christians who can't read books written by atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, both of whom are evolutionary biologists, a good book to recommend to them is Francis Collins' The Language of God.  Collins is a devout Christian who accepts the truth of evolution.  He's of course the greatest genetic scientist and is the first person to have mapped out the whole of the human genome and his book shows from a genetic standpoint why evolution is absolutely true.

This dissociation of one's knowledge from one's belief is something I have observed for a long time.  When I was a student living on campus, the student in the room next to mine read what was then called "Double Physics".   That means he majored in Physics and did some other Physics course so he was to all intents and purposes an expert in Physics.  One evening, I got a friend of mine who was an expert in Chinese calligraphy to write for me poems for the dead that were used in Chinese funerals and I pasted them on my door.  Now, this Physics student was a Malaysian Chinese and he could not read a word of Mandarin but when he was told the significance of the poems pasted on my door, he was livid.  He told me that I would bring bad luck to my neighbours and since he was just next door to me, he would be the target of the evil one.  I reasoned with him that as a Double Physics student, surely he wasn't superstitious?  He looked startled and confused when he replied, "What has Physics got to do with the evil forces?"

I removed the poems from my door and pasted them on my desk in my room.  Well-meaning friends told me I would fail my exams because of that.  And mind you, they were not joking!  They truly believed that some funereal poem pasted at one's door or desk could attract evil forces.

I really don't know what Deepak Chopra teaches nor do I care.  Those who argue that you must examine in detail a belief before dismissing it are wrong.  I can't examine the teachings of all the 20 million shamans, witch-doctors, bomohs, tang kees, snake-oil pedlars, charlatans and faith healers in order to dismiss each and every one of them.  It's enough for me to dismiss them all unless they can produce reasonable evidence to support their claim of healing through supernatural means.  Give me the evidence for the efficacy of your snake oil and until you do that, have the decency not to align yourself with real scientists or use their terminology or a tacky imitation of it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Meritocracy - the fairest of them all.

 Every year, the Ministry of Education sends certificates of academic achievement to students in primary and secondary schools offering them encouragement, scholarships and bursaries.

For an island so small that you can't run a marathon in a straight line in without hitting the sea, Singapore has done extremely well by any account.  It has zilch natural resources but today, Singapore outstrips almost all other countries in the world, including countries which are many times its size and have a far longer history than this young nation that hasn't even hit 50.  If you want the facts, here they are:  Singapore is the 6th best country in the world to be born in (Cllick here) and it comes in fifth in the world on education (Click here).

How did Singapore achieve this?  It all began with the vision of one man who decided that the country should be ruled by nothing else except meritocracy.  You shall sow what you reap.  If you are excellent in your studies, your work, etc, you deserve to be richly rewarded.  Your colour, creed, culture, social rank and ethnicity do not count one bit.  It's a nation without aristocrats.  Everybody is given a clean slate and you are judged by your performance with the clinical fairness that no other nation on earth can equal.

But not everybody wants meritocracy as recent developments have shown.   We must not discount the power of jealousy, that green-eyed monster that gnaws one's soul deep within the breast.  People are clamouring for the abolition or the revamping of the PSLE, the bastion of Singapore's meritocracy.  The PSLE is the nation's most important examination for 12-year-olds; it's a just, fair and bias-free secondary school placement examination.  I have discussed the examination elsewhere in my blog and you may read about it in the following links:
PSLE - Let this be the final word
What do parents want?
The Road to Mediocrity
Choosing a secondary school

One can't blame the government for listening to the voice of the majority.  Naturally, as in any examination, the majority always occupies the middle ground.  That's what happens in a Bell curve.  The majority will be somewhere in the "average" or middle part of a graph.  That means the majority of students won't rank among the top 3% in the PSLE examination.  That means the majority can't get into the nation's top school.  That means the majority won't be featured in the local news after the PSLE results are released every year because the majority won't be among the top students.

Like most other people, I belong to the majority.   My kids did not get featured in the newspapers after their PSLE results were released.  But I'm different from the majority in that I'm genuinely happy for the top scorers.  I like to read about them, their grit and determination, their hard work and sometimes, their struggles against the odds.  I like to give them pride of place in the nation for achieving the country's top scores in our most important examination.  And I like them to be role models to younger students.

But not everyone shares the joy of these top students who aren't our own kids.  Some of us are bitter and jealous.  We want the PSLE abolished or its importance to be reduced.  We don't want publicity given to these deserving top students.  We suggest that secondary schools take in students based on criteria which aren't clear and well-defined (possibly in the hope that our kids can enter top schools based on the ambiguity of the rules since we feel certain that they can't get accepted into top schools if the rules are fair and clearly spelt out).

It's not just that we are being utterly selfish and unjust when we ask for all this.  We are also ruining the nation.  We are in fact uprooting the very thing that has ensured Singapore's progress and command of the world's stage.  We are asking for the abolition of meritocracy.

I don't think the government will abolish meritocracy.  Meritocracy is synonymous with Singapore and is so deeply entrenched and intertwined in our very nature and identity that it is inconceivable that the government will give in to however loud a voice of envy we can muster.  But what I fear is small inroads may be made into our bastion of meritocracy and this is never a good thing.  And I see a start of it in the blocking out of news on the top PSLE students.  All institutions, media stations and newspaper publishers have stopped publishing the top results. Would this abate the flame of jealousy that rages in the hearts of some parents?  Would this satisfy the bitter majority?  I don't think so.  My wife just informed me that at her yoga class, some of the parents were speculating on the "real reason" for the blacking out of news on the top PSLE students.  One mother said she was certain the Ministry of Education did this because the top PSLE student this year was a foreigner and the Ministry did not want to agitate some Singaporeans who were concerned about foreigners taking over jobs in Singapore.

Instead of being grateful that the Ministry is trying to soothe feelings of jealousy that some parents have of kids brighter than their own, some of us postulate a totally different reason and again, it's one that speaks of jealousy and flies in the face of true meritocracy.  So what if the top student is a foreigner?  He still deserves to be given full recognition for being the top.  Meritocracy does not look at a person's colour or nationality.

Ultimately, the path of meritocracy is the only path to take.  It's the path Singapore has forged on its own and we reap the rewards today, to the envy of the rest of the world.  Let us not change our course.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

365 Project

I started my own 365 project 5 days ago after seeing many other such projects by people all over the world.  It's an interesting idea and one that should be up my street.  After all, I carry a camera everywhere I go and even when I haven't got my camera with me, I'm sure to have my camera-phone with me.

The good thing about the 365 project is it acts as a photo-journal of a person's life.  The rules are clear:  you have to take at least a photograph a day and post it on the web.  You should not post a photograph taken on a different day.  That sounds easy enough.

But although I'm very much a camwhore, if you'll pardon my use of a word that sounds incredibly rude but has since gained universal acceptance, I did rack my brains yesterday as to what pic to take.  The rules for a 365 project are wide enough - it can be any pic and it doesn't have to be a photograph of a scenery.  As it happened yesterday, I had just read a novel and so I took a pic of it.  Not much artistry in that but it serves to tell a story of my life - on 26 November, I completed my reading of a novel.

There are countless books you have read in your time but you probably can't recall even a small fraction of them ever again.  With your own 365 project, it gets woven into that huge tapestry of your life.  It doesn't matter if you aren't artistic; I'm not at all artistic in my photography.  Most of the time, I use only my camera-phone and even if I use a proper camera, it's always a compact camera.  But what attracts me to this 365 project is its usefulness as a graphic record of my personal life.  I do keep a daily diary of everything that happens in my life but the 365 project makes it all come alive.  A picture does paint a thousand words.

Here's the link to my 365 project:  My 365 project

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Grass is Not Always Greener on the Other Side

It is common for people of any nationality to think that the grass is greener elsewhere.  That's because it's natural for us to see other people's lives through rose-tinted glasses but when it comes to our own problems, we magnify them.  Singaporeans are no different.  You hear the most complaints from taxi drivers.  The government is blamed for just about anything that happens.  We have no natural disasters and things really are hunky-dory here unlike in Malaysia where everything that can possibly go wrong in a third-world nation goes wrong there.  And yet people here continue to complain.  Even minor floods become a big issue and the government is given a rap on the knuckles.

I used to say that complaining Singaporeans should be made to live in Malaysia for a year and they are sure to return with gratitude in their hearts for all that they are blessed with here.

Before I go on, I must make it clear that I'm not a pro-government man.  By nature, I tend to be anti-establishment and I do have a lot of respect for many Opposition Party members in Singapore.  When I hear of someone joining the Opposition, I KNOW he's not doing it for selfish or monetary reasons because in my books, selfish and money-minded people don't join the Opposition.  But at the same time, I believe in being truthful.  Things are wonderful here and when you look around you, there really is no place on this planet that most of us would rather live in than good old Singapore.  Forget politics, forget how "paternalistic" the government may be.  The fact is they have done a good job.  OK, they are paid a lot but they have done a good job.  Just look across the Causeway or look at Indonesia and think.  Our leaders may be paid a lot but they don't take a penny more than what they are legally entitled to.  I prefer this sort of open honesty.  But the bottom line is they have done a really good job.  And is it so wrong to reward those who have done an excellent job?

And I'm not the only one who says this.  The Economist has just reported that Singapore is now the 6th best country to be born in.  Just look at the list:

If this is not a firm and unequivocal affirmation of how well Singapore has done, I don't know what will satisfy people who refuse to see that the grass here is the greenest in the whole of Asia and it's the 6th greenest on the planet.  If you throw in the other factors which I'm sure the Economist Intelligence Unit failed to consider such as how delicious our food is, I think Singapore will easily outstrip Switzerland.

But there will always be the rabid naysayers who can't see anything good about Singapore even though you have shown them the facts and I always wonder why they remain here if they dislike this place so much.

I will show you one more piece of evidence and this time, I believe even Chee Soon Juan will concede that the government has done a fantastic job.

In 1988, the Economist Intelligence Unit did the same assessment and Singapore ranked 36 together with East Germany.  Malaysia followed at No. 38.  USSR was No. 21 and even India beat us and tied with Mexico to stand at No 27!  China (yes, Commie China) then ranked 32.

What does that tell us?  In just 25 years, Singapore managed to raise itself to No. 6 in the list of the best countries to be born in.  I don't know about you but I think anyone with an ounce of gratitude in his system will have to acknowledge that the government of Singapore has done a magnificent job.  And the next time there is a minor flooding in Orchard Road, just smile and remind yourself that we're No. 6 and kudos to the leaders for this.

NOTE:  The above information is obtained entirely from the Economist.  At least there can be no dispute as to the reliability of the facts stated.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Why I disagree with Tan Jee Say

I have just read Tan Jee Say's facebook post, "Is Every School a Good School?" and I must say I disagree with him in two major areas.  First, this is what he says:

The widening gap between the top and other schools mirrors the increasing income disparity in Singapore. When wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, it reflects an unequal society that is harmful to its long term development. Similarly when talent is retained in just one or two top schools rather than spread among many schools, the development of our young becomes lop-sided and works against a balanced and holistic development of society.

He then goes on to say this:

The first step for the education minister to take is not to pretend that every school is a good school.  He will then re-discover what his school teachers used to tell him and what teachers everywhere tell their pupils, that honesty is the best policy.

In his post, Tan says that some traditionally good schools have become second tier or even third tier.  He implies that something should be done by the education minister to stop the increasing disparity between schools.

The two major areas I disagree with him are:

1.  The income gap - that a widening income gap must necessarily mean a bad thing and
2.  The disparity in talent between schools (ie. all the talent seems to be concentrated in one or two schools) is "harmful to [Singapore's] long term development".

I will deal with the income gap first.  I don't see how a widening income gap can necessarily mean that something is amiss and the government has to take active steps.  There is no denying that the rich are getting much richer but the proper question to ask is are the poor getting poorer?  In other words,  is the standard of living of the poor in Singapore worse than it used to be 30 years ago or even 40 years ago?

I don't have hard statistics but I'm willing to bet that the poor in Singapore are now far better off than they used to be.  Almost every household now has a tv set and a computer.  Just look around you and you will be amazed to see cleaners and construction workers with iPhones.  Let's not even talk about luxury goods.  Malnutrition used to be a major problem among the poor in the past.  Today, nobody is malnourished in Singapore.  It would be ridiculous to pretend that the poor in Singapore are worse off now than they used to be 30 years ago.  That just simply doesn't square with our daily observation.

But what if the rich are getting richer?  Frankly, I don't see a problem with that.  If I were the kind of person who would allow the green-eyed monster to grow within me, of course I would be furious that the rich are getting richer.  But I'm not the jealous sort and I'm happy to see my neighbour zooming by in his Ferrari while I ride my trusty bicycle so long as he doesn't run into a puddle and splash water on me!

Let me give a simple example.

Assuming Mr Chan is a poor man in the 60's or 70's and he earns $200.00  a month.  I have increased the earnings of the poor in the 60's to take into account inflation.  The poor probably earned much less in those days but then things were cheaper so the figure of $200 would be about right after taking into account inflation.  The sum of $200 represents his purchasing power in today's terms.

Now, let's assume Mr Wong is a rich man in the 60's or 70's and he earns $3000.00 a month.  Again, I have increased the sum to take into account subsequent inflation.

The income disparity between Mr Chan and Mr Wong is only $2800.00 a month.  But Mr Chan is probably malnourished and is very much deprived of all the comforts of life.  Mr Wong has a good life but still, it isn't what we today would consider a luxurious lifestyle.  In other words, people in those days generally were worse off irrespective of whether they were rich or poor.

Let's say the government does nothing in terms of investment and development.  The income disparity between Mr Chan and Mr Wong probably wouldn't differ very much even today.

Now, let's turn to today's world and look at what Mr Goh (a poor man) and Mr Sim (a wealthy man) earn today.  Mr Goh earns $1,000.00 a month (which is what would be considered poor by Singapore standards today).  But Mr Goh has an iPhone, an iPad, a computer, a lovely tv set and he goes on a holiday once a year.  His lifestyle has improved tremendously.

Mr Sim, the rich man of today, earns $300,000.00 a month.  Of course his lifestyle exceeds the wildest imagination of average folks.  He's the typical chap who zooms past my bicycle in his Ferrari.

The income disparity between Mr Goh and Mr Sim now stands at $299,000.00.  It's a huge income gap but what does it tell us?  It tells us that the country has undergone a huge development and both men are happy and well.  It tells us that the government has done a great job and the country enjoys a plump and healthy economy.

But you may say that Mr Goh has every right to complain about the huge disparity between his income and that of Mr Sim.  But has Mr Goh the right to begrudge Mr Sim his wealth?  Let's assume that Mr Sim is one of the deserving rich who earns his money legally.  He has worked hard all his life.  He had excellent PSLE results, went to the top school, then to a top faculty in a top university.  He's got a high IQ too and he has business acumen and he knows how to invest his money.  Should Mr Sim's income be reduced so that we can have a smaller income gap?  Of course not.

The income gap is really a red herring when we are looking for clues of a mismanaged society or a society that is unjust in its distribution of income.  The income gap is not a good indicator of these things.  Rather, the proper question we should ask is whether the poor are taken care of.  If the poor aren't better off today than they used to be before, then I agree that something ought to be done.  But that is not the case in Singapore.

The same applies to schools.  I have spoken at great length in other posts on this blog about the PSLE and schools in Singapore and I won't repeat myself.  What I want to say is the Minister of Education is honest when he says all schools are good.  It all boils down to the definition of "good".  If your idea of a good school is a school that wins top international awards, has more than half its students with straight As in the A-levels and beats all other schools in the world when it comes to getting places in Ivy-League universities and Oxbridge, then yes, RI is the ONLY really good school in Singapore.  But that is not how we should determine if a school is good.

The wonderful thing about the Singapore government is its belief in meritocracy.  That's what makes Singapore such an enviable country internationally and it's what makes Singapore such a great nation.  I have listed the many achievements of RI on the international stage and it's very hard for me to think of any school in other countries achieving that sort of greatness and this is an indictment on the other countries.  Imagine an RI in Malaysia.  Can there possibly be an RI in Malaysia?  Of course not.  The bumiputra policy will ensure that a large percentage of the students are admitted on the basis of race and not merit.  Within a year, the Malaysian RI will probably do worse than our worst Secondary School.

For me, a school is good if the right students are in it.  RI is only a good school if top students are enrolled in it.  Average students should go to schools that are catered for their needs.  Viewed this way, every school in Singapore is a good school, even a school for students with mental impairment because such a school is good for such students.  Each school is tailored to the needs of different segments of society and no one school is better than the rest.  In that sense, all schools in Singapore are good.  It is when we want RI to take in mediocre students as well that we are trying to ruin RI and turn it into a bad school because that's not what RI is meant for.  I have explained elsewhere in my other blog posts that nothing hampers teaching as much as having students with a hugely diversified intellectual capacity.  Teachers will have to pitch their lessons somewhere at the average level and still, good students will be held back by the slower pace of learning and they will be bored while slow students will find the lessons too difficult.  That is why I have said elsewhere that the PSLE is a time-tested gauge of which secondary school a student should rightly go to.  It redounds to the credit of the Singapore government that it could come up with an school-placement examination that is so impartial and incorruptible.  I really hope the government will re-consider any plan to shelve or revamp such an excellent and fair gauge that has served the nation well for decades.

If we are honest about it, it's really jealousy that makes us rebel against a system that has worked so well for Singapore.  Whether it's the question of the income gap or the differences in schools, we should be honest and ask ourselves what it is that we really want.  Do I want RI to admit mediocre students only because I know my kid will do badly and yet I want him to be in RI?  But is it fair to put my kid in RI and displace a student with a better PSLE score?   Some parents have suggested that we look at education in a holistic way and we should value "other" aspects of education and not just academia.  But we know that's being hazy and unclear.  How does one have a fair test that measures the "holistic" and non-academic part of education?   Of course it's impossible and in the end, the selection of a student becomes arbitrary.  It will be open to corruption and abuse.  The PSLE is the only fair and impartial test that we can possibly have.  Nothing else will do.

The same questions should be asked when we clamour for a reduction in the income gap.  Do I want the deserving rich to be deprived of some of their wealth because I haven't got it?  Do I want his Ferrari to be taken away because it's so much faster than my bicycle?

We'll never be happy if we are always consumed by jealousy and envy.  We really should just take it easy and enjoy life.  Life can be pretty good when you get around on a bike.  Besides, cycling greatly reduces your carbon footprint and it increases your cardiovascular health too!

 Photo taken in Utrecht, Holland.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Road to Mediocrity

Here's today's front page news in Today:

No more naming of top students for national exams
Move in line with recognising students' holistic development and all-round excellence, says Ministry of Education

SINGAPORE - Amid the national angst over the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) - and the Government's constant assurance that every school is a good school - the Ministry of Education (MOE) will stop its practice of announcing the top-scoring students in the release of all national examinations results, starting with the PSLE results tomorrow.

This means that the PSLE, N- and O-Level results will be released to the media in a manner similar to that of the A-Level results, with the focus on the performance of the whole cohort.

The practice of naming the top student for each ethnic group will also be scrapped.

The media will also be encouraged to highlight the performances of students from a variety of schools who have done well not only in the exams but also in other aspects as well.

Responding to media queries, an MOE spokesperson said yesterday: "MOE and SEAB (Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board) will no longer list the top-scoring students in the release of all national examinations results."

She added: "This is in line with the importance of recognising our students for their holistic development and all-round excellence, and to balance the over-emphasis on academic results."

Nevertheless, she stressed that this "does not mean that academic achievement will no longer be celebrated". Students who ace the exams will still be recognised through Edusave Awards and scholarships, and schools may continue to celebrate their pupils' achievements, the spokesperson said.

"Through the change, we hope to foster a better balance in emphasis and help parents and students understand that academic performance is just one aspect of a student's overall development and progress. Each student deserves to be commended for his efforts and progress."

The move could cause some primary schools to have a last-minute rethink on how they are going to laud their pupils' academic achievements tomorrow.

At MacPherson Primary, for instance, its top three students and their PSLE T-scores would traditionally be announced to all the pupils and parents present to collect the results.

Principal Rostinah Mohamad Said said come tomorrow, the school will still announce their top students but their results will not be publicised. "We will also mention about other non-academic achievements such as leadership qualities so as to signal to parents the importance of holistic development," she said.

Nevertheless, Yishun Primary Principal Chan Kwai Foong said his school will not depart from its tradition of announcing its top three students and their letter grades. "It is only fair to recognise the children who performed well," said Ms Chan, adding that she also always commend the entire Primary Six cohort for having done their best for the exams.

A teacher, who has produced many PSLE top scorers in her 20-year career, welcomed the MOE's move, although she noted that the ministry's past practice of publicising the PSLE top scorers brings "a lot of glory and pride" to the schools.

Whether the move will alleviate the stress on students sitting for PSLE remains to be seen, she said. Parents are very resourceful and the information on the top PSLE scores will eventually be circulated, she pointed out.

Ms Samantha Chng, 38, whose son took the PSLE this year, felt that high stakes will continue to be placed on the national exams for 12-year-olds, as long as the scores are used to decide which secondary schools the pupils go to.

The MOE's latest move comes after it revamped the Singapore Youth Festival such that schools will no longer compete for awards. While Ms Chng wondered if the MOE was too overzealous in its bid to reduce competition among pupils and schools, Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, felt that such moves are in the right direction.

On the changes to the way PSLE results will be announced, Mr Lim said: "MOE is trying to signal that children can still be talented in other areas apart from academics but there is a limit to what MOE can do, parents must act upon it themselves."

Link to Todayonline: Click here

There will be no more awards for Singapore Youth Festival and there will be no more publicity for top students in the PSLE.  These are some of the measures that the Ministry of Education has taken to give a more "holistic" picture to exams and competitions.

One of my kids studies in NUS High School of Mathematics and Science which is traditionally a school that does not do well in the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF).  Another kid of mine is in another school which traditionally does exceedingly well at the Festival.  I'm talking only about the String Ensemble Competition since both my kids play string instruments in their schools.  As everyone knows, NUS High is a specialised school with very few students.  They tend to excel in Mathematics and Science but they aren't really that good when it comes to music.  And it's not their fault.  There are very few students to begin with and it's not easy to find from this small pool of students enough boys and girls who are talented in string instruments to make up an ensemble.  The fact that they are willing to participate in the Festival despite their inadequate number testifies to their strength of character.  When they appear on stage for the SYF competition, you can hear a gasp of surprise from the audience because there are so few of them and that will be followed by a thunderous applause more out of sympathy because everyone knows they can't possibly do well.

Unlike NUS High which welcomes any student who can hold a musical instrument, my other kid's school is extremely stringent in its selection of students for the ensemble.  The students have to go for a rigorous audition and they are very carefully selected.  The preparation for the SYF is extremely back-breaking.  Students who fail to meet the standard expected are axed from the competition.  Failure to attend just one of its many practice sessions results in immediate expulsion from the competition.  I can tell because when both kids were preparing for the competition, my kid from NUS High always went home early while the other almost lived in the school with countless rehearsals that stretched into the night.

When NUS High gets a bronze award which is really a sympathy award, everyone is jubilant.  The school gives each participant a special certificate of recognition.  As an aside, I should mention that NUS High is indeed an excellent school and the support the students get from the principal is incredible.  But there was one year when the school of my other child got a Gold award at SYF and everyone was close to tears.  The reason was they wanted to get the Gold with Honours award.  Two years later (the competition is held once every two years), they got their Gold with Honours and they felt vindicated!

What I want to illustrate from this is just as in the field of education, not everyone can be at the top of everything.  But top achievers must always be given the accolade and recognition because, well, they are brilliant and they work hard.  A nation that has excellence as its goal must laud excellence.

The students themselves are very supportive of others who do better than themselves.  I've been to concerts held by the string ensemble from my son's school and I have seen the support given by NUS High's ensemble members who attend the concert.  They are genuinely effusive in their praise of the performance by that other school.  I have also been to concerts in NUS High and I have seen ensemble members from my son's school and they too are supportive of the performers in NUS High.  Recently, I posted in my blog about RI's superb achievement even in non-academic areas such as debating and an RI debater corrected my error when I said that Singapore was represented by only RI boys.  He pointed out that there was a Hwa Chong boy in the team.  You may want to read that post and the comments here.

You see, there is no jealousy among the boys and girls.  They generally encourage and support one another.  Why then is there a need to play down on the publicity given to top students who really excel, whether it's education or music?

It all boils down to the parents.  Many parents are of the view that they MUST get their kids into a school that does extremely well in a particular area.   What they fail to understand is that the PSLE is an excellent and time-tested gauge of which secondary school a kid should go to.  A kid who goes to a school not suited for him will do worse even if the school generally produces good results.  We should not bite off more than we can chew.

These parents clamour for a few things.  One of them is to have the PSLE scrapped or revamped.  Others call for the opening up of top schools to mediocre students.  As I have already shown in my earlier post, you can't do that without turning a top school into a mediocre school, in which case, the same parents wouldn't want their kids into such a school.  You can't have it both ways.  Now, the Ministry has decided that there'll be no publicity given to top students.

Top students will still be top students.  Publicity of top students only serves to give inspiration to the average and weaker students who will then try to emulate these top students.  It gives students in Singapore something to aim for, some goal to pursue and it encourages hard work.  It gives impetus for further improvement and it's a booster to weaker and lazier students to keep the nose to the grindstone.  Singapore should not apologise for focussing on excellence because this is what has put on the world map not just of academia but other fields too.  Recently, an NUS High boy won the world's top mathematics prize.  An RI boy won it for Chemistry.  As I have mentioned in my previous blog post, a group of RI boys won the World Schools Debating Championship held in Dundee.  These are top world prizes and it is no mean feat for Singapore to achieve it when you consider how tiny our population is.

I fear that all the new measures will take away our edge on the world stage.  We should give more publicity to top students so that the rest of us can buck up and have these students as our inspiration.  There will always be envious parents with a dog-in-the-manger mentality who may suggest that there should be no top schools because their own kids can't get in anyway and there should be no publicity given to top students because their kids will never make it to the limelight.  It is for the government to take stock of what we have built up for ourselves and decide whether we are willing at this point in time to please just a few loud and jealous parents, forget our success story and take the road to mediocrity.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Choosing a Secondary School in Singapore

Sometimes when some parents speak, they don't realise how embarrassing they sound.  It's natural for parents to want to say the best things of their own children but we really have to be realistic.  However great our kids may be in our own eyes (and I admit we parents do look at our kids through rose-tinted glasses), we have to refrain from saying what our listeners know to be blatantly untrue.  Many parents talk shamelessly about how their sons refuse to go to Raffles Institution (RI), the nation's unparallelled top school, but they should be sure that their kids qualify for RI in the first place.  It's like someone saying he rejected Oxford and Harvard and chose to do a degree in a private commercial school in Singapore which has a link to some outback Aussie university.

At least five different persons have brought to my attention an article in last Saturday's Straits Times.  Speaking of our own kids to friends is one thing but to make bold statements on the national newspaper without checking the facts first is really something one should avoid at all costs.   Here is an excerpt (the 3 segments should be read as one - I merely separated them because I screen-saved them separately):

As the people who pointed this article out to me knew perfectly well, Mr Madduri is badly mistaken.  His son did not choose Bukit Panjang over RI because with a score of only 258, he could not have qualified for RI in the first place.  The cut-off scores for RI in the past 10 years have never gone so low as 258.  Please don't get me wrong.  I'm not by any means saying 258 is a low score.  "Low" and "high" are relative but 258 is not a score RI would consider for admission.  He may have qualified for Hwa Chong in a bad year but even then it's rather iffy.   He certainly more than qualifies for ACS(I) which has a low cut-off score for students of other schools and an even much lower cut off score for students who are from its own feeder primary schools.

So, let's set the record straight.  Mr Madduri's son did not qualify for RI and so he could not have chosen not to go to the school.  You can't CHOOSE not to go to a school that you CAN'T get into in the first place.

Next, Mr Madduri said something that I find offensive but I can readily forgive him because I know he's speaking from utter ignorance about RI.  This is what ST says:  "He (Mr Madduri) would like to see a better mix of children entering top schools, not just those with top scores and from privileged backgrounds".  This is not the first time I have heard such a ridiculous remark.  It really gets my goat because it is so blatantly incorrect and untrue and it always comes from the lips of parents who want very badly for their kids to get into a good school but they sadly don't qualify.  I can only speak for RI and from what I know of RI, it has students who come from all walks of life.  I have given the facts to support this in another post of mine: CLICK HERE

I can't deny that RI is where children with top scores go to.  That's what the nation's top school is for.  That's how RI can be a school that sets world records in all the major disciplines of academia.  Unlike some schools (or at least one particular school I know but will not mention by name), RI does not take in children from a privileged background only.  In fact, RI is status blind and I know that for a fact.  It only takes in students with splendid scores, or to be precise, it only takes in the nation's best.  It need not apologize for this because it is fulfilling a duty to the nation - it has successfully placed Singapore on the world's map of academia. And it's not just in academia that RI excels way above the other schools, not just in Singapore but all over the world.  I have written at length on this with facts and figures in another post on this blog and if you are interested, please click here.

I now want to tell a little tale about my own personal experience.  Some of my readers will know that I have a lot of questions about my own religion but that's a separate issue altogether.  Notwithstanding the doubts I have about supernatural matters, when it comes to the church, I am an extremely devout and faithful communicant, having served it for as long as I can remember from being an acolyte to being a Sunday School teacher and I continue to serve the church today and will serve it for as long as I live.  My church runs many schools in Singapore and my children went to these schools for their primary school education.  It was all along assumed in my family that my kids would continue to study in the secondary schools run by my church.  I remember reading in my church magazine a long time ago an admonition from my bishop that we the faithful should ensure that our kids studied in a school run by the church.  I remember the first day of my son's Primary 1 and how comfortably he settled in because, as he told me, they sang the same hymns that he was familiar with from Church and from kindergarten which was also run by my church.

I had every reason to ensure that my son went to a secondary school managed by my church.  I knew nothing about other schools then.  And then came the PSLE which wasn't too much of a stress for my son because the cut-off score for the secondary school run by my church was extremely low.  There were two schools of my church to go to.  One had a very low cut-off score and the other was unbelievably much lower.  Most students go to the former and if they do really bad in the PSLE, they will go to the latter.  I was also advised by a fellow church-goer who had a boy older than my son that if my son should do badly and his score was below the cut-off score of that better school, all I had to do was to give a cheque of $20,000.00 for the school building fund and my son would be accepted into the school.  In fact, that was what she did for her son.  I did my fatherly duty and gave my son all the advice he needed for his PSLE but there was no stress at all because it was a given that my son would be continuing his education in the secondary school of my church.

Then came the PSLE results and it so happened that my son did well.  The parents of the other top students gathered together and I was surprised to discover that almost all their sons were going to RI.

Not having gone to school in Singapore, I found it very hard to decide which school was the right school to send my son to.  I had all along thought the school of my church was the only school he should go to.  It's been many years now and I'm older and wiser and I know what the system is.  The school of my church is the right school to go to if my son had done badly in his exams.  That is why in every year, the top rung of students with excellent scores from the primary school of my church would go to RI and the second rung of good students would opt for Hwa Chong.  The remainder stayed with the school of my church.  That's the rule of thumb with hardly any exceptions.

It was also much later that I discovered that the principal of the primary school of my church who had throughout my son's primary school education been telling parents not to send their kids to RI if they did very well had himself done what he had preached against.  He had got his son into RI through the Sports DSA.  For students who can't make the rigorous academic grades expected by RI but who excel in sports, they can apply to RI through the Sports DSA (Direct School Admission).  I also discovered that the then principal of the secondary school of my church that I had thought of sending my son to had himself a son who was studying in RI.  In other words, the principals of the schools of my church, while discouraging parents from sending their sons to RI, are doing precisely that with their own sons.  Obviously, we can only afford to have loyalty to the church (in so far as schools go) if our sons don't qualify for RI.

When my son was in Secondary 2 or 3, I attended a Christmas party of a fellow church-goer.  At the party, there were 3 or 4 boys from the secondary school of my church who were my son's friends.  After the party, on our way home, my son told me something that really shocked me.  The boys were talking about another boy in their school who didn't do well at all in the school exams but he was promoted to the top class.  One of the boys explained that it was because his father had given a large donation to the school.  My son was puzzled because this never happened in RI.  RI is a school that is very much organised like the Singapore Government which is based on pure meritocracy.  I have seen an important government Minister attending a talk for parents and because he was late, he had to find a seat somewhere behind in the hall.  In the schools of my church, important people would most certainly be given red-carpet treatment.  RI is just so clinically non-discriminatory.  They do discriminate but the basis of discrimination is always pure merit and that's what any school or for that matter, any institution should practise.   Whether the boys were correct about the school putting students in good classes because of their parents' donation is immaterial.  If the boys in a school can come to such a conjecture, it speaks volumes of what sort of morality the school teaches its boys.

I've heard a lot of negative things about RI from people in my church, all of which are simply not true.  Excessive competition among the boys is a common complaint by people whose sons couldn't make it to RI in the first place.  I can say for a fact there is absolutely no such thing in RI.  I once saw my son reading something in his email and when I asked him what he was doing, he said he was reading the study notes prepared by the top boy in his class.  I looked at the carefully prepared notes and I was impressed.  The generosity of the good students in RI, their willingness to share and the superb education that ensures that all boys are not just world-class academics but also gentlemen of honour all assured me that I did the right thing about my son's choice of school.  If you read in the papers about a fight among the schoolboys in a rugby match, you can be sure RI isn't one of the schools involved.  To be honest, my son learnt more about morality from RI than he did in any institution run by my church.

I don't want to offend people in my church or Christians generally.  I am not making any disparaging remarks about the church which I revere and submit to.  But some of the institutions run by my church are in a pretty bad state and they might want to take a leaf from RI's book.  If we Christians don't say a thing when schools run by our church are leading our children down the wrong path, are we not accountable to a higher authority for our culpable silence?

There's now a great deal of talk about revamping the PSLE.  I fear Singapore is heading in the wrong direction if it does that.  I've examined carefully what parents want and it's amazing.  What they really want is for their sons to be able to get into RI as if the air in RI will benefit their sons in some miraculous way.  RI can only be a good school to go to if it remains the school where only students with the very best PSLE scores are admitted.  RI is an empty shell without its top students.  It's not just RI.  Every top notch academic institution has to restrict its admission to only the best.  Imagine what a mediocre university Harvard would be if it opened its doors to students with mediocre results.  Do parents complain that it's an elitist university and the only right thing to do is for it to allow students with average grades to enrol?  Of course not.  If the finest universities want to remain the best, they have to exclude the less deserving students.

All the more so for secondary schools.  As I have explained in the other blog posts I have linked to, we can only have truly effective teaching if students are divided according to their academic abilities and powers of comprehension.  Mixing academically poor students with strong students is not going to help either group of students.  You will only confuse the poorer students and slow down the better students.  If your child has a PSLE score of 270, RI is of course a good school for him.  But if he has a PSLE score of 260, RI may not be the right school for him and he's probably better off in Hwa Chong.  That is not to say that Hwa Chong is a bad school.  As far as academic results go, it's the next best school.

As I have explained in my earlier blog post, Singapore actually stumbled upon a winning formula when it started the PSLE.  It's the PSLE that determines which secondary school a student goes to.  And it seems to be the right gauge of a student's academic ability, as the amazing success of RI has demonstrated. 

Ultimately, we parents want the best for our kids.  The best for our kids can only be the school our kids are most suited for.  Such a school may not necessarily be RI. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Shakespeare and the Bible

Anthony Burgess and W. Somerset Maugham, the two novelists who meant a lot to me as a boy, lived for a time in Malaya and they wrote extensively about life in Malaya then.  Their novels evoke all the romanticism of the Far East so that as you read them, you can almost hear the crickets after a torrential thunderstorm and smell the fresh wild frangipani, the aroma of which the tropical breeze wafts pleasantly into your bedroom through the verandah of your attap-roofed house on stilts.  On my 16th birthday, my Mum got me his latest book which I devoured like I did all his other novels.  I won't reveal the title of the book because that would give away my age and I want this blog to remain totally anonymous so that even my age and gender remain a mystery but I will say this of the book my Mum bought for me - if she had known that the novel contained a re-writing of the creation story in Genesis so that the Adam and Eve union became a gay union, she would never have bought it.  The book also led a lot of people to assume that Burgess was gay but he denied that in his 2-volume autobiography.  But W. Somerset Maugham was subsequently found to be gay and I remember being rather disappointed when I read that he was a closet homosexual and when I read in one of his novels a long description of a naked young man on an Indonesian island, I could not help wondering if he might not have been motivated in his vivid description by homosexual lasciviousness which was of course unjust of me since it bothered me not one bit if descriptions of naked females by heterosexual male writers were motivated by heterosexual lasciviousness.  Those were the days when I, together with most of the world, was ignorant of what sexuality really meant and I mistook a different sexual orientation for immorality, a judgment that I am today ashamed of and I would only go so far as to raise for myself the defence of youth and ignorance if anyone should lay at my door the charge of homophobia.

But let's get back to Anthony Burgess who died in the early 1990s and whom I caught a glimpse of just before his death, signing books for fans at Waterstones.  He was dying of lung cancer and would cough ever so often but still he soldiered on stoically, signing books.

In one of his studies on Shakespeare, Burgess gives his opinion that Shakespeare was in all probability one of those in the august panel of translators of the greatest version of the Bible that the world has ever known, the King James Version, also called the AV or Authorised Version.  This version of the BIble soon became the definitive Bible in the English-speaking world as it pushed Roman Catholic versions into obscurity and ensured the supremacy of Protestantism as the dominant religion of English-speaking countries and it relegated Roman Catholicism to being at best a "foreign" (ie. Italian or French speaking) religion or at least it seemed to most of us in the former colonies.  Quotations from any other versions of the Bible would raise eyebrows in literary circles and were generally regarded with suspicion because of their inelegance when compared with the King James Version which became the indisputable authority on the English language, alongside Shakespeare and Milton.  The Roman Catholics started a poor imitation of this Bible which they called the Douay-Rheims Bible but it is nothing more than a poor imitation which nobody has really heard of.  The King James Version is so elegant in its simplicity and vivid in its imagery that when it's read in a cavernous cathedral, the echo of its beautiful lines resonates as if God himself is giving utterance.  It defies belief that a work of such immense beauty could have been composed without the aid of the Bard himself.  Burgess gives some rather fanciful evidence for Shakespeare's authorship of the King James Version but I won't repeat it here.

What motivated me to write this post is a book I recently started to read again after having chanced upon it on one of my shelves.  I had been looking for this book for a while but because my books have outgrown my house and they lie strewn all over my bedroom and the sitting room, looking for a book can be quite a daunting task.  Here's the book:

The extensive pencil markings on almost every page of the book bear testimony to the fact that I used to read it in my student days.  But for all the time spent poring over this book something in it completely escaped my attention then.  What totally missed my attention but which I've only discovered recently is that in one of Shakespeare's plays, a reference is made to something quite profound about the Bible.

Before you get the wrong impression, let me explain a little more about the book.  Frank Kermode was a renowned Shakespearean scholar.  He was born around this time about 9 decades ago and he died two years ago.  His book, as the title states clearly, is about Shakespeare's language.  It takes no interest in biblical contradictions.  That is the reason why the small little point about biblical contradictions escaped my attention when I first read it as a part of my undergraduate course on Shakespeare.  Today, with no more examinations to sit, I couldn't care less what a stichomythia and all its variants are.  Tracing Shakespeare's increasing sophistication in his use of imagery from his early plays to his more mature later plays is something that I can read today and forget tomorrow without any serious consequences.  So I have more time to look out for things that don't interest the Shakespearean scholar but are fascinating to me and if you have read my blog, matters concerning my religion have a way of gripping my interest that no other subject can.

First a little book review.  Frank Kermode's book is excellent in its comprehensive coverage of not just all of Shakespeare's plays but his poems too.  I highly recommend it to anyone who truly loves Shakespeare and who has read most of his plays and poems.  I think it would be awfully boring if all the Shakespeare you have read are the texts you did at O levels and A levels.  The book is easy reading for the general reader but the writer does not waste his time explaining the background to the plays and poems he writes about.  He quite rightly expects the reader of such a book to be at least familiar with most of Shakespeare's works.

We must remember that there was heavy censorship in the days of Shakespeare and any open statement about contradictions in the Holy Bible would mean immediate arrest and imprisonment.  All stage plays had to go through the scrutiny of the Master of the Revels whose job it was to look out for unholy profanities and ungodly lines.  Shakespeare could not do a Richard Dawkins in his plays but then again, he did not show much interest or knowledge in religion in the first place and there were no atheists in those days.  But that one remark is enough to suggest to me that perhaps Shakespeare wasn't that ignorant about the Bible which he might very well have helped in the translation process.  He was not unaware of the many problems in the Bible and the numerous contradictions.

The remark I'm talking about appears in one of the soliloquies where a direct reference is made to contradictions in the Holy Gospels or, as Shakespeare puts it, "the word is set against the word" and for an example, he gives the free and welcoming invitation Jesus gives to all children to go to him on the one hand and his harsh insistence that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  This isn't the sort of contradiction that any atheist would pick on today.  This isn't even a real contradiction and if an atheist wants to attack the Holy Bible, there are far more damning contradictions to pick.

But let's look at these two examples that the Bard cites.  Christ's welcome to children to go to him does in some way contradict his blanket rejection of rich people from the kingdom of heaven.  Presumably, some of these children may very well grow to be wealthy men and women and it does appear petty to be so effusive in welcoming them as kids but to reject them when they become adults.  But in the time of Christ, the children were probably poor and would grow up to be poor men and women.  Society was very much stratified and historians tell us that one of the criticisms of Christianity in the first century was it was the religion of the poor and uneducated.  Given that setting, the children Christ welcomed must have been children from poor families and they would most certainly grow up to be as poor as their parents.  When Christ gave his condemning remarks about the rich, he was addressing the rich young ruler, one of the few occasions he actually addressed anyone who wasn't poor.

But of course the church had to quickly reinterpret Christ's aversion to the wealthy.  Christianity soon grew from its humble roots and became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, particularly when the Emperor himself espoused the religion.  Negative remarks against wealth had to be given a fresh interpretation so that Christ's sharp and unequivocal condemnation of the rich is somewhat blunted.  The usual "although Christ said this, he didn't mean it this way" is how the church today interprets any verse that does not seem to square with our understanding of what is right and wrong.  That is how we ignore biblical support for slavery and reinterpret verses which clearly show slavery to be a holy institution of God which received the full support and active encouragement of St Paul.  Morality is fluid and it changes with time, place and culture and every religion needs to be able to reinterpret its holy books.  Failure to give a fresh interpretation to verses in a holy book can lead to very serious trouble especially when fanatics insist on their literal meaning.  In some instances and for some verses, this can mean discrimination and even cruelty to women, violence against non-believers and even the terrorism we see in recent years.  It's the duty of the church and every religious organisation to review its holy book regularly and to prune the parts that need pruning and to give a whole new meaning to verses which may be outdated or just downright evil.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Today is World Philosophy Day

Photo: by UNESCO

Happy World Philosophy Day!  Today is designated World Philosophy Day for 2012 by UNESCO's General Conference.

This is what UNESCO says:

In establishing World Philosophy Day in 2005, the General Conference highlighted the importance of this discipline, especially for young people, underlining that “philosophy is a discipline that encourages critical and independent thought and is capable of working towards a better understanding of the world and promoting tolerance and peace”.

Can anyone dispute that?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

May the Path of Light be Yours

The paths of light and darkness are without beginning and are as eternal as the material universes; by one, liberation is attained and by the other, one repeatedly returns again. 
Bhagavad-Gita, Chap 8, verse 26 

Wishing all Hindus joy and wisdom as they celebrate the victory of good over evil on this day of light!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Say NO to business and marketing books!

There used to be a time when Singaporeans were crazy about self-help books and books with embarrassing titles such as How I Made My First Million followed by How I Made My Next Million jostled with one another for the limelight in the National Best Seller List.  When Borders first opened its business in Singapore, many book lovers were thrilled.  The "literature and poetry" section was huge and it occupied more than half the entire floor space of that large book shop.  One of the first books I bought from Borders was the Riverside Chaucer which remains my pride and joy to this day.  I'm a firm believer in reading Middle English poetry in Middle English and a modern English translation of a Middle English poem just won't do unless you are introducing the poem to a child.  At that time, all book shops in Singapore sold only Middle English poems in modern English.    It was also from Borders that I bought Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse when other book shops only carried the more modern editions.

Just as I thought Borders was a real treasure trove for book lovers, something happened that changed my mind totally.  The "literature" section in Borders became smaller and smaller and many of the shelves that used to stock the greatest books on the planet were emptied and in their place stood pathetic volumes of marketing books on how to get rich or some such vile titles.  That was the time when I stopped buying books in Singapore and I got all the great works of literature from England or from the internet.  When Borders was wound up and its branch in Singapore closed down, I felt it got its just deserts.  A book shop that panders to the base and vulgar tastes of its lesser breed of customers does not deserve to thrive.

I take pride in the fact that I have never read a single business or marketing book in my entire life.  The library in my house is well-stocked and you can find the most obscure titles but I'm pleased to declare that it is unsullied by the undesirable taint of marketing books.  I can't think of anything more disgraceful than reading a book on how to get rich which is essentially what business and marketing books are all about.  However much they try to cloak their true intent in a respectable book jacket and whatever words they use to give the appearance of decency, the fact remains that a business book talks about nothing else but filthy money and how to amass it.  Impecunious though I may be, I look upon such books as an abomination and I have absolutely nothing to do with them.

We now live in a world where information flows freely and unchecked.  The most puritanical Amish cannot help but have pornography fed into his email completely unsolicited.  That's precisely how I got to read this morning a marketing article in a journal called the Singapore Business Review but I'm glad I read it.  At least I know for a fact now that I haven't missed anything by staying away from business and marketing books.

It is never my policy to criticise what others write.  The rules of grammar and proper writing style are to me mere rules that I care not a jot for.  Many of my best friends can't identify a pluperfect tense in a sentence to save their lives.  They don't mean a thing to me.  But if one must write an article in the Singapore Business Review, I would have expected slightly more care in how one phrases one's sentences.  Slipshod writing does betray to some degree what really goes on in a person's mind and how much he cares for his readers and the subject matter he's writing on.

I don't wish to identify the writer whose work I'm ciriticising and so I will merely pick a sentence or two to illustrate what I'm saying.  The errors are so glaring I need not say a word more.  Here they are:

I'll begin with the first line in the article.  It's presumably a quotation but the source is not given.  I honestly doubt if it is a quotation in the first place.  The sentence is as ungrammatical as the rest of the article so if it is a quotation, I suspect the writer is quoting his own previous articles.

 Here's another:

I was about to let it go as a minor oversight but when I saw that the error was repeated shamelessly, I felt secure in posting it here.

Now, the following is an egregious blunder that may very well have been an oversight but the writer of an article in such a serious journal really has no excuse for making it and besides, this flouting of a basic grammatical rule is quite consistent with the many other errors in the article:

Here's another:

Next comes the most garbled piece of writing in the post.  Articles are dropped, prepositions run riot and the general meaning is obscured:

I want to be fair.  I have no doubt the writer is a wonderful marketing guru but he badly needs an English lesson.  This is what you get when you trade Shakespeare, Milton and Tennyson for How to Get Rich.  Parents who hope to get their kids into business, marketing and investments must bear in mind that there is a price to pay when you turn your back on Arnold and Blake and Coleridge and all the other letters of the alphabet all the way to Yeats.  Sorry to the Francophiles but Zola really doesn't count.

I will continue to stay away from marketing books and it matters not if I miss out on a good stock exchange deal (or whatever the correct business term is) and remain as penniless as I have always been.  My bank books may be in the red but there will be in the epitaph on my tombstone a brilliant quotation of immense literary worth.

 Poor but happy in front of my single-bedroom ramshackle hut