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statement in terms of actual perspicacity and galvanising potential, and worse than that, perhaps, it is hackeneyed, outdated, and potentially dangerous.

What follows is my usual rant, in response to being asked, very politely and in good faith, what’s so outdated and dangerous about this.

It’s outdated because the resilience slogan first caught fire (as far as I can tell) and has been with us ever since the aftermath of the 2008 crisis.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.

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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.

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.

Should Singapore retain or stop using its Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others framework?

This is a re-post of a comment I’m making on Dialectic.sg as part of the above discussion. I’m putting it up here because regardless of whether or not the comment passes moderation on Dialectic.sg, I think it has enough merit that I’m comfortable standing by the statement under my own name, on my own platform.


Mascots (Racial Harmony)
Introduction
I object to racialism in general and most strenuously to the CMIO classification in particular. An emphasis on race (as opposed to ethnicity, nationality, or a range of other factors that could be used to provide the broad categories so useful to policy-making that other commentators are arguing for) is benighted, being both historically and scientifically bankrupt and devoid of value; the persistence of a race-aware mindset in Singapore is regrettable and is an impediment to progress. After discussing the inherent problems in race theory and the potential harms its promulgation may cause, I’d like to volunteer some alternatives.
Part of the problem is that there’s no real common understanding, or even official definition, of what constitutes race. In Singapore, we use ‘race’ as a catchall term to refer to ethnicity, language, culture, and geographic extraction; we also attribute moral, intellectual, physical, and behavioural qualities to each category. It lacks coherence, and inter-racial marriages are not the only manner in which this lack of coherence is beginning to cause a strain on our social fabric: we force ourselves to fit people into these artificial frameworks that we’ve built for ourselves.
No Historical or Scientific Value
The term is a legacy of the colonial period; concepts of a ‘Malay race’, for example, can be traced to the 18th century. Discussions of race that rely on some romanticised view of antiquity often forget how modern the theory of race, and indeed, of nationhood, are. The colonial Europeans were hardly romantic about race: race-profiling provided a shorthand for keeping a massive and diverse empire in check. Examples of implementation include the preferential conscription of specific ‘martial races’, from which we in Singapore derive our traditions of Punjabi doormen and Gurkha contingents. The blindness of the British to other factors of identity besides race and skin colour have led to such historic catastrophes as the Sepoy Mutiny of the 19th century; there’s little reason to suspect that the theory that failed them so badly should serve us any better two hundred years on.
Ironically, today’s definition of ‘race’ is probably even more simplistic and reductive than the definitions in use during the period where Singapore was a colonial power. The British were alive to the differences between Chinese from Shanghai and Swatow; ‘Malays’ from Boyan and Indonesia; Indians from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. The consolidation of these rich cultures into our current broad CMIO categories of ‘race’ was more a political expedient, perhaps in aid of nation-building, than any sort of distinction that can be supported by history or by science. Such consolidation has been disastrous to the texture and complexity of Singapore’s cultural landscape, already beleaguered by such policies as the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which has by and large rendered the ability to speak non-Mandarin Chinese dialects something of a rarity among the current generation of young Singaporeans. To speak of ‘race’ is already to demonstrate a lamentable backwardness; to promulgate a belief in Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other races is laughable.
The theory of race is rooted in the idea of Western (and white) supremacy and imperialism; to propound it today is to compound the mistakes of the past.
Race theory further fails to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Phenotypical differences in humans, such as skin and hair colour, are factors arising from the way geography has ‘hothoused’ particular adaptive traits to particular regions. As these traits are purely physiological ones for adaptation to specific climates, there’s little reason to believe that the behavioural qualities popularly attributed to races aren’t instead caused by more complex, socio-cultural factors. The notion that most Malays, or most Chinese, or most Indians, may behave in certain ways if ungoverned (form enclaves, say, out of pure racial co-feeling) is simplistic to the point of absurdity: ghettoisation or the formation of enclaves is much more sensibly-explained by examination of religious affiliation, language, and wealth, among other factors.
Geneticists Kenneth Weiss and Jeffrey Long have called the boundaries between ‘racial’ groups “multilayered, porous, ephemeral, and difficult to identify”; this porousness and lack of coherence make categorising people according to their race at worst dangerous, at best pointless. Promoting the concept of race theory in schools is also disastrous, because it sanctifies as fact what is merely theory, and creates a thoroughly-false ideal of antique racial purity — in essence, it creates a belief in a yardstick of ideal ‘Chineseness’ or ‘Malayness’ by which everyone in those groups are measured, when there is no anthropological or genetic or indeed any other scientific evidence to suggest that such a pure, “isolated, homogeneous… population” ever existed. Not only does a ‘Chinese race’ or ‘Malay race’ not exist, but they have never existed.
Harm
Placing race at the heart of our politics makes racialisation of issues unavoidable. The Ministry of Education, for example, tracks educational attainment by ethnic group. The Prime Minister, during his National Day Rally, tends to refer specifically to the educational attainment of Malays. Why? Is this helpful? Shouldn’t policies intended to improve educational attainment be targeted at the causes of poor performance (say, poverty, lack of access to secondary and tertiary education services such as tuition and enrichment) instead of race? Does a Chinese student who’s performing poorly in his studies require a Chinese-specific strategy that would be less effective with a Malay or Indian or ‘Other’ student? The only thing that comes to mind is that social aid is disbursed through racially-aligned organisations (SINDA et al); besides the government’s abhorrence for distributing aid directly, I can’t think of a good reason why we ought to continue disbursing aid through charitable organisations aligned with race instead of, say, specific needs. It’s backward, and probably quite unfair. My partner for example once qualified for academic awards from SINDA but not from CDAC. Why? Should aid not be disbursed according to need and not racial affiliation?
The issue only gets worse with the HDB quota, which is an area of discussion that has its own Dialectic.sg entry and hence, which I shall avoid going into here.
By aligning policies with race, we force classifications of identity onto people that they might not actually want, for no good reason. Ultimately, I’m as Chinese as I choose to be: it is very possible that I could choose to eschew all behavioural markers of Chinese identity altogether and adopt those of another culture entirely, or I could choose to wear a queue and eat rice all day every day and practice kung fu in public, and everything in between, and well it should be. If someone can choose the extent to which he participates in an identity, to the extent of complete immersion or complete rejection, why then should he be forced to still bear a label that doesn’t accuracy describe him in any conceivable way save for acting as a reminder of parentage? This inflexibility renders the idea of using race-profiling as a guideline for policymaking nonsensical: effectively, any policy based on race (the selection of ‘mother tongues’ in schools, for example) is going to be unresponsive and rigid, which is the absolute opposite of what policies need to be in order to remain effective and meaningful.
The specific categories of CMIO also enshrine the majority races at the point of Singapore’s formation, and if it continues to remain a sacred cow, would mean that these races would continue to enjoy (or suffer) permanent classification in a manner unresponsive to any actual demographic change. What if, for example, the number of Indians become overtaken by Filipinos? Will we update to CMFO? Will we remove Tamil signage and replace it with Tagalog?
Perhaps most pernicious is the way in which the CMIO classification is sanctified and passed-on: it’s not only affixed to your identity documentation, but it’s engraved upon your heart through years of public schooling. Students are taught race theory as fact rather than theory, in a manner that’s both intellectually-dishonest and dangerous, in the way that teaching Creationism as fact instead of theory is dangerous: it creates a fixed idea of the world at a very early age. Other commentators have remarked that Singapore may transition to more enlightened ways of viewing itself, but it requires CMIO in the interim; I reject this argument, because the way in which CMIO is taught ensures that Singapore will likely never be able to marshall the popular support for change necessary to make the transition to a more enlightened state. We are effectively promulgating a benighted theory, and then using the backwardness of the resulting population to justify political inertia, creating a comfort-zone of circular logic from which we need never depart. It’s stifling and it’s toxic.
CMIO-as-taught is also done in a manner that is, like everything else to do with CMIO, insultingly and laughably simplistic. The Mother Tongue of all Chinese people is Mandarin, even though it is properly a northern Chinese dialect, while the vast majority of Straits Chinese in Singapore and the region are of southern Chinese extraction! All Indians speak Tamil and are Hindus! Except those who aren’t! Malay identity and Islam are conflated! There’s no mention of the tenuous relationship between ethnicity and language and extraction; of the history of the region; of the salient and defining dogmas of various religions. Islam becomes all about not eating pork and not touching dogs; don’t expect a non-Muslim student to ever hear about the Five Pillars of Islam, of the centrality of zakat to Muslim religious practice. I mean, he might, but it’s more than likely that he never will.
Racial harmony, especially in schools which may be less-than-diverse in their enrolment and staffing, may become an exercise in promoting stereotypes instead of tolerance and understanding. Teachers may make a very real and very important difference here, by going above and beyond the call of duty in clarifying ambiguities and promoting real learning and understanding, but the day we require teachers to defy the syllabus to do their job is the day we ask ourselves if we really know what we’re doing.
I still remember, back in my teaching days, being asked by a 17-year-old, top-performing student in a great school, who Prophet Muhammad was, and resisting the impulse to throw myself out the nearest window in sheer horror. The student then defended her ignorance by asserting that she was Chinese, and therefore wasn’t required to know these things. The rest of the class just nodded sagely in support of her point.
This can’t continue.
 
Moving Forward
This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a coherent policy or a manifesto. I’m ultimately in favour of becoming race-blind entirely, and having that entire section of one’s birth-cert and IC struck out forever, but I recognise, as other commentators have, the need for some kind of transitional state to prevent total culture shock to the more clannish and insular sections of the population. I’ve seen another commentator recommend a ‘Singaporean’ ethnicity that one can always opt-into, and I approve of that measure.
I think having race and ethnicity be expressed as matters of choice rather than ancestry is a step in the right direction. Perhaps we need to have a ‘transition generation’, where kids have the ethnicity and racial groups of their parents recorded, but have none of their own apart from ‘Singaporean’. That way, should we really need to do some profiling, we could always do it with reference to the races of their parents, but not attach those racial labels indelibly to that generation. And once they move on, and have kids of their own, hopefully even the question of race will become obsolete.
As a more concrete and feasible option, I suggest we decouple ‘Mother Tongue’ from ancestry (I’m aware that it is possible to apply for exemption, but the process is case-specific and the criteria unclear, except that it advantages children who’ve been away from Singapore). Bilingualism is good; multilingualism is even better, but the incentives for it decrease dramatically once children are told that there’s some kind of moral prerogative to learn and cherish one language over all others. Let kids learn Malay or Arabic or Italian or whatever. Let kids learn Cantonese or Teochew. Or better yet, let them do all of the above. If a parent wants to align his kid with Latin America and have him learn Spanish or Portuguese instead of Mandarin or Malay, he should be allowed to. After all, PM Lee has complained about how our reluctance to work abroad limits us; I believe this to be a direct result of how narrowly and parochially we’ve shaped people’s ideas of identity and society.
A positive side-effect from decoupling language from race would hopefully be the abolition of schools with single-language specialisations (I’m looking at you, SAP schools). I can’t think of a just reason why Chinese kids who go to schools specialising in Chinese should benefit from preferential funding and special budgets and additional opportunities, but there aren’t any equivalents for other races and languages.
The roots and wings metaphor often used in education is appropriate, I think. Once a people are fledged, roots are where we return to roost, from which we draw comfort and shelter, and not something restrictive and discriminatory that restrains us from spreading our wings to the fullest. The point of roots is to give us a place to come back to, not to anchor us to a place that we can never leave.
As currently-practiced, the only avian metaphor appropriate to the CMIO system is that of an albatross around our necks.

Buzzing

Wow, is it really the end of the first week of law school? Man. That went by quickly. And well, I think! Mistakes were made, but lessons were also learnt, and I guess that’s what I signed up for, right?

And because I’m a former civil servant, I’m going to do a 3-2-1 to round off.

Three Things I Liked and Will Continue
1) class participation
Compulsory or not, being in a forum of discussion again after so long is a breath of fresh air, and something I now realise I missed intensely. When you’re working, most of the things you talk to your colleagues about — when you have time to talk to your colleagues — are also either about the work before you (because it’s driving you nuts) or about anything except work (because it’s driving you nuts). Contemplation, theorising, and discussing first principles are luxuries of time and privileges of space.

I’m definitely not going to let them go to waste. Going to keep getting stuck in, as much as I can.

2) meeting people
There’s something about not having a dress-code and not answering to a hierarchy that makes it so much easier to talk to people. I’m not the friendliest, most networkingest person around (quite the opposite, I’m sure those of you who know me would say), but I still seem to have managed. Age doesn’t seem to be as much of a barrier as I was expecting when I first joined up as a thirty-year-old ‘undergraduate’: it’s partially the looks, but I think mostly the newness of things that keep conversations fresh and easy. Everyone’s doing something new, everyone’s out of their comfort zones… nobody’s really got anything to lose.

A special shout-out to the GLB people. We’re older, we’re slower, but I’m really glad that we’re finding a natural bond, even if that’s only because of conscious self-segregation sometimes. So far I’m getting a really great vibe — cooperative rather than competitive — and I hope we can maintain that.

Well. I guess unless you’re pretentious. I’m trying very consciously not to be. Every time I hear my voice get deeper and feel my eyes drift to the distance as I begin to pontificate, I stop myself. It’s also important not to be a ‘topper’: with this much under my belt, it’s probably not hard to quash anyone’s narrative with an “OH YEAH WELL I TOTALLY DID THIS THING THAT’S MORE AUTHENTIC/AWESOME THAN WHATEVER YOU DID NYAH” story. Sometimes, not sharing too much is also sharing: you’re sharing time and space with other people to give them a chance to develop their voices and images.

3) healthy living
I’ve been getting more sleep and eating more healthily. Once my bum leg recovers I also look forward to getting more exercise. This is probably my last chance to whip myself into something resembling a shape that doesn’t inspire pity at best and disgust at worst.

Two Things I’ll Improve On
1) humility
Usually in class, I’ve seen two reactions so far. There’s the undegraduate reaction to anything the teacher says, which is “this is totally new and I’m totally lost”. And there’s the GLB (Graduate Law Bachelors — ie. me and mine) reaction, which is “this isn’t new, I know something about this, but it turns out I’m wrong anyway”.

The tendency is to assume that because it doesn’t sound new, that it isn’t: that whatever spot it tickles in my brain is the right spot, and that whatever knowledge I can bring to bear on a particular issue is relevant. That’s a dangerous complacency, and I really ought to get better at dialing it down.

I mean, I guess I know a lot of stuff, but if I knew all of this stuff, I wouldn’t need to be here.

2) organisation
I think I’ve been pretty good at organising myself so far, but that’s not saying much because my standards are utter rubbish in this area. So there’s always room for improvement. So far I’ve been able to keep abreast of things through relentlessly pestering people and feigning with-it-ness. I’m committing to get less needy and more independent in staying abreast of things, hopefully to the point where I can start being an asset to people around me instead of a liability.

One Thing I’ll Stop Doing
1) trying to coast through lessons on my laptop
I tried it this week, downloading all my readings and notes in pdf, and trying to do the whole “I.T. Startup, Paperless Office” thing. It doesn’t work for me, period. Even though one of the undergraduate girls was giving me the stinkeye in the library today, muttering about how environmentally unfriendly I was being, I’m going to print everything out from now on. I’m not a teenager any more; I can afford the money and the storage space, and if I need the tactile aids of paper and highlighter and moving pen, then by God I’m going to have them.

Sometimes, the old ways are best.

Anti-intellectualism in the Smart City

To begin with, I’ve never understood why “smart-ass” is any kind of insult. I know my ass is smart. It’s smarter than some of my detractors, certainly. What about it?

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but this article was mostly catalysed by the sudden focus and discussion on ‘giftedness’ and its place in a society that aspires to at least the appearance of egalitarianism. From what I can tell, it originally began with an article (“Gifted? More kids sent for psychology tests”) in the Straits Times. It seems like more parents are getting kids tested for high IQ or giftedness or whatever, so they can then be supported with greater discretion. There were some well-intentioned responses (“Hear the voices of the children”) expressing concern that kids these days are being put under more pressure, which is all well and good, but which then mentioned that “employers do not look at how ‘smart’ we are in the long run’. But then there were the almost knee-jerk reactions, warning of elitism (“Ensure we don’t create elitist mindset”). The latter concerns me.

Singapore is weird. It’s a city-state built by genius. From its earliest historical roots as a seat of kings to its modern success as one of the jewels of Asia, Singapore’s success has been shaped by vision and foresight, and the rigorous exercise of reason. It’s therefore ironic to note the wide streak of anti-intellectualism that runs through so much of Singaporean culture: as much as we aspire — sometimes on behalf of our children — to markers of high intelligence (good grades, positions in elite schools, professions known for being intellectually-demanding), intelligence itself seems to be something to be ashamed of in Singapore these days.

I’m writing about perceptions of intelligence-markers in general; I have some material specifically intended for addressing mechanisms like government scholarships that I’d like to develop separately.

I’m not sure why every study done on intelligence or IQ has to attract a raft of responses screaming that “IQ isn’t everything!” (“High IQ does not guarantee success”). Yes, we know. Anyone who knows anything about intelligence and identity and success will know that raw intelligence by itself is not only not useful, but is also only vaguely measured by one’s IQ. If this is common knowledge, why does it need to be so constantly — and so vehemently — reasserted in the face of any new reporting done on intelligence and IQ? It’s almost like we hate intelligence, so much so that every time it gets mentioned we need to jump up on tables and cover our ears and scream about values and character-development and resilience and creativity and courage in the face of adversity and whatnot. Why does everyone feel so threatened by intelligence, to the point that we must always equivocate statements made concerning it?

Maybe this has to do with some of the labels associated with intelligence. In Singapore, there are a huge assortment of potential intelligence-indicators that one may wear as medals or wield as weapons, and we become acquainted with these instruments at a very early age. 9? Gifted Education Programme. 10? Streaming. 12? PSLE. 16? ‘N’ or ‘O’ levels. And that’s only the formal education route! There are also now a tonne of other labels out there competing for your money and attention and energy! Did you go for piano and dance and taekwondo and creative writing lessons? Do you travel a lot to build cultural capital? Did you go to an MOE-sanctioned kindergarten, or one of the ones boasting Montessori, MindBoosters, HeadBlasters, or whatever new keyword/catchphrase in education is in vogue? These days, if you need extra help with your schoolwork, you even need to pass entrance exams for tuition centres!

What this all means is that if you’re Singaporean, you probably grew up being measured against markers of intelligence. If you had some, you had to get more. If you couldn’t get any, you were in desperate need of some alternative form of affirmation. For the longest time in Singapore, the only thing that mattered was how smart you were, and that intelligence had to be measurable in terms of the various forms of preferred national standardised tests.

Every parent in Singapore is an Asian parent

So now any new discussion of intelligence provokes raised hackles. We can’t mention anything about our own achievements or interests without somehow leavening it with something ‘down to Earth’. Unique among the virtues prized among Singaporeans, intelligence requires you to pair it with some kind of a priori proof of humility, or risk being shunned immediately on the basis of your presumed elitism. If you went to a good overseas school, or a good local one, or you happen to speak proper English, or happen to wield any other markers of intelligence (like reading, or something), you must constantly declare how normal and non-elitist you are, or everyone around you will gasp in horror and dash home to lock up their wives and daughters lest you capriciously choose to exercise your right of jus primae noctis or something. It’s exhausting. You feel discriminated-against, and for what? For having gone to school? For having certain interests? For being brought up a certain way?

My girlfriend often wonders why I identify so readily with American teen movies. Probably because my childhood essentially was one.

Thinking about it now, I wonder how long it took me after graduating from Some Place to learn that I shouldn’t tell anyone I did. I think it took me about six months — by the time I started working upon coming home, I’d learned to submerge my credentials beneath a maze of obfuscating answers. “What school you go?” is a very common conversation starter in Singapore, and if you say, “(insert gauche choice of university option here)”, you ought to be ready to field a bunch of snide remarks that start with, “Wah, you must be very smart, hor!”, which almost immediately segue into something that sounds something like, “But aiya, go this kind of school got use meh? You see this minister that minister, all go good school, all scholar, all cannot do anything!” And then you get the lecture about paying your dues. It’s like everyone carries around a whole quiver of microaggressions to unleash on you the moment you start looking like a taller-than-average poppy, uncaring as to whether you actually deserve to be cut down or not.

So I learned to provide that full answer only reluctantly, upon lengthy questioning.
“What school you go?”
“Oh, somewhere overseas.”
“Orh. Where ah?”
“UK.”
“Which one?”
And then at this point you sigh, and look mournful, and say, “(wherever)”
And then they look a bit chagrined at having found out this distressing news only upon persistent inquiry. They can’t accuse you for bragging if they had to drag the information out of you with hot irons, after all. So then you get to talk about something else.

Indeed, in Singapore, if you have anything in common with any authority figure — a surname, a hobby, a neighbourhood, much less an alma mater — you’re probably best off not mentioning it in newly-met company.

And thinking back, this is hardly new. While perhaps I grew most sensitive to this sort of thing after I graduated, it’s really always been a part of life. My mother knew that the only way to not get blacklisted from the ang pow list was to never let anyone know if either my sister or myself outperformed their own kids in school. I suppose modesty is a traditional Asian virtue, but you never see anyone being modest about their kid being in a sports team or whatever, but God forbid anyone at the dinner table mention school choice or an intellectual interest.

If you’re ever suffering from Singapore’s sweltering heat, clustered close with relatives around a table laden with steaming food, here’s a tip: “So, who’s your child’s favourite author?” is a question guaranteed to drop the room’s ambient temperature below freezing. Favourite football players are OK to ask about, as are celebrities, but authors are tres gauche.

So you go through life feeling inexplicably sheepish every time you get an award or something. Nobody beats on a kid for having the most extensive Street Fighter trading card or ‘country’ eraser collection (yay, I’m old!) —

I’m from the generation that can’t get anyone’s names right. Ryu is RAI-YOO, Guile is GOO-LEE, and M. Bison is Vega for some reason.

— but be the kid with a new book every day and boy howdy, you feel like you decided to trick-or-treat a Black Panther dressed as a bedsheet ghost. A decade of martial arts training hasn’t broken me out of the dirty-fighting habits that a year of carrying a book to primary school every day taught me.

Not appearing in this post: endless National Service “Air-level” (‘A’-level) jokes. Seriously, they’re just… bad. Making a joke about an NSF’s educational attainment makes you progressively more stupid every time you try it.

I suppose what I’m getting at is questioning how elitism grows in kids. The tenor of the public seems to indicate a belief that kids just sort of accrete ivory towers around them like crabs hardening their shells. We have to constantly cut kids down to size, we can’t differentiate education, parents who use new diagnostics to see if their kids are gifted are given cautionary warnings. We have to fear the elitist, we have to rout them out from their lairs!

In my experience, ivory towers are comforting not because the view is so great and unobstructed, but because how many rounds of the old torch-and-pitchfork waving can you go through before you decide to cash it in? How much discrimination, bullying, and stigmatisation do intelligence and intellectuals have to suffer before the public becomes satisfied that they’re sufficiently ‘non-elitist’?

I get that gifted kids are easy to demonise, but none of them asked for that label. I’m worried that kids in special programmes are becoming too easy to demonise, in today’s equality-conscious centric Singapore. C’mon, kids want to fit in. Kids love to fit in. Nobody likes being left out. Yes, even if he’s a book-reading, four-eyed nerd, he wants to get chosen to be on someone’s football team, he wants someone to pass the ball to him, he wants to join everyone at the end to either celebrate or recriminate. But if adults are going out of their way to complain about giftedness-identification, about special programmes, then what choice are we giving these kids but to associate with ‘like-minded’ types? Who rejects whom first?

I mean, nobody would complain if those parents sending their kids for psych-tests were sending them to be tested for learning disorders. Dyslexia, autism, Aspergers, ADHD, or something else. But giftedness, I think, should be considered as much a special educational need as having dyslexia, autism, and so on. A gifted child needs, and benefits from, a differentiated education catering to his strengths and weaknesses, as much as any other kid with a special learning need. Denying them this exposes them to the same kind of bullying and ultimately self-loathing and self-sequestration that we see from other special-needs kids whose interaction with the mainstream many aren’t carefully curated.

When I was younger, my parents didn’t have access to the same tools that parents nowadays have, but I think my mother could tell at an early stage that I was having trouble fitting in, that I had needs that weren’t being met in school, but that we weren’t able to purchase. So she taught me to be self-sufficient instead. “Books are better than friends,” she told me at an early age, “because they’ll still be there for you when your friends aren’t.” And so my fortress of solitude had its foundations built not on Arctic ice and Kryptonian technology but on wood-pulp and ink. Even on days when I came home, my vision swimming from my head being shoved into the wall too hard after one of my ‘fitting-in’ expeditions went awry, I’d try to struggle my way through a book, the letters dancing and distorting before my eyes.

How many kids do you know who have to go get stitches from having their heads slammed into tables by their peers before they go to primary school? Now you know at least one.

Sure, maybe gifted kids do need help staying grounded, but we’re not going to get them there by axeing them at the knee so they don’t outgrow their peers. Maybe we need to reconsider our vitriol and our vehement anti-intellectualism. Maybe if we want to prevent a whole new generation from growing out to write blog-posts demanding that we get out of their elite, uncaring faces, we shouldn’t get all up in their faces in the first place? Callousness demands compassion, not some kind of callousness-chicken in which the first one to blink loses.

I mean, surely, the solution to smart-asses isn’t for them to stop being smart, but to stop being asses, right? How does being an ass to them help, except by making you, in comparison, a dumb-ass? Equality and egalitarianism are important, but we need to make sure that we’re levelling people together along the right axis. The solution to making smart-asses and dumb-asses equal shouldn’t be to just make everyone an ass.


11th hour edit: Boy, was this hard to write. I thought I would breeze through it in a lighter, more personal, sort of op-ed-y style, but in the end it made me stop and think at so many junctures that writing this actually took ages. I think I come out sounding more thoughtful and less assertive than I originally wanted to, due to all that reconsideration: I’m not sure what that means. I would have liked to authoritatively and venomously blast something at some point, but as I get older it’s become harder and harder to do. Too many angles to cover, too many valid alternative perspectives… I suppose it’s a good sign, that being smart doesn’t stop you from getting wiser, too, eventually.

On Power: Its Forms and Uses

21st century schizoid man

I prepared for students of the General Paper H1 module, intended as a sort of primer for Politics and Governance. It’s not meant to be a serious piece of academic writing or anything, but I thought I’d put it here in case anyone finds it useful.


This is not intended to be an authoritative study, but rather an introduction to a particular way of thinking about power, politics, and governance. It is also not meant to serve as any kind of model essay. Along the way, I’ll be referring to various movements, theories, and people (thinkers, leaders, etc.): please take these allusions as points of reference rather than citations, for you to follow-up on by doing some more in-depth reading.

On Power

“Power” has ambivalent connotations. On the one hand, we associate it with potency, competence, and ability, all of which are universally cherished; on the other, especially post-Arab Spring and post-Edward Snowdon, we tend to be wary or suspicious of it and those who seek it openly, because it has become clear in this century that the Digital Revolution has not made power any less insidious or easy to abuse.

Objectively speaking, “power” can refer to any means of realising one’s desired outcomes. While we perhaps most immediately identify it with its more overt displays in the form of institutionalised power (states, large organisations, military force), power can also refer to influence exerted in more subtle ways: the emphasis given to the contrasting terms “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” (neither side identifies as “pro-death” or “anti-choice”) in the abortion debate suggests that the ability to control the language and perceptions of a matter are equally important. On a frivolous note, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an activist organisation, has been pushing the re-naming of fish to “sea-kittens”, presumably in an attempt to make the creatures cuter and more adorable, and therefore less likely to end up caught in nets or served with tartar sauce. 

The most resounding statement on power and its uses in the popular media is probably Uncle Ben’s immortal maxim, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Insipid as it is, especially after several terrible Spider-Man films, the sentiment has a strong pedigree, resonating with the teachings of Marx, Confucius, and the Bible, among others. Those who wield power are expected to do so in line with certain principles. 

Modern discourse on power identifies two important principles:

1. Everyone has power

2. Power-relationships are always reciprocal

On Power: Its Forms, or Everyone has power

Everyone has power, although not necessarily in the form we might desire. The ability to act on and alter the world and people around us gives us power. 

Consider two beggars, each of whom receives alms from a passer-by. Conventionally, we might consider such abject individuals powerless, and at the mercy of everyone else. Yet one may choose to receive his alms with good cheer and gratitude, while the other may choose to berate their benefactor: in each case, the beggar demonstrates his ability to influence others. Individually, this influence may not amount to much — a feeling of momentary satisfaction, or outrage, which quickly fades — but collectively, even such people can bring about great change. 

Consider the monk Thich Quang Duc, whose self-immolation in Saigon to protest the oppression of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, sparked off widespread unrest that ended in the assassination of the head-of-state during a military coup. Does this not demonstrate that even if the full extent of one’s influence extends only over whether one lives or dies, that such influence, at the right time and place, can be meaningful? 

Consider also how apparently mighty monolithic individuals and monolithic regimes have suffered failure. The United States military tends to heavily outclass its opposition in terms of fighting-strength, resources, and the sophistication and power of its equipment, yet in various conflict-theatres (Vietnam, Iraq post-Operation Desert Freedom, the global War on Terror), it has suffered setback after setback, because the form which its power takes (elite soldiers, extreme precision, overwhelming force) is not appropriate for addressing the nature of some conflicts (subversive movements, vehemently-different ideologies, superior local knowledge). General Petraeus’ genius as a military commander participating in the invasion of Iraq in the Noughties was linked not only to his strategic prowess, but also his recognition that winning hearts and minds was as important as winning battles, and he devoted a great deal of his energy to not only occupying territory, but also overseeing the reconstruction of infrastructure and utilities, providing safety and security to the people, and promoting local leadership through elections.

Thus we see that power takes a variety of forms, each with its own nature and proper use. I include a list and possible taxonomy: it is not definitive.

‘Hard’ power

The form with which we are most familiar; power in its least subtle aspect. These are usually relevant at the state level; they could easily scale down to the individual level too.

• Military force

◦ e.g. Quantity and quality of personnel and equipment

◦ e.g. Technological advantage

◦ e.g. Alliances

◦ may be roughly approximate to physical prowess

• Demographic superiority (tyranny of the majority?)

• Economic dominance

◦ e.g. Balance-of-trade dominance

◦ e.g. Comparative advantage

◦ e.g. Natural resources

◦ roughly approximate to personal wealth

• Institutional advantage

◦ e.g. Legal precedent

◦ e.g. Official status

◦ e.g. Codified doctrine

◦ roughly approximate to official position (e.g., someone who holds an official appointment such as a police officer, a Member of Parliament, a judge etc.)

‘Soft’ power

Ability to sway opinions, behaviour, and beliefs without coercion.

• Cultural appeal

◦ fashions and trends (e.g. “Hallyu Diplomacy”, part of the 21st C “Korean wave” including Gangnam Style, K-Pop, etc)

◦ way of life (PM Goh Chok Tong’s 1984 aspiration towards a “Swiss standard of living”)

◦ prestige (the use of Italian and German for classical opera; Savile Row)

◦ roughly approximate to cultural capital (savoir faire, multilingualism, aesthetic sensitivity, empathy etc.)

• Policies and actions

◦ consistency (Israel claims the Holocaust as part of its heritage, but systematically oppresses people in Palestine)

◦ fairness (the North American Free Trade Agreement forced Mexico to remove tariffs on imported American maize, but allows the US to heavily subsidise its own corn farmers)

◦ altruism (Australian PM Tony Abbott brings up Australia’s disaster relief payments to Indonesia while appealing for Indonesia to show clemency to drug traffickers facing capital punishment)

◦ might correspond to observable personal conduct (honesty, reliability, sincerity etc.)

• Values

◦ ideology

▪ democracy?

▪ capitalism?

▪ civil liberties?

▪ meritocracy?

• Popular appeal/support

◦ mass protests vs institutionalised authority (e.g. Arab Spring; Tiananmen Square; Hong Kong’s 2014 “umbrella revolution”; Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement; Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement)

◦ collective action (e.g. strikes)

◦ crowdsourced funding in lieu of subsidies/official contracts (e.g. the independent music movement enabled by platforms like iTunes, Amazon, Kickstarter, Patreon etc.)

◦ creativity and innovation (e.g. Apple Inc.’s 21st C success with the iPod, iPhone, OSX, Macbook may be attributed to smart branding, slick design, high standards)

Remember the example of Quang Duc, the monk who burned himself to death in public? While the gesture was undoubtedly powerful, and clearly a sign of his great commitment and determination, one wonders if it would have had the same impact had American journalists not been given advance-warning the day before. 

On Power: Its Uses, or Power-relationships are always reciprocal

As ‘power’ refers to one’s ability to influence others, it is inevitably exercised not in a vacuum but as part of a relationship. And while it is easy to characterise large, wealthy organisations and individuals as holding all the power, they generally only exercise that power with the tacit collusion of those upon whose labour they depend.

Consider the power of collective action by a union. While an employer appears to have a great deal of power over his employees, as he controls their livelihood, the workers are capable of exerting significant amounts of influence when they take collective action. Strikes and sit-ins can disrupt the profitability of enterprises, do long-term damage to the reputations of corporations, and paralyse entire communities as essential services shut down.

In September 2008, a two-month strike cost Boeing $2 billion; in August 1997, a mere two-week strike cost the United Parcel Service $650 million when postal workers forced the company to negotiate, resulting in an increase in pay and a reduction in the use of contract-labourers who were not eligible for benefits. Martin Luther King Jr.. and Gandhi made their mark in the annals of history by leading nonviolent movements that used passive disobedience to bring immensely powerful and oppressive regime to their knees, fighting entrenched hard power with the soft power of public opinion. 

Clearly, the historical record shows us that while hard power may represent the most obtrusive and intrusive use of power, soft power, if used intelligently, can enable apparently-disempowered people to nonetheless wield a great deal of influence. The vast potential of collective action provides the main impetus for people to organise themselves into associations and organisations, the most familiar form of which would be the modern government. 

Governance: Why People Form Governments

Governments can wield great power in both domestic and foreign affairs, but they accrue and use that power by the consent of the governed. Historical feudal power structures make the monarch reliant on the fealty and loyalty that his subjects bear to him personally. In modern democratic systems, ruling parties must court the public’s goodwill and continued trust, being reliant on their mandate at the ballot. The revolutions of the 18th century and the concomitant rise of nationalist movements all over the world (giving birth to new nations like Italy and Germany) cemented the idea of the social contract, the foundation of modern democracy.

The idea of the social contract enshrines the belief that the people surrender certain powers to the government in exchange for the government’s using those powers responsibly for the betterment of society. In a more ancient system, this responsibility was sometimes referred to as noblesse oblige; these days, we refer to the government’s responsibility and its mandate. In both these systems, the power-relationship between the individual and the state was always reciprocal: the individual owed the state adherence to the laws of the land, the taxation of his income, and in certain circumstances, his service for labour or defence; in exchange, the state owes the individual the guarantee of certain rights and freedoms, his safety, and effective governance of the nation. 

Why would anyone surrender their own rights, their hard-earned income, and their service to the state? Economics tells us that in certain areas, collective action is vastly more efficient than individual action due to economies of scale, enabling the state to make more efficient use of taxes to build infrastructure and provide certain goods and services. Allocation of resources and the coordination and planning of large-scale projects may also be more effectively managed by a central authority, preventing shortages or redundant surpluses. A central authority that provides regulation and enforcement may also provide a greater degree of consistency in that regulation and enforcement, enabling such social necessities as a stable currency and access to justice. Furthermore, there are certain functions that the community may desperately require filled, that individuals may be reluctant to provide on their own, such as military service, which the state must then compel from citizens through conscription or a draft. No matter what form a state’s manifestation of power may take, however, its ultimate function must be for the good of its society and the protection of its people. 

Unfortunately, the is not always the case. Sometimes, governments fail due to pure ineffectiveness: a government that is unable to fulfil the expectations of its electorate may find itself losing its mandate and support, and be overthrown or replaced through the electoral process. In other instances, however, government failure may be more insidious, protracted, and harmful, especially when the people are unable to act decisively to impose consequences on their governments. 

How People Allow Their Governments To Fail

In order for the social contract to be protected, citizens must retain some power to compel their governing representatives to make certain decisions, in order to prevent an empowered elite from abusing its vested authority. The degree to which a society can restrain the abuses of its government is referred to as its level of accountability

In order for people to be able to hold their government accountable, a number of preconditions must exist. The people must be able to first of all be made aware of whatever undesirable behaviour their government is perpetuating; they must then be able to impose consequences on that government, through lobbying, collective action, and civil disobedience. Where these options are not available, desperate populations may resort to outright rebellion, the likes of which are raging in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In some cases, populations may fall under the sway of unelected alternative governments, such as in Mexico or Brazil, where drug-lords earn the loyalty of people by providing protection and utilities which their own proper governments may be unable to provide. 

For the last half-century, the mass media has provided the main avenue for people to realise the first of these conditions. Prior to that, the invention of the printing press and the rise of mass literacy already enabled collective action on a large scale, but the impact of the mass media was greatly magnified when technology enabled images of conflict-zones and atrocities to reach people in their own homes, arriving unsolicited and unanticipated. The Vietnam War made governments aware that public opinion at home could potentially sway, or even dissipate entirely, their ability to achieve their aims, and since then war journalism has been a persistent feature in every conflict-zone, with specially-‘embedded’ journalists attached to military units involved in the invasion of Afghanistan. 

The proliferation of the new media and the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ led many to believe that people would now enjoy greater access to information, and thereby more transparent governance, than ever. Wikileaks, founded in 2006, has released millions of confidential government communiques, containing sensitive information, in order to promote greater transparency and accountability, and has had some success. As part of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010, Tunisia’s President Zine ben-Abidine ben Ali was deposed in a series of violent protests partly inspired by his lavish lifestyle at the expense of the people: secret communications between the US Ambassador and Washington revealed that the president’s palatial home was staffed with servants, his meals included items such as ice-cream flown in from France, and he owned a pet tiger. Outrage at this insensitivity contributed to the discontent that the people felt, eventually driving them to the streets after Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire when his business was raided by officials due to his inability to pay the required bribes. Whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowdon have drawn attention to the military atrocities committed in Iraq and to the NSA’s routine violation of privacies through Wikileaks, prompting public discussions and official investigations.

The promise of new media and citizen journalism for more transparent and responsible governments has yet to be fully realised, however. Governments and similarly-sized organisations have access to a range of options that might render the ability of citizens to investigate and expose malfeasance (wrongdoing) irrelevant or suicidal. New forms of data analytics and more powerful sorting-algorithms have made online anonymity and net-neutrality no longer the guarantees they used to be. Coupled with the proliferation of public surveillance infrastructure such as the new ubiquity of closed-circuit cameras, governments and large organisations have unparalleled power to monitor their citizens and consumers. Facial-recognition and reverse-image-searching technologies now enable security agencies to link any image captured on public cameras to that person’s social media profile, and records of credit card payments can be used to create intricately-detailed profiles of consumer behaviour, which can in turn be data-mined by behavioural scientists to create predictive models of human behaviour. More governments are investing heavily in so-called “big data”: industrial-scale cacheing of information (messages, emails, chat-logs and so on) combined with sophisticated search-algorithms can be used to identify potential troublemakers by their choice of words and syntax, and allow them to be placed under pre-emptive surveillance. 

What’s worse is that as public awareness of this grows, people are likely to start self-censoring, choosing to forego participation in actively promoting accountability, in order to protect themselves from accusations of sedition and conspiracy. 

John Bentham Mill, an economist and philosopher, proposed a new model of prison in the 19th Century. Rather than having prisons patrolled and staffed by large numbers of wardens and orderlies, he suggested building a cylindrical structure, with prisoners in cells facing the interior, in the middle of which would be an observation platform. The occupants of the platform would be hidden from view, while every prisoner would be in direct line-of-sight of the platform. As the prisoners could never tell when they were being watched, they would regulate their own behaviour for fear of being observed, in time learning to behave appropriately whether or not the observation platform was even manned, creating people who could be controlled not by surveillance, but by the threat of surveillance. He called this system a “panopticon”, or all-seeing, system. The linguist and philosopher Michel Foucault would then use this panopticon as a metaphor for government control: by cracking down on vocal and outstanding opponents, an authority can effectively deter opposition by forcing citizens and consumers to become self-policing, ultimately making them voluntarily limit their own ability to protest against malfeasance. 

While digital technologies have enabled people to exchange ideas and expose wrongdoing on a much grander scale, the proliferation and intrusiveness of both social networks and public surveillance technology make telecommunications a two-edged sword. We see that although technological innovation can alter the balance of power between authorities and the masses, that the exercise of power remains a reciprocal affair. If the use of power, both hard and soft, is to be regulated in a responsible fashion, all parties in the power-relationship must continue the process of negotiation that is intrinsic to all good relationships. 

Outdoor education: Holistic education has to be done holistically

I’ve been working for the government long enough that I’ve apparently started to use KPI-boosting catchphrases recursively. Ugh.

Anyway, something interesting that’s been making the rounds:

From NMP Dr Ben Tan’s speech in Parliament, 6th March, reported on Red Sports.sg:

“When MOE first pushed for outdoor education, many schools ensured that each cohort would have undergone an OBS course at least once during their school life. Over the years, my impression is that fewer and fewer schools insist on this, with OBS reserved for only selected groups of students, such as during orientation or leadership training. Also the outdoor education may have become too tame, with some schools counting pitching a tent on the school field as outdoor education.”

Finally something I can get behind. My NS mates will tell you that, despite my overall lack of my fitness and my tendency to turn from garang soldier to complete liability after a few kilometres of hard marching, I generally take quite well to the great outdoors, and I will confess unabashedly to enjoying being out in the rough. It’s always something I wish more students took an interest in. I had a great deal of fun last year hiking with students along the Green Corridor.

Even though the proliferation of umbrellas and the general queasiness of most participants regarding their proximity to nature was a bit off-putting…

Umbrellas sprouting like mushrooms, seriously

… the chance to see Singapore from a very different angle was totally worth it.


During the hike, though, I made it a point not to let the experience try to speak for itself. Say what you like about communing with nature, it can be very difficult to “get in touch with your inner goddess” and stuff if you’re being distracted by handheld electric fans and the complaints of your peers about mosquitos and stuff. So I made it a point to try to add value at every opportunity: I pointed out those few specimens I could identify by name, pointing out edible plants like wild yams, and so on.

I think when taking kids out into the wilderness, it always helps to focus their attention on aspects beyond the sheer experience of being outside. Bring in aesthetics, botany, geography, the whole hog. While we like to wax lyrical about the potential of wilderness exposure to bring out a quasi-mystical experience of relaxation etc etc, it also helps to remind students that green spaces aren’t just “out there”: nature is everywhere we are, and not just in gazetted zones that the government sets aside for us to frolic in.

Thinking back on my own OBS experiences, one problem with stuff like OBS is that it can be a little too alien. It can feel like a holiday, or a tekan session, or a kind of rite-of-passage: there’s something very Other about the nonstop activities and the ritualistic conduct of some of the social activities. It sets the experience as something Other, something that exists beyond the scope of your daily activities. That… isn’t always helpful. Our kids are great at compartmentalising activities: one day, they can be pitching tents and staring at the stars and telling you excitedly about their wonderful adventure; the next, they’re throwing litter all over the place.

Even Archer can be educational once in a while

In Singapore, we’re party to a daily encroachment of urban sprawl into pristine green space, even if we can’t see it. We intrude, we exploit, and then we attempt to erase evidence of our intrusion with pesticides and rat poison, a la Bukit Batok. We forget that the city has an ecology all its own, that isn’t limited to humans and those pets we permit. Rats, flies, stray animals, and so on are part and parcel and product of our civilisation, and while we should definitely take action to prevent these things from harming us, we can’t expect to sterilise our urban landscapes either.

This means that outdoor education has to include the city as well as the wilderness. Even when we’re with the students out in the rough, we need to remind that the nature that surrounds them in that moment is everpresent, even if they can’t see it. We can’t expose kids to nature as something external to our lifestyle: we have to get them to see it as something inseparable from our daily experiences and activities. As with many, many things to do with education, it’s not just about quantity, but quality: Dr Ben Tan’s concerns about uptake and implementation are important, but even if MOE looks into it, boosting numbers isn’t enough. You need to give those students a good reason to be there, and an even better reason to remember what they learnt when they aren’t out there.

Which means that we need to diversify who gets involved in outdoor education. The usual suspects are OBS instructors and PE teachers, who, while well-intentioned and usually hard-working, aren’t always the most likely candidates for this sort of philosophical exposition (although there are inspiring exceptions: Mr Isaac Lim, this one’s for you!). Bring other teachers, and heck, bring the kids’ parents along too. Make this sort of learning part of different curriculum elements, not a catchall like “character development” or “leadership” or “CCA”.

Nature is for everyone, not just people who wear shorts as part of their daily work attire.


I leave you with something to Marvell at:

“… Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade…” – The Garden, Andrew Marvell

Tuition culture in Singapore: abundance and anxiety

So, some interesting noises from the echo chamber:
hengsweekeatFrom the article Tuition Culture has to go, say MPs reported by Today Online.

Despite government efforts, Singaporeans still have the mentality that getting good grades is the ticket to securing good jobs and a bright future, MPs noted.”

I wonder what efforts the MPs are referring to here. What exactly is the problem that the government thinks needs fixing? Lots of amateur laymen proposing solutions in Parliament — why does everyone think that problems in the education system need to be fixed with education policy? How about labour policy? The article brings up a number of possibilities, but I suspect that Parliament is having too much fun playing amateur problem-solver to successfully identify what the real problem is.

(1): Tuition is the problem – shouldn’t be necessary to get good grades.

There’s some wishful thinking here, I think. As long as tuition yields measurable improvements towards a student’s educational outcomes, there’s going to be a major incentive to tutor the living daylights out of the kid. If you want to decouple the perceived link between tuition and success, you’re going to have to make grades dependent on things that tuition teachers can’t easily address.

There’s some hope in the works: across the board we can see a greater emphasis on experiential learning and new methods of assessment, including collaborative work and work assessed over a period of time. That’s encouraging.

On the other hand, we’re still besotted with the idea of a national exam. I think standardised assessment definitely has a role to play, but does this assessment have to take the form of an all-or-nothing sit-down writing exercise?

Surely there’s some room to spread out a student’s ultimate academic evaluation across both examined and constructed work. Set national examinations for baseline competencies in things like languages, mathematics, and basic scientific knowledge: I think multiple-choice questions in the vein of the LSATs/TOEFL might be good here, because when you’re looking for assessing baseline competency, you’re testing a kid on basics which have easy yes/no, right/wrong answers: grammar, arithmetic, and scientific facts and axioms aren’t negotiable. Make these tests have an extremely compressed spread of possible results, maybe only reporting a result of Pass/Fail. Make it possible for someone who has mastered basic ability in language, mathematics, and science, who takes the test diligently, to get a perfect score.

Beyond that, if you want to test mastery of advanced knowledge, move away from sit-down exams. Require them to do some independent research for science, write a paper or explore some theoretical problem for mathematics, and create a viable text for languages. Write a magazine article in Mandarin; film a series of public service announcements for English. That sort of thing. The goal should be for students to demonstrate authentic mastery, not rote-learning, which means being able to apply whatever they think they’ve learnt to solve real problems and accomplish real tasks.

Let them sit for the ‘A’-levels if they want to, if they want to go to a British university or something. But surely we can do better, especially since the ‘A’-levels are tottering even in their country of origin.

So only the very weak will need additional help in order to demonstrate baseline competency (in which case we shouldn’t begrudge them tuition, extra consultations, or professional therapy if they need it), and nobody will be able to tuition their way past a live task. If the latter forces students to seek greater exposure to live problem solving through internships, engagement with social issues, participating in civil society organisations, and so on in order to acquire problem-solving experience, surely that’s all for the good, and shouldn’t be considered ‘tuition’.

(2): Academic competitiveness is the problem – shouldn’t be necessary to get good jobs

The civil service really needs to lead the way here. When the government, the largest and most influential employer in the country, mandates a massive pay differential between polytechnic and university graduates, they don’t really have any kind of right to complain that people are taking on unnecessary stress. Even in the political arena, the academic credentials of candidates seem more important than their track record (which in any case is largely inseparable from their academic credentials), their charisma, or most importantly, their ethical intelligence.

(3): ‘Good’ jobs are the problem – shouldn’t be necessary to have a bright future

The fact is, there is a huge and real gap between jobs that Singaporeans consider ‘good’, and everything else. The problem here is inequality more than education: when a teacher, nurse, or social worker, who is in their field just as qualified as, say, an investment banker, who works just as hard (if not harder) and for as long hours (if not longer) earns so much less, who can fault parents and students for obsessing over the few disproportionately ‘good’ jobs there are?

What makes a job ‘good’ to a Singaporean? Most Singaporeans want jobs that provide both low risk and high earning power, and by my observation, involve as little inconvenience as possible: many people seem to have a phobia of doing things like working overseas for extended amounts of time, which I suspect comes from how thoroughly indoctrinated many of us are with Singaporean exceptionalism and the belief that the rest of the world is a seething hive of poor infrastructure and high crime rates.

How many people consider interest, passion, or impact when they evaluate the ‘goodness’ of a job? I dunno what my generation of working adults thinks, but as someone who’s worked with teenagers quite extensively regarding talent development and career discernment, I can tell you that it’s a vanishingly small number. And the more safely-ensconced they are in the academic environment of our local schools, and the more potential they have to score well, the less likely they are to consider such factors. It’s a sad state of affairs when our very best and brightest aspire towards the least risky and most boring jobs possible, simply because those jobs provide the most security and earning power.

Maybe if we thought differently about our careers, and were enabled to make career decisions without the everpresent fear of failure and incipient poverty, we wouldn’t put our kids through the career-wringer as early as preschool.

Which brings me to the thing that the government isn’t talking about, which I consider the main problem:

(4): The future is the problem – your confidence in your future and your freedom to pursue happiness shouldn’t be dependent on industry field or elite education

My take on things is that every Singaporean lives in fear, a fear we’ve been infected with since we were kids. Every Singaporean lives in fear of failure, of poverty, and of the social stigma of being a dependent. We’ve been taught as students that a good citizen contributes to society instead of leeches off of it, and I think this sort of thinking is very elegantly fostered to absolve the government of the responsibility to provide social security and a minimum guaranteed standard of living.

As youths we were all told that nobody owes us a living, and that Singapore as a society exists on the knife’s edge of improbability due to our lack of natural resources and an economy that is entirely dependent on our ability to sell our labour to the most attractive foreign bidders. We are predisposed to think of ourselves as potential units of labour: the oft-repeated refrain that “Singapore has no natural resources but only human resources” serves to get us used to the idea that our labour is something to be marketed and monetised and exploited to the full.

We don’t consider the impact on our psychology when that idea also includes the assumption that our labour and our effort is ultimately expendable, something to be consumed, that our energy and our effort should ultimately be used up. The Singapore government is a little bit weird in that it considers its population and their labour resources, but doesn’t consider that all resources are susceptible to depletion if overexploited. But with the increasing levels of burnout, stress, and depression among young people, and the high turnover-rates in some of the most desirable jobs in Singapore, it’s quite clear that we are overexploiting our labour-force.

The idea that our lives are just resources, fuel for the furnace that keeps this clunky locomotive chugging, is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Even well-employed Singaporeans live in fear. Hell, I do. My anxiety and angst stem from the dissatisfaction of thinking that I am expected to work my life away for no real reward and no lasting satisfaction, and certainly no security. We work ever-longer hours, for fast-eroding pay, that vanishes into nothing no matter how much we save because of the pathetic interest rate, and although we pay more and more tax on our mayfly wealth, we keep getting told that the government isn’t obliged to spend that tax money on our benefit. Instead, we are roundly scolded for being dependent on handouts and subsidies. How dare we demand that our tax money be spent on us, instead of squirrelled-away!

Maybe people are so anxious and so grasping and so acquisitive because they’re essentially heartsick of the idea of being forever trapped in a neck-and-neck race against entropy. Everyone is desperate to earn as much as they can to hoard against the day when earning is no longer possible for them. Maybe we hope that being civilised involves more than a greater variety of toys to spend our money on. Maybe Singaporeans look at senior citizens, who’ve worked hard all their lives in jobs that once upon a time might have been considered ‘good’, who now have to sell tissue paper, wash toilets, collect litter, and wait on tables in their golden years, and fear for their own future.

I can’t help but feel that a ‘bright’ future, at least as far as a safe and satisfying retirement goes, shouldn’t have anything to do with what job you held down or how well you did in school. At the very least, everyone should be able to look forward to a future in which their retirement savings are not tied to the performance of the property market, in which their medical bills aren’t an existential threat, in which they don’t have to beg the children of those who can afford them for enough money to take the increasingly-mercenary, privatised train home.

Dear The Government, if you want to stem tuition culture, you’ll have to address the bigger problem of insecurity culture, of siege-mentality culture, of hand-to-mouth culture.

You’ll need to provide universal and comprehensive healthcare, not because people deserve it or not, but because (a) we can afford it (we spend three times more on a peacetime army, for crying out loud) and (b) someone dying of preventable causes because he can’t afford treatment is barbaric and unworthy of any kind of society that holds itself civilised.

You’ll need to provide a universal and guaranteed pension for retirees to ensure that nobody has to gamble on the stock market, the property market, or the largesse of their children or the children of others when they’re old. It’s pretty obvious that you think pensions are important, because you’ve all given yourselves pensions: you just don’t think that pensions are important to other people. Raising the retirement rate and making seniors more employable doesn’t fix the problem: helping more seniors work into their twilight years isn’t helping because nobody should be forced to work to make end’s meet when they’re that old. Yes, people live longer now, but just because I’ll live till 90 instead of 70 doesn’t mean that at 60 I’ll have the energy of a 40-year-old and should therefore keep on working: it just means that when I die, I’ll be that much more tired, have suffered that much more from an ailing body, and will hopefully be that much more eager to have everything over and done with.

You’ll need to provide affordable housing options for people who don’t feel like going into thirty years of debt in exchange for a rental that you call ownership. Newsflash: I don’t care what real estate agents say, it’s not real ownership if it has an expiry date after which I have to give everything back to you.

You’ll need to come up with some kind of long-term plan for Singapore that isn’t merely based on increasing factors of production, including labour. There are natural limitations to our population. If I think about progress, I want the Singapore of the future to be able to enjoy twice as much prosperity with half the number of active workers; trends suggest the opposite is much more likely.

You’ll need to start making Singaporeans see globalisation as less of a vulnerability and more of an opportunity. If people are flocking here for work, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be flocking elsewhere: Singaporeans are modern, well-educated, and hard-working. If not for the fact that our parochial sense of exceptionalism and the entrenched racism of our constructed history make us pathologically afraid of learning new languages and living and working outside the country, we would be hugely competitive overseas. Of course, in order to bring this about you’ll have to stop using shills to blame the West for everything, and you’ll have to publicly refute Goh Chok Tong’s extremely parochial ‘stayers/quitters’ rhetoric, which I’m not confident you’re actually capable of doing.

You’ll need to understand that growth of all sorts has limits, and start recognising the shape of our maturing economy. I personally think that the steady-state economy is a rad idea.

You can’t raise generations of Singaporeans on fear, on the myth of self-sufficiency, on the axiom that our economy and way of life are based on our ability to redline ourselves for as long as possible as units of labour, and then complain that people are too stressed about their future and that they don’t appreciate “government efforts”. You can’t tell everyone that you owe them nothing, that they have to earn, save, and invest enough to defend themselves against a rising tide of consumerism, materialism, and squeezed space, and then ask why kids aren’t taking the time to grow up holistically, why parents are grinding their kids to the bone on the mill of academic excess, why everyone forces themselves to aspire to the very, very few jobs in our unequal job market that will allow them to make that much money.

Maybe when we don’t have to fear that following our passions will lead us to the poorhouse or, in modern Singaporean parlance, the old-age home in Johor Bahru that Khaw Boon Wan thinks we should send Ah Kong to, then you’ll see people willing to consider alternative pathways to success and a more diverse, forgiving education system.

But not now.

I’m anticipating that in my lifetime, my lifespan isn’t going to be limited by science or infrastructure but by my own personal finances. I’m anticipating that I’ll work harder, retire later, and enjoy less in terms of long-term financial stability than my parents.

I’m anticipating that if I could pay some hack to tutor my child such that he can study and work overseas and avoid all that shit, I will.

You see, people complain about tuition not because it’s ineffective but because it’s too effective, and unfairly so. It’s paying to win. You know what happens to people who can’t afford to compete in pay-to-win games? They don’t play.

I’ll beg people to take my money just so my kid can grow up with a different set of anticipations and expectations. And I anticipate that if I can’t afford to give my children a better life, and better expectations, than what I’ve got, I’m just not going to have them.

Hey, cheer up, Singapore government! Kids are now so unaffordable that practically nobody’s having them! By the next generation, you won’t have to worry about tuition because children will become obsolete!

EDIT: It’s come to my attention that this article has become greatly more popular than I ever anticipated. I’ve made a number of edits in the interest of tact and tonal appropriateness for a larger audience. The main substantive — claims, examples, suggestions — remains unchanged.

Economists writing on education who should go back to school

Sounds like the reactionary right is reacting (There is No Such Thing As a Free College Education) against Germany’s decision to make university education free. I know I’m not going to get anywhere near the amount of readership that Christopher Denhart is going to get, so try to spread this around as much as you can.

Long story short, free college education will cost the taxpayer (duh) and encourage free-riders and reckless (read: non-economically-productive) use of the newly-public good (ie, education). Which is the sort of argument I’d expect an ‘A’-level Economics student to come up with, who then fails his ‘A’-levels, because this line of reasoning is terrible.

My main problem with this article is that basic logic and data-analysis skills appear have completely fallen out of the writer’s skull. Now, I’m the furthest you can get from an economics wonk: when I attended a PPE interview for Oxford, my interviewer who asked me to draw a graph had to awkwardly remind me that graphs need X and Y axes as I stared at the paper in dismay (needless to say, I didn’t go to Oxford); I was the despair of my Economics teacher in junior college; I would probably be the despair of current Economics students in the school in which I teach English. Still, this article is either the product of someone whose grasp of economics is either worse than mine, or who is being deliberately obtuse in order to present a biased argument.

I genuinely cannot tell which it is.

While I know that this is bad form, I’m going to look at his points one by one rather than adopt an argument-based rebuttal, because unlike him I’m not paid to spew bad economics all over the Internet.


Weirdly enough, Christopher Denhart starts off by quoting Dorothee Stapelfeldt, senator for science in Hamburg (“Tuition fees are socially unjust”) and then completely fails, in his entire article, to address the issue of justice entirely, instead harping on cost and how it will affect behaviour, in an entirely one-sided manner.

Yes, Germany has a high tax burden at 49%. At the same time, the US has many times the rate of violent crimes than Germany: 3 times more gun crime (admittedly, this one is pretty unsurprising), 6 times more homicides, three times the rapes. All of these numbers are per capita, by the way: the gross figures are both much higher and literally gross. It has seven times the number of incarcerated persons per capita. It prosecutes eight times more adults per capita than Germany does.

Now it’s time for “I can do math too.” It costs $21,000 a year to keep someone in non-maximum-security prison. If America reduced its prisoners per capita to German levels, it could afford to put 1.02 million more students through college for free. That’s 5% of the current college cohort all across America, magically debt-free overnight, if America decides it wants to spend more money on its children than its convicts. Heck, you could send half of all incarcerated persons to college for that kind of money.

That seems like some pretty substantial value, Denhart.


“In a typical economic model for financing higher education, the consumer (student) would pay for the good that it consumes (education) and the research that researchers do would lead to innovations that have positive economic impact on society, therefore paying for themselves.”

1. The student is not the only, and arguably not even the main, ‘consumer’ or beneficiary of education. Not every student will go on study things that will necessary benefit them economically (it is often suboptimal for someone who qualifies for college to study nursing, teaching, and a host of other degrees); how is it fair to charge them for doing something less optimal than starting a business or going into a trade? In these cases, the main beneficiary and consumer is clearly society, that benefits from having nurses and teachers and social workers and artists and literati, even though all of these people are undercompensated for their choices. A free education is the *least* that can be done for them.

2. I’m not sure any workable (I’m not sure about typical) economic model can or should expect that “the research that researchers do would lead to innovations that have positive economic impact on society, thereby paying for themselves”, at least not in a manner that helps people pay for their education. That isn’t how research works. How many archaeology professors do you think pay off their student loans by stumbling on lost Confederate gold or by selling the Ark of the Covenant to Nazis? The notion that university research has to pay for itself in terms of ‘positive economic impacts on society’ is either going to lead to the humanities and the arts becoming utterly extinct (a real possibility) or requires an extremely flexible interpretation of ‘positive economic impacts’.


Denhart claims that “It is clear in the United States, with annual tuition fees in the $40,000s or $50,000s and millionaire university presidents, that federal subsidies have led to outrageous increases in university spending, as universities, administrators, and faculty enjoy the benefits of captured student loan and grant moneys.”

Except that isn’t clear at all. Are tuition fees high? Yes. Are some people in the university racket earning big bucks? Also yes. Is it clear that this is due to federal subsidies are leading to lavish increases in university spending? Hardly.

We have to ask what universities are spending all that money on. That Denhart has mentioned ‘millionaire university presidents’ is telling. Noam Chomksy suggests that the problem isn’t that universities are over-funded, whether by high tuition fees or excessive federal subsidies, but rather that universities are bloating administration and management at the expense of faculty.


Denhart then goes on to assay that tired piece of conventional wisdom: that higher taxes will drive people out of the country, and that Germany will suffer brain- and capital- drain due to rich people fleeing the country for not wanting to pay for other people’s college educations, tax revenue will fall, and then the system will collapse. Really? Sweden has higher taxes almost across the board compared to the US, but it has almost double the net migration (proportionately, more people are migrating to Sweden and fewer are leaving) and Sweden also has more billionaires per capita than the US does.

The thing is, no matter how educated or able you are, you can’t succeed on solo talent alone. Becoming a billionaire isn’t just about personal talent, that you can pack up and relocate to wherever your newest tax-haven-du-jour happens to be: it’s about building a successful company, an organisational process that is dependent on the welfare and well-being of people who might, on paper, be less ‘able’.

Denhart’s right-wing thinking, that hardship provides incentive for success is thoroughly entrenched in the Industrial era and post-Great-Depression bootstrappism.


This kind of wilful ignorance of inconvenient facts and misinterpretation of data is pretty much a feature of Denhart’s article.

1. “The United States has seen the rise of the five year degree. Of the 60% of students who graduate from public schools in the U.S., over half take longer than four years to graduate. Compare that with private institutions (there are natural differences in students at each type of school that pay (sic) a role) which see 80 percent of its graduates out in four years. Their sensitivity to the marginal cost of that fifth or sixth year factors into their decision to consume.”

Wow, gee, Denhart, “there are natural differences in students at each type of school that pay a role”. ‘Natural differences’, really? You don’t say? Would you like to say something about how only 25% of the top 20 American universities are publicly-funded? If the argument you’re making is that “our public universities are by and large worse than the private ones, and the students there somehow take longer to graduate”, congratulations! You’re now in the running for the No Shit, Sherlock Award of Q4 2014. America’s public universities are on the verge of collapse. Is it any wonder students who have scarcer resources to work with are taking longer to graduate? Not to me, but apparently the phenomenon is entirely inexplicable to Denhart, who thinks that it must be because they’re ‘insensitive to the cost of education’.

To the kind of student who has to attend public university, the cost of education isn’t just factored in tuition debt or not, but opportunity cost: they’re stuck in college, attending classes, working dead-end part-time jobs if they can get them at all, instead of going into a trade. That’s a pretty significant cost. Do you think they wouldn’t graduate faster if they could?

He then links to an off-site article, and claims that Germany is facing the same problem, that will get worse, because their students are graduating late.

Except he asserts (not proves) that the reason American students graduate late is essentially because they’re a bunch of free-loaders; the article to which he linked instead says that “(German) students were allowed to take semesters off to work, earn cash, travel, do work experience placements or study abroad”, and that attempts to shorten the study period of German universities students led to protests that the reforms would “would restrict the flexibility and depth of study”.

Gee, Denhart, they sure do sound like a bunch of slackers to me. All that work experience and worldliness is definitely not going to help them more than a degree would, am I right? High-five!

But wait! He says his argument only applies “If everyone decided to take an extra year to graduate, because it was free“. Well, that’s easily-solved, then! People take longer to graduate not because it’s free, but because they’re either going to schools that are worse (public universities in the US are suffering from budget cuts, shrinking faculties, fewer tenured teachers, and a whole host of other woes) or because they’re doing more important things while preparing for the workforce (like becoming worldlier, getting more work experience, and broadening their expertise). There! Misunderstanding solved! You’re a pretty OK guy, Denhart, it’s just that you make dumb assumptions with no evidence that they’re true.

He also says that publicly-funded education sucks in general, and his case in point is… America! Where schools are closing down but they can afford to give $3 billion to Israel to fund the illegal settlement of Palestinian land. Ooookay then. Maybe it has to do with the fact that America’s publicly-funded education system is inadequately funded (it receives below-average funding for an OECD country).

On the other hand, if we take a peek at the best education systems in the world, we notice that many of them (I believe the main exceptions are the UK/Ireland and HK) belong to countries with extremely generous public funding of education.

Maybe the public funding = shitty quality argument is a bit more complicated than you think, Denhart?

In fact, what all of his evidence seems to point at isn’t that Germany’s move to nationalise university education is a bad idea, but rather that America has no idea what it’s doing when it comes to social spending.


Let’s keep in mind that Christopher Denhart is the administrative director for The Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which aspires to “make higher education more affordable and qualitatively better”.

That really does explain a lot.


Nigel Na teaches rhetoric, argumentation, logic, critical-thinking, and aesthetic appreciation of language at a publicly-funded school in Singapore. He doesn’t administrate or direct anything particularly important but he once ran a D&D game at Cambridge University with a bunch of STEM types, so he obviously knows what he’s talking about when it comes to number-crunching.