‘Together’

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Familiar music streamed into my ears as the cool twenty-second story breeze rushed in through the open windows. I had just taken a short afternoon nap and had been woken up to a string of familiar National Day theme songs and local medleys. Even now the music still rings on from the sports area in the distance. Ah, National Day is coming soon.

My brother walks by and hums ‘Together we make a difference’ as the song continues to float melodically through the air – in English and Mandarin. I hear a young child scream a line from the song probably a few stories below us. National Day is coming soon.

In school, we have an inter-class competition and part of it requires us to dress up 5 Singapore icons to win points. It is hard to believe that National Day is just a few days away, and that it is our nation’s 50th jubilee year!

I miss belting out to the familiar national day and community songs just like how we used to as a kid in Primary and Secondary school. There was a certain liberation that came with being appreciative of, happy with and proud of being Singaporean when we let our hair down and groove to the music. I wonder if that day will come this year.

There is just too much to say Thank you for should we make a list of what we are thankful for. A clean and green environment, a well-established education that groomed us to be high-achieving and skillful individuals, the conviction in ‘lifelong learning’ and the multi-racial multi-cultural environment we have grown up in, the access we have to religious and cultural practices, a stable government and economy, a secure community where safety is prioritised, great leaders who were our forerunners in this project of nation-building… and now this responsibility has come to rest on our shoulders.

When Words Fail, Let Our Actions Do The Talking

One week of mourning is drawing to a close. I have been drifting in and out of a mixture of emotions the past week, at times more emotional than others. My mind devoured countless of narratives and counter-narratives in the form of articles, forum posts, Facebook posts, that make the landscape of social commentary this week. As an educator in the civil service, we wear our teacher masks and tell our students of this great man and the history he has shaped in the form of our nation. Yet in doing so, we remain intellectually engaged by emotionally detached from the happenings. We all need some time to find words for how we are feeling and thinking. At this point, my mind is still incoherent, and there is little to say, although much has been coming in waves.

I still wonder how this man could evoke such powerful feeling in Singaporeans although we only read about him in our history textbooks and newspaper articles, or seen him on TV. Wouldn’t making him a public icon also render him impersonal and above us?

I think I am most moved by the idea of this man. He stood firm for the visions and beliefs he had in Singapore, arguably, he lived his life for Singapore. It is hard to imagine why someone would do that.

I am also moved by the unity of Singaporeans. Yes there are also negative criticisms that went out of line this week. But in this week, I felt a Singaporean heartbeat. A heartbeat that weakened in grief because a great man who started that heart beating had left us. Whether I was driving on the roads to work or walking in a public place, everyone seemed more resigned, quiet, silent. I hear about kind deeds Singaporeans showed to one another – taking turns to wait in line, distributing drinks, buns and food to those queuing, looking out for one another, practising patience and empathy when paying our respects. I witness how civil servants and NSmen came together to support the same cause – taking 12-hour shifts, putting other priorities and interests on hold for this one purpose, and in our own way, doing our bit to pass on this legacy to the next generation. As educators, we struggled to contain our emotions and transfer our gratefulness and understanding of a shared history to our students in the classroom. Others volunteered to manage the queues, disseminate information, and all these acts driven by gratefulness and appreciation for what Singapore has become, is indeed powerful.

The interview segments that followed the state funeral let the words and actions of a lot of Singaporeans, both young and old, testify to the legacy and influence of Mr Lee. I was pleasantly moved that toddlers and young children, could offer up their own words of thanksgiving and goodwill even though they would only have heard of him through documentaries or their parents. I am heartened that as one nation, we have come together to show our gratefulness for this one man.

In one article, it described us as the politically silent ones who only in his death, are now compelled into action, and given a voice. After watching the state funeral, I am convinced that I need to become less politically-apathetic and stop taking the peace and security in Singapore for granted. I wish we future generations will be able to continue to do justice to this country we call Home.

Re-evaluating the reasons for our social conventions

The recent uproar brought about by the Ashley Madison website in Singapore did more than unsettle me. Quietly I have been following the news and threads on the dialogue between local netizens, the Government, MDA and Ashley Madison, and I have been reeling back in fear at the various reactions and responses exchanged by all parties. All along we have exalted the family unit as an integral and critical backbone of our Asian society, claiming ownership of strong “traditions” and “moral values”.

This episode only seemed to be unveiled some sort of truth for us – that our society is changing, and being “traditional” and “conventional” no longer holds the same degree of appeal or honour as it used to for the older generations. With this, I believe, comes the need to re-evaluate the reasons for the social conventions and beliefs we claim to hold on to. Do we really have the same convictions? What exactly is it, to be moral, anymore? 

When I shared the news of Ashley Madison to a few of my friends in the workplace, I was surprised (more shocked) that I would actually find people who disagreed with the campaign to block the website in Singapore. What made me more uncomfortable were the reasons cited, and I give my personal take on them below.

It is ‘none of my business’. If people want to sign up for it, why would we bother? 

The fact that we are all living in the same community is reason why it should be your business to care. If this website threatens the home of a friend, a relative or your own marriage, would you live in quiet acceptance of its presence? Furthermore, passively agreeing to welcome this site does make you complicit in its movement – you are passively agreeing to the values it upholds.

Maybe it will help keep families together.

Seriously? What about the families that it breaks apart because of it? How would that come into play?

If I need to hook up with someone else other than my wife or husband to keep me sane and thus “keep my marriage together”, I am not keeping my marriage together. I am probably not even in a marriage anymore. That is, unless your idea of marriage is a legal contract between two persons, which is a really depressing definition of a marriage (and definitely not worth spending tens of thousands on for your wedding). If marriage to you, like to me, is a commitment – physical, emotional and spiritual – to a person you promise to love for the rest of your life – there should not even be any room to negotiate for a any brief, casual encounters with someone else.

Anyway, it is just a matter of time before AM comes into Singapore.

True, even with the MDA ban, people can bypass the ban by using a VPN or logging in from another country. The website is up and running, and there is a network of interested parties building. It is just a matter of finding inconvenient to increasingly convenient channels of bypassing the ban and getting what we want (if that is what you are looking for). But why does this make it OK for them to be in Singapore again? Again, passively accepting this is equivalent to saying you are in favour of the concept and values it is founded on.

People should have freedom to do what they want. Those who values commitment and family will stay away from the site. And those who do not, would have committed adultery with or without AM anyway. Blame the people, not the tool. 

It is said that “AM is not the cause of infidelity” and uses this as reason not to block Ashley Madison in Singapore. True, even Noel Biderman, CEO and founder, said that Ashley Madison ‘“does not aggressively promote extra-marital affairs,” and is merely a platform that “cannibalises” an already existing behaviour pattern.’ There are plenty of extra-marital affairs and broken relationships among us and our family unit is definitely not as stable as we may ideally think it to be. But do we say “OK” to the opening of more channels that encourage infidelity because of what we tout as “freedom”? Why do we make things easier for the Wrong to succeed, when it is already difficult enough to do the Right sometimes?

If it comes down to having to make a choice between laying claim to personal freedom and having my government make a stand on what values we want to preserve and champion (despite an ever-growing number of ideologies that run against it), I would choose hands down the latter. Same logic goes to working in school for me. If you asked me which was more important: protecting my personal voice and freedom, or having school leaders that protect and guard the same values that we hold dear and our community is built on (like resilience, and good character, and confidence), I would definitely want a school with leaders who knew how to safeguard our values and convictions, because those strands make us us. 

I may be an old-fashioned conservative, but I find the self-centred view of wanting freedom (and not restricting our choices) extremely wanton and selfish.

Yes, ultimately it boils down to a fundamentally values dialogue.

Yes, it is all about the values and conventions. Ashley Madison and its varied supporters obviously proclaim a different set of values than what we do (or what we are used to).

I personally cannot get past the idea that AM openly claims to reach out to married partners who are looking for brief, casual encounters with another. People justify this as a need which marriage partners are sometimes unable to satisfy – sometimes sexual, sometimes emotional – which explains the warped idea that extra-marital affairs can help keep families together. It pains me to think that what is central to this line of persuasion is that you are the most important person in your life. If you cannot be satisfied, you have the right to look for contentment elsewhere. After all, you may be doing your family a favour.

The images on the website – to “shhh” and keep it a secret – is disturbing. Is it not common sense that when you need to hide something from someone, there is a high possibility that you are doing something wrong? Why does the company choose to feature such images?

AM capitalises on the needs of married persons and their possible weakness towards infidelity, as clients in the running of this website. Yet its founder, supporters and members, do not seem to think that this business concept is very wrong. It is a profit-driven business based on the weaknesses of others – and it justifies itself by apathetically ignoring the issue the morality, and rendering it irrelevant because of the potentially good things it does (like keep families together and satisfy individual needs and … everyone is doing it anyway!)

Not only does it seem to imply that it is reasonable to have an extra-marital affair, it also conversely seems to suggest that a marriage without it will be challenging and impossible. But since when were we told that relationships, marriages and building a family was easy? If commitment was so easy, it would not be called “commitment”.

Take the opportunity to ask some important questions.

Ashley Madison aside, this episode does spur me on to want to ask some important questions like:

Why do we hold on to those values like we did in the past?
Are they still relevant for us today?
How do we know what is right and wrong anymore?

Can we expect to impose our values and ideologies on others in the same community? 

Because honestly, Ashley Madison is going to be just one of those things that digs up our dirty laundry. Once this AM episode cools off and citizens come to accept its place (or lack thereof) in the society, something else is going to come along and jolt us into a string of questions again.

We all join this dialogue with different perspectives and ideas of what values are, how important they are, and why we should or should not fight for them. The Government claims that the site holds a “flagrant disregard for family values and public morality” – laying claim to protect the traditional Asian family values they want (or believe) Singaporeans embody. It is the conservative Asian society they want to preserve, and for many fairly good reasons, political, social, economical. I am not sure how many people actually spoke up against sites like AM because they believe in the transient nature of morality – that there are certain values that time has no bearing on.

There is a certain, definite right and wrong, good and evil, that I believe in, and that is dictated in the Bible. The principles and teachings of the Bible does not change through time – so just like God teaches us to value our loved ones and honour them, to honour the marital vows that were made before the Lord – I believe that those are right things which do not change just because social principles and conventions have shifted somewhat.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” – Isaiah 40:8

I believe there is a conscience placed in each of us that gently nudges us to do right and to shy away from wrongdoing. This is how we know that it is wrong to kill a man, betray one’s trust, rob a bank, or turn a blind eye to someone in desperate need. Our conscience may become suppressed into insensitivity and apathy over time, but there is a conscience at work. If we don’t feel good about those extra-marital affairs and feel a need to hide from our partners, we are doing wrong.

The next question is, can we expect to impose our values on the rest of our community, even if out of altruism and goodwill, we believe strongly that it is for the benefit of the people? I believe there is a necessity to stand up for what you know is right, and speak up against what you know is wrong. Of course, not everyone will agree, and some would take much offence at how grandly I appear to boast of my “Christian” moral goodness and integrity when I probably fall short in so many other ways.

Not everyone may understand or appreciate the reasons for your beliefs and convictions, or share your views in morality, but that does not mean that you are wrong to speak up for what you believe in. The Government, MDA, AM, and other bodies speak up about this issue from various points of view. I contribute to the pool of debate as well by speaking up from a personal point of view, and that includes beliefs grounded in my Christian faith.

I cannot condone or accept what Ashley Madison stands for (and of course AM will not the be only thing I frown upon with much disdain), and I want to share a piece of my thoughts if you would read it. In the same way, I hope people reading and exchanging in these dialogue would be able to respect and honour the views of individuals as well – individuals governed by their own set of values, beliefs and convictions.

 

Resonance with local film Ilo Ilo

The local film Ilo Ilo by director Anthony Chen that won the Camera d’Or prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival 2013. Convinced by the magnitude of the win, compounded with a desire to experience the winning film in person, a group of us Literature teachers (familiar with the body of local works in both text and film) took the opportunity to do so during the school holidays last evening. Although we walked out of the theatre with mixed reviews about the film, I felt that it was one of few films that resonated with me and my experience as a child living with a maid in Singapore. Even Captain America or Star Trek did not do that for me – they wowed me with amazing CGI effects and the best-looking hunks around, but they did not connect with me the same way Ilo Ilo did.

Ilo Ilo

Alert: Spoilers follow. 
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We are not Superheroes: The Matter of Fact about Tuition

Some time between yesterday and today a friend of mine asked if I had “spare time” to provide some academic coaching for the sister of a friend. The lady who was hoping to get some tuition support was in her final year of school and would be sitting for her national examinations at the end of the year. According to the friend of mine, she needed tuition in a string of subjects (except English and Literature – which I teach).

I tried to think about how best to break it to her that it was impossible for me to afford the time and heart for tuition. Furthermore, I am not sure I believe in tuition – not in the generic Singaporean sense of the word anyway.

It frustrated me that this has been the umpteenth time someone has approached me regarding the availability of giving tuition. I have this nagging feeling one of the underlying reasons is because I am a teacher – and teachers are suppose to, well, teach.

So I decided to compile all the frustrations and possible assumptions people tend to make about teachers, students and tuition together. Here goes.

Just because we are teachers in profession, doesn’t mean that teaching comes effortlessly to us 

I think it is a fallacy to believe that teaching comes easy and simple to all teachers. Yes, most of us may enjoy teaching and interacting with young people and may not mind the brunt of angsty teenage minds, but do you realise that teaching is more than just whipping out an assessment book and coaching you through a series of questions? It requires thoughtful planning of an overview, of teaching strategies, to teach, to engage and to motivate. Teaching requires time to plan, mark and to know the child’s strengths and needs. You need time and heart and effort; it is not something that starts and ends when you arrive and leave the student’s home. The last thing I hate is to find myself unable to give my best and fullest attention to a student because I made a mistake in choosing my lots. 

Just because we teach, doesn’t mean we can teach everything 

I teach English Language and Literature, period. If you ask me to teach Science or Mathematics or anything else, I will tell you “no can do”. (Unless you are a kid who is desperately seeking some guidance and I am confident my current abilities will not mislead you.) Even teaching English and Literature means that I need to read up and plan and prepare materials on my part. It doesn’t mean that once someone has gotten a graduate degree, he/she is able to teach anything else from Primary to Secondary to Junior College. Don’t belittle the syllabus nowadays – that’s a deadly mistake.

Just because we teach, doesn’t mean we are obliged to take up tuition 

Teaching and giving tuition are completely two different things, two different ballgames, which require different skill sets, different levels of commitment. I may be a teacher, but that certainly does not make me a believer of tuition. I must say that I frown upon most reasons why people seek tuition. I think it is a concept that has been strongly abused by the rich and the intelligent, and it is founded upon very wrong assumptions of tuition – which has been perpetuated because people are just willing to pay sums of cash for a chance at a good future.

Sometimes I feel that just because we are teachers by profession, people expect us to be interested in giving tuition. “Just teach them in your free time,” my relatives would say. I would want to shoot back, “My free time comes at the end of the year for a few short weeks. Then it wouldn’t be free time anymore.” Honestly, if all teachers wanted to give tuition, we would be tuition teachers.

I don’t believe in every of that tuition crap 

Singaporeans seek tuition for two main reasonsA, they want a guarantee that they can ace an examination. B, they want to make it – they have not been doing well and they hope that a final academic booster programme will help give them what they need to catch up with whatever they have missed for the past few years. 

Usually, the former comprises of students who better off families who also have larger, higher, taller dreams for their child; while the latter comes from families who suddenly realise something needs to be done before a major set of examinations in order to secure a decent future for the child. And both sets of reasons are warped reasons for tuition.

If you are doing well based on your own efforts, you are doing well. Use that as your means to do well in life. You do not need to come in Tops in order to proof you will succeed. Also, nobody (not even the best of tutors) can guarantee a student can ace an examination. Where would that leave the effort on the students’ end if the tutors can guarantee success and achievement?

If you are struggling really badly, you cannot expect a few months or weeks or sessions of tuition to turn things around and make magic. Which brings me to my next point:

We are not superheroes: you cannot create a miracle in a short time 

I advised my friend who asked me if I had “spare time” – that if you need help in subjects A to E, then you need to think about how you can utilize your helplines effectively. Are you sure tuition for all 10 subjects (Well, A to E is 5 subjects) will be helpful?

Also, how do the subject teachers come into the picture? A child should make effort to seek consultation and guidance from his/her teachers at school first – before seeking alternative helplines. For the simplest, most obvious reason: your subject teachers know best. They know the syllabus, they have the latest updates, they most likely have extra resources to spare, they have the strategies and tips.

That is a huge repository of knowledge and skills you as a student need to learn to tap on. Who are you seeking help from? Is it the best means for your success?

The next time you are thinking of seeking academic support or tuition, think about this please.