Aug 27, 2009

Religion, God & Other Separate Matters

Thanks to PM Lee's NDR speech, the media has been churning out article after article, for weeks, on the topic of religion.

This is ironic, considering that very few people may actually believe in God.

You may think that I am being facetious here. After all, billions of people around the world believe in God.

But do they really?

I shall quote a conversation between a certain old man and a certain young man, in a novel which I shall not name. What the book title is, and who the author is, is less interesting than the point which the fictional old man makes:
The old man leaned toward me, resting a blanketed elbow on the arm of his rocker.

“Four billion people say they believe in God, but few genuinely believe. If people believed in God, they would live every minute of their lives in support of that belief. Rich people would give their wealth to the needy. Everyone would be frantic to determine which religion was the true one. No one could be comfortable in the thought that they might have picked the wrong religion and blundered into eternal damnation, or bad reincarnation, or some other unthinkable consequence. People would dedicate their lives to converting others to their religions.

“A belief in God would demand one hundred percent obsessive devotion, influencing every waking moment of this brief life on earth. But your four billion so-called believers do not live their lives in that fashion, except for a few. The majority believe in the usefulness of their beliefs—an earthly and practical utility—but they do not believe in the underlying reality.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “If you asked them, they’d say they believe.”

“They say that they believe because pretending to believe is necessary to get the benefits of religion. They tell other people that they believe and they do believer-like things, like praying and reading holy books. But they don’t do the things that a true believer would do, the things a true believer would have to do.

“If you believe a truck is coming toward you, you will jump out of the way. That is belief in the reality of the truck. If you tell people you fear the truck but do nothing to get out of the way, that is not belief in the truck. Likewise, it is not belief to say God exists and then continue sinning and hoarding your wealth while innocent people die of starvation. When belief does not control your most important decisions, it is not belief in the underlying reality, it is belief in the usefulness of believing.”

“Are you saying God doesn’t exist?” I asked, trying to get to the point.

“I’m saying that people claim to believe in God, but most don’t literally believe. They only act as though they believe because there are earthly benefits in doing so. They create a delusion for themselves because it makes them happy.”

“So you think only the atheists believe their own belief?” I asked.

“No. Atheists also prefer delusions,” he said.
I shall be taking a break from blogging, to turn to my other writing pursuits. See you in another week or so.

Aug 26, 2009

Language, Culture and the Chinese Singaporean

I used to be very close to my grandmother. One night, long after she had passed away, I had a dream about her. Or rather, I dreamed that I was a child again, singing a Hokkien song that my grandmother had often sung with me, many years ago.

When I woke up, I tried to recall the song's lyrics. But I could not do it. Still I decided to write a poem about this dream. Years later, this poem formed part of a collection that won me a national literary award.
      Children's Rhyme

      Grandmother, last night
      I dreamed again I was a child
      dancing round and round
      a wooden table. Singing a song
      you gave me in your tongue
      years ago, about the boy with
      his goats out in the cold
      climbing mountains crossing rivers
      in search of home. In the morning
      I woke and summoned the lyrics
      to myself. But that memory
      escaped me, dived into
      the depths from which all
      dreams spring. All I found was
      tentative, a word, a half-phrase,
      a fragment of a line, pieces of
      a broken whole. So often you and
      the language of you elude
      me now, and against this loss
      I ache and struggle, fail
      and fail again to find my words.
      Still I suspect the history of me
      is there, unerased, the schools
      and campaigns can’t wipe it out,
      no, only send it into hiding.
      You are dead and gone,
      I’m lost, forlorn, but that boy
      I used to be – he’s alive.
      Round and round my head
      he runs, rhyme reciting,
      the words of a lost language
      still escaping always escaping as
      I climb the cold mountains,
      cross the rivers in search of home.
This poem works on a few levels. At one level, it is a straightforward account of an actual dream, and what happened immediately thereafter.

At another level, the poem is about the loss of my grandmother. This loss is explored in the poem, via several metaphors. One such metaphor is the memory of a dream that slips away ("into the depths from which all dreams spring") and can't be recovered. Another such metaphor is the boy in the song itself, who keeps on climbing mountains, crossing rivers, searching for a home that he can't make it back to.

At a third level, the poem is social commentary. It refers to the Singapore government's systematic efforts to eradicate Chinese dialects in the country, which in turn led to a tragic cultural loss. Where do we see this?

Well, the poem is addressed to a "grandmother", and refers to a Hokkien song that "you gave me in your tongue". Later the song crumbles away, leaving behind "a word, a half-phrase, a fragment of a line, pieces of a broken whole". The sadness of this loss, and also the causes of this loss, are described in these lines:
      So often you and
      the language of you elude
      me now, and against this loss
      I ache and struggle, fail
      and fail again to find my words.
      Still I suspect the history of me
      is there, unerased, the schools
      and campaigns can’t wipe it out,
      no, only send it into hiding.
I decided to post this today, because it's relevant to the current discussion on my preceding post (in its comment section). Hope you guys like the poem.

Aug 24, 2009

Education Choices in Singapore & Malaysia

I had just been discussing international schools in Singapore. Now here's a Straits Times article discussing the situation in Malaysia:
ST Aug 24, 2009
More Malaysians turn to international schools
Demand up despite cost, as middle-class parents give up on local system
By Elizabeth Looi

KUALA LUMPUR: More middle-class Malaysians are enrolling their children in international schools despite long waiting lists, as parents grow increasingly frustrated with the local education system.

Up to 2006, the only Malaysians who could send their children to these schools were those who had lived abroad for at least three years, or had a foreign spouse.

An exception was those with businesses that could attract foreign direct investments for the country. These business owners were wealthy Malaysians.

Thus, there were not many local students enrolled in international schools. But since 2006 - when the rules were relaxed and international schools were allowed to enrol up to 40 per cent Malaysians - middle-class Malaysians have started placing their children in such schools, which have increased in number - from 32 three years ago to 40 now.

The number of Malaysian students has also gone up - from 2,608 among an estimated 10,000 students, or 26 per cent, in 2006, to 5,000 among an estimated 15,000 students, or 33 per cent, in 2009.

At least 20 more international schools are scheduled to open soon, according to school operators.

One reason some parents are transferring their children to international schools is the changes in the curriculum of the national schools.

One example: the decision last month to reverse the policy of teaching maths and science in English, which had been in effect for six years. Another change was when the government decided to limit the number of subjects students are allowed to take for their O-levels, compared with the unlimited number previously.

'The Education Ministry is very fickle-minded, they do not know what to do most of the time with the policies,' said property agent Tan Ching Suan, 49, who is unhappy with the constant changes in the local system.

So, even though the national schools are free of charge, she transferred her daughter to an international school two years ago.

More middle-class Malaysians have, like her, become willing to draw on their savings to send their children to the more expensive international schools. Some of them also work overseas or are highly mobile. Having their children in international schools makes it easier for them when they move from one country to another.
At one level, it's all simply about the (actual or perceived) inadequacies in the local school system. If the parents are able, they will naturally look for alternatives. After all, parents love their children and want the best for them. Simple as that.

I'm sure that some readers will want to say that Singapore's local school system is much better than Malaysia's. But that's not the point. Both systems have their own problems. One system may be better. But whichever country you happen to find yourself in, you will still want the best available opportunities for your children.

What's "best" also depends on the special circumstances of each child and his or her family. They can vary a lot from family to family. For example, MM Lee's grandson was dyslexic, and at the relevant time, the family decided that the Singapore American School would be the best choice for him. Why? Because the local schools lacked the expertise to help dyslexic students.

Other Singaporean families may be interested in international schools, for other reasons. Some possible & common reasons would be:
(1) they may think poorly of the Cambridge O and A-level syllabus that local schools typically use (in recent years, the reputation of the Cambridge syllabus has suffered badly);

(2) their child, if raised in a non-Chinese speaking family environment, may not be able to cope with the Chinese Language at the level which local schools teach it;

(3) they feel that the local school system is unnecessarily stressful and exam-oriented and tends to kill creativity and innovative thinking;

(4) as the world becomes more globalised, they feel that it is better for their child to be educated in an environment where he will interact with classmates of many different nationalities;

(5) the parents have future plans to emigrate or work overseas, so it is better for their child to start getting used to an international school environment;

(6) international schools tend to have a smaller student-to-teacher ratio (local schools are still mostly about 40 students to one teacher) and they feel that their child would benefit more from a smaller ratio.
In the long run, some of these problems could be fixed by improving the local education system, not necessarily for all local schools, but by having some of these local schools operate on a different model, thereby increasing the range of options available for parents and their children.

But if you are a parent and you need to register your child for a school next year, that's not much comfort.

Aug 20, 2009

Education, and Even More Discrimination Against Citizens

ST Aug 20, 2009
Thanks, being a PR is good enough

IN RESPONSE to letters by Mr Jimmy Loke ('The PR difference', last Saturday) and Mr Chia Kok Leong ('No school, no Singapore', last Saturday), I would only ask them to refer to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's speech reported last Friday ('MM: Foreign talent is vital'), where he gave an idea of the benefits citizens have over permanent residents (PRs).

I am happy to be a PR and although we do not get equal benefits in housing and other respects, that is understandable. We understand the difference between a citizen and a PR.

But where our children are concerned, we just want them to have the best education possible and I think we are not asking much. Citizens have the upper hand in buying homes and other respects, which is justified, but where schooling is concerned, 'every child has the right to get the best education possible'.

About living here for six years and not taking citizenship, I think this is a very personal choice. I would just like to end this topic by saying we are not here to compete with citizens but there are certain things on which one cannot compromise and children's education is one of them. I think we are not asking much and we are grateful to the Government for understanding that for every parent, his child's welfare comes first.

I would like to thank Mr Loke and Mr Chia for inviting us to become citizens but for now, I am proud to be a citizen of my country and have PR status in Singapore.

Sweta Agarwal (Mrs)

The context of this letter is admission to primary schools. The process is highly competitive, for the top schools. PRs and Singaporeans are treated the same way in the admissions process (which leads some Singaporeans to complain).

Actually, that's incorrect. The deeper truth is that Singaporeans do not enjoy the same rights as PRs, as far as primary school admissions are concerned. Singaporeans are disadvantaged, vis a viz the PRs. Let me explain.

Some years ago, I went to a friend's home for a party. Mark is Australian by birth, and has since become a PR. He also had two sons, who were then of primary school age.

The two boys were not attending a local primary school. Instead they were attending an international school in Singapore. I can't remember exactly which one now - it could have been the Singapore American School, or perhaps it was the Australian International School.

Mark started to tell me about what his sons did in school, the kind of curriculum they had etc. His two sons also showed me their school projects, and photos of their school activities.

It struck me that in some ways, this international school was much better than the average local school. There was less emphasis on rote learning, memory work and exams. The children had more time for sports, cultural activities and field trips. It was a happier, more creative kind of learning environment.

I began to think that if I could, maybe I should also send my son to an international school, when he was old enough.

But I learned later that I could not.

PRs in Singapore can send their young children to a local primary school, or to an international school. The PRs have the right to choose. If they choose a local primary school, then they enjoy the same priority as Singaporean citizens, in the admissions process. Alternatively, PRs can send their children to an international school in Singapore, such as one of these:

Singapore American School
Australian International School
Canadian International School
Stamford American International School
Avondale Grammar School
Emaar International School
One World International School
EtonHouse International School
Overseas Family School
Tanglin Trust School
The Swiss School Singapore
However, Singaporean citizens do not have that option. They are not allowed to send their young children to international schools. Whether they like it or not, they must send their children to a local primary school. Not because the international schools reject Singaporeans. But because the Singapore government says so.

The Compulsory Education Act states that Singaporean parents must send their child, at age six, to attend a "national primary school". The rule is compulsory, and excludes international schools, and does not apply to PRs, but only to Singaporeans.

Therefore unlike PRs, Singaporeans do not have the option of sending their little children to an international school (instead of a local school). In fact, that would be a criminal offence. You could be sent to prison for up to one year.

Isn't it fun to be Singaporean? It's like being one of the heroes in Mission Impossible. There are booby traps everywhere you turn.

Time for another poem, from my book Two Baby Hands (which is available at Kinokuniya). This poem explains what I find disturbing, about the local education system. Sandra Davie, the ST journalist who writes about education, likes this particular poem a lot. Sandra told me so herself, when she came to my book launch and I was autographing her copy.

In Our Schools

Some are Special,
or Express. A few are
Gifted. The others
are merely Normal
(a polite lie).

All are classifiable,
like chemical compounds,
lists of Chinese
or lab specimens of
dead insects -

preserved, labelled,
pinned by a cold
through the
unfeeling thorax.

On Race, Religion and Foreign Talent

Another poem from my book:
Train Ride to Singapore

The train pulled out slowly
like a long sigh
and I saw from my window
how you stood alone at
the station platform
with hands in your pockets -
you refused to wave
but smiled a reluctant, sorry
kind of goodbye.

Five years ago we skipped
the bahasa melayu class
to play chor dai di
in the dirty, deserted
alley behind
Ah Hin's coffeeshop,
we talked about girls
and about all the
things we'd do
when we were old enough
to get a job or into
university -

things were so much
simpler then.
Now we understand that
the colour of skin
opens doors for some
in this country,
forever closes them
for others.
I'm going south
alone to chase a dream,
because I can,
you can't,
for this I'm sorry
and I really don't know
if I'm ever
coming back.
Some years ago, this poem drew the attention of Associate Professor Dr Nor Faridah Abdul Manaf, from the University of Malaya. Well at that time, she wasn't an associate professor yet. She was still working on her dissertation about race, religion and Asian literature. She discussed my poem above in her dissertation.

Train Ride to Singapore is written in the first person. However, it's not about me. It's really about Sam, a Malaysian friend of mine, who had come to Singapore to further his studies. The "you" in the poem is a friend of his, who didn't get that chance. Of course, the background to the poem is Malaysia's NEP, which discriminated against non-Malay citizens of Malaysia (among other things, in the area of access to university education).

I first got to know Sam, when we were neighbours in an NUS hostel. One day, Sam had shared with me his bittersweet reflections on leaving his home country, Malaysia. I promptly converted Sam's account into a poem - that's how I created Train Ride to Singapore.

Sam is still in Singapore today. He works as a private banker with Citigroup.

I have written many posts about foreigners in Singapore. I think sometimes this may give rise to the impression that I don't like the foreigners here. That's untrue. Many of my best friends are foreigners. Foreigners are human beings too. All human beings strive to find happiness and avoid suffering. They try to do the best they can for themselves. If that means going to live in another country, well then, that's what they'll do. You can't blame them for that.

To put it another way, the failings of the Singapore government are not the fault of the foreigners here. Many aspects of our government's FT policies are stupid, but the foreigners can't be blamed for that.

Incidentally, the National Library Board has bought more than 20 copies of my poetry book, Two Baby Hands, and put them at different branches around Singapore. So you don't have to buy the book - you can borrow it too.

Aug 19, 2009

Recommended Blog

So there's this person, Cai Ming Jie, who has a PhD from Stanford University. For 16 years, he was a researcher with the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, which is part of A*STAR. Last May, he was made redundant. He wasn't able to find any other job, despite sending out many applications.

So this year, he's become a taxi driver.

I just browsed through his blog - A Singapore Taxi Driver's Diary. As the title suggests, it's mostly about the people he meets and the places he goes to, as he drives around Singapore.

I really like his writing. It's honest, observant, authentic and has a lot of genuine local flavour. His blog entries almost inspire me to start writing my next poetry book.

Do check out his blog.

More on the Scholarship Matter

A journalist from The New Paper has emailed me about my earlier post here. She would like to interview me and write an article about the matter.

Sorry, Pei Shan, I decline. But do feel free to quote my blog. Anyway, the key facts speak for themselves. You can also call up the Law Faculty or the NUS Admissions Office to ask more questions.

As a matter of fact, why limit yourself to the NUS Law Faculty? Go ask some harder (and wider) questions, about how much of Singapore's taxpayers' money is spent each year, to pay school fees for students from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam .... anywhere but Singapore.

I'll just say a little more about why I had been interested in doing a Masters in Law at NUS. I am a Singapore-qualified lawyer, which means that I've been formally trained and educated in the laws of Singapore. However, nowadays my work is quite international. It is therefore very useful for me to understand more about the laws in other countries, especially the Asian ones.

The best university in the world to study Asian laws is probably NUS. Not Harvard, not Cambridge, not Stanford. It's NUS, because it's right here in Asia, and it has dedicated itself towards building expertise in Asian legal systems. For example, the NUS Law Faculty offers subjects such as:

The Contemporary Indian Legal System
Chinese Corporate and Securities Law
Foreign Investment Law in Vietnam
Japanese Corporate Law & Governance
Islamic Law
Introduction to Indian Business Law
International & Comparative Law of Sale in Asia
Chinese Legal Tradition and Legal Chinese

These are useful, practical subjects for lawyers in Singapore. Why? Because Singapore is always aiming to be a regional hub in this, or a regional hub in that. Therefore Singaporean lawyers frequently need to work on cross-border/foreign matters, and that's why they need to know more about laws in other Asian countries.

Unfortunately, when Singaporean lawyers want to apply for a scholarship to upgrade their skills at NUS, they will be discriminated against. Just for being Singaporean.

That's just too bad ... for Singapore.

Aug 17, 2009

PM Lee's Strangely Empty Rally Speech

I had expected to be blogging about PM Lee's rally speech today. However, I find that I have almost nothing to say about it.

It was .... substanceless.

The PM's rally speech is traditionally the time for him to announce important new developments, ideas and policies for the nation. But this year, none of that happened.

Instead all PM Lee really talked about was racial and religious harmony, and in a way that contained nothing new. It sounded the same as the nation-building chapters of my Primary 3 Chinese language textbook, many, many years ago.

Last Friday, a Lianhe Zaobao reporter had actually emailed me with a list of interview questions. He had been planning to write an article about how the government was using "new media" to reach out to Singaporeans. One of the journalist's questions for me was as follows:
"(3) You will probably have your thoughts about PM's NDR after it's been delivered. In addition to publishing your views on your own website, would you consider emailing the relevant authorities or posting your comments via official channels such as the Reach facebook, forum or twitter, to tell the government how you feel about this year's rally speech?"
Well, my answer is no. I have no comments on what the PM actually said, because he hardly said anything at all.

I have a really odd feeling about this. I could be reading too much into it, but it almost feels like .... like he's deliberately choosing to avoid certain issues. The really important issues.

Pay Your Parents, Or Be Imprisoned

ST Aug 17, 2009
Govt may act against children who dump their elderly parents

CHILDREN who dump their elderly parents in hospitals or nursing homes could be taken to task and forced to help pay for their parents' care.

The Government will study how best to use the Maintenance of Parents Act to get such children to do their filial duty, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last night during his National Day Rally speech in Mandarin.

This came about after he met several nursing home managers who told him of old folk abandoned by their families.

The children of these old folk had said they would not care even if the homes decided to kick their parents out, he recounted. Some even changed the addresses on their identity cards so that they could not be located.

This will not do, said PM Lee, who also dismissed the line taken by some who say 'there is no filial son for long-term illness'.

My bet is that as the years go by, the Maintenance of Parents Act will gain greater and greater significance, as one of Singapore's social experiments.

Initially, the implementation would be mild-mannered. But over time, the authorities will become more and more aggressive in applying the Act.

After all, we have an aging population, and also a government whose policies and principles are quite firmly against providing social welfare. Yet you can't just let the old folks die in the streets.

The solution has to be this - force citizens to provide financial support for their aged parents.

Aug 15, 2009

My Personal Memories of Rape

Today's Straits Times has an article about three young people on an important mission:
ST Aug 15, 2009
'Rape within marriage is still assault'
These twenty-somethings are determined to change what they see as a gross injustice - the 'marital exemption' in our Penal Code, which does not consider non-consensual sex within a marriage to be rape
By Cassandra Chew

THEY make an unlikely trio out to change the world - a bank officer, a charity fundraiser and a freelance designer - but they have the words of Margaret Mead to inspire them.

The famed American anthropologist once said: 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.'

That is as good a description as any of Ms Wong Pei Chi, Ms Jolene Tan and Mr Mark Wong, the force behind the anti-marital rape petition No To Rape.

They are determined to change what they see as a gross injustice - the 'marital exemption' in our Penal Code, Sections 375(4) and 376A(5), which does not consider non-consensual sex within a marriage to be rape.

Married women who wish to be protected from sexual abuse must apply for a court injunction or a personal protection order from the Family Court.

...... Although they did not personally know anyone who had been victimised, the stories alone were enough to move them to action.

They began their campaign last August by writing to their Members of Parliament and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, but were dissatisfied with the responses, which basically indicated that the issue had been discussed during the Penal Code review in 2007.

They decided to take matters into their own hands and freelance designer Mr Wong, 28, who met Ms Tan through a blog, decided to join them.

...... they launched their own online petition at last month.

No To Rape has collected more than 1,900 signatures so far, and they hope to garner at least 10,000 before submitting their petition to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in October.

If the Government decides to change the law, it will have to review the Penal Code. If the Penal Code is to be changed, the Government has to table a Bill in Parliament and put it to the vote.

Their campaign coincides with the 10th anniversary of a key marital rape case, Public Prosecutor v N.

Even though the victim was slapped, tied up and raped, the charge of rape could not be held against her husband.
10 years already? How time flies.

The article brings back some personal memories for me. Because I was the DPP who argued the case of Public Prosecutor vs N in the High Court, before Yong Pung How (then the Chief Justice of Singapore).

PP v N was a very violent case. The offender was a Navy sergeant. At that time, divorce proceedings had already begun between him and his wife, and they were living apart.

Basically one day, he kidnapped her, forced her into his car and drove her to a relative's flat (no one else was there). He beat her; punched her; tied her to the bed using bath towels; stripped her naked; and raped her.

At that time, there was no way to prosecute him for rape. The Penal Code gave husbands complete immunity. The legal provisions were primitive, dating back to the 1800s when Singapore was a British Crown Colony. Amazingly, for more than 150 years, the government had failed to make a single change to the rape immunity provisions.

So the prosecution had to charge the Navy sergeant with a variety of other less-serious charges, including (if I recall correctly) "criminal intimidation" and "voluntarily causing hurt".

I did not handle the case at the district court level. Another DPP handled it at that stage. There the district judge imposed a ridiculously lenient sentence. If I recall correctly, it was just a fine of a few thousand dollars - there was no imprisonment at all (or maybe it was just a few days).

Bear in mind that the typical sentence for rapists is about 10 years' imprisonment and 8 strokes of the cane.

The prosecution appealed for a higher sentence. I took the case to the High Court. There I presented to the Chief Justice various arguments for a heavier sentence.

I still remember the first question that Yong Pung How had asked in court. He asked, "Why wasn't this man charged for rape?"

Yong didn't know that the prosecution couldn't do that. He looked slightly stunned, when I pointed him to the relevant immunity provision in the Penal Code. At first sight, Yong's ignorance of that point was very surprising (you would expect the Chief Justice to know better). However, on further reflection, Yong's ignorance was not that surprising.

Why? Well, as Chief Justice, Yong had heard hundreds, perhaps thousands of criminal cases. So he knew a lot about criminal law. But Yong had never heard a single case where a husband had been charged for raping his wife. And that, of course, was because the law did not even allow the prosecution to charge any husband for such an offence.

Anyway, the Chief Justice increased the sentence for N. He brought the overall sentence close to the maximum possible, for the charges of "criminal intimidation" and "voluntarily causing hurt". If I recall correctly, it added up to a few years' imprisonment. This was a big improvement over the original sentence, but it was still a lot lower than what it would have been, for a bona fide rape charge. Even the Chief Justice is constrained by the words in the Penal Code, you see.

Later, Yong gave a written judgment for this case, thereby immortalising my name in Singapore's legal history (lawyers and law students can look me up in the Singapore Law Reports, or in the Lawnet database). In general, appellate judges give written judgments only for cases that they consider to be legally significant. In his judgment, Yong referred to the marital rape exception in the Penal Code, made some criticism of it and said that unfortunately, nothing could be done except by Parliament.

It was his way of telling Parliament, "This rule is stupid - please fix it."

Parliament was very slow. Another seven years passed, before Parliament got around to amending this provision (together with other parts of the Penal Code). That was in 2007. Parliament amended the provision to say that a man could be charged for raping his wife, if she had already:

(1) obtained a decree of judicial separation;
(2) obtained a personal protection order; or
(3) obtained an injunction against her husband restraining him from having sex with her.

Personally I think that this is still not quite sufficient. Obviously, Pei Chi, Jolene and Mark (the three people mentioned in the ST article) agree with me.

The tough part is to convince Parliament. As you might have noticed, sometimes Parliament can be very stupid, and also very slow to act.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Click to go to the "No To Rape" website and sign the petition.
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Aug 14, 2009

A Simple Illustration of Question 9

While commenting on my latest posts on education, a few readers veered into rather theoretical realms. This is unnecessary. After all, it is easy to offer actual, real-life examples.

Here - I'll offer one example.

I have a strong interest in Asian legal systems. A few years ago, I even considered taking a year off from work, to do a Masters in Law at NUS. I checked out the available graduate scholarships at the NUS Law Faculty. Alas, almost all the scholarships were reserved for non-Singaporeans.

That's still the way it is today. See the current list of graduate scholarships here:

(1) Research Scholarship
(2) Graduate Scholarship for ASEAN Nationals (NUS GSA)
(3) Faculty Graduate Scholarship (FGS)
(4) Scholarship for Young Asian Academics
(5) Microsoft Scholarship

The 1st scholarship is open to both Singaporean and foreign applicants.
The 2nd scholarship is open to students from all ASEAN countries, except Singaporeans.
The 3rd scholarship is open to students from anywhere in the world, except Singaporeans.
The 4th scholarship is open to all Asian students, except Singaporeans.
The 5th scholarship is open to students from anywhere in the world, except Singaporeans.

Is it strange that so many Singaporeans feel marginalised in their own country? No, it is not strange at all. It is clear that in our country today, citizenship often turns out to be a liability.

Aug 13, 2009

More on the 9th Question

Let's imagine that 20 years ago, you went to NUS and NTU to ask the lecturers the following question - "What is the mission of this university?". I believe that the most common reply would have been something like this: "To provide a good university education for Singaporeans."

But what if you asked the same question today? I believe that the most common reply would be something along the following lines - "To be one of the world's leading universities" or "To develop its global profile and reach".

In other words, the mission changed along the way.

The new goals are not "wrong" or "bad". They are all very worthy aspirations for an educational institution. But once again, if you personalise the question, you will see the implications. If these universities succeed in their goals to become world-class, then they will admit only world-class students (Singaporean, or otherwise). If they admit only world-class students, then many Singaporeans who are not necessarily stupid or incapable, but merely somewhat less than "world-class" will not have an opportunity to study locally.

Thus these Singaporeans will be forced to go overseas for their university education (if they can afford it), or otherwise simply quit school.

For those who do go overseas, there will be also an opportunity to experience life in another country. And these Singaporeans may (quite rightfully) feel grateful that here in a foreign country, there was a foreign university which accepted them, which gave them the chance to grow and gain their higher education - when their own country, Singapore, did not.

Why should we be surprised then, that some of these individuals will choose to stay on in those foreign countries? After all, Singapore failed to provide for them what these foreign countries were able, and willing, to provide.

Interestingly, as Singapore expands its vision of becoming an international medical hub, we may see an analogous situation occurring in the area of healthcare. The mission of healthcare providers in Singapore may shift over time. There will be increasing focus on attracting wealthy patients from other Asian countries. These healthcare providers may become more and more profit-oriented, and less and less focused on any notion about providing good, affiordable healthcare for Singaporeans.

Aug 12, 2009

The 9th Question - On Singaporean Students

9 Education: Bright students will be sought after internationally, chipping away at Singapore's talent pyramid at the top. Mr Goh considers this one of the most serious threats to Singapore's long-term survival and says it has to be solved now.

His questions for the Prime Minister, Education Minister, schools and families: How do we bond students going abroad to Singapore, physically if possible, and if not, at least emotionally? How do we ensure most will return home and contribute to Singapore? How do we ensure there will always be a core of honest, able and dedicated Singaporeans to look after the country and their fellow men?

"Stupid Goh," Lee Hsien Loong would reply. "Haven't you noticed? We can just replace all of them with talented foreigners."

Back to the theme of personalising the question. For the individual Singaporean, it's a very good thing to have the kind of skills, knowledge and experience that give you international mobility. You may or may not go - but at least you have that option.

Studying overseas is a good start. At least you get a taste of life in another country.

Aug 8, 2009

Happy National Day!

In line with the festive season, here's a poem from my book Two Baby Hands (see sidebar for more details about the book):

I had a small part in a
Big show of a great little nation.
My uniformed mates and I were
To march out, swing left,
Turn twice, and get off the grounds
In twenty seconds flat.
Meanwhile the music boomed,
The lasers splashed,
And the darkened crowds hit
A new high of pre-planned,
Programmed excitement.
Later at home, my mother replayed
The video tape five times
But couldn't tell her tiny toy-
Soldier son from any of the rest.
"That one is me," I said,
Pointing at the screen.
I couldn't be sure.
Still we laughed and clapped
Our hands like children,
Knowing that it was not
Supposed to matter.
The above poem was also previously published in an anthology entitled From Boys to Men, which contains poems and prose from 30 Singaporean writers on the theme of National Service. From Boys to Men was edited by Koh Buck Song and Umej Bhatia, and in their introduction to the book, they briefly commented on my poem as follows:
"At times, the solder becomes acutely aware that NS must involve public performances, where there is pride in achievement to be shared with loved ones. And yet the performer himself has come to realise, only too well, that success is sometimes best accomplished through teamwork. And this means not so much the extinguishing, as the irrelevance, of individual identity. Personal aspirations must fall in line, in the parade ground of the larger scheme of things. Gilbert Koh's poem National Day Parade puts this across subtly ...."
What they didn't say is that my poem is also about the artificial engineering of national identity, heheh.

Aug 7, 2009

The Second Question: Homes For Singaporeans

"How do you, as leaders, convince Singaporeans of that when they are already living in good-quality public and private housing?"

That question is not a problem for Singapore. Nor is it a problem for Singaporeans.

It is merely a politician's problem. Politicians always have to convince people of this or that. Are their claims actually true? That is a separate issue. The convincing is what the politician needs to achieve, irrespective of the truth of the matter. As I had said in my earlier post, PR and marketing are all part of the game of politics.

But should SM Goh have been so indiscreet? Should he have stated publicly, and in such an explicit manner, his agenda to convince the masses? Well, SM Goh does have his other reasons.

There's a property bubble out there right now, remember. SM Goh is trying to help suck a little air out of the bubble. In other words, he wants to send the message that "Hey, maybe you can stay put right where you are. Maybe you don't really need to move."

But of course, people will always aspire to live in better homes. It's human nature. And of course, there is "good-quality" housing in Singapore. There is even "great-quality" and "superb-quality" housing in Singapore. Whether you live in such housing is another question.

That takes us back to the theme of the personalised question. Most importantly, the individual has to make smart decisions about where to live and what to buy.

And when to buy it.

Incidentally, folks, in deciding whether you can afford a particular property, bear this in mind. The fact that a bank will not grant you a loan is a good indicator that you can't afford it. But the fact that a bank will grant you a loan is not a good indicator that you can afford it.

Remember - in doing its credit appraisal, the bank focuses on the risk that you will default (or be unable to meet your repayments). If the bank is happy to take that risk, then you get your loan. But the bank is not really interested in how hard you might have to save and scrimp and cut down on your other expenses, so that you can make your mortgage repayments.

In other words, the bank doesn't care about how much you might have to compromise your lifestyle, in order to afford your home. That's an assessment you'll have to make for yourself.

Aug 6, 2009

The First Question - Global Competition, Economic Growth and that Little Fellow on the MRT Train (You)

"High growth: Amid global competition, can you maintain Singapore's high economic growth and keep on improving our standard of living?"

The answer is - nope. Basically the world is too large and the economy is beyond any government's control. Over the past 15 years, the PAP itself has repeatedly told you so. Every time the economy runs into trouble, the PAP will unfailingly blame it on "external factors". The ailing US economy; the rising costs of oil; the ever-increasing competition from China and India, and so on. So it is quite clear that the economy is beyond its control.

(Of course, every time the economy is doing well, the PAP will claim credit and point to its own ingenious schemes and policies. But we all understand that. It's called politics - and PR and marketing are just part of the game).

To put it another way, a nation's economic growth and standard of living depend on a wide range of complex factors, and are way beyond the direct control of any single government, political party or human being (even if they occasionally like to pretend otherwise).

However, for the individual citizen, the first question can be rephrased into a more practical form - "Can you achieve and maintain a satisfactory income and standard of living, for yourself and your family?".

This rephrasing is important. It offers a more appropriate perspective. It allows us to move from feeling powerless, to feeling empowered. After all, it is not the individual's duty to compete with the world. It is not the individual's mission to defeat the planet.

The individual's main job is merely to learn how to look after himself and his loved ones. That is a much smaller and much more manageable task. It is also more sensible and more meaningful.

Remember that in the best of economic times, there are still poor people and there are still unhappy people. In the worst of times, there are still rich people and there are still happy people. In the most prosperous countries, there are still homeless folks. In the poorest countries, there are still millionaires (and billionaires).

Thus in the story of your own personal life, we may say that the state of the general economy is a sub-plot, but is most certainly not the main story. YOU are the lead actor in the story of your own life.

More later.

Aug 4, 2009

The Ever-Inquisitive Mr Goh Chok Tong

This man has so many questions. Considering how much he's paid, one would have thought that he should be supplying answers instead, LOL.
ST Aug 3, 2009
10 challenges for the next generation: SM

Success creates its own problems, said Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong yesterday when he spelt out the 10 challenges facing the next generation. He highlighted them by posing questions to Cabinet ministers, families and the young.

1 High growth: Amid global competition, can you maintain Singapore's high economic growth and keep on improving our standard of living?

In 1959, thousands of Singaporeans lived in slums and squalor. Today, more than 90 per cent own their homes.

2 Life will get better: How do you, as leaders, convince Singaporeans of that when they are already living in good-quality public and private housing?

3 Transport: How does the Transport Minister satisfy the demands for comfort, convenience, congestion-free travel and punctuality of services and expectation of affordable fares, ERP and parking charges?

4 Health care: Can the Health Minister stamp out diseases linked to an affluent lifestyle, such as diabetes and cancer? And keep health-care costs down and affordable?

If we live till 90, we would probably have to work till 75 to have enough savings for a cosy retirement of 15 years.

5 Worker training: Can the Manpower Minister and the labour chief design a new training programme, Workfare (a wage supplement for working low-income Singaporeans) and a Jobs Credit wage subsidy scheme for grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents?

6 More babies: What will get our young to marry and have children? Any creative ideas on procreation, Mr Goh asks parents and the young.

7 Ageing: Today, 9 per cent of our population are over 65 years of age. By 2030, it will more than double to 20 per cent.

How do we support so many senior citizens, he asks the chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Ageing.

How will we look after our parents and grandparents? Will you build more community hospitals, nursing and old folk's homes, and keep them affordable?

8 Scarce land: In the last 50 years, land area has been expanded by more than 20 per cent, through reclamation.

How much more land can Singapore reclaim over the next 50 years, he asks the Minister for National Development.

As the population and the economy grow, how will Singapore deal with the potential over-crowding problem?

9 Education: Bright students will be sought after internationally, chipping away at Singapore's talent pyramid at the top. Mr Goh considers this one of the most serious threats to Singapore's long-term survival and says it has to be solved now.

His questions for the Prime Minister, Education Minister, schools and families: How do we bond students going abroad to Singapore, physically if possible, and if not, at least emotionally? How do we ensure most will return home and contribute to Singapore? How do we ensure there will always be a core of honest, able and dedicated Singaporeans to look after the country and their fellow men?

10 Religious harmony: For four decades, Singapore has enjoyed racial and religious harmony. How do the people of Singapore ensure that Singaporeans of different faiths will continue to mix with one another and respect one another's faith?
In subsequent posts, I will share some thoughts on some of the 10 questions above.