Justice League reopens old wounds, adds a few new ones for good measure

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Hooboy. OK. It’s been a while since I wrote anything here, but since we got tickets to the premiere and therefore some early-access to the movie, I thought I should share some thoughts.

Overview

It’s not bad. It’s not great, because I think it’s too ambitious in some ways (trying to set up more movies) and not ambitious enough in others (giving you characters to care about, so you actually go watch the sequels). It’s not as morose as Man of Steel, the plot isn’t as nonsensical as that of Batman v Superman. On the other hand, it fails to reach — and, I think, more importantly, fails to aspire — to reach the heights of Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman was a great turning point for the DC films. Even stripped of gender issues, she was, more than Superman or Batman, an actual superhero, who inspired not only the other characters in the franchise, but audiences as well. But whatever scab WW grew over the raw wounds of Steel and Superbats, the Justice League tore off, and then added some new scrapes for good measure.

Plot

It’s the same sky-laser floaty-weightless-CGI-action Apocalypse clusterfuck climax that we’ve seen a million times. BadGuy has to find the MacGuffins to do the Sky-laser thing that will Destroy the World and the Team has to Learn to Work Together ™ to stop them. So far, so predictable.

On this level, it’s competent. Things all tend to happen for reasons and there are markedly fewer “Granny’s peach tea” moments. That being said, there are a couple of leaps in logic that seem inexplicable unless you accept that A decides to do B because the plot demands it, and those are difficult to discuss without going into spoilers, so I shan’t.

For the fans, you’ve got the New Gods, Mother Boxes and Steppenwulf, and Darkseid gets a mention as well.

The other part of the plot is Cyborg’s origin story. That bit of the plot is underdone, and that’s sad, because neglecting personal development (that can generally be made compelling by competent writers) in favour of a sky-laser apocalypse plot (which, by now, is impossible to make compelling no matter how compelling your writers are) seems like a bad call overall. It would have been pretty easy to gracefully insert more meat into Cyborg’s narrative. Heck, Justice League: War did it better, and it says something when your multimillion-dollar tentpole movie comes off looking shabby compared to a direct-to-video animated movie.

The Flash and Aquaman feel neglected, but then again, they’re generally more well-known and popular. One guy goesfast and the other talks to fish. Whereas it’s a bit harder for someone who’s completely new to DC to get what Cyborg’s deal is, so putting him before the other newbies is fine — doing so half-assedly, however, really isn’t.

There seems to be a sort of father/son subplot going on (Cyborg and his dad, Flash and his dad), but it never amounts to anything, and is just there to inform you that neither of these characters were immaculately conceived.

Characters:

Brief comments on all of them, I suppose.

Batfleck: I really wish they wouldn’t make him the centre of the DC movies. Yes, he’s canonically the brains of the team, making up in paranoia what he lacks in raw superintelligence, but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily the most interesting character to view the founding of the JL through. I don’t have anything against Affleck’s acting, but I’m not sure what, so soon in a post-Nolan world, an actor/director/writer can add to Batman to make him more interesting. Jaded rich boy? Seen that. Ripped dude who punches homeless people in the face? Seen that. Night-time vigilante sorely in need of a lozenge? Seen that. The “old man Batman” angle was slightly interesting (although The Dark Knight Returns already touched on that, and that avoided the issue by having Batbale invent a knee-brace that lets him destroy his feet against solid brick for some reason), and could have been taken further: I would have preferred to have him realise his strengths and weaknesses, and take a back seat as mission control during the final confrontation, rather than take part. THE BATMOBILE SECTIONS WERE THE WORST PART OF ARKHAM KNIGHT AND THEY’RE THE WORST PART OF BATFLECK. Although him realising at some point that he’s utterly useless and just start shooting the aliens with the alien guns was pretty funny, I guess. The other interesting thing that they could have done with Batfleck was follow up on the “Robin is dead” thing they’ve teased in Superbats and/or Suicide Squad (I forget which): presumably that’s what put him into Bat-Retirement, and given that we now have a sparkly-eyed newbie in the form of Barry Allen on the team, you’d think that Batfleck could have evinced some angst at being forced to mentor an eager kid who is very likely to get killed. But nope, we need Batfleck to have lines about how his superpower is money, and not about how his real superpower is the ability to get young sidekicks killed/horribly traumatised without repercussions.

Barry Allen: I suppose “adorkable millennial” is now a trope that won’t go away, since I wouldn’t be surprised if the dominant American demographic for comic-book movies was dorky white males. And I suppose Miller plays the part adequately. I have to say that TV-Flash and the MCU Spiderman are significantly more charismatic than he is as screen presences. Maybe it’s intentional that he was genuinely annoying rather than adorkable, but if that’s so, that’s sad, since the Flash is generally The Heart of the team, and having him now be written as an autistic person who can’t connect with other people is… a pretty radical departure from a pretty good spot. They probably had to rip out his empathy so they could shove it into Wonder Woman, so she doesn’t play her traditional role of “murderous psychopath” which she generally does in JL ensemble pieces. Miller says the funny lines with acceptable delivery and get some yucks from the audience. It’s adequate, I guess. I kind of wish the Flash had been the point-of-view character of the film, rather than Batman, because he’s really the only member of the team with the optimism and enthusiasm to roll back some of the grimderp nonsense of the earlier movies. The thing that turned me off the most about Barry Allen is that he doesn’t seem to have any real motivation for doing what he does. The Flash is usually pretty damn heroic, selflessly motivated to help people — Superman sometimes gives off the vibe that he does what he does because he’s duty-bound to do so, even though he’d rather not, but the Flash generally seems to do what he does because he likes people… even his enemies! But ADHD Millennial Man is instead motivated by a desire to meet people (because he has no friends) and because he’s a huge cape dork and thinks superheroes and the trappings of superherodom are awesome. While there’s nothing wrong with those motivations per se (personal growth and enthusiasm), what’s lacking is heroism. And that’s pretty lacking all round, I guess.

Cyborg: Appropriately, lacks meat. Competently robotic, intentional or otherwise. The character’s poorly-written, and there’s only so much an actor can do about that. Again, Justice League: War did a much better job with Cyborg, and it was half the length of this movie. There was some suggestion of a father-son thing, but it gets forgotten about during the CGI clusterfuck at the end. It’s also mentioned a couple of times that Cyborg doesn’t have full control over his abilities, and his whole body might be built of alien technology from a hostile faction, but again, this never goes anywhere. It would have been easy (and fun) to have had some bad guy recognise Cyborg’s tech as being related to their own, and try to hack him with some codewords or something, only to have him overpower the hostile programming with sheer willpower and/or tech genius and declare that he will master the machinery, instead of letting it master him, but nothing like that ever happens, and the film is worse off for it. I wonder if knowing that you’ll be able to flesh things out in a sequel makes writers lazy or something. “Do I have to make Cyborg compelling? Nah, let’s save it for his solo movie!”

Aquaman: Ironically, he lacks depth. Yes, I suppose having Aquaman played as a heart-on-his-sleeve adrenaline-addicted dudebro is kind of original, but it’s also stupid. It’s a shame, because Aquaman’s probably my favourite out of the JL founders. His entire presentation, outside of hooting and flexing, is condensed into two short 30 second chunks of infodumping dialogue. “My motivation is mommy didn’t love me” and “I think we’re all going to die and I don’t trust anyone on this team”, basically. The awkwardness of the latter is laughed off, and the laughs are genuine, but just because you can turn a stupid pratfall into a genuinely good joke doesn’t mean the pratfall wasn’t stupid to begin with. I kind of wish the film’s objectification lens was shifted from Wonder Woman to Aquaman. Instead of having every single male character leer at her at some point, why not have everyone going gaga for Momoa everywhere he goes? Have, like, random women run up to Lois Lane and Diana and ask if they know if Aquaman’s taken. Have him rescue some lady who can’t stop feeling up his pecs. I know, double standards, but I think paired with his dudebro personality, that would have been fun, unlike what they did with

Wonder Woman: Who seems to have let all the inertia of her objectification-free movie catch up with her. Remember how Wonder Woman felt respectful, and Diana was portrayed as beautiful in an elegant and graceful fashion? How the way we knew she was supposed to be hot was how people were enraptured by her beauty? Like, worshipful, even? Well, throw it all in the trash, because elegance and grace are thrown out the window in favour of low camera angles to show off her ass, exploitative outfits (like, seriously, her actual fighting outfit may have been one of the most modest things she wore in the film), and all the men around her talking about her sex life and/or how hot she is. The difference is mostly in tone, I guess: when the fez-wearing actor fellow in Wonder Woman talks about Diana, he’s articulate and worshipful; when Aquaman talks about Diana (to her face, no less), he sounds like he’s going to end his sentence with i'll be in my bunk

It’s good that Diana doesn’t seem marginalised when it comes to fisticuffs (in fact, she seems to do the most heavy lifting in combat next to SupOILERS) but her team contribution is also kind of eh. Batman wants her to be the team leader, but she mostly seems like the Team Mom, who pats all the boys on the head with a radiant smile and tells them that they’re good boys.

The Other Chicks: She also shares a problem with every other female in the film, in that her entire life seems to have revolved around One Guy, and without That Guy she can barely function. She has apparently spent the time since Chris Pine’s square jaw got turned into stardust doing nothing but lying in bed and eating Ben and Jerry’s, despite having superpowers and having been around for centuries. Consider that we must assume that in this universe, WW2 happened, and yet nobody knew about Wonder Woman at all. Why? She seems to have spent the entire period moping over her exploded ex.

Lois Lane and Ma Kent suffer from the same symptom. Granted, their loss is way more recent, and it’s perfectly understandable that their shared grief over their shared loss both brings them together and keeps them apart from getting back to their lives. Still, I wish that they had more to do. Especially Lois, whose sole contribution to the film is the revelation that her magic vagina is definitely NOT that of the Woman of Kleenex, and can also cure amnesia.

Tone

The movie sort of just feels off. Yes, in a post-Guardians of the Galaxy world, we can’t have a superhero movie without some laughs. Some of them are even good! But my God, in some places the dialogue seems to have been taken from the worst recesses of preteen fanfiction.

Look, we know it’s important to have some levity, and arguably this franchise needs more of it than most because of how it’s set itself up.

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Skulls are totally festive, right?

But c’mon, you don’t need ALL YOUR CHARACTERS to have quippy lines. Sure, stick Aquaman and the Flash as your designated comic relief. But having others bizarrely join in the yucks-fest is weird and bad. Much like taking part in a farting competition when you have diarrhoea: the end result is tepid, gets cold quickly, and makes everyone uncomfortable.

 

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A House Divided

Welp. So it looks like the tussle over prime real estate in Singapore has gotten POLITICAL.

On the one hand the younger Lee siblings are now saying something that people have been saying for ages: the Lee family dynasty is an aristocratic establishment that cuts against the Singaporean principle of merit-based status/privilege. That state organs have been used oppressively against opponents of the elite. They’re saying it from a position of some authority and credibility. If anyone knows whether something is rotten in the state of Singapore, it ought to be the prince and princess.

On the other hand, I don’t think it lies in their mouths to say such things. They’ve faced some setbacks and some nastiness, I’m sure, but it’s not like people haven’t suffered worse. They haven’t been bankrupted (yet) or sent into exile, or detained without trial, or subjected to intense ‘questioning’. They and their families have benefitted for years from, if not collusion in, then at least tacit, silent acceptance of the oppressive status quo. Lee the Younger was a grown-ass man of thirty during Operation Spectrum. Didn’t hear him using his exalted position to call out abuses of state power.

They’re not scoring a lot of points with me for apparently ‘taking a stand’ against the Prime Minister. They’ve had much better causes to stand for, and much more noble opportunities. There’s very little truth to be spoken to power when all you’re ultimately saying is, “Hands off, that’s mine!”

The Land Acquisition Act is a thing. The lack of any personal right to property enshrined in the Constitution is a thing. It’s a bit late to wring your hands and moan about how the lack of proper protections/checks and balances can be used to deprive ordinary citizens of what’s theirs.

On the actual house-thing, I’m sure the house itself is a canard. But Singapore’s political elite have sunk the roots of their legitimacy deep in a somewhat pruned form of certain Asian beliefs, including filial piety and authoritarianism (conveniently omitting other things like being gracious and cultured). A challenge to the house, and to the old patriarch’s last will and wish, is a challenge to the establishment’s moral authority.

Frankly, I think both sides have lost something. The younger siblings, even if they have their way, have burned a lot of bridges. The Prime Minister is in a bit of a bind: if he continues demolishing the house, he’ll do so under a cloud; if he doesn’t demolish the house, then he’ll be seen to capitulate to pressure, and lead to speculation that perhaps there’s truth to the other accusations, as well.

I do think that the Singaporean people have gained something. The political dynasties in Singapore have rested their weight on clay feet for a long time. It’s good for everyone that people are noticing the cracks.

What I love and hate most about Good Friday

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The thing I dread the most on Good Friday is the Gospel reading. It’s one of those special Holy Week ones, where it takes the form of a sort of audience-participation skit. You’ve got a narrator, someone to play the role of functionaries like Pilate, the priest who reads for Jesus, and of course, you, the congregation, playing the role of the bloodthirsty mob baying for Christ’s blood.

I hate it because of how it makes me feel. I don’t want to be one of the number crying for the crucifixion. No one should. Surely, with the benefit of hindsight, we would speak differently today?

Maybe not.

I love the Gospel reading because it’s one of the most visceral experiences you can have in a Catholic Mass (not, usually, one of the most gripping things you’ll ever sit through). Instead of just passively receiving the Word and then the Word-made-Flesh, you’re actually participating in the spectacle. You’ll have people who get really into it, who shout with hoarse voices, calling for Barabbas to be freed.

And I love it because of the lesson it teaches.

I don’t want to be one of the people responsible for Christ’s death, but, at the end of the day, I am. Christ died for the sins of all, not just for those in the crowd on that day; while he hung on the cross, between heaven and earth, the Father’s wisdom must have contemplated all the sins that Christ’s death would redeem — even the ones not yet committed. Even mine. And when Christ gave himself up to the Passion — the scourging, the suffering, the shame — he might have shared in that knowledge.

In the moment on Good Friday, I feel connected to the Crucifixion. I feel like, thousands of years ago, some small part of God had contemplated me, in all my iniquity and imperfection, and decided that yes, those too would be part of the burden he would bear.

By dint of my sin, I am no less responsible than the bloodthirsty crowd before the Praetorium that day for Christ’s suffering and death, because his sacrifice was no less for me than it was for them. In fact, I should bear the greater portion of blame, because while they didn’t know what they were doing, I do. When I sin, I do so with the benefit of hindsight, in full knowledge that every knowing sinful act is a deliberate lance driven into his side.

How different it is, to think of the exultation of the Magnificat. “My soul glorifies the Lord! My spirit rejoices in God my saviour!”

Instead, when I sin, my soul cries out, “Crucify him!”

imagined communities

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I just read this report which engages with the long-touted issue of Singapore being the most expensive city in the world.

It found that for expats, Singapore was about the fourth most expensive city in the world. But for the ‘ordinary residents’, it was 48th, wedged between Lisbon and Pittsburgh.

That’s a good thing, I guess? I mean, on the one hand, I suppose it means that even the poor in Singapore can enjoy some of the benefits of being Singaporean: relative security, convenient and cheap public transport, etc.

On the other hand, it makes me uneasy to think that so many of the things of which Singapore is so proud — our “Arts Hub” status, our most famed attractions; so much of our world-renowned food culture; even Changi Airport, which you don’t tend to spend much time in if you’re living from h and to mouth — seem to be only for the well-to-do.

It’s very difficult for me, whenever National Day rolls around, and we’re supposed to “come together” and be “one Singapore”, but at the same time, if you look at the sea of faces, you start to wonder where is the shared experience? Where is the shared intellectual and emotional space?

I’m a big fan of the Imagined Communities idea: that societies really only exist in the minds of people. But is Singaporean society really functional if, when thinking about Singapore, you and I have entirely different concepts? Singaporeans from different backgrounds don’t really dwell in the same physical, intellectual, cultural/linguistic, or experiential spaces. The divide between those who dwell in public housing and private property is symbolic of a much greater rift in terms of experience and upbringing.

Arguably, the system still works as long as everyone has something to be proud of, but I’m not sure if that’s true. It’s hard to understand where people are coming from until you understand how their touchstones for how their Singapore should be might be threatened by something you want. NIMBYism is just one of the signs of these clashes: everyone can understand that need for something, like a columbarium, but we don’t want to surrender our Singapore, the Singapore we live in and experience on a daily basis, in order to make way for these things.

I’m pretty sure most everyone is OK with living in a Singapore that is tolerant towards A group or B group. Everyone wants a Singapore where our foreign workers are well-treated, but nobody likes having evidence of that tolerance shoved in their faces, because “a Singapore for foreign workers” is fine to them, as long as it’s not their Singapore. So they complain about new dormitories being constructed in their areas, or too many people taking the bus, etc.

Sometimes when I wander around my own country, I have to stop and wonder where I am. I have to ask, “Is this my Singapore?”

Infrastructure can only do so much to alleviate these sorts of clashes, because the real gulf isn’t merely physical but intellectual. I tell myself that I’m Singaporean, but the Singapore I live in is just a series of bubbles of my own personal experience — how do I connect with someone with whom those experiences don’t intersect? It’s hard, and the more we embrace the logic of a “Singaporean for locals” as being different from a “Singaporean for the rich”, the harder it’s going to get. When he shows me his Singapore, I can’t locate myself in it, but maybe not vice versa.

Possibly the worst thing about the two Singapores problem is that they’re not even mutually inaccessible. Anyone who really wants to can “slum it”, either because of necessity or curiosity: anyone who lives in the city and drives everywhere can choose to take a train out to the heartlands and experience the ‘stench of the poor’. Anyone who dines at fusion-style wholefoods places can instead choose to shlep down to the nearest coffeeshop or hawker centre for some rojak or char kway teow. But that doesn’t run both ways. Someone who eats simply, or intermittently, is unlikely to decide to sample filet mignon or foie gras.

So to some Singapore is a garden, where they can browse at leisure, stopping to smell the flowers on both sides of the tracks; to others, it’s a prison, or a zoo, where the exhibits look out from between the bars and can only wonder about the world that these exalted visitors come from.

It’s easy then to understand why anti-intellectualism can be so rife in a supposedly-smart city.

Social mobility and meritocracy aren’t enough, I think. Even if everyone can climb, what they’re climbing isn’t a ladder but a cliff. Yes, everyone can ascend, but it matters whether you do so with chalk on your hands, or in the belly of a helicopter.

I don’t think we’re doing enough to flatten the gradient, to reduce inequality. I’m worried that in celebrating this report of two Singapores that we’ll head in the other direction: of normalising this marginalisation of the majority in their own country. We’ve seen what happens in other countries when that happens, and it isn’t pretty. It leads to loud, orange, angry, incoherent disaster.

And that is definitely not my Singapore.

I Cannot Tahan Any More Resilience

or, “One of These Days I Will Write About Something Other Than Education”

First, consider this:

Students need to learn from their mistakes and be self-reliant, Ng Chee Meng tells educators

aka, The Elderly Need to Perfect Their Egg-Sucking Techniques

I mentioned elsewhere, in response to my somewhat tepid reception of this clearly very inspired statement, which is so forward-looking that it has, in true Terry Pratchett fashion, come out the other side and become retrospective, that the honourable Minister doesn’t have to be wrong for this to be a poor showing. This doesn’t have to be wrong. It just has to be inadequate, and that’s what I think it is. It lacks something as a mission statement in terms of actual perspicacity and galvanising potential, and worse than that, perhaps, it is hackeneyed, outdated, and potentially dangerous.

What follows is my usual rant, in response to being asked, very politely and in good faith, what’s so outdated and dangerous about this.

It’s outdated because the resilience slogan first caught fire (as far as I can tell) and has been with us ever since the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. I dislike how the education system always seems eager to batten on new faddish keywords, but at the same time always manages to pick up on keywords that have already started showing signs of age.

When I was a student, the killer keyword was creativity. There was a brief biotech buzz, during which the word “hub” became trendy, and suddenly Singapore had to become an everything hub. Arts Hub. Sports Hub. Biotech Hub. Shipping Hub. Scandal Hub. Charity Scam In Order to Send Wife Overseas to Live Delusional Lifestyle Lavishly Hub. Gambling Hub. Then when I was in late JC/about to enter uni, it was entrepreneurism. Then, in the middle of my uni days, 2008 happened, and then after that the world turned to resilience. In the context of the 2008 disaster, resilience was good. It was what was needed. As the world ground to a halt, it became very clear which systems were too fragile (like the banking sector), and the watchword resilience became applied to them. Well and good.

Then suddenly everything became about resilience. Got terrorism? Resilience. Got cybersecurity problem? Resilience. OK. Still fine. A little bit overused, but the situation really very unstable. Resilience.

Now, you’ve got imminent slowdown looming. Technical recession. Job market bad. Retraining and productivity initiatives not looking good. People looking to supersede us as a shipping hub: New Silk Road, Kra Isthmus canal, losing shipping business to Tanjong Pelapas. The future of Singapore and Singaporeans looks bleak — or at least, not as bright as it used to.

The context is different. Demands are different. You’re singing yesterday’s song today. If the best you can do to meet the pressing demands of the future is to cling to the watchwords of the past… that’s not very encouraging or inspiring, and I think I would expect a person in charge of people in charge of inspiring people to also be inspiring. Please, a little brain work can? Look at what other places are doing: Finland is abolishing the entire concept of school subjects for crying out loud. That may honestly be a bridge too far, but while people are eyeing a rising tide and discussing bridges and boats, we’re being told about the merits of swimming. It’s silly. It’s not what we need! Or at least, not all we need.

I’m not saying resilience isn’t needed, by the way. I’m just saying it’s not ENOUGH. And if someone in charge of setting goals is not aiming high but instead is aiming low… Er, jialat lor. This is why it’s outdated.

As to why it’s potentially dangerous, I invite you to consider two possibilities: one, that resilience is used too BROADLY, and the other, that resilience is relied upon too HEAVILY. The two things are distinct, in that one is a fault of scope and the other is a fault of intensity.

“Resilience” as a term has become muddied. It’s a great word, but it can mean a number of things. As I understand it, the ‘resilience’ that’s so hot these days is about recovery, not resistance.  But why do I get the nagging feeling that, in ‘resilience’ becoming a policy objective, it will be excitedly misinterpreted by poor managers and bad leaders to mean “tahan”? Oh, Singaporean workers sleeping too little and working too hard is it? What’s the problem? Resilience not enough ah? This is a fault of scope.

Mr Ng’s own definition unhelp in resolving the elastic scope of the word. Learning from mistakes? Resilience. Being self-reliant? Are you serious? Being self-directed/motivated and being self-reliant are totally different things. The world NOW is about leveraging interconnectivity and making interdependence work for you. Self-reliance is a dinosaur problem, and especially hypocritical considering that Singapore is super reliant on the external world (see also: foreign country can anyhow impound our military equipment and there’s nothing we can do about it). So is he telling us that young people need to bounce back (which, in this day and age, necessarily means smartly leveraging on available resources, communities, etc.?) or to suck it up and tahan? I can’t tell, and I bet he couldn’t tell you either.

We need our kids to be resourceful.

The self-reliance narrative seems more political than pedagogical to me. It’s all part of the meritocratic bootstrappism that makes Singapore so very, very tough on the very people whom Mr Ng is saying need to be more resilient. It’s code for “I’m not going to help you so suck it up”. Resilience! It’s magical!

Say this becomes policy. Good and bad. Good: it means something’s happening. Bad: Singapore has a tendency to do nothing and then wait for policy change and then suddenly overcompensate. See also: public transport. For so many years nothing doing, then everything starts falling apart and the government goes rail crazy.

Build high-speed railway with Malaysia! Let’s close one eye to the fact that Malaysia is also building a separate high-speed rail with China that is totally not going to make Singapore even more redundant and give China something else to poke us with! BUILD BUILD BUILD

This is a problem of intensity. Suddenly every policy is going to be about resilience.

2020’s Pre-U Seminar Theme: Resiliently Building a More Resilient Citizenry for a More Resiliently Singapore Resilient Future

Then, liddat other things no need care ah? How about opportunity? Innovation? Courage? Boldness?

Resilience is the government’s favourite toy at the moment because unlike creativity etc, resilience is a fundamentally conservative attitude. It is reactionary. Resilience is something that succours you in response to adverse pressure from outside. Well, okay, that’s all well and good, and I would even say necessary, but is it sufficient? Rocky says that it’s not about how hard you can hit, but it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep on getting up.Well… yeah, kinda, but relying on my iron chin to gas my opponent out is not my idea of an ideal strategy.

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I know everybody can change, but I’d like to change before I get a face that even Deadpool’s girlfriend will struggle to love… and sit on.

Looking at the world today, more conservative attitudes are the last thing we need. This is what I mean by dangerous.

So basically the Minister is telling us today what we needed ten years ago and now we’re going to overcompensate and reward a lot of obedient reactionaries, and now we also have a convenient keyword to yell at people who complain when things go haywire in future. For someone whose Ministry is paradigmatically about future-readiness, it is inadequate, and this is what I mean by he’s unqualified. I simply don’t think that this statement, or anything else I’ve heard (and more importantly, not heard) suggests that he’s got the qualities we need.

A friend of mine suggests that all this ranting is just me expressing my disgruntlement at the next-gen Singaporean Cabinet having much in the way of visionary leadership. Well… maybe, I guess. I’m sure it’s competent. I’m not sure it’s inspiring. And, as always, in Singapore “good enough” isn’t good enough.

Non Erudiam

DISCLAIMER: What follows are the opinions, assumptions, and experiences of a former teacher. At no point do I claim that these experiences are absolutely representative of the totality of what teaching is, or can be. Any individual teacher’s experience will depend very heavily on their school/school leaders/colleagues/personal choices.

empty-classroom

I was both thrilled and concerned to see this article in the papers today: 5000 teachers leave service over five years.

So, because legal writing is apparently habit-forming, let’s look at some of the facts/claims before doing any analysis.

Facts, Figures, Claims

  1. about 3% of the total teaching force resigns every year
    • with 33k or so teachers, that’s about 1000 teachers a year
    • MOE claims that the teaching force is ‘stable’
  2. two-thirds of the teachers interviewed said that they left because of excessive administrative workloads
    • MOE claims that the top three reasons for leaving were: childcare, family considerations, desire for another job
  3. The reasons canvassed in the report include: administrative workload, long hours, huge class sizes, overly demanding parents
    • the response of the government (MP Denise Phua, MOE itself) was to look into reducing marking load and increasing pay

Some discussion points

In relation to (1):
Let’s think about who the 1000 teachers a year are, and what MOE means by ‘stable’.

Who: teachers have to go through NIE, and are usually bonded for a period from 3 to 6 years depending on what sort of funding MOE provided them. Assuming that most people would wait out their bond before quitting, this means that most of the 1000 or so are teachers with a certain degree of experience. In my experience, a teacher of 5-6 years’ experience is generally within consideration for various middle-management/leadership positions.

What: I’m assuming that when MOE says the numbers are ‘stable’, they mean that on a purely numerical basis, we’re hiring as many teachers as leave, within certain margins of error. So if 1000 teachers leave, 1000 are hired. Is that true, though? In 2015, only 800 were hired. Which is a far cry from the huge hiring drive that saw 2000-3000 teachers a year being hired back in the day. If this downward trend of hiring continues, paired with the rising trend of people leaving the service, how long are the numbers going to be stable?

Granted, we should also factor in the falling birthrate, which has seen the closing/collapsing of schools, which presumably also means that fewer teachers are going to be required to meet demand. But is that also true? Parents and teachers alike have been calling for reducing the class-size for a long time, but the closure of schools etc seems to suggest that MOE would rather maintain class-sizes and shrink the teaching force, instead of maintaining the same number of teachers which would allow for a better teacher-student ratio.

Why: And on top of all this, we have to consider that comparing 1000 experienced teachers resigning to 800+ freshly-hired teachers is an exercise of comparing apples to oranges. Or at least, apples to cider. Losing X experienced staff and gaining X inexperienced staff maintains parity only in terms of warm bodies in classrooms: it doesn’t account for the loss of experience/skill, nor the loss in terms of training and developing those experienced staffers throughout their time with MOE.

I think MOE should be closely scrutinised on this because even if it manages to calibrate exactly the right number of teachers to hire each  year to make up for losses, it will nonetheless be bleeding talent/experience. It needs to focus not just on being attractive to school-leavers, but to continue being attractive to in-service staff.


In relation to (2):
Most teachers interviewed by Straits Times claim they left because of excessive admin; MOE has a counterclaim that most teachers leave because of family concerns and “desire for another job”.

What is the problem here: Either ST coincidentally interviewed a batch of former teachers whose reasons for leaving fall outside MOE’s “top three reasons”, or there’s a problem with MOE’s internal reporting mechanism that makes people say one thing to MOE and another thing to interviewers.

The latter isn’t all that bad. People are complicated and often have complicated reasons for doing significant things, such as leaving careers. It isn’t entirely inconsistent for someone to have multiple reasons for leaving the service, and to cite different ones depending on who he’s talking to.

Still, it begs the question why MOE’s apparent data on why teachers leave doesn’t seem to square with ST’s. From personal experience, I know that teachers have to go through a fairly rigorous exit-interview process before they leave, and there is a good-faith attempt by MOE to find out why you’re leaving.

Why the data might not square:  I think implementation has a big role to play. Principals/management who do exit-interviews may be doing so using a standard form, but how the interview turns out really depends on the past relationship between the resigning teacher and the manager in question. I had a very good relationship (or at least, I’d like to think so) with the principal who interviewed me, and so I felt able to provide a fair and honest account of why I was leaving. I could be very open about my reasons, without concealing anything to avoid hurting her feelings, or hurting my own chances of being re-employed.

BTW, do you think that using an exit-interview to assess whether someone is suitable for re-employment might affect the quality of feedback provided at the exit-interview?

Miscellaneous: MOE actually does administer school climate surveys and so on to gauge the mood of teachers in schools. So there’s that at least. But having done my share of those surveys, here are some things I think are lacking:

  • transparency: I don’t think I had access to the full accounting of the surveys for my school, nor did I have access to the national data. I would have liked it, simply to see if my responses matched those of my colleagues, and whether our responses were in line (and if not, in what way?) with the national sentiment.
  • accountability: I’ve served in more than one school, and at least one of those principals was very open about what she was doing on our behalf, and I really appreciated that. That being said, it doesn’t seem to be a standard thing required of all school leaders to be seen to respond directly to the feedback provided in climate surveys, which tends to create a feeling of futility.
    • ideally, what should happen is this: The school staff have collectively provided Feedback A. School leaders will openly disclose this to staff, and announce a plan for further data-collection, and then reform. “Many of you have said X. I will now commit to finding out from all of you more about X, and how X can be improved. And in Y time-frame, having collected all this information, I commit to embarking on Z in direct response to your feedback.”
      • eg. “Many of you have said that you spend too much time doing admin. I will now commit to finding out more from all of you on what sort of admin you do, and how we can reduce the workload… And now, 6 months’ later, having done my research, I commit to reducing everyone’s admin workload by 20% by hiring 5 new staff to take charge of (whatever).”
    • instead, what has happened in my experience is that staff get harangued for not being happy with what they have, get provided with vague assurances, and then get fed policies/practices that they didn’t ask for in response to problems they never raised.
      • maybe what MOE really needs is a “response to climate survey” survey. “After the last climate survey, was your feedback disclosed? Was it properly researched? Was it properly acted-upon? How do you think your principal/HOD/cluster sup etc. could have better acted-upon your feedback?”
        • Of course, we might very well iterate this to the point of absurdity.

I think MOE should be closely scrutinised on this because a teacher’s experience differs vastly based on where they teach and who they work with. Improving outcomes for teachers for the sake of improving teacher-retention means that MOE needs to take into account all possible factors for teacher-fatigue/discontent, and be able to provide alternatives. The current system is very heavily dependent on a very strict chain of command (“Your performance is evaluated by your Reporting Officer. Got any problems? Tell your Reporting Officer. What if your Reporting Officer, or HIS Reporting Officer, is the problem? Er, dunno lor. Suck thumb.”) without much alternatives. To make things worse, MOE seems to outsource a lot of its HR (at least, I assume so. I am very glad to be corrected on this issue), which seems to create additional obfuscation.

Personally, I think teachers need access to an independent third-party who can evaluate comments/criticism, like an ombudsman or a union rep. I mean, technically speaking there is a Teacher’s Union, but I’m not sure what they’ve ever done for me except organise SDU-style “meet more singles!” events that I never attended.

If such a system is already in place, I’ve never encountered it. This could very well be because my organisational awareness was super-bad (at least, that’s what my work review always said), but perhaps also because such channels weren’t advertised, or didn’t appear credible.

On a side-note, and a somewhat personal note, I’ve also observed that teachers tend to be happier when they’re teaching the subjects they signed on to teach. What’s awful is that some of them don’t. It sounds crazy that sometimes we hire teachers who’re skilled in A and then force them to devote their time to B, but it happens way more than is conscionable.

The organisation often claims expedience and exigency: essentially, that something desperately needs doing and so people get crammed into the role.

It seems odd that an organisation which often justifies its decisions to its own staff on exigent grounds seems rather publicly indifferent to the number of staff who are leaving, since one would assume that thousands of experienced teachers leaving the service would only make shortages more acute.


In relation to (3):
Resigning teachers listed their grievance as being: excessive admin workload, long hours, huge class-sizes, and unreasonable parents. MOE listed its responses as basically a whole bunch of things that had nothing to do with the grievances. Imagine you’re drowning and shouting for help, and someone throws you a fire-extinguisher.

What appears to be the problem: MOE’s announced policies to improve staff retention have nothing to do with why they’re losing staff. This is a very basic problem. It may be related to what I mentioned above about feedback not being collected in a useful/reliable manner, or it may be due to the “throw money at the problem” ethos that seems so endemic to Singapore.

Meritocracy and pay: The general assumption seems to be that talented individuals are willing to overlook any amount if dissatisfaction if you throw enough money at them. This general assumption may very well break down when applied to an industry that nobody joins for the sake of profit. When was the last time you heard anyone wanted to become a teacher to get rich? Yeah. I thought so.

Granted, some people leave teaching to become private tutors, and yes, the money is a lot better. If MOE paid me a private tutor’s rate, I would have earned something like $20,000++ a month. But what’s the causal relationship here? Do teachers become tutors because the money is better, or do they become tutors because first and foremost of better hours/job-scope/workload/satisfaction, with the higher pay being a bonus? I would wager that the latter tends to ring more true: even if I had left teaching to pursue full-time tuition, I wouldn’t have kept the same hours and earned more: instead, I would have tried to reduce my workload/improve my focus on teaching, while at the same time seeking to maintain (instead of radically increase) my income.

I’m not saying the money is bad. In fact, quite the opposite. Money was one of the least of my problems as a teacher. It was decent and reasonable. I didn’t become a teacher because I wanted to be rich. I became a teacher because I wanted to teach. What actually happened is that people kept coming to me to say, “Put some of this teaching-related stuff aside, and do this non-teaching stuff instead.”

The “admin workload problem”: In some ways, it’s real. Now, MOE tends to tell teachers that “not everything you hate is admin”, which is kinda true. If I want to bring students on a learning journey, there’s a lot of paperwork associated with it that I might hate, but at the end of the day it’s still in service of the students, and with some maturity and perspective, I grew to resent that sort of thing less. Still, what about work in service of something that you don’t believe in at all, or even worse, violently object-to?

Still, it’s a problem. I spent far more time on organisation-related tasks than student-related ones, and at around the midpoint of my teaching career, I realised (not only on my own; this message was quite strongly pushed by fellow teachers/seniors/school leaders) that my real duty wasn’t to the students as I saw it, but rather to the organisation. Ultimately, the organisation, not the students, decided how much of my work was valued. And this is a very real problem.

Teachers are fed two messages on a fairly consistent basis:
1) teaching is a vocation, and you should be doing it because it’s meaningful, and satisfying
2) the organisation decides on how much your contribution is worth.

Now, if you assume that values-alignment between organisation and staff is 1 for 1, then there’s no problem, but that much alignment in an organisation numbering 30k ++ is basically impossible. So what happens? The two messages become incoherent and mutually incompatible.

In my experience, eventually most teachers face this challenge: do I go with my gut, my heart, and my ethics, and pursue entirely intrinsic rewards? Or do I go with what my organisation tells me, and get that promotion/good performance grade/high bonus (extrinsic rewards)?

Now, those teachers who have the good fortune to be well-aligned with their schools may very well be able to either resolve this easily or skip it entirely, but I think quite a large number of us struggle with it on a daily basis.

Now, you may very well say that this is a reality of working life. If I became a banker, I would also face the choice of whether to pursue the intrinsic satisfaction of a fulfilling family life, or the extrinsic satisfaction of high pay in exchange for basically living in the office. But it’s different for teachers because we didn’t sign up for this. People who become bankers or salesman or whatever accept the profit-first self-second nature of private sector work. People become teachers because they don’t want to experience this conflict.

But yet they do anyway. Why?

“Admin workload” complaints are a symptom of the real problem — teaching as a skill isn’t given sufficient value

It has a lot to do with the message that’s sent. When someone tells you to do admin instead of working on teaching, what they’re really saying (or at least, what you subconsciously hear) is that they value your admin work more than your teaching work. I remember having to resign myself to delivering “merely OK” levels of pedagogy because I had to focus on things that I didn’t want to do, that I was bad at doing, but which the organisation said was more important than doing a good job.

This is not to say MOE says that bad teaching is OK. Instead, I got the sense that it was very important to be a decent teacher, but that beyond that, there was very little incentive to be a great teacher, as opposed to be a decent teacher + a stellar administrator. Which is kind of harsh for someone who wants to be a great teacher.

Obviously, this isn’t 100% representative of the entire service. Some schools have the student profile, the resources, and the overall mission that support teacher-excellence; some others have a genuine need for teachers to do more than teach. And of course, some people are eager to teach a broader spectrum of content, such as life-lessons and ethics, while others become teachers out of a pure love for their discipline. Perhaps what’s really lacking is an open recognition of this, and a better system for matching teacher-expectations with school-needs.

What I’d really love is to have teacher-tasks weighed on a credits system, sort of like university modules, and teachers can assemble their workloads based on what they find meaningful. Let’s say if you want to earn a basic pay of $3000, you need to sign up for 30 units worth of work. You could sign up for 20 units worth of academic teaching, and 10 units worth of CCA support, for example. Or 30 units worth of pure academic teaching. Or 15 units of PE and 15 units of community service, or whatever. And then teachers would be able to move from facility to facility. It makes very little sense to have Teacher A in School A who hates doing 6 hours of choir CCA when you have Teacher B in School B who can’t enough of it. Of course, this is all pipe-dreaming: I’m sure there are other higher-level considerations like security clearances, esprit de corps/school culture/identity and so on. But it’s a nice dream nonetheless.

All that aside, I return to my theme. Teaching — mastery of a subject, and then subsequently the ability to inspire and support students in emulating that mastery-process — is a skill that ironically seems underrated in the teaching service. On an anecdotal level, I know teachers of English who’ve had to resign from the service altogether to pursue studies in writing, or even MAs in Education. It seems inconceivable that a teacher would be forced to quit the teaching service to get better at teaching, but for many of the thousands of teachers who leave, this seems to be the case.

One of the reasons why tuition is alluring is not just because of the pay, but what the pay represents. Someone paying you $X an hour for Y hours to do nothing but teach is telling you that what you do, matters. Nobody is ever going to ask a tuition-teacher to divert his time to filling out forms or overseeing tenders for services. Nobody is going to stop a tuition-teacher in the middle of his lesson to ask him to go supervise a tennis match. That’s because his time is too valuable. The message that goes to a tutor is that “we employ and value you for this skill“. Whereas the message that many teachers receive is that “we employ and value you for your ability to teach minimally well, while also juggling an ever-changing portfolio of tasks that you may or may not have interest in”.

All this makes one of MOE’s reported fixes especially insulting. Teachers say that they wish they could focus on teaching, and MOE says that they want to reduce the marking-load. While marking isn’t fun, it’s part of teaching. I didn’t necessarily enjoy marking hundreds of essays at one shot, but I never felt that it didn’t have value. In fact, if I didn’t mark as much, how could I claim to understand my students’ competencies and weaknesses? What made marking really awful was having to mark before the holidays came, and at the same time have to plan/organise non-academic holiday activities. Why not provide teachers with a better marking environment/timeline by removing the superfluous activities?

But no, instead MOE’s response to teachers not doing enough teacher-stuff, is to remove some of the teacher-stuff they don’t mind doing. Presumably so that they can give them even more non-teaching stuff that they will hate doing.

I think MOE should be closely scrutinised on this because until teaching — pure teaching (lecturing/lesson-planning/delivering lessons/marking work/providing remedial assistance) activities — is given the pride of place it deserves, teachers who sign up to be teachers (instead of teachers-cum-counsellors-cum-paramedics-cum-sports-coaches-cum-accountants-cum-administrators-cum-saigang-party (coughelectionsdepartmentcough)) are going to feel undervalued and undercompensated for doing what they love, while at the same time being overloaded and overexploited in service of things that they didn’t (at least, not ostensibly) sign up for.


I used to be a teacher. To this day, the things I remember the most fondly, and the things I miss most about it, are the things that had to do with the students: lecturing, teaching, even marking and going over the marked work. I’m very proud of what my students have accomplished, and I feel honoured that they allowed me to be a part of their lives. Some of them still remember me, and keep in touch, and that’s a rare privilege.

To all the students I’ve ever encountered, my only regret in leaving the service was not having done more for you.

In which I actually think the establishment has done a good job

Does this pose “a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined”? Could this be a test case for Administration of Justice (Protection) Act? 
 
IMO, and in response:
1) The accused didn’t use any of the money for their own ends, so there’s no legal basis for criminal breach of trust.
He seems to focus very much on the ‘converts to own use’ bit, but the very statute he cites in its entirety also says “… or dishonestly uses or disposes of that property in violation of any direction of law prescribing the mode in which such trust is to be discharged, or of any legal contract, express or implied, which he has made touching the discharge of such trust, or wilfully suffers any other person to do so, commits “criminal breach of trust…” Given that the original inquiry comes from the Commissioner of Charities, it seems the answer for ‘what is the legal basis?’ seems fairly self-evident: even if the money is not converted to one’s own use, mishandling it dishonestly is still CBT. Alternatively, saying that they’ll use it for A when instead they used it for B, seems to fulfil the requirement for disposing of it “… in violation of … any legal contract, express or implied…”
 
2) Who is the state to tell the church how it should manage things if it acts in accordance to its own constitution?
This seems like company-law thinking, but a church isn’t just a company. It’s also a charity. IRAS, in a letter, points out that a “… charity’s main purpose is to provide public benefits through its charitable activities”. There is a higher ethical burden on charities, and greater scrutiny, which justifies their tax-exempt status. Again, the initial investigation against CHC was initiated by the Commissioner of Charities.
He draws a comparison between the leeway enjoyed by investment firms and asks why churches should not be given the same latitude or be governed by the same rules. Again, it seems self-evident that a church is not a bank (even if its leaders treat it like one) and tax-exempt charities ought to be scrutinised differently from ones that do pay taxes. 
 
3) Why not haul everyone in to testify?
I don’t think the prosecution is obliged or encouraged to produce everyone who might conceivably have any connection with an offence. The system is adversarial, dawg.
 
4) All ministries need to be taken to court regularly so their processes can be scrutinised
Like CHC, ministries, stat boards, and other companies have their own auditing processes. Unlike CHC, most of those don’t conceal things from their auditors.
 
5)
a: Why is the gosh-darned Public Prosecutor so articulate and memorable? He should stop doing his job properly!
Not doing their jobs properly seems to be a CHC thing, and hopefully it doesn’t catch on.
 
b: Also the public is stupid and easily misled.
Given that at least some members of the general public have given CHC literally tens of millions of dollars to spend on CHINA WINE CHINA WINE CHINA WINE, I think I’ve finally found common ground with the learned writer!

Empathy and antipathy

Another year, another industrial accident in supposedly-safe, universally-Utopian Singapore. And another hard-hearted by-the-book response by the Powers That Be: standard-operating-procedures being used to deflect attention to protocols; and then a recitation of statistics and KPI’s achieved.

smrt-train1

If the Singapore government can be said to have unequivocally failed in any area, it’s in PR, surely. Government communication with the public seems to be an unending and unmitigated disaster only exacerbated by the national press. Yes, our parliamentariotrons are now programmed to say things like “we are sad” when bad things happened, but you don’t really get the sense that it really touches them. We’re living in a world where machines have started passing the Turing test. If a computer can convince us that it’s human, why do our leaders so frequently fail to do the same?

What’s with the allergy to saying sorry, anyway? C’mon, the chairs in Parliament House are really new — they’re not the Seat of Peter, and nobody expects their occupants to conduct themselves infallibly. But they seem to feel obliged to conduct themselves as if executive inerrancy was settled dogma.

Just say sorry once in a while, guys. We can deal with it. Focus on the families and their loss. Sympathise, reach out, connect. Here, let me show you: “The tragic deaths of the two workers are a great loss to SMRT and to the nation, but none feel their loss more keenly than their families. As (officeholder) of the (organisation), I would like to extend my condolences to the families in their grief, and to assure them that SMRT, LTA, and the nation mourn with you. You have our sympathy and our support in this difficult period. In the days ahead, we will with renewed determination discover the errors and accidents that led to this tragedy, and strive to ensure that such a grave mishap will never again occur. Continued progress in developing and maintaining infrastructure must be balanced against the need to ensure the safety of all our staff, and we want to assure them and the public that we will do our utmost to keep our transport system safe for staff as well as commuters.”

IT’S NOT THAT HARD. But no, instead, apparently the Powers That Be believe that the best course of action to wash the blood off their hands is to adopt a posture of total bloodlessness.

Why?

 

EDIT: Minor changes to remove some flippancy. The deaths of the two workers are a real tragedy, and I did not intend to poke fun at their families’ loss.

For making the study of comparative religion compulsory in schools

I’m referring mostly to the line of articles and letters in the local press such as this one (Youth in Singapore shunning religion) and this one (Leave religious studies out of secular schools). There seems to be a certain anxiety about the ‘moral fibre of Singapore’ in these uncertain times, and the finger is being pointed in all sorts of directions, including the erosion of religious conviction and the rise of alternative lifestyles. In thinking about these issues, I’ve tried to crystallise my thoughts into three main questions:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. Why should we care?
  3. What do we need?

I believe that a more critical and formal look at how we’ve come to be the way we are and why we think and feel the way we do, will help Singaporeans analyse our behaviour and our customs in a manner that will let them improve, and more importantly, make them want to improve. And I think that comparative religion provides an excellent look at the first principles that go into behaviour and belief — areas that are very much neglected by our otherwise excellent education system.

To clarify: the study of comparative religion, as I understand it, is not the persuasive promulgation of the values of any particular religion, or set of religions. It is the study of the way in which religion influences behaviour. I believe it should be taught because it holds a mirror up to students and to society, and invites them to consider why they do what they do and why they think what they think.

Contrary to the argument that comparative religion might promulgate ‘good values’ (Religious studies can help foster good values), I think the study of comparative religion might actually foster constructive iconoclasm. Instead of promoting a set of values that a particular person or group might regard as ‘good’, it equips students with the ability and tools to ask if the values foisted on them really are good. And to argue against them if they aren’t. Which is what Singapore really needs more of, as opposed to more blind compliance.

1. What’s the problem?

Singapore’s a bit of an odd place, really. Although we tend not to think of the moral landscape of Singapore as a particularly happening place, it’s actually the front lines of a clash of ideologies that’s centuries old. We were ruled by Hindus, we paid tribute to the Chinese (with their syncretic mishmash of Legalist philosophy, various Eastern religions), and our last king converted to Islam. We were occupied by the British during their heyday, and they imported their Victorian, Indian-Raj-era laws and moral standards which, in many ways, still form the background of our values system. We were occupied by the Japanese, and while we didn’t imbibe much of their philosophy or culture of that time, the Occupation certainly did infect us with a self-interested, pragmatic survivalist mentality that seemed to dominate the thought of our early leaders and many of our current governors.

Those last two things (a kind of idealised neo-Victorian conservatism, and ruthless utilitarianism) are of particular note. They not only affect the way we think of social policy (monogamous heteronormativity being enforced; bootstrappism and self-sufficiency being extolled as virtues) but also how we legislate and do business. For example, it’s been observed that Singaporean customer service is awful. CNN, for example, characterised the customer service industry and its workers here as having no initiative, no product knowledge, and being lazy. This can be explained by looking at how certain values affect our behaviour: the virtue of self-sufficiency, a very English kind of class-consciousness, and perhaps a certain hangover that prescribes against appearing subservient, all affect the morale and motivation of service workers. Why should I tell you about this product — you’re perfectly capable of looking it up yourself. I’m already poorly-paid and lowly-ranked — what’s my motivation in doing a bad job well? We confuse courtesy with subservience, and the gold standard of politeness in Singapore is often a sullen silence that offers no insult but also invites no warmth.

And most of all, we respond to correction with hostility. Why should I change? Singapore is secular: doesn’t that mean my beliefs and attitude are above question, as long as I do my mechanical professional duty?

No.

2. Why should we care?

The majority of Singaporeans are religious (about 80% identify themselves as an adherent of a religion). It’s not really important for the purposes of my little writeup what particular faith they identify with or the extent to which they do so: what’s important is that they choose, when asked, to identify as being religious, and thus “being seen as religious” is clearly a component of their self-image. Obviously, a detached bystander might look at their behaviour and go think, “This person isn’t religious at all”, in no small part due to some self-identifying religious people being frothing-at-the-mouth whackjobs who practice what they preach only selectively if at all.

We should care about what and how Singaporeans think about religion because it’s a very powerful force. Someone who identifies as religious will react in a certain way if his self-image is threatened. He may not be motivated to be charitable, but he might very well react violently if told, “If you don’t hate gays you’re not a good Christian/Muslim/whatever”, or “this new law threatens your ability to identify yourself as you wish”. The uncritical layman is quite vulnerable to ‘no true Scotsman’ logic.

And this isn’t idle speculation. Even as local NGOs have gained support and become more vocal, the local religious community has responded by becoming more active and prominent. Local pastors have taken potshots not only at alternative beliefs (Wear White Campaign) but also at other religions (Lighthouse Evangelism) and even feminism (the AWARE attempted takeover fiasco). Let’s leave aside for now the distressing observation that conservative Evangelical Christians frequently seem to be involved, and that this particular group seems to be one of the fastest-growing religions in a gradually-secularising society. Religious leaders in Singapore command huge followings, great influence, and also obscene wealth. It would be naïve to suggest that religion is a private thing into which society and the average Singaporean should not inquire — religion in Singapore is clearly far from private, in the sense of not interfering with the public sphere.

It’s merely poorly-understood.

3. What do we need?

Obviously I’m in favour of increasing religious literacy and implementing compulsory comparative religion studies. But that’s just a means to an end, really.

We should be critical of religions and religious leaders — especially our own. Perhaps not fully sceptical, but certainly critical. Why is this important?

I’m a Catholic. My religious leaders wield two kinds of authority: the divinely-conferred, internally-coherent authority of the Church, and the moral authority that they exert via their own personal charisma. As a good Catholic who participates in full communion with the Church, I’m obliged to be alive to the interaction of reason, my conscience, the scriptural tradition, and the direction of the Church authorities. I can’t do that without some level of critical analysis. After all, consistency isn’t one of the great virtues of any particular faith, and resolving inconsistencies requires a lively mind. Obedience to God and obedience to Man, are, obviously very different things.

I’d like to believe that everyone who self-identifies as religious faces the same struggle and would resort to the same process. We’re all told things that are difficult to swallow, to accept, to believe. Switching off our brains and listening to the loudest and most strident voice leads to unjust and potentially profane outcomes — we have leaders who tell us to be sexually pure but who violate the youth, who tell us that charity is a virtue and yet who grow fat and grotesquely wealthy by exploiting the gullibility of others, who tell us that divine law promotes order and justice and yet who go out of their way to sow discord and conflict. Navigating this maze, with its multitude of appeals not only to conscience and reason but also to emotion, to self-interest, to prejudice and the worst parts of our human nature, requires not only critical acuity, but also courage.

And that’s what comparative religion, taught right, should help equip students with. Sure, there are other ways of doing it, but the popular perception of critical thinking as a matter of ‘skill’ and not ‘knowledge’ (a particularly uncritical and unenlightened dichotomy. Thanks, MOE) is a false one. Yes, everyone with a critical inclination can gnash their teeth at anything they don’t like, but for arguments to bite deep and take hold, we need eyes to see too, and that comes from awareness and from understanding. Aggressive iconoclasm without knowledge and understanding is wanton destruction, of the sort that ISIS is perpetuating against the cultural history of the lands it occupies.

So if we want our kids to be able to deal with religion well, not only as religious adherents or as atheists or agnostics in their own right, but also as doctors, lawyers, policy-makers, service-providers, businessmen and so on, they need to know something about what people believe in, and why they do so, and what it makes them do and want. And that requires teaching, requires patience.

And courage. Some hearts will quail at the thought of introducing young minds to anythig to do with religion, simply because of how taboo and scary religion is to many people in Singapore. Disregard them.

Candle

One of the entitlements of age is not really worrying about tags like ‘juvenile’ applying to you. Anyone who doesn’t think you act your age is easy to ignore, because your body’s ever-expanding list of aches and pains tells you exactly how old you are every morning. With that in mind, I don’t really need to care about sounding emo or angsty when I say that my birthday tends to depress it.

I don’t think it has anything to do with the event itself. I mean, it’s not like something awful happened one year and I have to deal with the constant trauma of being reminded of it. I mean, I don’t go in for parties in a big way (or in any way, really) so the lack of one can’t be it either.

I think it really has to do with the expectation that one’s birthday should be happy. That you should feel special about the day, about yourself on that day. I know we do a lot to induce that feeling — rituals like gifts, well-wishes, gatherings and so on. But there really isn’t anything special about the day itself (something you’d think it would have taken me less than 31 years to figure out), and confronting that banality is always a little disappointing.

“Happy birthday”, people say. Well, what if it isn’t? Does that make it a lesser birthday? A wasted year? What? I mean, I can’t think of anyone who’s perennially happy, or even regularly or frequently happy. Happiness is elusive, and yet there’s something about the birthday that’s supposed to conjure it. That sort of hoodoo has never really worked on me.

Maybe the other thing has to do with stock-taking. It’s like New Year’s, only more personal. It’s like having a work review with your boss, except your boss in this case is yourself, presumably your own harshest critic. Maybe that’s why we try to surround ourselves with people on birthdays — to drown out our own voices. We let people phrase how happy we are as a statement or an expectation because left to our own devices, we phrase it as a question, an act of self-interrogation that most of us would rather not do. I know I wouldn’t. Another year down, another long list of wasted opportunities to have something to be proud of.

Well. A happy birthday. I’m not sure I can manage that. But I suppose what I can manage is a thankful one, because remembering absent friends and loved ones is never fun, but should always make us feel grateful. Taking stock reminds us not only of what we’ve missed but what we have, or had, or might still have. And while I don’t have a lot to be happy about, I think I have a very great deal to be grateful for.

So thank you, everyone.