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

Why I love this island so!

Religious violence is something you see every day on the news.  If it's not Nigerian churches being torched by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, it's probably the tension between Hindu militants and Muslim extremists in India.

All the violence we read about is absolutely foreign to us who live in Singapore.  Whatever Western critics may say about a "totalitarian" government (which isn't true at all) or the lack of freedom (I don't know about you but I can do without the freedom to get killed or maimed), my advice to the critics is this - you remain in YOUR country and I'll live here.  On the other hand, if you happen to live here and you really don't like it at all, it's a free world and you can always go where you think the grass is greener.  Lately, there have been a lot of foreigners who come to Singapore and avail themselves of the goodness of the land but post offensive and abusive remarks against the country they're milking from.  Here is where Singapore should show its "totalitarian" strength and send these ungrateful chaps packing.

Anyway, this morning, after a very early breakfast in Little India, I cycled round this lovely part of Singapore and took pics of the various places of worship.  I had intended for this post to be a wordless post with pics alone to tell the tale but alas, it's hard to remain silent when what I see through my camera lens is nothing but perfect peace and beauty.  Mind you, these places of worship are of the four major different world faiths and here they stand, no more than 100 metres from one another in perfect harmony, wonderfully tolerant and a great picture of what faith truly means as they each proclaim its gospel of peace and goodwill to all men.

It's when I see such peace and harmony of these four great faiths in close proximity to one another that I know in my heart of hearts that God is in his heaven and all's right with the world.  May God bless Singapore and its far-sighted leaders!  OK, I'll be silent from here on.  Enjoy the pics!

As I was busy snapping a pic of the Hindu temple, a bell suddenly broke the silence of the morning and religious music could be heard within the temple.  I took a quick video of the worship session from the road.  The video is a little shaky; I had to balance my bicycle against my body, remove my gloves and hold them with my teeth and use both hands to take the video.  If you watch the video carefully, you will see a guy in a pink shirt, slightly to the right playing a wind instrument but he stands in the shade so it's very hard to make out the instrument he's playing.  It closely resembles the clarinet but it's much larger and the bell is way too large for a clarinet.  But it's definitely a reed instrument because I saw the reed - placed on the mouthpiece just as in a clarinet.  It's the only wind instrument that you can hear in the video.  I really wonder what instrument it is.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How to get straight A's in the PSLE Part 2

I used to hate Maths and most of my bad dreams were of me in an exam hall doing a Maths paper.  A good friend of mine once told me about a Maths course for parents that she intended to take together with her husband.  It was run by an extremely famous and effective Maths teacher who turned out to be what a good teacher should be - she was quick-thinking, pleasant, fat and charming.  I didn't think I would benefit from the course but since it only cost $50 per parent and would only take up one Saturday afternoon, I went and took along a novel to read if it should prove to be way over my head.  The venue was some unfamiliar place and I had a tough time finding the place and so I was a little late but the course hadn't started yet when I arrived.  The hall in which the course was held was very large and it was full of parents and so I had to go to the front and I sat on a vacant seat that happened to be just next to the teacher herself which was a bummer as I was hoping to sit with my friends who were somewhere in the middle of the hall.  The teacher was friendly and she asked me if I was good at Maths.  I told her a village idiot could beat me in a Maths test.  She laughed and said she could turn me into a Maths whiz.  She then walked to the podium and started the course with a question which she said was one of those really tough Maths questions that you always find in the Maths paper at PSLE.  They're reputed to be so tough that not just parents but even Maths teachers are stumped by them.   She promised to give any parent who could come up with the correct answer a free ticket to another course of hers worth $50.  I looked at the question and my mind became a complete blank, as it always happened when I looked at numbers and symbols, so allergic was I to anything mathematical.  But since nobody gave an answer and the teacher continued to wait for one, I thought I'd just go through the problem when all of a sudden, I thought I saw a clear pattern in the set of numbers and I raised my hand confidently.  I gave the answer and it must have been correct because the fat course presenter mumbled to the whole hall, "And he told me earlier he was bad at Maths".

That really turned me round.  She promised to turn me into a Maths whiz and I truly became a different person after that.

Do you see what happened that afternoon?  I tried out the Maths problem.  I started out thinking I couldn't do it.  That's precisely how it is with most of us who profess to be bad at Maths.  But all it takes is for us to do it.  Nike's motto "JUST DO IT" should be our personal motto.

Here is how I can help you be a Maths teacher to your kids.   Maths is different from the other subjects in that you can't look up the answer in google.  You can do that with everything else.  So kids really need a parent who can answer the difficult Maths questions that they can't do on their own.  You may say you're not the mathematical sort but that's rubbish.  I used to say that of myself.  What caused the change?  First, get rid of that stupid notion that you're bad at Maths.  A lot of my friends seem to take pride in being bad at Maths.  You can only be bad at Maths if you've got a low IQ.  Now, none of us will say with pride that we have a low IQ.  Of course I'm not talking about secondary school mathematics which comes with equations and things you have to study and memorise.  But a person with a reasonable IQ should not have any problem with PSLE Maths.  It's that basic.

It's not easy to get rid of this mentality that it's cool to be bad at Maths.  It's something you really have to overcome.  I don't know why but I know many people who will, at the drop of a hat, declare to everyone how bad he or she is at Maths.  From my experience, women usually are guilty of this.  They think being bad at Maths makes them appear more feminine and more desirable.  If you haven't got kids taking the PSLE, fine.  Go ahead and indulge in your fantasy that you're bad at Maths.  But remember, whenever you say you're bad at Maths, you're disclosing to everyone that you've got a low IQ.  Studies have shown that there is nobody with a high IQ who's bad at Maths.  If you get a kick from telling everyone you're stupid and have a low IQ, go ahead and do that but just make sure your spouse hasn't got the same perverted need to appear blissfully innumerate.  Your kids need at least one sane parent.

The reason why I spend so much time slamming people with this problem is I know it's a real problem.  The problem is not so much we can't do Maths but we begin by thinking we can't and after some time, we take pride in being bad at it.  I'm not sure if this distaste for science and Maths is an Asian problem or if the rest of the world is afflicted by it.  I once mentioned in passing that I thought a friend of mine did the sciences at A-levels.  She was visibly upset and she immediately denied it and insisted that she did pure humanities.  Later when nobody else was around, she asked me quite unhappily why I said she was a Science student.  I had to apologize!!!   I know of another woman who was terribly embarrassed of the fact that her husband did Engineering at university.   And then there was this woman I met years ago when I was with a group of friends.  She told me that she did literature at A levels.  I was puzzled because she was a medical doctor and as far as I know, all doctors my age and older could not have done literature at A-levels.  It's different today when you have to offer a contrasting subject at A levels and all Science students have to pick a humanities subject.  I subsequently discovered from one of her friends that she was a pure science student at A-levels and a pretty good one too.

Why is there such a social stigma attached to science and maths?  Why do some people find it so embarrassing to be good at Maths and would rather live their lives pretending they're bad at it?  It's not within the scope of this post to examine the psychology of women and what makes them tick.  Greater thinkers than I have explored this subject and they remain totally befuddled.  I won't even presume to understand women but what I want to impress upon you is this: stop pretending you're bad at Maths and do your duty as a parent - coach your PSLE kids when they need someone to show them how to answer those tough Maths questions.  Wait until your kid is in Sec 1 before you tell the world how absolutely hopeless you are at Maths if this is the kind of image you want to have.

Once you have got over the mental obstacle in Maths, it's half the battle won.  Ask your kid to give you any Maths question he can't do.   Read the question carefully.  Pretend it's something you have been asked to solve on television in a programme called "Are You an Idiot?"  This will ensure that you don't go back to your "I'm  really bad at Maths" excuse.  Nobody wants to be called an idiot on national tv so you will at least concentrate on the maths question.  You will find that there is no question you can't answer.

Continue asking your kid for questions he can't do and soon you will find that he has fewer and fewer questions.  There MUST come a time when there is no question your kid can't do and that time must be at least a few months before the PSLE.  If that doesn't happen, it's another A* slipping out of his hands.  That's because you must give allowance for the occasional carelessness in answering exam questions.  The tough questions carry many marks and your kid MUST be able to answer them if he wants to secure an A*.

I'll give an example here.  I just did a search in google for "tough PSLE Maths" and I had a few links that were not useful.  What I want is one of those difficult questions that carry 5 marks each. My searches led me to this link which gave a sample question: PSLE Maths question 

Here is the question and I suggest you work on it as an exercise:
Jim bought some chocolates and gave half of it to Ken. Ken bought some sweets and gave half of it to Jim. Jim ate 12 sweets and Ken ate 18 chocolates. The ratio of Jim's sweets to chocolates became 1 : 7 and the ratio of Ken's sweets to chocolates became 1:4. How many sweets did Ken buy? (PSLE 2009, 5 marks)
This is actually a very simple question but it's the only one I can find online.  Let's use basic logic. Each person started with the same number of sweets (let’s call this S) and the same number of chocolates (we’ll call this C).

What's written in the narrative of the question can be worked out in this way:
S–12 (eaten) = 1/7 of C  and  C-18 (eaten) = 4 x S ie C = 4 x S +18

So, 7 x S – 84 = 4 x S + 18

3 x S = 102
S = 34.

The sweets Ken bought would have been 34 x 2= 68

Why on earth did the parent in that website give this sample question as a difficult PSLE question when as I have illustrated above it is so easy and straightforward?  It's all because of the mental block I've been talking about.  Many parents simply assume they can't do Maths and some even take great pride in not knowing Maths.  If parents really want to help their kids, they must overcome this mental barrier.  Begin by telling yourself over and over again that it's not cool to be bad at Maths.  It's the surest proof of imbecility.   You then go through the question in a logical manner and if you still can't get the right answer, you can claim your money back!  Oops, you didn't pay for this advice so there's nothing to return to you but you get my drift - you'll most certainly get the right answer.

Of course if you are going through this Maths problem with a child, you have to explain more clearly.  Tell the child for example that if the chocolates are 7 times more than the sweets, the sweets must be 7 times fewer than the chocolates and in order to make them equal to the chocolates, you have to multiply them by 7.  You need to get into the shoes of the child and see things from his perspective.

There are a few pitfalls you must look out for.  A child may sometimes be careless in his work.  If your child comes up with the answer 34, don't despair.  He's on the right track but he just forgot the precise question asked.  34 is the number of sweets Ken had after giving half of his original number to Jim.  The number of sweets he bought must be twice that number.

Good luck and may your kids secure that A* for Maths.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review: Shakespeare and Co.

I've just read a most remarkable book by Prof Stanley Wells, a renowned Shakespeare expert and the book was so absorbing I read every word of the Appendices as well.  It is a comprehensive examination of the Bard working in a literary environment where he influenced and was influenced by other writers of his time.

Having read and studied every poem that Shakespeare wrote and almost every play of his including his apocryphal works, I am naturally very partial to books about Shakespeare and his writings.   Since I have also read every surviving play written by Marlowe and Jonson and a couple of plays by Middleton including a play he wrote with Shakespeare but which I have always regarded and still regard as Shakespeare's, it's not surprising that I found Well's book immensely delightful as it examines the lives and works of Shakespeare's contemporaries, notably Marlowe, Dekker, Jonson, Middleton and Fletcher.

Although I'm aware that this book can't possibly command a wide appeal among general readers today, I believe there is a sizeable number of readers who love and have read most of the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.  It is to this group of readers that I highly recommend Well's scholastic examination of the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and how they influence one another.

Lovers of Shakespeare can set their minds at ease if I say at the outset that this study of how Shakespeare influenced the Elizabethan and Jacobean literati and was influenced by them does not in any way detract from the Bard's unparallelled importance and the considerable value of his works.  As Wells concludes in his book, Shakespeare "was deeply immersed in the world around him, and to see him as one among a great company is only to enhance our sense of what made him unique."