Aug 30, 2008

Vivian Must Be Annoyed

ST Aug 30, 2008
I'm sorry, Singapore
By Lin Xinyi & Terrence Voon

'I SINCERELY apologise.'

Ms Lee Bee Wah, the president of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA), had those words for the country last night.

Her comments last weekend, that she would replace the Singapore table tennis team manager, unleashed a storm of criticism and calls for her resignation.

In a quavering voice, she said sorry for souring the country's brightest sporting moment in almost half a century.

Facing a throng of close to 30 journalists at a press conference last night, she said: 'It is regretful that this situation happened and turned out the way it did.

'I had made comments which had been misunderstood and had upset some Singaporeans. I sincerely apologise for causing any grievances and any stress.'

She also said: 'Our action has dampened the celebration mood of our fellow Singaporeans.'
With that, she brought to a close one chapter of an episode that sparked unhappiness from all quarters.

Since last weekend Ms Lee, an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, has been criticised by many for spoiling the party mood after the country's first Olympic medal in 48 years.

Just five days after the women's table tennis team took silver at the Beijing Games, she revealed that team manager Antony Lee's services were no longer needed, and that national head coach Liu Guodong's fate would be decided by a coaching committee.

She had been angry after Singapore No. 1 Gao Ning found himself with no coach for his third-round men's singles match and crashed out to a much lower-ranked Croatian.

Ms Lee took over as table tennis chief barely two months ago, on July 4. Though many called for her to step down, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan made it clear last night that she will stay, but she needs some time to get results.

Last night's press conference, held at the STTA's headquarters in Toa Payoh, also made clear that head coach Liu is in talks with Ms Lee to negotiate a new contract.

But team manager Lee will leave the STTA. His secondment from the Singapore Sports Council to the association will be extended by three months beyond the end of this month. He will then join the Singapore National Olympic Council.
Silly Bee Wah. Such an unnecessary fracas. Simultaneously, her severe lack of political finesse is exposed and revealed to her political bosses.

If Bee Wah had really wanted to get rid of Lee, she should have simply waited a few more weeks or months. Then the public excitement over the Olympic silver medal would have died down, and she could have garnered a few plausible reasons, and sacked Lee then. Without all this sound and fury.

No, instead Bee Wah had to do it straight after the Olympics, and in such an ugly fashion - making it public, without even personally telling Lee first. Leading to an entirely predictable backlash from the public. Now the Minister himself has to step in personally, and repeatedly, to manage the show and stop it from spinning out of control.

Doesn't Bee Wah UNDERSTAND what Vivian needs? The success of our imported foreign sporting talent is not merely for the sake of the sporting scene in Singapore. No, their success is important for convincing the masses that in general, foreign talent is good, valuable and beneficial for Singapore, in every sector.

In other words, the Olympic silver medal is an important showcase for the PAP government's broader foreign talent policy. The greater the public euphoria over the silver medal, the better!

But now that Bee Wah has gone and mucked it all up. No, her political bosses won't be pleased at all.

Regarding the table tennis part, the damage is done. Lee is going, and who can blame him? People have pride, especially people who are good at what they do. Lee's main satisfaction in this matter would be that before leaving, he did manage to get Bee Wah so thoroughly and publicly embarassed.

And besides, for him, there will always be other options. Any other countries out there, which would like a table tennis coach for the 2012 London Olympics?

Aug 27, 2008

Life As A Competition

From the Straits Times of 25 August 2008, an article by 22-year-old Christine Chong.

Why must life be a competition?

I ONCE met a trumpet player from the United States and asked him which competitions his school band had taken part in. Stunned, he replied: 'Not everything in life is a competition.'

It was inconceivable to me that students would participate in school bands and other CCAs out of pure interest, and not for points.

It is a tragedy that many Singaporeans believe exams, rankings and stress are necessary evils on the long and winding road to success.

The mantra that 'Your studies should be first priority' is never far from our parents' lips. 'Don't waste too much time on other activities' and 'This is a very important academic year' are close seconds ....
Coincidentally, I was having lunch with a friend yesterday and this topic came up - why are Singaporeans choosing not to have babies?

The interesting answer - it's the result of a collective herd mentality instilled by the education system. Back in the school days, the mentality could be expressed like this: "Your studies should be first priority; don't waste time on other activities." This got imprinted into the minds of the entire generation.

Fast forward to adulthood, and the same imprint is still there. It's just that it has adapted into a new form for those who have finished school: "Your career should be first priority - don't waste time on having children."

In the psychological landscape of Singaporeans, parenthood has become the equivalent of "CCAs". It's the thing you might really, really love to do. But your kiasu instincts are telling you that you can't take the risk; you might not have the time; you might not have the money; and it's much safer to just concentrate on your homework job. (Yup, the same job that you don't love, but chose for practical reasons).

Christine Chong posed a good question - "Why must life be a competition?". The problem with competitions is that they have rules, and the rules were made by someone else, not you.

It's okay to compete for a while, and it might even be fun. But you should pick and choose your races. You should also bear in mind that it's all just mind games and you always have the right to refuse to play.

If you don't see that, and you simply live your life as one big, endless competition, then in all likelihood, you'll simply end up living your life, according to someone else's rules. Not your own.

A reader, Kelvin Ng, emailed me last week. He was trying to locate one of my old posts - where I had written something about "life audits". A "life audit" is a time I set aside to reflect, feel and think about how & what I've been doing; and what I want to do next; and why.

It's not about how my peers are living their lives. Or how my boss thinks I should be living mine. Or how my mother would like me to do (which includes buying landed property). Or what society in general might be expecting me to do.

It's about how I want to live my own life.

Here, Kelvin - the link. Try it out. Because in the long run, life just isn't very fun, if you have to keep playing by someone else's rules.

Aug 21, 2008

Suffering and Struggle As The Hallmarks of A True Singaporean

Last Tuesday, the ST Forum featured a letter on the topic of citizenship and Singaporean identity. The letter referred to the Olympic silver medal which our foreign-talent imports had recently won for Singapore. The writer, Mr Mark Wong, made his key point as follows:
"We have every right to celebrate our paddlers' success in the Olympics and they duly deserve it. But despite all the controversy surrounding the origins of our players, one cannot deny that it would have been a more empathic celebration if Singaporeans brought home the medal rather than Singapore citizens."
Mark drew a distinction between being a Singapore citizen, and being Singaporean. He tried to say that citizenship is just a kind of formality, consisting of official paperwork and the issuance of a pink card. In contrast, a genuine Singaporean identity is something more profound, more important, and relates to a deeper sense of belonging:

ST Aug 19, 2008
Singaporeans and Singapore citizens: There's a big difference

IT IS time to put forth the argument that being a Singapore citizen is not the same as being Singaporean. One can be born here but one's heart is not. If the only thing linking someone who spends most of his life in another country to his birthplace is his relatives, then there is little meaning behind his national identity. People talk about 'true-blue' Singaporeans but are usually stumped for words when one asks them to define the term.

A feeling of identity is defined and nurtured by one's social affiliations, having immersed in its culture, history and people. I consider myself Singaporean for the following reasons:

- Having friends who suffered with me during national service.

- Having friends who struggled with me under the education system.

- Eating, celebrating, talking, learning, suffering, serving and being served by Singaporeans around me ....

I understand Mark's point, but I could not help but see some sad, unintended irony in his letter.

Mark gives three main reasons why he considers himself Singaporean. The first reason has something to do with "suffering". The second reason has something to do with "struggling". And the third reason, like the first, also has something to do with "suffering".

We might summarise as follows - the hallmarks of a Singaporean are suffering and struggle.

That sounds quite unappealing, to me at least. If Mark's definition is correct, then I would really prefer not to be a true Singaporean. Being a Singaporean citizen will be fine. By nature, I'm just not masochistic.

Aug 20, 2008

School, Memory and Real Life

My memory is tremendous. For example, suppose I go to a party, where I know no one except the host, and the host then spends a few minutes quickly introducing the other 20 guests to me. Immediately after that, I can remember every name mentioned, and link it to the right face.

Next example. Suppose you recite to me a list of 20 completely random words - "love, Toyota, radio, blog, snake, Mexico, hurricane, hairstylist ..." and so on. Immediately after that, I can recite back to you all those words, without missing a single one. Furthermore I can recite them back to you ... in the exact order that you had told them to me.

In my previous post, I had said that rote learning plays an inordinately large role in our education system. You might be thinking now that since my memory is so good, I must have found school very easy. Unfortunately, my memory wasn't so good when I was a student.

My memory became so good only much later, when I had already finished school. It all started when I chanced upon a few books on memory techniques, the back cover of which typically made rather outrageous-sounding claims.

For example, the book might claim that you would be able to remember up to 100 items in perfect order, and it will take you no more than 20 minutes to do this. And the items could be names; addresses; telephone numbers; important historical dates; key points from your science textbook etc.

In fact the claims are not outrageous. They are genuine. You don't have to be a genius either. You just have to put in the effort to understand a few key principles and practise the special memory techniques - one famous one is the Roman Room method.

And hey presto, with a bit of practice, indeed you will have a memory that's simply phenomenal, compared to the average person.

You can see these memory techniques taken to their extreme, at events like the World Memory Championships (the mind equivalent of the Olympics). Here's one of their events - Random Words. Each contestant has to memorise 400 random words, organised in 20 columns of 20 words each. And how much time do they have to memorise? Just 15 minutes.

One might believe that a highly powerful memory is extremely useful in life. I don't really agree. It's good not to be absent-minded, but it's very easy to over-estimate the practical value of a highly powerful memory. I would say that a powerful memory is extremely useful, if you are a Singapore student. However, today I honestly have very little use for my memory techniques, powerful though they may be. Let me explain.

If I want to go shopping for groceries, I still make a written shopping list. Why? Well, the very process of writing out the list helps me to work out what I need to buy. And once I've written out the list, why should I bother to memorise it? I can just put the list in my pocket and take it with me to the supermarket. That takes no effort at all.

Suppose someone gives me his handphone number. I could memorise the number, or I could just store it in my own handphone. I choose the latter approach. Why? Because both approaches take the same amount of time - a few seconds - and if I store the number in my handphone, later I can speed-dial the number straightaway (no need to manually key in all 8 numbers).

At work, there is a set of standard legal documents which I constantly need to refer to. They relate to standard terms used by the international financial markets for trading in foreign exchange, commodities, credit risk etc. And each document consists of many pages of technical definitions and legal jargon, basically a lot of small print.

If I really wanted to, I could use my memory techniques to memorise the clauses. But why even bother? I can just put the documents at the side of my desk, within easy reach (and in fact, that's where they are). Whenever I need to, I can just reach out, take the right document, flip to the relevant page and check whatever I want to check.

I mean, I'm working. This is real life, not an exam. I don't score any extra marks for memorising documents that are already sitting on my table.

By now, you will see that in real life, a highly powerful memory is not that important. It's very valuable only in school, and that's because many things in school (especially Singapore schools) are accomplished by rote learning.

In real life though, rote learning is largely irrelevant. Because in real life, you don't waste time memorising information that's easily retrievable from your handphone, hard disk, emails or hard-copy files. You could also just open a textbook - and read it. Photocopy a page, if you need to. No need to memorise at all.

Aug 19, 2008

Education and The Great Pain of Rather Useless Things

An article about PM Lee's National Day Rally speech:
ST Aug 18, 2008
Let Kids Learn At Own Pace

PARENTS who complain that the education system here is stressful for their children should look at other Asian countries where it can be worse.

In South Korea, there is a school where students can snatch only a few hours of rest each day, are not allowed to make friends or keep items like magazines in their bags.

It is like a prison, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday night.

'We are not like that. We have some stress but we should manage it, we should take it in our stride,' he said.

He referred to the South Korean school when highlighting to parents that some stress in school was inevitable.

But he reminded parents that they should also let their children grow and learn at their own pace.

He noted that parents push their children further by sending them for extra enrichment lessons.

And during examination, they would ply their children with chicken essence.

Singapore's competitive school system has been named as a culprit by couples who choose to have no or few children.

But, Mr Lee said: 'I think some pressure is inevitable. It is part of Singapore's competitive spirit.

'Other East Asian societies are even more ruthlessly competitive.'

I like the general theme of PM Lee’s speech, but I think he still missed the point. Frankly I do not care whether our schools are more or less stressful than those in Korea, or Japan, or anywhere else.

Here’s the more important question. After all that stress, what do our students actually get out of it?

In my own school days, I spent many hours memorizing the structure and details of the Periodic Table in chemistry. From Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I memorized large chunks of verse, word for word, line by line, because that was the way to score an A1 for Literature. In mathematics, I learned to do complex calculations involving an imaginary number called “i”.

None of the above knowledge is relevant to my life now. After junior college, I’ve never had any reason to look at the Periodic Table again. Macbeth was enjoyable, but it would have been much more enjoyable if I didn’t have to spend dozens of hours committing it to memory. And as a matter of fact, the last time I used an imaginary number was during the very last maths exam of my life – nowhere else, since then.

Most of the substantive formal content we learn in school ultimately has no relevance to the rest of our lives. This isn’t such a bad thing, if in school we just had to walk through the substantive content, gain some understanding, grasp the key principles and move on. We never really know what we might need to know, later in life (I might have become a chemist, an actor or an imaginary mathematician), but if we do understand the key principles, we'll be able to figure our way through.

Unfortunately, I think that our education system still heavily emphasises regurgitation over real understanding. Our schools still require tremendous volumes of rote learning. This is where most of the stress arises. In the typical Singapore school, we do not merely miss the wood for the trees. Instead, for the sake of our exams, we desperately memorise the bark, the twigs, the useless fallen dead leaves - and we will be punished for failing to do so.

Our students suffer great, continual stress, as they strive to master things that will have absolutely no relevance to the rest of their lives.

Aug 15, 2008

The Devil, Chua Lee Hoong & Harry Lee

William Golding was a Nobel Prize-winning author. His most famous work is Lord of the Flies, a novel which I studied for my GCE O-level Literature exams many years ago. The title is actually a reference to the Hebrew name Beelzebub (literally, "god of the fly", "Lord of Flies"), a name sometimes used as a synonym for Satan.

The book is really quite fascinating. It is a study of the human psyche, and it stares straight into the face of evil inside us. I cannot do justice to the book's rich complexity in one short blog post, but let me try anyway.

The plot goes like this. After a plane crash, a large group of schoolboys are stranded on a beautiful deserted island. None of them are hurt, and none of them are in danger. There is more than enough food, water and shelter on the island for them to survive indefinitely.

The boys quickly organise themselves. They appoint leaders, set rules for themselves and work together to build shelters and gather food. In effect, they become a microcosm of our larger human society. You look at the boys and you can see how human civilisation operates (and this is precisely what Golding intended, for his novel is allegorical).

What happens next? Well, the boys could have led a peaceful, harmonious existence on an island paradise. In fact, they initially do. However, things quickly break down. A power struggle breaks out between the two oldest boys - Ralph, who is strong and genuinely good-hearted, and Jack, who is just as strong, but utterly ruthless and power-hungry.

At first the boys elect Ralph as their leader. But Jack steadily gains power. Eventually, Jack takes complete control and under his leadership, the entire group of boys degenerate into barbaric savagery. Two boys are murdered and Ralph himself is hunted down like a wild pig to be slaughtered.

How did Jack do it? How did he seize power? Essentially he played on the boys' fears. He told them that somewhere on the island, there lived a fearsome "beast". According to Jack, this "beast" was ferocious, it was no ordinary animal, it was a kind of monster and it was hungry. It hated the boys and was out to hunt them down and kill them.

And the only way for the boys to escape the "beast" and survive was to accept Jack as their leader. For Jack was the strongest, the smartest, the best hunter. Jack would know what to do. If only the boys would obey Jack and pledge allegiance to him, then Jack would be able to defend them against their enemy.

Most of the boys were duped. In fact they obeyed Jack so unquestioningly that they would commit murder, upon his command. And that was how Jack gained power.

Of course, the truth was that there was no "beast". It was merely a fiction, a myth, a frightening story that Jack steadily built up over time, by playing on the boys' collective fear of the dark. In psychological terms, the "beast" was nothing more than an external projection of the boys' irrational inner fears. It was through Jack's skilful manipulations that the imaginary "beast" was magnified into huge proportions.

Why am I writing about the Lord of the Flies today? Two decades have passed since I first read that stunningly insightful book. Yet up to today, events in Singapore still periodically remind me of that novel. Most recently, we see media reports like these:

ST July 12, 2008
There is a conspiracy to do us in, says MM Lee
Minister Mentor rebuts human rights groups' criticism of Singapore
By Sue-ann Chia

MINISTER Mentor Lee Kuan Yew last night dismissed human rights organisations' criticisms of Singapore's style of governance, saying that they were trying to 'do us in'.

In a robust rebuttal of these groups' assertions that Singapore is not a liberal democracy, he said that they had never run a country and did not know what was needed to make Singapore tick.

'There is a conspiracy to do us in. Why?... They see us as a threat,' said Mr Lee at an hour-long dialogue during the Economic Society of Singapore's annual dinner ....

ST Aug 9, 2008
Why they hate Singapore
Western detractors are getting the jitters as others copy our model
By Chua Lee Hoong

SINGAPORE is small enough to be a suburb in Beijing, but it has something in common with the mammoth People's Republic. The little red dot and Red China are both countries the West loves to hate.

There are those who wish bad things to happen to the Beijing Olympics.
Likewise, there are those who have had it in for the Lion City for years ....

Do "they" really hate us? Is anyone really out to "do us in"? Is there really a "conspiracy" going on?

And if so ....... whose conspiracy is it? Ask yourself that.

Education - The Government Still Doesn't Get It

In April 2008, Ng Eng Hen became our new Education Minister. Yesterday he gave a speech.
ST Aug 15, 2008
Next step for schools
It's time now to go beyond grades: Education Minister
By Amelia Tan

SINGAPORE'S education system has been very successful at the nuts and bolts - it churns out top students, and is ranked highly worldwide - but it is now time for it to evolve.

Parents these days are more educated and demanding, while children are more questioning and learn in different ways, and the system needs to keep up with rising expectations.

It needs to do more than simply churn out students with good grades, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday in a speech at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

At the end of the day, he said, education in Singapore needs to 'nurture each child to believe in himself and be self-sufficient, to care for his fellow man, and to be able to contribute to the larger society around him'.

To turn out such students, several things are needed, Dr Ng said.

At the top of the list: Raising the number of teachers, and getting more with higher qualifications, so that more can be done to develop students.
I found the speech quite lacking in vision. It seems that Ng Eng Hen's only concrete plan was to "raise the number of teachers" and get "more with higher qualifications".

That does sound like a sensible idea. However, it is also an utterly obvious idea. Considering the size of Ng's salary (about two million dollars a year), surely one might have expected him to offer a more compelling, powerful or innovative blueprint for Singapore's education system.

It really doesn't take a genius to come up with a plan like "hire more people" and "hire better people". My grandmother could have thought of that.

I browsed several media reports on this event. My impression was that in fact, the most insightful observations did not come from Ng Eng Hen, but from members of the audience. For example, this is what one Mrs Angeline Soo had to say:

EXAMS, rankings and stress.

That is what some parents think Singapore's education system is all about.

Mrs Angeline Soo, 42, a part-time Master in Public Administration student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, is one.

And at a question-and-answer session after Education Minister Ng Eng Hen delivered a speech there yesterday, she let him know it.

Mrs Soo complained that her 13-year-old daughter could not join her school's dance team as she was told she was 'not good enough'.

The school could lose its niche in dance if the team admitted less talented students, she said.

Her question: Would such intense focus on short-term 'key performance indicators' hinder the long-term development of students?

........ Speaking to The Straits Times later, Mrs Soo, who is also a manager at U21Global, an online graduate school, said she was satisfied that Dr Ng wanted the system to change.

However, she was concerned that his goals might be 'lost in translation'.

'When the top decides something and it starts filtering down and the next level interprets may become another numbers game, driven towards certain goals that they think the minister wants to see,' she said.

But she added that parents also had to be more involved in the holistic development of their children.

Mrs Soo said she tries not to pressure her kids as they are stressed out by the expectations of their teachers, schools and peers.

'Parents are too driven and focused on results. There is a need to look at the child in his or her entirety.

'We need to look at character and emotional development, and I don't see that happening with a lot of parents,' she added.
Maybe SHE should be the Education Minister, LOL. She certainly seems more in touch with the real issues.

To be fair, Ng Eng Hen did discuss the importance of values. However, he did it in an oh-so-typically-Singaporean wrong sort of way. This is what he said:
"We must maintain this academic rigour and continue our emphasis on maths and science ... But increasingly, we will have to create space and structure to infuse our education system to impart values and not just grades to students."

Let me tell you what I think is on Ng's mind. When he says "space", he means that we must get schools to re-jig their schedules, reorganise the school calendar, and make some time available in the class timetables, for teachers to talk about "values" to the students. Fit it in, like an extra subject.

And when Ng says "structure", he means that we must develop some kind of teaching plan, such as a syllabus or an MOE-approved textbook, so that a teacher has the necessary materials to stand up in a classroom and systematically teach "values" to 30 kids. And maybe give them some homework questions to do.

This would be the right way to teach maths. This would be the right way to teach science. This would be the right way to teach any subject of an academic nature. However, in my opinion, this would be a wrong way to teach values.

Values can be learned, but they cannot really be "taught". They are absorbed, naturally, as if by osmosis, through personal experience and observation.

For example, at home, you could "teach" love to your little children, by giving them lectures from a book and making them memorise their lecture notes. But if in fact you treat them unkindly and also quarrel with your spouse every week, then love is simply not going to be a value that your children understand.

On the other hand, if your family is a close, loving one, then the children do not need to be taught the value of "love". They wouldn't need a classroom lesson in it. Simply by watching how Mum and Dad treat each other, the kids learn about love everyday. It would be a value that naturally instils in them.

Currently, our students do acquire values, as a result of being in school. In fact, this is an inevitable process. But the values that they truly acquire are not the ones that the teachers deliberately teach, as part of a formal plan like National Education.

Instead the values that the students truly acquire are simply the result of their personal experiences in school. It is an automatic, ongoing and largely unconscious process.

For example, suppose I am a science teacher. Every day, I may encourage students to ask questions freely. Or I may ridicule those who waste my time by asking "stupid" questions.

I may encourage curiosity and exploration. Or I may insist on a rigid adherence to the exam syllabus, to maximise the students' chances of scoring well.

If a student does badly, I might scold him and say, "I think you'd better drop this subject. I don't want you to drag down the school's overall scores!". Or I might tell him that it's important to keep trying and not give up.

I may choose to lavish praise on the students who score the highest marks. Or I may choose to lavish praise on students who try hard and show improvement (even if they still aren't scoring A's).

I may tell students, "If your dream is to be a doctor and help sick people, you should definitely choose to study Biology." Or instead I may say, "If you want to be rich, you'd better study Biology and become a doctor one day."

Those are just a few examples. In each case, I create a different kind of experience for my students, and they absorb a different kind of value. The effect goes well beyond Science. The students' attitudes in life are being formed and shaped.

In other words, they're learning values - even though I was only teaching Science.

Now, here we should stop to ask ourselves - what kind of experiences are our students having in school? How are these experiences shaping their values? What values did YOU learn in school?

Aug 5, 2008

How Many Years of Your Life Do You Want to Work?

More on babies and mummies. From the TODAY newspaper:
Baby Woes Not Just Bosses' Fault
By Neo Chai Chin

CHANGE the workplace culture to allow for more family time, some have been saying — but would this truly boost the sagging birthrate?

Out of 1,000 mums surveyed in April by the Working Mothers Forum (WMF), 3 in 5 would say “no, thanks” to having a new bundle of joy in their households, even if they could resolve domestic and work issues. Yet, 86 per cent of these mums agreed that having children was “a bliss”.

What could explain this conundrum?

To mothers like Madam Noroonnessa Begam, 38, factors such as the high cost of raising a child and Singapore’s competitive environment count. “Finances are very important. As you know, there are rising costs and the challenging education system. And if you have one problem child, that will take up a lot of your time,” said Mdm Noroonessa, a childcare teacher with three sons aged 9 to 12.

But the experts say, all is not lost in the push for more babies – after all, the survey (done by research firm Connecting Insights Consultants) found that a quarter of the mums would agree to more kids if work-life balance is achieved.

“I think that’s a good start,” said Associate Professor Daniel Goh, a pediatrician and chair of WMF’s panel of experts. The survey aims to understand the concerns of working and job-seeking mothers, and if it leads to increased flexibility at the workplace, perhaps “some of these people will change their minds”.

The survey also found that one-third of the mothers felt it was impossible to give 100 per cent to both motherhood and career, while 37 per cent felt they could.

About half the mums surveyed said employers play the biggest role – more so than the Government – in helping them manage work-family challenges. Flexible policies would do much to ease their load.
This year, Mrs Wang went part-time. She now works three days a week. Furthermore, for each of those three days, she can work half a day at home, and it's up to her whether she works from home in the morning, or in the afternoon.

This is great for our kids, but logically speaking, a setback for her career. Over the next few years, most likely Mrs Wang is not going to make as much career progress as she would have, if she were working full-time.

I do have two important points to make. Firstly, kids grow up. Secondly, the average lifespan of a modern career is much longer than the time it takes for kids to grow up.

Currently, the official retirement age in Singapore is 62 years. If you are a female graduate, you probably started working around age 21 or 22. That means your career lifespan is about 40 years.

Even if you took, say, five years off to raise your little kids, you still have 35 years left to work. That's a very long time. I think that there must be very few people in the world who can honestly say that 35 years is too short a period for them to pursue their career aspirations.

On the other hand, devoting five years to your kids when they are still very young and need a lot of care will make a very big and valuable difference. When they're older and more independent, they won't need that much attention anyway.

By going part-time (as opposed to quitting work completely), Mrs Wang has more time for the kids, yet at the same time retains enough connection to the working world to know what's happening. When the time comes, and if she wants to, she can make a smooth transition back into a full-time career.

Think about it this way - if she is 40 years old by then, she will still have 22 years left to work, before hitting retirement age. If you can't mentally grasp what a very long time that is, just ask yourself where you were and what you were doing, back in 1986. That was 22 years ago. What a very different world that was, and how very faaaaar you've come since then.

Life isn't a 100-metre race. It's actually a marathon, a slow jog on a long winding road. And its final destination is death. If people actually realised that, then they would be more careful about what they decide to chase. Along the way, they would stop to smell the roses, admire the scenery and try out various interesting experiences that life does offer. Like, raising kids.

Aug 2, 2008

Life And How To Survive It

Today I have an old friend as my guest contributor. Adrian Tan is a litigation lawyer at one of Singapore's leading law firms. Outside the courtroom, he is known for a variety of funny things, including The Teenage Textbook, which he wrote in the late 1980s. The book became a cult classic among students of that generation and was adapted into a film 10 years later.

Adrian had read my previous post and emailed to tell me that by coincidence, he'd just given a speech along the same theme. Cherian George had invited Adrian to be the guest-of-honour at an NTU convocation ceremony last week, and this is Adrian's speech to the graduating class of 2008:

Life and How to Survive It

I must say thank you to the faculty and staff of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information for inviting me to give your convocation address. It’s a wonderful honour and a privilege for me to speak here for ten minutes without fear of contradiction, defamation or retaliation. I say this as a Singaporean and more so as a husband.

My wife is a wonderful person and perfect in every way except one. She is the editor of a magazine. She corrects people for a living. She has honed her expert skills over a quarter of a century, mostly by practising at home during conversations between her and me.

On the other hand, I am a litigator. Essentially, I spend my day telling people how wrong they are. I make my living being disagreeable.

Nevertheless, there is perfect harmony in our matrimonial home. That is because when an editor and a litigator have an argument, the one who triumphs is always the wife.

And so I want to start by giving one piece of advice to the men: when you’ve already won her heart, you don’t need to win every argument.

Marriage is considered one milestone of life. Some of you may already be married. Some of you may never be married. Some of you will be married. Some of you will enjoy the experience so much, you will be married many, many times. Good for you.

The next big milestone in your life is today: your graduation. The end of education. You’re done learning.

You’ve probably been told the big lie that “Learning is a lifelong process” and that therefore you will continue studying and taking masters’ degrees and doctorates and professorships and so on. You know the sort of people who tell you that? Teachers. Don’t you think there is some measure of conflict of interest? They are in the business of learning, after all. Where would they be without you? They need you to be repeat customers.

The good news is that they’re wrong.

The bad news is that you don’t need further education because your entire life is over. It is gone. That may come as a shock to some of you. You’re in your teens or early twenties. People may tell you that you will live to be 70, 80, 90 years old. That is your life expectancy.

I love that term: life expectancy. We all understand the term to mean the average life span of a group of people. But I’m here to talk about a bigger idea, which is what you expect from your life.

You may be very happy to know that Singapore is currently ranked as the country with the third highest life expectancy. We are behind Andorra and Japan, and tied with San Marino. It seems quite clear why people in those countries, and ours, live so long. We share one thing in common: our football teams are all hopeless. There’s very little danger of any of our citizens having their pulses raised by watching us play in the World Cup. Spectators are more likely to be lulled into a gentle and restful nap.

Singaporeans have a life expectancy of 81.8 years. Singapore men live to an average of 79.21 years, while Singapore women live more than five years longer, probably to take into account the additional time they need to spend in the bathroom.

So here you are, in your twenties, thinking that you’ll have another 40 years to go. Four decades in which to live long and prosper.

Bad news. Read the papers. There are people dropping dead when they’re 50, 40, 30 years old. Or quite possibly just after finishing their convocation. They would be very disappointed that they didn’t meet their life expectancy.

I’m here to tell you this. Forget about your life expectancy.

After all, it’s calculated based on an average. And you never, ever want to expect being average.

Revisit those expectations. You might be looking forward to working, falling in love, marrying, raising a family. You are told that, as graduates, you should expect to find a job paying so much, where your hours are so much, where your responsibilities are so much.

That is what is expected of you. And if you live up to it, it will be an awful waste.

If you expect that, you will be limiting yourself. You will be living your life according to boundaries set by average people. I have nothing against average people. But no one should aspire to be them. And you don’t need years of education by the best minds in Singapore to prepare you to be average.

What you should prepare for is mess. Life’s a mess. You are not entitled to expect anything from it. Life is not fair. Everything does not balance out in the end. Life happens, and you have no control over it. Good and bad things happen to you day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Your degree is a poor armour against fate.

Don’t expect anything. Erase all life expectancies. Just live. Your life is over as of today. At this point in time, you have grown as tall as you will ever be, you are physically the fittest you will ever be in your entire life and you are probably looking the best that you will ever look. This is as good as it gets. It is all downhill from here. Or up. No one knows.

What does this mean for you? It is good that your life is over.

Since your life is over, you are free. Let me tell you the many wonderful things that you can do when you are free.

The most important is this: do not work.

Work is anything that you are compelled to do. By its very nature, it is undesirable.

Work kills. The Japanese have a term “Karoshi”, which means death from overwork. That’s the most dramatic form of how work can kill. But it can also kill you in more subtle ways. If you work, then day by day, bit by bit, your soul is chipped away, disintegrating until there’s nothing left. A rock has been ground into sand and dust.

There’s a common misconception that work is necessary. You will meet people working at miserable jobs. They tell you they are “making a living”. No, they’re not. They’re dying, frittering away their fast-extinguishing lives doing things which are, at best, meaningless and, at worst, harmful.

People will tell you that work ennobles you, that work lends you a certain dignity. Work makes you free. The slogan "Arbeit macht frei" was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps. Utter nonsense.

Do not waste the vast majority of your life doing something you hate so that you can spend the small remainder sliver of your life in modest comfort. You may never reach that end anyway.

Resist the temptation to get a job. Instead, play. Find something you enjoy doing. Do it. Over and over again. You will become good at it for two reasons: you like it, and you do it often. Soon, that will have value in itself.

I like arguing, and I love language. So, I became a litigator. I enjoy it and I would do it for free. If I didn’t do that, I would’ve been in some other type of work that still involved writing fiction – probably a sports journalist.

So what should you do? You will find your own niche. I don’t imagine you will need to look very hard. By this time in your life, you will have a very good idea of what you will want to do. In fact, I’ll go further and say the ideal situation would be that you will not be able to stop yourself pursuing your passions. By this time you should know what your obsessions are. If you enjoy showing off your knowledge and feeling superior, you might become a teacher.

Find that pursuit that will energise you, consume you, become an obsession. Each day, you must rise with a restless enthusiasm. If you don’t, you are working.

Most of you will end up in activities which involve communication. To those of you I have a second message: be wary of the truth. I’m not asking you to speak it, or write it, for there are times when it is dangerous or impossible to do those things. The truth has a great capacity to offend and injure, and you will find that the closer you are to someone, the more care you must take to disguise or even conceal the truth. Often, there is great virtue in being evasive, or equivocating. There is also great skill. Any child can blurt out the truth, without thought to the consequences. It takes great maturity to appreciate the value of silence.

In order to be wary of the truth, you must first know it. That requires great frankness to yourself. Never fool the person in the mirror.

I have told you that your life is over, that you should not work, and that you should avoid telling the truth. I now say this to you: be hated.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Do you know anyone who hates you? Yet every great figure who has contributed to the human race has been hated, not just by one person, but often by a great many. That hatred is so strong it has caused those great figures to be shunned, abused, murdered and in one famous instance, nailed to a cross.

One does not have to be evil to be hated. In fact, it’s often the case that one is hated precisely because one is trying to do right by one’s own convictions. It is far too easy to be liked, one merely has to be accommodating and hold no strong convictions. Then one will gravitate towards the centre and settle into the average. That cannot be your role. There are a great many bad people in the world, and if you are not offending them, you must be bad yourself. Popularity is a sure sign that you are doing something wrong.

The other side of the coin is this: fall in love.

I didn’t say “be loved”. That requires too much compromise. If one changes one’s looks, personality and values, one can be loved by anyone.

Rather, I exhort you to love another human being. It may seem odd for me to tell you this. You may expect it to happen naturally, without deliberation. That is false. Modern society is anti-love. We’ve taken a microscope to everyone to bring out their flaws and shortcomings. It far easier to find a reason not to love someone, than otherwise. Rejection requires only one reason. Love requires complete acceptance. It is hard work – the only kind of work that I find palatable.

Loving someone has great benefits. There is admiration, learning, attraction and something which, for the want of a better word, we call happiness. In loving someone, we become inspired to better ourselves in every way. We learn the truth worthlessness of material things. We celebrate being human. Loving is good for the soul.

Loving someone is therefore very important, and it is also important to choose the right person. Despite popular culture, love doesn’t happen by chance, at first sight, across a crowded dance floor. It grows slowly, sinking roots first before branching and blossoming. It is not a silly weed, but a mighty tree that weathers every storm.

You will find, that when you have someone to love, that the face is less important than the brain, and the body is less important than the heart.

You will also find that it is no great tragedy if your love is not reciprocated. You are not doing it to be loved back. Its value is to inspire you.

Finally, you will find that there is no half-measure when it comes to loving someone. You either don’t, or you do with every cell in your body, completely and utterly, without reservation or apology. It consumes you, and you are reborn, all the better for it.

Don’t work. Avoid telling the truth. Be hated. Love someone.

You’re going to have a busy life. Thank goodness there’s no life expectancy.