Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Call of Duty

This is what I received in my letter box today and if you have 17 or 18-year-old sons, you will know what it is.  It's the military conscription notification sent to all able-bodied young men and to their fathers to inform them of the precise date and time when they have to report to the Basic Military Training Camp in Pulau Tekong.  In Singapore, there is compulsory military conscription for all 18 year old boys and they will have to serve in the army for two and a half years.  This military conscription is called National Service or NS and the conscripts are called National Servicemen or NS men.

For the first half of this year, there was a spate of casualties among NS men and there were a few fatalities.  A simple search in google gives me the following links which you may want to read:

Death of Private Lee 

Death of Private Amirul 

Death of NS man Suresh 

Dearh of NS man Tan 

The above are not the only deaths earlier this year but they are the first four that I chose from my google search.  I'm not interested in the statistics; a single death is one too many.

The notification that I received today came with an invitation to the initiation ceremony held in Pulau Tekong for the whole family.  Pulau Tekong is an off-limits island for military use exclusively.  You can't just sail to the island.  The only way a civilian can visit it is by way of an invitation such as the one I received today.
  Pulau Tekong is intriguing not only because it's inaccessible to the civilian population.  From an aeroplane, it looks like a lovely tropical island with white sandy beaches.  It's also reputed to be haunted which adds to its attractiveness.    

I've been told that it's quite common for parents who attend the initiation ceremony in Pulau Tekong to weep when it comes to the time for them to board the ferry back to the main island of Singapore and leave behind their sons who will receive basic military training for the next 9 weeks on the island before they are deployed to the different divisions in the army for the next two years.  This may sound strange to Westerners but in the Asian culture, children continue to live with their parents until they get married.  The Western concept of a child of 18 leaving the home and earning his own bread is viewed with horror.   Nobody in Asia ever does that and it does not matter if he's Chinese, Malay or Indian.  The only time an 18 year old might live apart from his parents is when he has to go to college abroad but the bond between parent and child remains extremely strong throughout the duration of their lives.  With such adverse reports of NS casualties, it may very well be that there will be even more weeping.

There are many who take the view that we don't need compulsory military conscription in this day and age.  But that is a dangerously flawed view to hold.  Singapore isn't exactly surrounded by terribly friendly neighbours.  Nobody really forgets the Confrontation from Indonesia or the envy that Singapore excites in its Northern neighbour, Malaysia.  Singapore's history is very much an embarrassment to Malaysia.  When Tengku Abdul Rahman expelled Singapore from Malaysia, he really thought that would be the end of Singapore.  After all, Singapore was without any natural resources and it's such a small island you can't even run a marathon in a straight line without hitting the sea.  There's an old video that shows Lee Kuan Yew weeping at the Separation of Singapore from Malaysia
and that scene has become an iconic symbol of what perseverance means in the face of hopelessness and adversity.   With each passing year after the Separation, contrary to expectations, Singapore instead of crumbling became increasingly successful and progressive and it didn't take many years before Malaysia, which is rich in natural resources and is a hundred times the size of Singapore, became no more than an economic backwater when compared with its hugely successful neighbour.

It's unavoidable that Malaysia would feel a certain amount of envy for Singapore.  Singapore's incredible success despite the odds only brings to question the competence of Malaysia's leaders.
Some years ago, there was a dispute between the countries over a little outcrop in the middle of the sea and the matter was brought to the International Tribunal and was ultimately resolved largely in Singapore's favour.  Anyone reading the proceedings cannot help but wonder if Malaysia might have done better at the Tribunal if it had kept its documents and records better.   As far as competence goes, everyone knows that when compared with its Southern neighbour, Malaysia tak boleh.

I'm not suggesting for a minute that there is any threat to Singapore by Malaysia or Indonesia.   As matters stand today, all three countries are on the best of terms but whether there will be a future threat or not depends very much on who the leader is.  If you get a hawkish, combative leader, even the most friendly countries can go to war with each other.  No country can afford to neglect its military force in the expectation that the friendliness of its neighbours will remain the same for all times.

The majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese.  According to an old Chinese proverb, "Just as fine metal is not made into nails, gentlemen do not serve in the army".  You must excuse my poor translation that robs the proverb of its beautiful rhyme.  The fact is most Chinese people despise the military.
  Very few Singaporeans would voluntarily join the the armed forces as regular soldiers.  If Singapore were to abolish compulsory conscription, there would be hardly anyone to fill the ranks of the army.

What about the casualties that happened earlier this year?  The Ministry of Defence (Mindef) issued a statement that the safety of servicemen was top priority to the government.  See this link:  Minister of Defence, Dr Ng, Assures the Public

But it's easy to make a statement.  Are there steps taken to ensure the safety of servicemen or was Mindef's statement nothing more than mere empty words designed to calm the public?

I think Mindef has looked into safety issues and has taken steps to ensure that the casualties that took place earlier this year are not repeated.  From what I understand, Mindef is now very quick to lower the Physical Employment Status (PES) of its young recruits.  I have heard how a boy who will be conscripted next year had his PES lowered to PES C for something as trifling as a difference in the size of his eyes!  Another boy had his PES lowered because he injured his hand in a rugby match a few years ago and it didn't matter that the injury had long healed.  But I don't think Mindef is wrong to err on the side of caution.  It's far better to demote a cockeyed recruit to the non-combat category than to expose the other NS men to his wildly inaccurate shooting. 
I am sure this is not all that Mindef has done to ensure NS men's safety.  There must be heaps more that they have done that I am not aware of.  But the little that has trickled down to my attention tells me they're on the right track.

So when you're in Pulau Tekong with your sons, you should put your mind at ease.  It's going to be a safe two-year ride
for the boys.  The only bummer for me is the ban on cameras and camera-phones.  It's such a shame we won't be allowed to take pics on such a memorable occasion.  Mindef has done a good job but they've got to learn to be less uptight and allow parents to bring a camera or at least an iPhone.  What threat to security can cameras be?  I would love to take a few pics of the island and post them on my blog.   

It will be a proud moment for all parents to see their sons answering the nation's call of duty
.  Our sons will have earned for themselves the right to declare that those "now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap".

EDIT: [8:56pm, 1 Nov 2012]  I have just been informed by a friend of mine that parents are permitted to bring cameras and any phone they like for the initiation ceremony.  I'm going to take loads of pics and post them on this blog when I'm there in February next year.  You'll get to see what this inaccessible but delightfully haunted island is like.

Hurricane Sandy

These are photos of New York that I found on the internet taken by intrepid photographers.  It's a huge disaster.

Below is a doctored pic.  It looks better than the real pics but it's a fake.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why I admire atheists

A few people have told me that they thought of me as an atheist.  If they are Christians, I usually ask them in what ministry of the church they are serving.  More often than not, they don't serve in the church at all.  That usually shuts them up because they know I do serve the church on a voluntary capacity as a lay parishioner and I have done so ever since I was a boy.

But there must be a reason why some people assume I'm an atheist.  The fact is I do admire atheists from a distance.  I know I can never be an atheist and they are a different kettle of fish altogether but they are worthy of our admiration.

The usual complaint I hear from my fellow Christians about atheists is their supposed arrogance.  Do I think atheists are arrogant?  I acknowledge some of them are but if we can learn to be objective and put ourselves in their shoes, we will see why some of them can't help but be arrogant.  It's hard for an atheist not to be arrogant when they know they belong to a small coterie of geniuses amidst a sea of morons of all stripes and colours.  We are the morons but most of us don't like to acknowledge our imbecility and because of our pride, we denigrate the innocent atheist. 

All of us believers used to believe wholeheartedly that the earth was flat.  We also believed the earth could not be moved because the Bible tells us that the Lord has established the earth and it does not move.  I used to think only the RC church persecuted Galileo for saying the earth moved round the sun in contradiction of the Holy Bible but I've since read that Luther and Calvin were totally opposed to Galileo and his brilliant discovery.

Today, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming and anyone who does not accept the fact of evolution has got to be, if I may borrow the words of Richard Dawkins, insane, ignorant or stupid.  Although the RC church has accepted to some degree the fact of evolution, there are many Christians today who are still opposed to it, notably the fundamentalists.

Who are the fact-deniers in our world?  We, the religious majority!!!  We are the ones who deny facts in order to justify our religious beliefs.  Atheists, on the other hand, have no ancient book to uphold.  They don't have to write ridiculous books like "Reconciling Perceived Inconsistencies in the Bible".  They just have to follow the evidence and their common sense.  We are the ones with the huge agenda.  We are the ones who have to defend God when the Bible tells us He ordered the killing of a whole town of men, women, children and babies.  We are the ones who skirt around verses on slavery that supposedly came from the mouth of God himself and I don't mean emancipation which is a notion alien to the Bible writers.  We are the ones who spend all our energy defending God and the Bible while at the same time, we ignore and pooh-pooh scientific facts and discoveries.  Why my fellow believers are unable to see this is something that befuddles me.  How do we expect an atheist to respect us when we are so blatantly dishonest with facts and so averse to the truth?

Kurt Wise was a distinguished paleontologist and geologist.  Now, both fields are inevitable time-bombs to a believer of a fundamentalist religion.  The story goes that one night, Kurt Wise decided to go through the Bible and snip off with a pair of scissors parts that did not square with science.  According to him when he was through with the Bible, he could not hold the Bible up because it was all collapsing into tiny fragments, so extensive was the snipping.  At that point, he felt he had to make up his mind - go along with his faith and reject science or forget his faith and go on with science.  He decided to go with God and that's the reason why at the start of this paragraph, I wrote that he WAS a distinguished scientist.  He's not dead, he's still alive today but he's no longer a distinguished scientist.  Kurt Wise says rather unwisely that even if there is a whole universe of evidence for evolution, he will deny it because he has chosen to believe whatever the Bible tells him.

How do we expect a rational atheist to be less arrogant?

My admiration for the atheist is objective and honest.  I'm saying ANY totally honest person would admire the atheist.  But I'm not advocating that all of us leave the church, synagogue, mosque, temple and other places of worship and be atheists.  It's not that simple.  All I'm saying is we've got to be truthful and honest with ourselves and our religion.  We must recognise the huge flaws in our religion, the contradictions in its claims, the inconsistencies, the immorality in some of its teachings (and yes, there is a great deal of immorality in religion which we as followers should expunge) and we must come to terms with these things.  We must understand the cultural and historical contexts of our religion and we must realize that antiquity does not necessarily mean truth.  On the contrary, what's antiquated is usually incorrect, unscientific, morally outrageous, superstitious and just plain wrong.

We must accept that what's written in a holy book whatever the religion may be is not inerrant and there are parts that are downright evil.  Holy books are all full of errors and some are violent and bloodthirsty.   We all love the "Battle of Jericho" song which every Christian must have sung as a child.  Children in kindergarten love the part that goes "and the walls came tumbling down".  My Mum once played a CD of this song to my children when suddenly, something in me snapped.  I stopped the CD and asked my Mum if she knew what the song was about.  She didn't know and she didn't care.  It's just a Christian song for kids so what's the big deal?  Of course it's a huge deal.  What happened after the walls came tumbling down?  The people of Israel rushed into Jericho and massacred every man, woman, teenager, child, toddler, baby and newborn because God commanded them to do that.  If you just save a baby from the slaughter, it would be considered a grievous sin and the punishment is death for you and your entire family.  This is what happened in another city called Ai.  The Bible also tells us that King Saul's greatest sin against God was not that he ruled Israel badly but because he didn't kill someone when God commanded the slaughter of EVERYONE.

Many Christians hate me for showing the skeletons in our religious closet.  But I believe it's time for us to send these skeletons to the museum.  Tell the world that we had skeletons at one time but we have reformed our religion and the skeletons are now in the museum as a part of our violent history but history they will remain.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Singapore Needs the Bard

You wouldn't normally associate the Japanese with a taste for the plays of William Shakespeare but they have their own Shakespeare Company that performs Shakespearean plays in Japanese all over the country.  From New Zealand to Alaska, everyone without exception has been, in some measure, influenced by the Bard.  Even the French who are notoriously averse to anything English acknowledge Shakespeare as the greatest literary giant who towers way above their beloved Molière.  In Singapore, there is not a single holder of the pink IC who has not quoted Shakespeare in the course of his daily conversation, even though he may not be aware of it.

If you say you laughed yourself into stitches or that you have had too much of a good thing or that a technical report is all Greek to you or you have not slept one wink, you are quoting Shakespeare.  If you say you refuse to budge an inch or you are tongue-tied or something has vanished into thin air, again you are quoting Shakespeare.  I can go on forever but you get the drift - you can't speak two sentences in English without quoting Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's influence is ubiquitous and it's not confined to his homeland alone.  If we would just take the trouble to look at some of our common household items, we are sure to find Shakespeare's mark imprinted on a few of them.  Just look at this simple bag.

It's sure to bring a smile to anyone who happens to read what's on the bag.  If my memory doesn't fail me, in this scene from King Henry IV Part 1, we see Falstaff boasting in the tavern about his fight with a dozen men when Prince Hal exposes his cowardice and dishonesty.  Falstaff is here giving Prince Hal an earful.  It's particularly funny for us today because Falstaff who is fat is insulting Prince Hal for being thin.  If you want to look for what to say to that slim guy who's always making witty remarks about your generous hips, look no further than what's on my bag.

Next, I have this old wallet but I'm not sure if you can read the words on it.

It says, "There is money; spend it; spend more; spend all".   Isn't this just what any woman would love to hear from the lips of her husband?  I can't make out the source at the bottom of the wallet which has been erased from years of use but I recall this play, Merry Wives of Windsor, quite vividly.  Falstaff (yes, it's him again) being short on cash, wants to seduce two wealthy married women.  The husbands are warned by Falstaff's servants.  Ford, the husband of one of them, is jealous and wants to sound him out.  He pretends to be someone else who is interested in Mrs Ford and he wants Falstaff to act as a go-between.  It's in this context that Ford gives his wallet to Falstaff and those are the words he utters.  The play ends with Falstaff utterly humiliated.

Shakespeare has that capacity to unite the human race regardless of our ethnic differences.  His plays are to adults what Hansel and Gretel is to children.  Just as Hansel and Gretel is read to children from Argentina to China and Russia and you don't have to be a German child to be familiar with the story, Shakespeare's plays and poems are universally watched and read by practically everyone on the globe, and quite aptly, the Globe is also the name of the theatre in which his plays used to be performed but it caught fire and was totally destroyed in 1613, possibly when Henry VIII was performed.  The Globe was rebuilt in 1997 and donations for its reconstruction came from all over the world.  You can walk on the tiles and read the names of the donors.

The Singapore Air Force once had an advertisement in its recruitment drive that was aired on television.  It showed a pilot flying a fighter plane and at the same time, you can hear the line "To be or not to be" chanted repeatedly throughout.  Of course the SAF intended to quote Shakespeare but I thought it was most inappropriate to use a line from the lips of Hamlet who was considering whether to kill himself or to live on.  That's not a good idea for a recruitment exercise for the Armed Forces.  I'm sure the Air Force had no intention of attracting suicidal pilots.  But it's nice to know that even the SAF quotes Shakespeare. They may not know the context of the quotation but quote it they must.  That's how compelling Shakespeare is.

It used to be that every Singaporean student had to read a minimum of 2 Shakespearean plays for the O-levels and if they did Lit in A-levels, Paper 2 which was compulsory in those days was the Shakespeare paper and candidates had to do another 2 plays for this paper.  It is likely that a student, after having tasted such a delightful fruit would crave for more, so perhaps in his university days, he would read another two or three of the Bard's plays.  The average Singaporean in those days would have read by the time he was in his early 20s anything from a minimum of 2 plays to 6 or 7 and these aren't even literature undergrads.  Today, the education syllabus has changed drastically.  A-level literature students can get by without having to study any Shakespeare.  Consistent with the modern concept of freedom of choice, the syllabus is now tailored to allow students to choose the texts they wish to do and there is no compulsory Shakespeare paper.

There are no statistical data on this but I would wager a large fortune that in today's Singapore, we probably can find quite a substantial number of people who have not read a single play or poem by the Bard.  Is this necessarily a bad thing? 

It is universally acknowledged that the standard of English in Singapore has declined at an alarming rate.  People don't speak or write as well as they used to.  The government, ever quick to address any educational problem, launched many years ago a campaign which it simply called the Speak-Good-English campaign.  This campaign has gone on for as long as I can remember but the results are disheartening. I once stood in a crowded subway train and was surrounded by a group of secondary school students who were chattering away and since I had nothing to do, I listened to the conversation that was going on quite loudly in front of me.  For a good five minutes, I thought they were speaking in Mandarin.  I managed to decipher a few words and to my horror, I realised they were speaking in English.  I listened further but I could not make out a word of what they were saying.  That's how bad it is.  If I can't even understand the spoken English of my own people, how can we expect people of other nationalities to understand them?

It's not only in Singapore but in other countries too that we see a decline in English proficiency.  Just last night, I was at a concert and next to me sat a father and his young daughter.  From the accent of the father, I could tell that he was English.  He was a devoted father and before the concert started, he read the programme sheet and explained everything to his daughter.  He told her what a sextet was, what synergy meant.  Then he came to the word "contentment".  Now, this father was thorough and conscientious in educating his daughter.  He first told her it was a noun.  So far, so good.  He then reduced the word to "content" and gave his daughter a sentence with the word in it by way of illustration: "I am content", he said.  He asked his daughter what part of speech "content" in such a context was.  When his daughter was silent, he proceeded to explain to her that an adverb was a word to describe how something was.  Since "content" described how he felt, it was an adverb!

I really had to restrain myself from correcting him.  In the first place, I shouldn't be eavesdropping but I love eavesdropping and besides, they were seated just next to me and I could hardly ignore their conversation.  But how could anyone make such a shocking blunder?  When I told my kids about it, they were all in stitches (yes, that's a Shakespearean quotation).  This is rudimentary English grammar, something a kid of 7 should know.

It's not just Singapore that has this language problem.  It's a global disease and it's perhaps much worse in Britain.  Some years ago, there were suggestions to remove Shakespeare from the school syllabus in Britain and to introduce something as silly as finance in its place.  I can't recall what happened to that awful suggestion but I'm sure the poor standard of English we see all over the world has a lot to do with how we treat Shakespeare in our education.

I once saw that hilarious play, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" in London.  This is a 2-act parody that "goes through" ALL the Bard's plays in the first act and they do that by mentioning a few things that stand out in each play and then move on to the next without naming the play.  At the intermission, a young English woman seated next to me asked me what I thought of the play so far.  I told her I didn't see "The Winter's Tale" fitted into the parody.  She was silent for a moment.  Then I remembered one of the actors mentioning a bear and I told her laughingly that yes, they did cover "Winter's Tale" with just a line about the bear.  It was then that she decided to come clean.  She confessed that education in Britain was not what it used to be and she was quite unfamiliar with Shakespeare.  She was with two other young women who were laughing sheepishly.  They said none of them read Shakespeare and neither did their friends.  Of course I was too polite to ask why then they were at the play.  If you don't know most of Shakespeare's plays, you can't possibly understand the jokes in the parody.  You won't know what it is they are parodying.  Obviously, Singapore isn't the only country that has consigned Shakespeare to the bin.

No book on the English language is complete without some discussion of Shakespeare and his language.  Just for illustration, let's take a look at the Oxford Companion to the English Language.

It has a large section that covers in detail the language of Shakespeare and its impact on the English language.  Now that I have made reference to Oxford, let's turn to its rival institution.

In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal acknowledges quite categorically Shakespeare's pivotal role in the development of the English language.  He actually gives due recognition to both Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible but I'm not suggesting the introduction of the Bible into the school curriculum.  I'm aware of the implication of such a move in multi-religious Singapore.  In any event, we really don't need the Bible.  Shakespeare is a thousand times better than any version of the Bible.  I mean it linguistically, not theologically.

I once stumbled upon this same David Crystal in the musty basement of an old book shop in Wales.  I told him what a fan I was of his and that I had read his books since I was in school and we chatted for a good hour.  His son, he told me, had taken after him and they were writing books on English together.  I then asked him what he would rate as the best book ever written.  He replied that his answer would have to be plays, not books.  Shakespeare's plays were to him the very best.  He said he was unable to specify which play in particular because they were all good and he would read them over and over again.  Even Troilus and Cressida?  I asked.  Yes, even Troilus and Cressida was his reply.  Frankly, I don't particularly like Troilus and I think the Bard just ended the play abruptly and went on to write some other better plays but that's just a personal opinion of mine.  All I want to show you is how important Shakespeare is not just to the rest of us but also to linguists and grammarians whose job it is to study the English language.

So what's the solution to the language problems that Singapore and many other countries in the world face?  It's as easy as pie.  Simply introduce Shakespeare in the school syllabus and all will be well.  We can start with something simple and fun in Sec 1.  Perhaps A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Students can even be encouraged to stage a play at the end of the school year.  Schools can be flexible in their choice of plays.  Coed schools may want to try something that can spark a debate among the students on gender issues.  The Taming of the Shrew is sure to keep students thinking about the play.  A boys' school can opt for the history plays with battles galore and a girls' school may prefer light comedies.  Much Ado About Nothing will appeal to any girl, particularly the witty exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick.  When it comes to Shakespeare, there is always something for everyone.

Yes, with Shakespeare, there's always something for everyone.  Even those who insist that language isn't really important may quote Shakespeare's famous lines from Romeo and Juliet:
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet."

That may be true for a rose but if you call a rose by any other word, nobody will understand you.  And that's what language is for - communication and in order to have communication, we must be intelligible.  Bring back the Bard!  Singapore needs him badly.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How to Get Sraight A's in the PSLE - Part 1

It's not difficult to get straight A's in the PSLE.  What the candidate should strive for is straight A-stars.  There is a distinction in the PSLE between an A which is quite common and an A-star or A* as indicated in the cert above and 4 A*s should be the goal of most students.  You need 4 A*s to get into the No. 1 school in Singapore and you need them to qualify comfortably for the EESIS scholarship.  You may still succeed with 3 A*s and 1 A provided your 3 A*s are very strong A-stars.  and your single A is an A that almost hit an A*.  But to be cautious, it's wise to aim for 4 A*s.

I shudder whenever I see ads from tuition centres that boast of their top students having scored 2 A*s and 2 As.  If I were a tutor, I'd hide this fact as a disgraceful confirmation of my failure as a private teacher.  Before I continue, I should make it clear that I'm NOT and have never been a teacher and I have never been in the education business.  The only time I have given private lessons was as a volunteer in a charitable home.  I have never taught for remuneration of any kind so this is not a sales puff.  I'm just a parent who's seen my kids through the PSLE and if I may add in as modest a fashion as I can possibly manage, I'm totally satisfied with their PSLE scores.  I would not have brought up this personal fact but for the fact that I think this should at least give me the licence to speak with some authority.

What really motivates me to write this post is I'm amazed at the trouble parents go to for their kids' education in Singapore but many of them seem to have got it all wrong.  There are parents who are top professionals themselves and they must have done very well at school in their time but their kids don't seem to take after them in the academic arena.  Why is this so?  I know of poor parents who scrimp and save to be able to afford expensive private lessons for their kids and despite all these sacrifices, their kids do badly in the PSLE.  I know of parents who quit their jobs just to be there for their children's education and yet their kids achieve merely mediocre grades at best. I know of parents who jump for joy when their kids manage to clear by a small margin the extremely low PSLE score required to remain in a mediocre school.  Obviously something is terribly amiss; what would be reason for unbearable disappointment to me is reason for celebration to them.  I have wanted to talk about this for a long time but I was afraid of offending my readers. People don't want to be told they have been remiss as parents and they are perfectly right to feel angry when someone offers to tell them they are wrong.  But this is my personal blog and I think if I do know a winning formula, I should at least share it in my blog.  Those who are offended may skip this post.  Those who don't mind seeing what ideas I have are welcome to continue reading and to look out for subsequent segments - this topic is too large to cover in a single post.  I don't profess to have a magic formula but having seen my kids through the same examination, I really think acing this examination is not a problem but first, you must get the basics right.

I have an important rider which must govern my entire post here and all my subsequent posts on the PSLE - my knowledge is entirely limited to what I do know and can remember.  Some of my information may be dated or inaccurate and it is incumbent on every parent to do his own research and verify what I say here.

Before I begin, I should say a few things about something that's strange about parents when it comes to the PSLE.  They can be divided into 3 groups:

1.  They are really concerned about their kids' PSLE but to people outside the family, they give the appearance that they are not bothered and they might even go so far as to discourage other parents who want to do something extra for their kids.

2.  They are truly not bothered about their kids' PSLE

3.  They are really concerned about their kids' PSLE and they are honest with the outside world about it and they are willing to share whatever they find helpful with others.

From my observation, Group 1 above consists by far of the largest segment of the Singaporean society.  Group 2 comprises mainly parents who aren't highly educated and who probably didn't do very well in school themselves.  Those in Group 3 can easily be counted on the fingers of your hand and it's not easy to be in this group because many parents will hate you for this.  I was told by a friend once not to give tips on the PSLE because that would make it more difficult for his kids!  PSLE tips, in their books, should be kept a secret.

I'm sorry but I'm decidedly in Group 3 and I will tell all.  So, if you happen to be a Group 1 parent and you wish to chide me in the comments below, you may do so but other readers will know you're selfish and nasty and only want to keep your secrets to yourself.  Good things ought to be shared and even if you don't want to, I will share what I know.

It's been said and quite accurately too that the PSLE is the most important examination in a child's entire school life.  It's an exam that will decide which secondary school your child will go to and although they may say that all schools are the same, we all know that's utter rubbish.  I've talked about schools in my other posts so I won't repeat myself here but make no mistake about this - a child can make or break on his choice of a secondary school.  And that choice is not his to make; it's entirely dependent on his PSLE grades.

After having looked carefully into various aspects of the PSLE, I'm confident that most parents should be able to ensure their child score 4 A*s or at least 3 A*s and an A for Chinese.  Chinese is the most difficult subject in the PSLE and I'm afraid I am at a loss to give good advice here.

I've heard horrendous stories of parents physically abusing their kids for doing badly and I must say these are stories that give me nightmares.  If you are one such parent, you must put a stop to such abuse immediately.  As an Asian parent myself, I believe in strict discipline but physical abuse is a definite no-no.

First, why do kids do badly in the PSLE exam or any exam for that matter?   Why are some kids ill-disciplined?  I have only one answer to both questions.  The parents are to blame.  Parents who are in the habit of caning their kids should really take the cane and beat themselves soundly with it if their kids do badly or are ill-behaved.

What I say is backed by research.  Recently, the BBC analysed a huge study that was carried out on 10,000 subjects throughout the whole of the US and the results are astounding.  The researchers conclude from the study that parents are the reason for a kid's exam results, not the school he is in.  Let's digest that.  If your kids do badly in an exam, YOU are the reason for his poor grades.  Don't blame the school and don't find fault with the teachers.  You may read the report here.

I once met a father who asked me how I instilled discipline in my children.  His son who was a bright and intelligent boy was a computer game addict and he was doing badly in class because he focused too much of his time on the computer game.  The father knew I was a Christian and he asked me if I prayed regularly for my kids and taught them good Christian ethics.  I confessed to him that the only time I "prayed" was in church and the liturgy compelled prayer on my part and even then, my mind wouldn't be on the prayer.  I explained that my family was the least religious people in all Christendom.  By my family, I of course meant my wife and kids.  My parents are entirely different; they're deeply religious.  What I made clear to that father was religion and prayer had no part to play at all in the discipline of a child.  Neither do they have a part to contribute in exam performance.  As evidence, I need only refer to schools that hold regular prayers for PSLE students - they do far worse and consistently so than many secular schools that I can think of.

So, let's get off our religious high horse.  No, religion isn't the answer to good grades and a disciplined child.  I told that father to just stop his son from playing games.  I'm not familiar with computer games but I imagine there is a console you need to plug to a tv set or computer monitor.  I told the father to lock up the console so his son had no access to the game.  You won't believe the father's reply and I almost dropped the glass of water I was holding when I heard what he said.  He told me he could not do that.  His son would most certainly be violent.

What kind of relationship does a father have with his son that when the father wants to remove an object which is obviously harmful to the son, the son will physically fight back?  I cannot believe his son could be that unreasonable.  I'm sure if the father would just take me to his son, I would be able to talk to the son and persuade him to give up his game console.  There's obviously a serious breakdown in communication between father and son and there is mutual distrust at play here.  I have since met other parents who say the same thing of their sons.

Parents must remain parents to their kids and removing a game console can't be something that should lead to violence.  This is so incredibly wrong and I'm surprised some parents can't even see that.  That parent subsequently drew up an agreement with his son on the number of hours he could play the game each day.  When he told me about the "agreement" I tried very hard to conceal my disgust.

It may seem like I'm digressing from my original topic on how to score A*s in the PSLE but I'm not.  I need to get the basics right.  Parents can only think about helping their kids score good grades if they haven't abdicated their responsibility as parents.  A parent must lead by example.  If he isn't academic and takes no interest in intellectual pursuits and all he cares about is money, which happens to be the nation's chief interest, it would be unreasonable to expect his kids to be any different from himself.  So, my first point is parents must instil discipline in their kids and assume their role as parents and they should lead by example and never resort to physical abuse.  This leads me to my second point.

The second point is for the parents to be really honest with themselves.  This is all about the parents and it's got nothing to do with their kids but it's important because genetics do play a part in good grades.  Parents should ask themselves if they were good students in their time.  Were they usually recipients at Prize Giving Ceremonies in school?  Were they A students themselves?  Did they go to a good university and a good faculty of their choice?  Do they read regularly and I don't mean newspapers and magazines.  We have to be realistic.  If the honest answers to these questions are a resounding "NO!", do we have the right to expect our kids to do what we ourselves do not?  Have we the right to expect them to achieve in school what we ourselves did not?   If parents don't read books habitually, it's unrealistic to expect their kids to read.  Don't forget - these are questions for BOTH parents.  Both parents contribute the genes which the kid inherits and both parents set an example for the kid.  This is a matter beyond our control.  I'm only saying that we should be realistic in our expectations.  I know it's not fashionable in this day and age to talk about genetics but when we are talking about getting straight A*s in the PSLE, we've got to get real and forget about what's politically correct.

But I'm aware that there are many PSLE candidates who do remarkably well but whose parents aren't at all the intellectual sort.  I'm not saying only intelligent parents will have intelligent kids.  I'm aware of issues in genetics such as regression to the mean and I'm sure we have all seen intelligent kids whose parents are bafflingly the opposite and brilliant parents with slow children.  But this is something we must bear in mind when we place onerous expectations on our kids.  All I'm suggesting is that parents should be realistic.

The third point has to do with the child.  Some children are diagnosed with learning difficulties and they may need more help than what any parent can cope with on their own.  This is where the professionals come in.  Parents should be supportive and lower their expectations according to their kid's particular condition and the therapy available.

The three points above are extremely sensitive and I'm sure to have ruffled some feathers.  But these are basics that we must come to terms with before we start placing expectations on our children.   Now that I have covered the basics, I will be going on with the more substantive part of my post in Part 2 of "How to Get Straight A's in the PSLE".  I will be dealing first with the Maths paper.

But before I go on to Part 2, my post would be lacking if it did not also contain a small reference to the Direct School Admission or DSA.  The other way one could get into top secondary schools such as RI and Hwa Chong is by the DSA route.

One important criterion for the DSA is music.  Many music teachers are aware of this but many of them don't tell you the secret.  If your child is strongly gifted in music by Primary 6, he can go for the DSA selection of the school of his choice.  His credentials (ABRSM or Trinity College certificates) are examined and he has to go for an audition.  But your child has to be exceptional and therefore deserving of a place.  It is also getting increasingly difficult because more and more kids are now doing music exams at an earlier age.  It used to be that a child who had completed his Grade 8 in ABRSM and had an ATCL by June in Primary 6 (May and June are important months for the DSA selection but please check with the schools since my knowledge may be somewhat dated) would most likely qualify for the DSA but now, the competition is greater because from what I hear, many kids get their ATCL by Primary 6!  Bear in mind too that if your child takes the ATCL exam early in the year when he's already in Primary 6, the results may not be ready before the DSA selection.  Check with Trinity College and ABRSM on when the results will be released if you intend to apply for the music DSA. 

If your kid is a national player in sports, he too can qualify for the DSA.  But my knowledge on this subject is limited.

Bear in mind that there are conditions imposed on those who enter the school on the DSA.  The sports route is not very attractive.  The kid MUST go for all the very time-consuming and back-breaking training if he's selected through DSA (sports).  If it's the music DSA, the child must opt for the MEP (the Music Elective Programme).  All this is very restrictive on the child and ultimately, it's far better to gain admission into a school based purely on your PSLE score.  There are no strings attached and you can do whatever you want and join whatever extra-curricular activity in school that you like.  Besides, it's not difficult to do well in the PSLE.

There is also the academic DSA but I really think that's quite unnecessary.  If your kid is at all academic, he should have no problems with the PSLE and hence no need for a DSA.  But if your kid is strong in the sciences and maths, he should apply for the NUS High DSA selection.   He will be given a test on the sciences and maths and this test is notorious because usually a huge percentage of them would be axed.  A small percentage of them who qualify will then have to attend a two-day selection camp in the school.  They will be given a wide range of scientific experiments to do in the camp and they will be assessed and a small number will be selected.  Even if your child is not selected through DSA, the fact that he has done well at the first test will be noted by the school.  If he scores a high PSLE score with A*s in at least both Maths and Science, chances are high that he will gain admission into the school.

But I should warn parents that NUS High is not a school for every child.  I personally know of kids who drop out of the school after a year or two because they realise (too late) that they aren't passionate about maths and science.  Again, here is where we parents come in.  Do we know our kids well enough?  Has he or she always been a science or maths child?  Has she taken and won medals in the various Maths Olympiads while still in primary school?  When you hand him a novel to read, does he trade that for a science book?  These are indications that a child might very well be suitable for that school.

I hope I have covered all the basics in this Part 1 of my PSLE series.  For Part 2, I will deal with PSLE Maths.

I have started a series which I expect will be extremely long because I want it to be comprehensive. It's my How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond series. The posts are divided into different Rules. Some rules are better illustrated by real examples and these are taken from mistakes made by the Speak Good English Movement and others including those who are touted as language experts of the Ministry of Education. It may take me a long time to complete the series but I'm persuaded that parents who read through my entire series will be able to guide their kids in securing an A-star for English at PSLE. When both my kids did the PSLE, I was absolutely certain that they would get nothing less than an A-star for at least English. I would have considered anything less an unnecessary failure. I hope to be able to transmit what I know to my readers so that they too can achieve for their kids the same results. And it's not difficult at all.  There are pitfalls you must avoid. One of the greatest mistakes parents make is they buy books for their kids without going through the books themselves. I bought the Speak Good English Movement's book in two volumes and I was shocked to see that almost every page contained at least one major grammatical error and I'm not exaggerating. That has prompted me to write more than 50 articles on the errors of the Speak Good English Movement alone. A summary of these articles and other language-related articles can be found in my one-page post that has the links to all the articles on the subject.

If you find these articles tedious, as some of my readers have complained, you may go straight into my new series which begins with How to Excel in English at PSLE and Beyond Rule 1. I hope to be as brief and succinct as I can in this new series.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The fool says, "There is no God"

Today's sermon was just right.  Our Psalms reading was from the passage that begins with the title above.  But that's our usual mistake.  That's not what the Psalm says.  As Melvin very rightly pointed out, the verse says "The fool says in his heart...".  It's not a reference to atheists because, as Melvin put it, there were no atheists in those days.  People were ridiculously superstitious then and they believed one thing or another.  No, that last bit wasn't what Melvin said.  It would be indecorous to say that over the pulpit but my blog is not the pulpit.

Melvin brilliantly explained in the sermon that the Psalmist was talking about people who lived their lives as if God didn't exist.  It's how you treat your fellow men.  It's how you live your life that determines if you're a fool or a wise man.

I see a beautiful trend in most churches to stay away from the exclusive approach to religion.  It's no longer my dogma is better than yours but it's more a question of what can I do to show kindness to my neighbour.  The truth of Christianity is not something we should bother about too much or argue over.

Time saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy

Just last week, Rev Walton was installed as the new minister at Harvard.  See the Harvard Gazette.  In his brilliant inaugural sermon, he said, “It does not matter if Christianity is true, but rather can we, as those informed by the teachings of Jesus, make it true."  Students who were interviewed by the Harvard Gazette were of the opinion that Rev Walton fitted well with the rest of them in Harvard.  Let it not escape you that this is the USA we're talking about where 50% of the people believe the earth and the rest of the universe were created some 6000 years ago.  But then again, Harvard isn't exactly representative of the rest of that benighted country.

In Singapore, most Christians adopt the fundamentalism of America.  They are almost all evolution-denying, young-earth creationists.  American fundamentalists are prolific writers and it's very hard for Singaporean Christians who tend to have an exclusive diet of American fundamentalist books to stay away from this backward version of Christianity.  But in most traditional churches, it's always the lay parishioners who are fundamentalists.  The clergy tends to be more balanced.  As a pastor once told me (I don't want to mention his name here), you can't possibly be a fundamentalist if you have gone through the theological training of a proper seminary.  He was actually talking about biblical inerrancy and what he said precisely was no properly trained graduate of a good seminary could possibly accept the flawed view of biblical inerrancy.  He then proceeded to say that in his view, the Book of Revelation should not have been included in the Canon of Scriptures.  I can think of a lot more books than Revelation, particularly the pseudepigraphal epistles which readily come to mind.  These are forgeries which shouldn't be included in what the liturgy calls "the Word of the Lord".

Rev Walton's sermon is also pertinent to those of us who are struggling with our faith.  Truth and facts seem to have an uncanny knack of militating against faith so much so that we sometimes stand at the crossroads unable to decide whether we should walk down the path of truth or that of faith.   Rev Walton is saying that the truth of religion isn't important.  It's for us to create truth out of our faith by the way we live our lives in relation to others.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How Time Flies

I usually write the title to a post in my blog before writing the body of the post only to change the title when the post takes on a life of its own and digresses from the title and this post is no exception except that after typing the title and before even beginning my writing, I thought surely there must be a better title than something so commonplace and unexciting as "How Time Flies".  I thought something more intellectual would be better.  A 17th century poem came to mind but I immediately dismissed it as pretentious and inappropriate for a blog that I take pride in for my bold penning of whatever catches my fancy without the slightest fear and without having to bother about political correctness.

But I should say something about that 17th century poem. Contrary to what many people today think, poetry is not staid, boring, tedious lines on a page.   In that poem, the poet, mark this!, desiring to have sex with his girlfriend, cautions her that time is short and they should have sex before they die of old age.  He even makes shocking allusions to various parts of her body!  But the thrust of his poem is how swiftly time flies and we must act speedily, in his case, have sex with his girlfriend.   And that's only a poem written in the early 17th century and even then, it's full of sex and is worthy of a triple-X rating.

In the 19th century, Tennyson who was mourning his best friend's untimely death, wrote about how fleeting life was.  He looked at the cliffs that had fossils of ancient animals and bemoaned the extinction of whole species in the cold hands of nature and time.  In a trice, countless species become extinct so what's the mere death of an individual?

A year and 11 months ago, exactly to the day, my best friend died after a long struggle with cancer.  He was the same guy I spoke about in my post more than two years ago.  Click here.  As I explained in that entry, I told a small lie in order to make Christianity more acceptable to a few friends.  Years later, he asked me again, months before his death what I really thought of heaven and the after-death.  I told him another lie.  I said there was nothing more certain in my mind than the existence of heaven.

How time flies!  Two days before last Christmas, I blogged about a fairy-tale village I went to after travelling dangerously on a public bus through narrow lanes up and down mountains.  It was a village that was only accessible by a very long footbridge that hung precipitously over a huge ravine below.  Click here for the article and pics.  What I didn't talk about in my blog was what I saw in the village but of course I only went to the village after having taken a million photos of the bridge and the incredible scenery, I'm, after all, what uncouth youths today would call a camwhore.

You see, the village stands on top of a tall hill.  Over the centuries, the passage of time has taken its toll on the hill and the fringes have slowly eroded.  Houses have fallen off the cliff and the time will come when that beautiful village will be a thing of the past.

Here is a photo of me standing in front of what appears like the front door a large mansion.  You can see the steps leading to the front door.  But if you could open the door and step into the house, you would plunge down the edge of the cliff.  Only one wall of the mansion stands today.  The rest of the house fell plummeting into the abyss below a few centuries ago.  The owner of the mansion must been an important man in the village with a huge fortune.  It just took one fateful night when the earth seemed to rumble and before you knew it, this important man escaped death by the skin of his teeth but all his earthly goods vanished hundreds of feet below.

How time flies!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Heaven in the air

Sorry, I meant CASTLES in the air but I suppose I'll just let the title stand.  I was quite disappointed to read in Newsweek an article that made its cover page "Heaven is Real".  It's about the experience of one Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience and claimed to have "experienced God".  When I read that, I asked myself how low Newsweek was prepared to sink to.  Everything about that article is so obviously wrong.

Here's the link to the article in Newsweek:  CLICK HERE

I felt my heart strangely warmed when I found this marvellous article in a blog by a neurologist who dismantled everything Alexander says.  It's very comforting to hear the voice of reason.  Here's the link:  CLICK HERE

To summarise, Eben Alexander's chief blunder is his ASSUMPTION that his dream occurred when his cortex was completely inactive.  What Dr Steven Novella pointed out is the brain does not go in a split second from inactive to normal.  There's a gradual transition process that can take hours or a whole day or even more.   You really have to read Dr Steven Novella's article yourself.  It's short, succinct, lucid and perfectly rational.   His explanation is so clear and concise I'd be butchering it if I tried to paraphrase it.

What some may find inexplicable is why a neurosurgeon like Eben Alexander would make such a wild claim that is so obviously ludicrous and unscientific.  Why could he not see that he was making a huge nonsensical assumption to give credence and respectability to his dream?  Why can't he see what we all can see (and blush with embarrassment) and which Dr Novella has explained so beautifully?

I really don't think Alexander was dishonest or less able than Dr Novella or less rational.  I'm sure when you can divorce Eben Alexander from his religious beliefs, he can be perfectly rational and competent.  But like all people of faith (and here, I speak as a person of faith myself), we are always grasping at straws to give legitimacy to our faith.  Some of us have searched for evidence or at least some rational construct to give our faith some ground to stand on but alas, our faith can rest on no logical stand and there is absolutely no evidence or rational argument in favour of it.  It's a personal struggle for me to come to terms with this and to this day, I still live with the hope that I will one day see at least a tiny drop of evidence to validate my faith.

It's hard to have faith in today's world where there are so many rational people and those loud and strident New Atheists as they are usually called.  They are very quick to remind us that we have no sane logical leg to stand on while we build our castles in the air.  We split hairs in theological seminaries about the colour and size of these castles and the New Atheists mercilessly laugh at us and tell us we're all deluded.  We begin to doubt ourselves.  If there are castles in the air, where is the blooming evidence?  We've been through 2000 years without an iota of evidence and we can't expect to go on for the next 2000 years this way.

So when some strange experience comes our way, we jump at it and draw whatever conclusions we can to prove that our castles exist.  It certainly isn't proof of anything at all but we'll just shout from the mountaintops and soon enough we'll gain a following.

Rational atheists should look at Eben Alexander and the rest of us poor religious folks with sympathy.  When you next see us gazing in the sky, just tell us what beautiful castles we've built in the air.  That's at least polite even if we all know it's not true.

Edit [8:45pm, 14 Oct 2012]: I have since read Sam Harris' blog  on this matter and I'm sure anyone who's read it will dismiss Eben Alexander's claim as totally preposterous  and it does him no credit as a neurosurgeon. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Rudeness is not a crime

The coat of arms of New College, Oxford


This is the motto of William of Wykeham and since he's 
the founder of New College, Oxford and Winchester College,
it's also the motto of both these ancient and renowned institutions.

I've always thought manners meant everything.  I used to think that when it came to manners and etiquette, we were all brought up in precisely the same way.  Of course I knew there were rude people but these were not people in my circle of friends and relations.  If I came across a boy at school who used swear words, the naive bigot in me would probably say that he didn't come from a good Christian family and hence his language.  I don't mean it in a snobbish way.  Realistically, "hell" and "damnation" wouldn't mean a thing to him whereas boys who grew up in a devout Christian environment should arguably be more careful about using such words, or so I thought.

I remember my first shock when the leader of my Christian group in Varsity Christian Fellowship (VCF) in NUS used "damned" as a substitute for "very" all the time.  He would speak of his girlfriend as "damned nice", God was "damned good" to him and I would wince every time he became descriptive although generally, he was a man of few words.  Presumably,  he would have been brought up in a pious Christian home and yet he gave no regard to his choice of words which of course had huge theological implications.  At the same time, in the communal hall of my university hostel, I would hear other students using the Hokkien expression "si bei choon" when someone accurately shot a chip into a hole in one of the four corners of a carom board.  Where I came from, such an expression would be denounced by anyone within earshot.  Much later, I heard much worse expressions which I subsequently learnt was rather common in Singapore, such as "wa lan".  I have heard this particular foul expression on the lips of women as well.

I don't normally go to the movies but on the few occasions that I did, I would hear shocking exclamations eg. "Jesus f____ Christ" and other vile obscenities so much so that Hollywood would have us believe that that's normal American speech.  I sometimes ask myself if I am so out of touch with reality that I'm unable to accept profanities which have become very much a part of our daily lives.  Over the years, I have learnt to maintain a placid expression whenever I hear swear words of all kinds and in all languages.  It is clear to me that most people who swear do so to get a reaction from their listeners and I refuse to give them gratification.  People who resort to obscenities to get some recognition should not be humoured.

Amy Cheong's low and vulgar posting on her facebook is one such example.  For those who are not familiar with the Amy Cheong affair, please read this.  I'm sure she got more attention than she bargained for.

But profanity is not the only offence against good manners.  Amy Cheong's post which showed a total disregard for the poor in our community is an example of the poor taste and bad manners exhibited by many in Singapore.  Bad behaviour and rudeness are not confined to any one country.  Amy Cheong  is an Australian by citizenship.

But there's something to be said about rudeness in Singapore.  My neighbourhood is almost like a mini-United Nations in that people from all over the world live here.  But I can easily tell a Singaporean from a person of any other nationality even without looking at him or her.  There is in some Singaporeans this strange but characteristic reluctance to greet others.  From my experience, they usually don't initiate a greeting and when greeted, they are sometimes reluctant to return the greeting.  I do not see such rudeness in non-Singaporeans.

This refusal to greet is a phenomenon I first encountered when I used to run a lot and was training for the marathon.  It is common for runners to greet other runners when they see one another while jogging on the road.  It can be a simple wave of the hand or if you aren't too tired from the run, a "Morning!" or a "Hi".  When I say it's common, I mean it's common anywhere on our planet except Singapore.  There were many instances when the Singaporean runner would stare at me and he would sometimes even stop running and look at me as soon as I gave him a simple greeting or a friendly wave of the hand.  I used to wonder why they did that until one day, a runner did precisely the same thing when I gave him a friendly wave but this time he asked, "Do I know you?" Only then did it dawn on me that some of these Singaporeans are frugal with their greetings; they are reserved only for those they are familiar with.

JM Coetzee, the Nobel Laureate, wrote about this in one of his novels.  In his story, the narrator usually meets two Singaporean female students in a lift in a block of flats in Australia where the novel is set and he greets them every time he sees them.  The girls never respond to his greeting.  The narrator attributes this strange anti-social behaviour to the autocratic rule of the Singaporean government but I think that's totally wrong.  On the contrary, the Singaporean government has tried very hard to make the people more courteous.  Singapore is probably the only country in the world that has government-held courtesy campaigns.  You can't blame the government for everything but the West is very quick to do just that.  To them, it's always the fault of our government, whatever it may be. 

I'm about to say something that may be taken to be racist but since it's against my own race, I don't think anyone can blame me for it.  The discourtesy I talk about only applies to the people of my own race.  I have no problems with the other races in Singapore.  From my observation, the reluctance to greet is a problem I only encounter in Singaporean Chinese.  Malays and Indians are extremely courteous. 

There are other forms of rudeness.  Just recently, I was at a lunch with a group of strangers.  I can't give details of this lunch because I don't want anyone at my table to know I'm talking about them.  The people at the lunch were not the sort of people Amy Cheong would scoff at.  They were well-heeled and unlike Amy Cheong, probably did not know a thing about housing board flats or weddings held there.  They were all Singaporean Chinese.  When the shark's fin soup was served, my attention was engaged by a waitress who wanted to be sure that I was the one who had asked for a different soup since I have personal objection to the shark's fin industry.  Although I was busy talking to the waitress, I thought I heard the sound of someone slurping his soup but I dismissed it from my mind as something fanciful and improbable.  When the waitress had gone and I was left with my soup, the sound of slurping became unmistakeable.  It wasn't just a single isolated slurp but a chorus of slurping, with varying length and intensity.  I was too embarrassed to look and see who it was but I could tell from what I could hear that quite a few people were slurping up their soup noisily.  The chap seated next to me was at least polite enough to drink his soup properly.  I had to time myself so that I would only bring the soup to my lips when I was sure there wouldn't be anyone else doing that.  I didn't want the guy next to me to think the slurping came from me.  Obviously wealth has nothing to do with good manners and Amy Cheong's mockery of poor Malays who could not afford expensive wedding celebrations only goes to show she's got it all wrong.  It's the rude people one should make fun of.

Rudeness is something we can't talk about openly.  I couldn't tell the people at my table that they were rude or advise my Singaporean neighbours to be more willing to greet the people they meet because to do so is itself rude.  It's only something you can rant and complain about in an anonymous blog like this.  It's the duty of a person's parents to teach him or her proper manners and sadly a lot of parents must have failed in this fundamental duty they owe to their children.

Amy Cheong's facebook post was exceptionally rude.  Unlike poor table manners which will result in mere embarrassment to those at the table, her post was hurtful to poor people generally.   To say that the poor should be banned from getting married is worse than being merely rude.  But however we see her post, it still comes under the category of rudeness.  Aggravated rudeness, if you like, but still rudeness.  Rudeness is not a crime.

All this talk about the police taking action against Amy Cheong is unnecessary and may only serve to put Singapore in a bad light.  We aren't a police state and rudeness however hurtful is not a crime.

Our Penal Code has been amended to include a section which many have argued would enable Amy Cheong to be charged with an offence.  But there must be a "deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person" before the Penal Code can be invoked.  It's very hard to pretend that what she posted had that deliberate intent.  Like I have argued in my previous post, she was more contemptuous of the poor and her rant was directed more against poor Malays than against Malays generally.  She's more an uncouth snob than a racist.  She's terribly rude and ill-bred but she's committed no crime.  Let's be very clear about this and not get carried away.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Amy, Amy, quite contrary

As I have stated elsewhere in my blog, I don't read the local newspapers and I didn't know a thing about Amy Cheong until early this morning when I read her sacking from NTUC on the front-page headline.  I only read it briefly and my first reaction was not a pleasant one towards her.  If there is something I absolutely detest, it's the scorn poured by a snob on the celebration of those who have to operate on a tight budget.  Amy Cheong was mocking a Malay wedding party held at the foot of a block of government housing flats.  She deserves the sacking, I thought to myself.  After all, as Asst Director in NTUC's Service Quality in the membership sub-division, she has no business to mock low cost anything.  The NTUC is Singapore's only trade union and it's fully owned and controlled by the government.

Apart from being sacked summarily by NTUC, one Lionel Jerome de Souza, secretary of Hougang's Inter-Racial and Confidence Circle (IRCC), which comes under the purview of the Ministry of Community Development Youth and Sports, made a police report against Ms Cheong.

You may want to read some of the news on yahoo: Click here  but do it quickly: Yahoo News is notorious for removing their news posts after some time.

Now, let's see precisely what Ms Cheong has said in her Facebook that has sparked off such a storm of protest.  Here's a copy of her Facebook entry which I obtained from Yahoo News:

First, we have to be clinically objective, ie, let's be objective to a fault.  The text is not a racist denigration of Malays at all but she was taking a low crass and repulsive swipe at poor Malays.  Now, let's be honest.  Of course nobody is suggesting that Ms Cheong was not aware that there were rich Malays.  Would she say the same thing of the Sultan of Brunei?  The Sultan of Brunei wouldn't hold his wedding celebration in such a condition anyway.  Ms Cheong knew that perfectly well.  From the context, Ms Cheong would have hit out at any low cost wedding.

From what she has written, it's absolutely clear that what she was opposed to was not Malays but "cheap" weddings.  She says society shouldn't allow people to get married if they can't afford a more expensive wedding celebration.

Why would anyone suggest anything so unjust and vile against the poor?  If you look at her facebook post again, the reason is obvious.  Amy Cheong believes that a "cheap" wedding will result in a greater likelihood of a divorce.

I believe in free speech and in my books, Amy Cheong has the right to express her views in any way she pleases even if I find her statements repulsive, which I certainly do.  Most of us feel the same way about her post.  That's because we were all brought up to respect people of all classes and to admire the cultural diversity on our planet.  I personally find Malay weddings extremely charming and my only grouse against Malay wedding organisers is that they haven't invited me to tuck into the delicious beef or chicken rendang usually served at weddings.  But I tell myself constantly that we are all different and not all of us were brought up the same way.  It's natural for us to dislike somebody who transgresses what we have all been brought up to view as our propriety code but I always try to temper my aversion to rude people with reason.  People are rude for a variety of reasons and although I'm tempted to write them off as "beneath me", I think such a reaction on my part smacks of arrogance and I'm doing the very thing I detest Amy Cheong for having done.

I would rather engage Ms Cheong with reason.  If she thinks low cost weddings will result in a higher divorce rate, I would explain to her why she is in error.  It is a fact that the Malay community sees a higher rate of divorce than the other communities in Singapore.  If Ms Cheong is concerned about this problem, it is one strong argument in her favour against the allegation that she is a racist.  A racist will not bother about any problem faced by a community that isn't ethnically his. 

I think the problem has already been looked into and there are two areas that the Malay community may want to examine in order to solve this problem of a high divorce rate.  One of them, if I recall correctly, has to do with the tradition of getting married at an early age.  I recall having seen some statistics on this - that those who marry early are more likely to go for a divorce than those who marry later in life.  The other factor is the ease in which a divorce is granted under Muslim law.  Perhaps some of the obstacles to divorce existing in the civil law can be adopted by the Malay community but this is a complex area involving religion and it's a matter best resolved by the community itself.  Whatever the solution to the problem may be, having a low-cost wedding is certainly not a recipe for a quick divorce.

If anything, I would imagine that hosting an expensive wedding party is more likely to cause stress to the married couple.  If the wedding party is so expensive that huge debts are incurred, wouldn't that be a more likely cause for a breakdown in the marriage?  Those who incur lower expenses in their wedding celebrations are being prudent and they should be commended for this.

Miss Cheong is not just rude and vulgar; she's factually wrong too.  But is the reaction of the PM, Ministers and other members of Parliament in denouncing her too strong?  The Straits Times today has a list of other "insensitive comments that went viral".  Here they are:

I do remember the last item on the list.  A Chinese national complained to the Community Mediation Centre that his neighbour's curry was offensive to him and his family.  He wanted the tribunal to rule that his Indian neighbour be barred from cooking curry!  Now, this is the part that has not been made clear in my mind.  From what I recall, the tribunal ruled that the Indian family could not cook curry as long as the China nationals were at home.  How the tribunal could come to such a ruling is shocking unless my memory is unreliable and it wasn't a ruling but a consensus reached between the parties.

At no point was the identity of the Chinese national revealed by the press.  Contrast all the above insensitive remarks made with what Ms Cheong has written.  Her facebook comment was rude and insensitive, vile and repulsive but what about the other remarks made from the list given by Straits Times?  None of them received such a strong reaction.  The identity of the Chinese national in the curry case was not even disclosed by the press.

Ms Cheong, on the other hand, was summarily dismissed from her job and she's received so much public anger.  I'll ignore the police report.  I have no doubt nothing will emerge from that.  If it did, it would only serve to make Singapore appear like a police state, that a facebook post of this nature merits police action!

To me, what's really important in the interest of justice is this:

1.  If the other racist, insensitive and rude people aren't given the same treatment as Ms Cheong, we have no business hounding and harassing her.

2.  Would Ms Cheong have received less condemnation if she were a Chinese national or other foreigner?  Did the PM and the other Ministers and MPs bring up the other cases in Straits Times' list?  Was a police report made against Sun Xu?  Was the Chinese national in the curry case even named and shamed?  These are questions that we will all need to probe deep within us in order to reach totally honest answers.  These are important questions that we should look into.  Are we harsher to our own people and if so, why?

Edit: I have since received information that Amy Cheong is a Malaysian-born Australian citizen and not a Singaporean.  But what I have stated still remains unchanged.  How terrible is she when you compare her with some of the others in the Straits Times list?   And yet she seems to be at the receiving end of so much more fury while most of the others escaped with impunity and in the case of the curry case, the China national was not even named.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

PSLE - let this be the final word.

There is a great deal in the newspapers and online forums about the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Some want it abolished or revamped, citing undue stress on the twelve-year-olds who sit the exam.  There are a few reasonable voices that call for the PSLE to remain as the most reliable gauge that we have of a student's ability.  It may not be perfect, nothing is, but it's probably the most effective qualifying exam, or placement exam, as it is sometimes aptly called, for students to gain admission to a secondary school.  What's truly great about this examination is its absolute fairness and impartiality.  It is a strong testimony to the government's commitment to meritocracy, fairness and equity and in no area is fair play more important to the people than in the area of education for their children.  The PSLE is the government's assurance of total impartiality in this area of great importance to the people.

The PSLE is an exam that's designed to divide the student population into different categories according to their intellectual capability. There is a special group and this consists of students who are the top 3% in the exam in each year.  This group is given a scholarship by the government for the next 6 years of secondary school and Junior College education.   This top 3% is of course given the secondary school of their choice and honestly, who can complain about that?

As a rule of thumb these top students usually go to the No. 1 school in this country.  Every Singaporean knows perfectly well which school that is.  That's the school with the highest cut-off point at the qualifying PSLE.  It's not surprising that this school can accelerate its teaching way above any other schools.  This is also the school that places Singapore in a prominent position on the world map of academia; it's our showcase school to tell the world how effective our education is.  When it comes to academic competitions, this school garners all the medals (OK, not all; it does share these Olympiad medals with another school which is a dedicated school for maths and science but that's about it).  The Wall Street Journal once called this school the "Ivy League machine" because it's the single school outside of the USA that feeds the most number of students into Ivy League universities.  Just last year, Prof Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford said, "Raffles is Oxford's top feeder school - RI sends more students to Oxford than any other public school within and outside of England, more than even Eton".

It's not just in academia that this school shines.  In the recent Youth Olympics, this school won more medals than any other schools in the country, more medals than even the sports school in Singapore.

How did Singapore manage to create a school that can trump the rest of the world in virtually everything?  Last year, when I read that Singapore came in tops in the World Schools Debating Championship in Dundee, I checked to see which schools the Singaporean participants were from and yes, last year they were all from this same school.  Hey, we are not even talking about passing examinations.  How does this school win every medal in one clean sweep?  It all boils down to the PSLE.  Singapore has stumbled upon a winning formula with this exam that acts as a filter to channel students into schools that best suit their needs according to their abilities and learning capabilities.  The most effective teaching method must be one in which you group students of the same calibre together.  It's very hard for a teacher to pitch the level of his lessons if you have a mixed bag in a classroom.  The effectiveness of the PSLE as a gauge of a student's abilities and academic strength is confirmed many times over by the huge success of our top schools on the world stage.

Why would anybody want to do away with a system that is open, transparent, incorruptible and the most equitable measure of a student's worth and eligibility for a secondary school of his choice?

Someone suggests in today's Straits Times forum page that the schools be given some leeway to accept students who might not be good at everything.  He argues that some students may be good at mathematics but they may be weak in languages and so they won't do so well in the PSLE.  But that's precisely what the PSLE is for.  It's to weed out students who, though good at a subject or two, exhibit weaknesses in some other subjects.  The top 3% who are enrolled into the No. 1 school in the country can't afford to have lopsided strengths.  There is no room for weaknesses of any kind if you want to be in the top school.  Is that so unfair?  Of course not.  In all fairness, the top places must only be given to the best.  That's not just justice, that's decency.

But the current system does cater for students who are weak in some areas and so they may not shine in the PSLE.  Students who are good at mathematics and the sciences can always apply for a place in the dedicated science school which, as I have said earlier, shares with RI some of the International Olympiad medals in the sciences and mathematics. Currently, all schools consider many other areas in a student's achievement which is why we have the Direct School Admission system in all secondary schools.  Students who excel in various aspects (whether academic or otherwise) are accepted into secondary schools even before they take the PSLE.

I cannot help feeling that we sometimes take a dog-in-the-manger approach.  If we are certain there's no hope our children will be among the top in the PSLE and get accepted into the top schools, we might as well clamour for there to be no top schools.  Let all schools open their doors to students regardless of academic achievements.  It doesn't matter if we get mediocrity all round and there are no top schools to hone the abilities and talents of top students because our kids aren't among them anyway.  I'm sure very few would adopt such an approach; it's an approach that will be the ruin of this country.   We have achieved much with meritocracy for our guide and to throw it all away is madness.

Since I keep mentioning meritocracy, I should add this last point about Singapore's No. 1 school. Enrolment in the school is strictly based on merit and there are no back-door entrances.  We all know of a particular school that's always asking for donations and students who don't meet the cut-off PSLE score are permitted into the school on payment of a large donation but that's not one of our top schools, not by a long shot.  Our finest schools can't possibly go down that route and they certainly don't.  Entrance into these schools such as RI and HC are strictly based on merit and the PSLE score is the final arbiter of a student's real merit.  I know of a brilliant boy who is the son of a lorry driver who is given a place in this top school on the strength of his remarkable PSLE results while the son of a very important Government man was rejected, again on the basis of the PSLE results.  Frankly, I know of no other country that can boast of such an unflagging commitment to meritocracy and fair play.  Those who ask for the PSLE to be scrapped really don't know what they are asking for.

Today is the final day of the PSLE for this year.  I wish all candidates the best of luck.  And in the spirit of meritocracy, may everyone get precisely what he or she deserves, based on nothing else but pure merit.