Dec 31, 2009

The Risks of Unregulated Investments in Singapore

In the ST Forum today, one Gabriel Chua writes as follows:

    "I would like the authorities to explain the regulatory framework governing all forms of investments where money is collected from Singaporeans and invested overseas.

    We have solid regulations governing finance firms, financial advisers, securities, futures, fund management and so on.

    Yet we have heard of how many Singaporeans have lost money investing in overseas properties sold in Singapore.

    We have strong regulations governing financial advisers who want to sell even $1,000 of unit trust investments. Do we have the same for companies set up here to collect money from Singaporeans for investments in their own country?"
Gabriel has correctly identified a gap in Singapore's laws.

In general, you can be quite confident that in Singapore, your insurance agent or financial adviser holds the proper licence to do his job. Also, banks and insurance companies all have to get a MAS licence, before they can do business here.

And if you buy land or property in Singapore, government bodies such as the HDB, the URA, the BCA and the Singapore Land Authority all do their part to ensure that the system is reasonably reliable.

But some other types of investments fly almost completely under the regulatory radar.

I have personally come across two examples. The first is fine wines. The second is foreign land. I'll just discuss the latter.

I once received a call from a telemarketer. She invited my wife and I to high tea at a 5-star hotel. She also promised that in return for our attendance, we would be given $100 worth of shopping vouchers (I think it was Tangs or Metro) .

The requirement? We had to sit through a 60-minute presentation. No obligation to buy anything. But we had to sit and listen for a full hour.

My wife and I attended. The conference hall was crowded, filled with many Singaporeans like ourselves. As we enjoyed our high tea, a lady came to our table and did her presentation. She carried a laptop, ran a Powerpoint slide show and discussed various brochures, maps and legal documents with us.

It was all about investing in a certain big, empty piece of land in the United Kingdom.

You didn't have to be super rich to participate either. The entry level was not high. Here's how the investment scheme worked.

The land in question was neatly divided into thousands of parcels (think of a grid of many, many small squares, superimposed on a big map). You could choose the specific parcels of land you wanted to buy.

Suppose the average price of one parcel was $5,000. If you wanted to invest just $5,000, you would buy just one parcel of land. If you wanted to invest $10,000, you would buy two parcels. And if you were very rich, you could plonk down. say, $5 million and buy 1,000 parcels of the land.

You could buy as many or as few parcels as you wanted.

I was told that the company was marketing this scheme to people in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. The whole idea of the exercise was to round up enough Asians to collectively pool their money and buy the entire piece of land. One fine day (and it could be many years later) the company would help them to sell the land for a good price, and each investor would then get his or her share of the profit.

I didn't invest any of my money.

I did ask lots of questions. My wife and I are both lawyers, and we found it interesting trying to work out the legal structure. The sales lady couldn't answer some of our questions, but she did get her boss to come and explain. He was a European businessman (a Finn, I believe), sophisticated and knowledgeable, and he gave reasonably good, clear answers.

Anyway, in the end, while we understood the legal structure, we felt that we didn't understand the market risks well enough. (I personally know nothing about land anywhere except in Singapore).

So we finished our coffee and snacks, and said, "Thank you, we will not be investing in this. Now can we have our free shopping vouchers?". We duly collected our free $100 shopping vouchers and left.

I should add that at this event, there was no hard sell. Right from the start, they had said that they would not use any unscrupulous tactics to pressure us to buy, and this was true - there were no unscrupulous tactics.

Nevertheless, the incongruity is undeniable.

You can't sell a $5,000 unit trust investment to an uneducated grandmother in Singapore, unless you hold the necessary licence and comply with all the MAS rules and regulations. The licence, and the rules and regulations, are to help safeguard the grandmother's interests.

But you can sell the same grandmother a $5,000 parcel of land, situated in a country far, far away, under a complex collective land ownership scheme. You don't need any licence. Nor does the Singapore government seem to know or care whether the land really exists; or what you tell or do not tell the grandmother; or what documents you ask her to sign.

Some potential for a disaster there. Right?

Dec 30, 2009

Kids, Dentists and Other Exciting Adventures

    ST 30 Dec 2009
    Pulling child's tooth ends in bite
    and slaps

    I WOULD like to express my dissatisfaction with Eastern Dental Surgery at Jurong West branch. I visited the dentist on Monday at 8.40am because my five-year-old son had a toothache. My son cried aloud when he went in. The dentist managed to give him two injections but with the third one, he was unable to bear the pain and tried to close his mouth, thus biting the dentist's finger which was inside his mouth.

    The dentist shouted loudly: 'You dare to bite my finger, I beat you.' Then she gave my son three slaps on his arm. I was shocked and the next moment, she shouted: 'I don't want to pull his teeth any more, since he bit my finger. Ask them to pay up.'

    The next minute I was chased out of the door and asked to pay $18. My son was so frightened he shivered non-stop and tears kept rolling down his cheeks.

    I do not think this is the right way to deal with a five-year-old patient. If the dental clinic accepts children as patients, the dentist should not beat them if they are not cooperative. My son told me he does not want to visit a dentist ever again.

    Chua Ying Jie (Ms)

I found the above quite funny. If I were Ms Chua herself, or the kid, or the bitten dentist, I would not have found it funny. But since I'm none of these persons, I must say I do find it quite funny.

It reminds me of an incident in my own childhood. I must have been around five or six then. I had a toothache and my father brought me to a dentist. But I was so scared that I would not open my mouth at all. I didn't bite the dentist, but I resolutely kept my mouth closed. After an hour or so, the dentist gave up and my scowling father had to bring me home.

Alternative extraction method.

My wife and I have been more expert, in handling our own children. The trick is to bring your little kids for a routine dental check-up, long before they ever have any toothache. Under non-painful, non-traumatic conditions, the kid will be easily persuaded to open his mouth. Thereafter he will get used to the idea of having dental check-ups.

Also, if you are going for your own routine dental cleaning/scaling, you can bring your kid along to watch. Then the kid will see that dentists are nice people and there's nothing particularly scary about visiting a dentist.

(But don't bring your kid, if you are getting your wisdom tooth extracted. Because that is scary).

The dental clinic I go to is GPA Dental, at United Square. They have got the coolest technological gadgets I have ever seen in any dental clinic. There's a small touch of James Bond, in their toys.

One of them is a wireless intra oral camera, with a macro lens, a built-in light etc. With this little device, the dentist can take close-up, high-pixel, full-color photos of your teeth, from right inside your mouth. These photos are transmitted to a computer and you can immediately view them on a mounted TV screen. The dentist will store these photos in his computer, as part of your dental records.

Dec 29, 2009

Writers, Photographers, NS and Saving The Trees

Did I ever mention that I really enjoyed my NS? A big part of it, anyway. My military vocation was a rare one. It was "writer". Yes, believe it or not, there is such a vocation, and my job was to write for Pioneer, the SAF magazine.

Half the week I would be touring different military bases (not just the army, but also the air force and the navy). The other half of the week I would be in my Mindef office, writing articles about the people I had interviewed and the events that I had witnessed.

I also had an NSF driver to drive me around, and an NSF photographer to take photos for my articles. It was fun.

Getting that job was like striking the lottery. Out of maybe 18,000 or 20,000 NSFs in my entire cohort, only two became "writers" (me and another guy). I can honestly say that neither of us was a "white horse". We didn't have dads or uncles who were brigadier-generals or perm secs.

Instead we were hand-picked for our writing ability. We were also selected for our confidence levels. (When you are 18 years old and just a chao private, you really do need confidence, to interview a senior guy like a brigade commander, or the Chief of Navy, or the Minister of Defence).

There was another NSF guy - his vocation was "translator". His job was to translate our articles, for the Chinese edition of Pioneer (not such a fun job, since he didn't get to go out of the office). His command of English and Chinese was formidable. At that age, he was already writing serious plays in English, and serious poetry in Chinese.

(As a matter of fact, I just tried to google his name. If I've found the right guy, then this year he just directed a bilingual theatrical production, and also won an award for Chinese poetry).

Oh yeah, and my NSF photographer friend. He later became a professional photographer and one year he even won Singapore's Young Artist of the Year award (for photography). You can see some of his stunningly evocative and beautiful pictures here, here and here. Heck, I'll post one photo on my blog - I don't think he would mind.

Photo by Ken Seet

Ken even knows how to make SAF soldiers look cool. Check out the 56 military photographs available here.

You have to be a little impressed about how Pioneer has consistently managed to identify 18-year-olds with talent in writing or photography. Pioneer's alumni NSFs include people like Russel Wong, Adrian Tan, Colin Cheong, Simon Tay and Warren Fernandez. If my memory serves me correctly, once upon a time the ever-incisive Cherian George was also an NSF Pioneer writer.

Anyway, why am I writing all this today? Because I just read someone's blog post, and it reminded me of my NS days. The post is entitled How to Cancel Your Pioneer Subscription, and it goes like this:

    Just go to this URL, fill in your particulars; type in some reasons, such as: you prefer reading the cyber version to save the Earth or your family is receiving duplicate copies; request to unsubscribe; then click SUBMIT. That’s it.

    Here’s a template:

      Dear Sir/Mdm,

      I would like to unsubscribe and stop receiving Pioneer magazine in my mailbox as I prefer reading the online version for environmental reasons.

      Thank you and hope to hear from you soon.

      Best Regards,

    I cancelled mine once I ORDed years ago.

    Frankly, the magazine is a waste of paper and money. Help spread the word along to save the Earth as I believe most people will just chuck their Pioneer magazine straight into the waste paper bin without even tearing open the plastic wrapper.

    Subscription is forced for all NSF at 40 cents per issue (if not I would have cancelled it immediately after getting my first issue). It’s cheap, but it’s still money. Not cancelling it will be wasteful as I am not interested in reading news about SAF. Moreover, there’s
    the online version (slightly different) which is better for the environment if you really want to read.

    The Singapore government is moving towards an advanced e-government model, encouraging Singaporeans to do more government transactions and queries online. Why is the SAF always a few steps behind?

    At the very least, the cost of the magazine should be absorbed by SAF, given that NS and reservist are national obligations for Singapore males who are rendering a
    service for the nation.

Well, I won't pretend to be too sad.

I truly enjoyed my NS at Pioneer. I got to know some very talented young folks. I also had the chance to meet and write about all kinds of people in the SAF - from defence scientists and BMT recruits, to the elite Naval divers and the Commandos.

And while I was at Pioneer, I always did my best to write good, solid articles that gave due respect and credit to the people featured in them.

However, shortly after I ORD'd, I too cancelled my own Pioneer subscription.

The simple truth is that the SAF is a conscript army, and most of the conscripts aren't that interested in the SAF. The average NSman does want to know about things that directly affect him, such as new IPPT rules, or increases in SAF allowances. But not much more than that.

Most of us wouldn't want to read about yet another OCS commissioning parade. Or yet another upgrade of an old piece of military hardware. Or yet another overseas training exercise - unless it involved our own unit. Maybe not even then.

Also, you can't argue with the "let's save paper" environmental point. Well, I don't know how to argue with it anyway. Years ago, I cancelled my subscription to the print edition of the Straits Times .... for the same reason.

Dec 28, 2009

The Supplementary Retirement Scheme

Oops, it's that time of year again. Need to rush down to the bank and deposit the usual $11,475, before the 31 December deadline. This will reduce my income tax by exactly $2,295 next year.

Yes, I am referring to the Supplementary Retirement Scheme. For full details, click this link - you'll get the Finance Ministry's official explanation of the SRS.

The SRS is nothing new - it was introduced about a decade ago - yet many Singaporeans do not seem to know about it. Briefly, it's a voluntary government scheme which provides tax benefits to encourage people to save and invest for their own retirement years.

I think that the SRS is a good idea. Not necessarily for all people (because everyone has his or her own unique financial circumstances). But the SRS could definitely be a good idea for many people.

However, I realise that the SRS might not be that easy to understand. Take for example the blogger at Salary.Sg. In general, his articles are very informative and well-written, and I've enjoyed reading many of them. However, his recent post about the SRS - entitled What's Not Good about the SRS - struck me as a little disastrous.

The blogger discussed the SRS and concluded that it was basically a terrible thing and you would be foolish to use it. However, his explanation was not convincing and he clearly didn't know (or didn't appreciate) the finer points of what you can do with your SRS monies. (On the plus side, several of his readers did respond with good comments, to correct the shortcomings of the article).

In general, the SRS works best for (1) the higher earners, and (2) people who are interested and committed to a long-term plan of building up their retirement funds. It may also make sense for working people who are, say, already in their 50s and do not foresee having to meet any major financial expenses between now and their retirement age.

Also, the SRS has some uses for income earners who foresee that in the future, there will be a year, or two, or three, when their taxable income will dwindle sharply (for example, the person might be planning to temporarily stop work to pursue higher studies, or to look after the kids at home).

My advice to you is to at least find out how the SRS works. Then you can make an informed decision as to whether it is for you or not.

Dec 27, 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

'Tis the season when I grow jolly and quiet and busy, all at the same time. As I reflect on the big picture of life, I see the hits, the misses, the hugs and kisses, and all the new adventures that lie ahead in 2010. Life is a rich and colourful place, and I am glad to be here.

Right now, my left brain and the right brain are getting together to talk and sing and plan and imagine a few possibilities. I've made a list of things I want to do in 2010, and a list of things I need to do, and a list of "maybe" things.

Some details are sketchy - but is that not how life behaves? There's only so much that we can foresee and predict. Life itself will fill in the blanks as we go with its flow.

Oh yeah. I spent some time thinking about what to do with this blog in 2010. One possibility was to delete it and quit blogging. Nahhh, I told myself, that is a little too drastic. On the other hand, it is true that the original raison d'etre of this blog (and its predecessor, Mr Wang Bakes Good Karma) has already been fulfilled.

When Mr Wang first started blogging in 2005, the Singapore blogosphere was pretty much a ghost town, as far as discussion of social, political and economic issues were concerned. My goal was to help plant the seeds for a more active, socially aware blogosphere - to encourage debate, to encourage participation, to get more people to come forward and express their views too.

Back then - I know that many of you would have forgotten by now - some readers were hesitant even to leave anonymous comments on a blog. They feared that somehow, the evil PAP government would find a technological way to identify and track them down. And who knows what the PAP might do then? Blacklist their HDB application; their scholarship application; their job application; or worse, get the ISD to arrest them.

That was our kind of Internet culture, back then. That was the climate in Singapore, generally. We've come a long way since then. Not saying that everything is all flowers and beauty right now - it's not. But today the local blogosphere is certainly much bigger, much more active, less fearful, than it used to be. Many, many more Singaporeans (ok, PRs and foreigners too) are blogging to express their views about what's good, what's bad and what can be improved about Singapore. Furthermore things have reached a point when the government can no longer not acknowledge the existence of views, opinions and concerns expressed on the Internet.

And with that - Mr Wang will ... well, not exactly retire from writing about social issues etc. But Mr Wang will definitely feel much more at liberty, to venture into new sorts of topics, different sorts of themes, all in the great new year of 2010.

See you then. Happy New Year!

Dec 15, 2009

More About Financial Goals

J Singh wrote to me again and said that he would try out the "goal identification" approach mentioned in my previous post. So I will say a few more things about this approach.

Emergency Funds

For the average young Singaporean stepping out into the working world, one important early goal would be to save up some emergency cash. The main emergency I'm referring to here is the possibility of becoming unemployed.

The rough guideline is that you should have cash roughly equal to six months worth of your usual expenses. This will allow you to survive, while you look for another job. Six months is just a guideline. You might need more, or less - depending on how likely you are to lose your job, and how long the period of time you're likely to need, before you find another job.

This emergency money is to be tucked away in some very low-risk instrument (such as a savings account, a fixed deposit or an SGD money market fund). It is meant to protect you against emergencies and is not for investment purposes.

Medical Insurance

After you've established your emergency fund, you might want to consider medical insurance. Young, healthy persons might consider medical insurance less important, and there is some rationale in this. However, the longer you delay buying health insurance, the greater the risk that as the years pass, you may find yourself getting some medical condition (for example, high blood pressure; high cholesterol levels; ovarian cysts or whatever).

By then, you will have to pay a higher premium for your health insurance. Alternatively, the insurance company may refuse to cover you for the risks of particular types of diseases.

If you do have some pre-existing medical condition, make the effort to shop around a bit before you commit yourself to taking up any particular medical insurance policy. This is because different insurance companies do take a different view towards the same kind of medical condition. Some insurers would be stricter, others more liberal.

Depending on where you work, your employer may also provide health insurance. This is a nice benefit, but not terribly reliable. You don't know when you will change jobs, and when you change jobs, the insurance usually lapses.

Life Insurance

Life insurance is important only if you have dependents (such as aged parents or young children). After you die, you don't need any money for yourself.

There are several types of life insurance available in the market. For most people, the first kind of life insurance policy they should buy is term life insurance. You pay a small sum every month and are assured of a large payout, in the event of your death. The policy is purely for protection purposes, and if you don't die, you get nothing back.

If your key intention is to secure financial protection for your dependents, term life insurance generally works better than other types of life insurance, which try to add in some element of investment. The reason is that these other types of insurance pay out much less, if you die.

Financial Investments

If you've got spare cash left over, it's time to think about investing it. In my opinion, the average man in the street should avoid structured products. I would recommend ETFs and/or unit trusts for most people.

Don't buy unit trusts through a brick-&-mortar bank, because you can buy the same unit trusts more cheaply, through an online distributor such as Finatiq, Dollardex or Fundsupermart. If you feel that you need some financial advice on what to buy, there is a somewhat sneaky thing you could do. Visit a bank, talk to the financial consultant, ask your questions, get all the advice and answers you want and then say, "Well, I'm going away now to think about this matter." Then go and buy the unit trusts through an online distributor.

Dec 14, 2009

Money and the Big Picture of your Life

An email from a reader, J Singh:

    Dear Mr Wang,

    Having been an avid reader of your blog for over 2 years now, I feel somewhat inclined to write in to you to ask for your advice. While it is common knowledge that you are in the finance industry and have made a successful life for your family and yourself, it would not have happened without sound financial planning. It is on this subject that I would like to seek your thoughts on, if you can spare the time.

    As a fresh graduate, I find it hard to reconcile the fact that there is close to nothing in our education system that touches on how to prepare oneself financially for the years ahead. Now that I am out facing the world on my own, my lack of preparedness is telling especially since I have taken an issue like this for granted. It seems that the onus is upon the individual to read, source out elders and common media to seek their advice on what insurance policies to purchase, how much should one save and where should one invest one's savings, what does one do with the CPF accounts(invest, insurance?) and how is one ever going to afford a HDB flat (among other pertinent questions).

    These questions are mind boggling and daunting for someone trying to make a mark in this world. My peers in the US, of the same batch not the same age due my NS obligations, are way ahead in this respect as the literature suggests that one should start such planning around the age of 22 to ensure success in the long run. Perhaps, I digress by sharing my fears with you and you would rather I come straight to the point.

    My point is, what do I do? Where do I start? What do I need to know to make the S'porean system work for me to ensure that my future will be a comfortable one? I have financial advisers bombarding me with tons of insurance policies and insurance-savings plans while others are recommending unit trusts, stocks and other instruments. I have turned every single one of them away as I fear committing to something I can't grapple with. I don't think you will have the time to tell me in detail what needs to be done but I would appreciate if you could point me in the right direction. Admittedly, depending on an individual's preference, background and risk appetite, the advice doled out would be different but I am certain there are some basic tenets of financial planning that everyone should do or know about. Your thoughts .....?

Well, it's not as complicated as that. Or maybe I should put it this way - you don't need to know everything there is to know about money, in order to manage your own finances with reasonable soundness.

You could start by listing your own financial goals and needs, and identifying which ones are most important. Then work out a plan for your most important goal/need, and put the plan into action. Repeat with the next most important goal/need.

People have different goals and needs (because their circumstances are different) and what's important to one person may not be important to you at all. For example, life insurance is important to the average parent with young kids, but it's not terribly important to a young adult with no dependents.

Also your goals and needs will change over time, so you need to review and adjust your plans periodically. Don't look for a magic formula to the question of how to manage your money. There really isn't any. Money issues are intimately linked to almost every part of your life (for example, your home, your career and your family's needs) and basically, life is too complicated to be reducible to a single magic formula.

You will need some long-term strategy, but the fact is that as the years pass, you'll probably end up revising and changing it beyond recognition. Nobody really knows what will happen, in 30 or 40 years time (to you, Singapore or the world). That doesn't mean that you shouldn't plan for retirement. It does mean that you'll keep changing your plans many times as the years pass.

In other words, life is complex and uncertain. And you just have to get comfortable with that.

A Slow Death for Diaries and Other Old-Fashioned Things

    ST Dec 14, 2009
    Corporate diaries harder to come by
    Such year-end gifts are drying up as firms cut back on costs or go green

    THE wave of corporate diaries and calendars that usually washes over workplaces this time of the year has dried up, with 2010 looming as the year people will just have to buy their own.

    Banks and manufacturing companies - noted for corporate gift-giving - are handing out fewer goodies, which means firms that make these freebies are hurting, with their sales down by as much as 50 per cent.

    Mr Frankie Chia, president of the Gifts Association of Singapore, said: 'Sales of corporate diaries and gifts are generally much worse this year as corporate customers cut back on their budgets.'

    Retiree Tammy Leong is feeling the pinch as well. December is usually her favourite month, with corporate diaries, calendars and Christmas hampers flowing in from her bankers and insurance agents.

I think that it's not so much to do with the economy, but the fact that many people don't use paper-based diaries and calendars anymore.

They would rather use some electronic tool to achieve the same purposes. For example, you could use your handphone or PDA or Blackberry; or the calendar and to-do functions on your Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes; or some free online application such as Google Calendar.

I am a bit of a dinosaur. For my personal matters, I still use a paper-based filofax (remember those?). But at work I use the calendar and to-do functions on Lotus Notes to keep track of my appointments, meetings and tasks.

I still remember how the legal profession was like, when I first graduated (and that wasn't so long ago, just a decade or so). Senior lawyers would invariably advise a junior lawyer about the importance of maintaining, building and updating his own collection of "precedents".

What does that mean? Well, as time went on and you worked on different types of legal matters, you would photocopy useful legal documents and organise them nicely into thick ring files, for your own future reference. Effectively, your personal collection of legal precedents represented the sum total of your legal knowledge and experience, and was a valuable professional asset to be guarded carefully. A senior lawyer would easily have dozens of precious precedent files lining his shelves.

That was then. Now I have everything I need, on one thumb drive.

Dec 12, 2009

December Shopping in Myanmar

I've said it before - my poems have a tendency to travel to slightly odd places. Now see what we have here:

It's a page from a fashion magazine in Myanmar. Most of the text is in Burmese, but notice the words in English - "Gilbert Koh" and "December Shopping". Yes, one of my poems got translated and is now circulating in a Myanmese magazine called Crown.

The translator is Zaw Myo Nyunt, a Burmese national and Singapore PR. Zaw comes from a rather literary family - his father is a publisher; his mother is a novelist; his brother is a journalist and his sister runs a bookstore. Zaw had read my poems, he enjoyed them and he wanted to try his hand at doing a translation. So that's how my poem December Shopping ended up in Crown.

A Burmese fashion magazine seems to be an odd place for Singaporean poetry to appear. Zaw's explanation is that many Myanmese people are very interested in all things Singapore. They want to come here for work, education, medical treatment and yes, for the shopping. So that's the excuse for December Shopping to appear in Crown.

Anyway, here's the English language version of the poem. It's really about the materialistic and consumerist side of the modern world:

      December Shopping

      Here comes Christmas. Take it, strip it down
      wash it clean, then doll it up, prettify,
      package, add a ribbon. Now offer it up for sale,
      an orchard road product made new again.
      See the santa claus reindeer at centrepoint,
      touch the gold-dusted wings of angel
      mannequis, feel the softness, the warmth
      of cotton-wool snow, meltproof against
      the little coloured blinking bulbs.
      Do you not rejoice, would you not sing
      along in a fa-la-la-la-la sort of way?
      Meet baby jesus and holy mother,
      starring as takashimaya decorations,
      the three wise men as props.
      The crowds are awful, the roads too long,
      for roads that lead nowhere,
      but the lights are bright and the sales -
      oh, the wonderful sales! - are truly
      a shopper's paradise. What you buy is
      what you are, and what you are is here,
      on display, for sale, at a discount,
      very, very cheap. What joy! What happiness!
      What a birthday bash! Give thanks
      for the power of visa, the size
      of your December bonus, for this
      great offering of material things.
      Let us eat, let us feast like gluttons,
      swarm like flies, drown in proverbial milk
      and honey - it's christmas, after all,
      Singapore's greatest shopping season.

Little Pieces of the Past

Another year draws to a close. Soon we'll be saying goodbye to our home, moving away and lugging ourselves to a new life elsewhere. This is as good a time as any, to start discarding the old and making space for the new. I've been tossing out all sorts of items, from clothes to books to electrical appliances. It's a kind of cleansing process.

Today I'm tossing out my chess trophies as well. I had to deliberate somewhat, before arriving at this decision. Felt a little sentimental about them. I decided to take a photo, before they all go into the bin. There:

I still have another collection of trophies in my parents' home. Left them there, after I got married and moved out.

These are just silly pieces of metal, wood and plastic, but I have some fond memories attached to them. I used to represent my secondary school, junior college, university and constituency. As a teenager, I also used to go around to different community centres (or clubs, as they're now known) to take part in chess competitions.

Among other things, I've been the SJI individual champion; the VJC individual champion; and the NUS men's individual champion. In team competitions, we've won the National Inter-Clubs first division several times. From secondary two up to junior college, I won a medal in the National Junior Individuals' Chess Championships every year. I even competed overseas a few times.

But also I enjoyed chess, because it brought me into contact with many quirky, interesting people whom I otherwise would not have met. And many of them became my good friends.

I think I gained a lot from this game. It taught me to be comfortable with complexity and uncertainty (and that's often how life is, complex and uncertain). I also learned to stay cool and think sharp under pressure, an attribute which has helped me in exam halls, courtrooms and corporate boardrooms. Another lesson I learned was to neither underestimate nor overestimate people, based on their appearances. Because appearances can be very deceptive ....

There's a fairly recent book by ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov. It's entitled How Life Imitates Chess. I've not really read the book, but only browsed through different chapters at a bookstore.

It's not your usual "How to Play the Sicilian Defence" or "How to Play Rook Endgames" chess book focusing on some technical aspect of the game. Instead it's a book where Garry uses analogies and examples drawn from the game of chess, to discuss strategies for business, personal life and politics. (Note that after Kasparov retired from chess, he ventured into politics, and in fact, was a candidate for President of Russia in 2008).

I found it interesting to browse through Kasparov's book. Like many other serious chessplayers, I had realised long ago that many chess strategies are also applicable in real life. However, Kasparov's book is the first which really attempts to discuss how lessons learned at the chessboard can also be valuable elsewhere.

But in the end, I didn't buy the book. Because by the time I came across the book, I had already stopped playing chess for years. Much as I used to love this game, it's now a thing of the past for me.

And that's why I'm throwing out my chess trophies too.

Dec 7, 2009

Virtual Realities, Roller Coasters and Casino Gambling

Just back from our holiday in Japan. Among other things, we gorged on a feast of theme parks, spending a day each at Universal Studios, Disneyland and Disneysea. Roller coasters, 4D reality, Spiderman, haunted houses and all the rest of it.

It was really fun. Not just for the kids, but for me as well (however Mrs Wang got somewhat terrified by the Tower of Terror).

Now I'm looking forward to Singapore's own integrated resorts on Sentosa, especially the Universal Studios that will form part of the Resorts World IR.

At the same time, my Japan trip somewhat reinforces in my mind the drawbacks of Singapore's approach. Because of the casino element, we're inevitably going to face a host of social ills, such as prostitution, loansharking and gambling addiction.

In contrast, Disneyland, Disneysea and Universal Studios in Japan offer clean, wholesome, family-friendly fun. They are also huge attractions in their own right, drawing an endless stream of tourists and visitors all year round. Nothing sleazy about it.

Why did Singapore have to choose the sleazy route? Ah well, too late to ask now.

Nov 25, 2009

Off for Holidays

Not blogging. Bye for now!

Nov 23, 2009

Another Review of Two Baby Hands

Cha: An Asian Literary Journal has just published a review of my poetry book Two Baby Hands. The reviewer is Moira Moody, who teaches a writing course at Rutgers University, while at the same time pursuing her MFA there.

A Cha review will often cover two books at one go. This allows the reviewer to do a compare-&-contrast between two writers. In the current issue, Two Baby Hands is reviewed alongside with Equal to the Earth, by ex-Singaporean Koh Jee Leong.

    Country of Origin/Point of Departure: Gilbert Koh's and Jee Leong Koh's Poetry

    Two Baby Hands, by Gilbert Koh, and Equal to the Earth, by Jee Leong Koh, are two new volumes of poetry by Singaporean writers with very different aesthetics. Gilbert Koh writes of individual and social experience in simple lines and language that feels more than it says. Jee Leong Koh is an expatriate poet who uses the rigidity of form to contain poetry that otherwise knows no bounds: love, sex and selfhood are all exposed, and equally explored.

    In Two Baby Hands, Gilbert Koh writes to expose and record life through language that hints at complexity through imagery. A repeated motif of Koh's is the conceit of the photographer, and this clearly captures Koh's process:

      Smile, I commanded
      you obeyed
      and I caught forever
      that moment
      when something on your face
      disguised itself
      so well
      as happiness.

              Koh lingers on small moments, understanding when to render minutely, and when to pull away. When he writes "something on your face," he deliberately shrouds his sentence in an inscrutability that a more realized emotion such as "anger," "sadness" or "disgust" would have destroyed. The short but varied lines in the poem suggest the zooming motion of the camera, and that last abstract noun—"happiness"—becomes even more indefinite in his use.

              This idea of the photographer also pervades Koh's perception of the social world and his observations of modern life. In "The Schoolgirl Kills Herself after Failing an Exam" and "National Leadership," Koh examines the darker side of cultural attitudes that prioritize a narrow view of educational achievement as a prerequisite to any social advancement. In "National Day Parade," Koh slows down a moment of national celebration and collectivism to ask what these moments achieve for the individual. In "The Couple Next Door" Koh recreates the "good neighbor" who witnesses domestic violence in a typical metropolitan apartment complex:

                Her eyes avoid mine. I let the walls stand.
                I will be the stranger who sees and hears nothing.
                I believe we both prefer it that way.
                ("The Couple Next Door")

              "I let the walls stand" is an incisive line because of Koh's choice to shift a sentence syntax that would most naturally have an inanimate subject, i.e., "The walls stand," to a construction that denotes his complicity in this situation, "I let the walls stand." The next line makes the speaker even more active in an otherwise passive situation. The speaker chooses to "be the stranger who sees and hears nothing" as though in a role play. The final sentence stresses the speaker and neighbor's mutual conclusion, but says nothing about what is at stake, what should be done, what the truth is of that moment. To end the poem on this brittle line, forces the reader's thoughts in all the directions the "good neighbor" avoids.

              Even as Gilbert Koh pays careful attention to those intersecting his everyday routes in Singapore, his gaze is most powerful when contemplating the people for whom he builds his life. Tellingly, the title of his book is taken from a poem about his infant son. "Without You" is a simple and beautiful love poem that could be about anyone. The occasion of this poem is a train ride, suitable because of its universality and depersonalizing aspects: "outside blackness/ is screaming past the windows". A thousand different narratives surround him: "hands eyes strange footsteps mouths/ speaking words collapsing / here and now", but the speaker ignores these. No longer a photographer with an eye for the unusual moment, Koh drops all distractions to focus on romantic longing. The origin and destination is just "elsewhere" because until he is arrives, there is no detail, just anticipatory feeling:

                and I'm alive, suspended,
                hurtling through the blackness,
                nowhere without you.("Without You")
              If Gilbert Koh's attitude towards art is that of a photographer, then Jee Leong Koh's is that of a shameless model. Jee Leong Koh reinvents life by throwing himself onto new backdrops. At the same time, and perhaps more revealingly, Jee Leong Koh is a conjurer, playing with forces that his lines struggle to restrain ....

            I know Jee Leong. Not well, but we've met. In fact, some years ago, a publisher proposed that we combine our poems and do a book together. Jee Leong wasn't keen - he wanted to do his very own book - so that idea did not materialise.

            Jee Leong was an example of the PAP's Model Citizen and Ideal Success Story. He had good academic grades; performed well in NS and became an SAF officer. He got an PSC overseas scholarship and achieved 1st Class honours at Oxford. Jee Leong rose quickly in the civil service to become the vice-principal of a secondary school, at a relatively early age. (I know some of these details, because my brother, who is also in the Education Ministry, knows Jee Leong too).

            However, in Jee Leong's story, there was also a twist. A rather big twist, which would have made him, in the eyes of the PAP, a Non-Model Citizen and Definitely Not A Success Story. It seems to be the reason (or at least, a reason) why Jee Leong emigrated from Singapore. If you read on, you will know what it is:

              Equal to the Earth, Jee Leong Koh's second book, presents dynamic yet challenging poetry, and Koh's ordering and sectioning of his work is a crucial part of the way it should be accessed. Most poetry volumes can be enjoyed by opening them at any point, but the best way to appreciate Koh's work is by starting at the beginning and moving through to the end.

              Jee Leong Koh uses formal schemes well by emphasizing their confining aspects, and his opening poem "Hungry Ghosts" is in seven sections that describe an entire history of homosexual love. The third section, "The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him" omits any direct expression of lust, but the lines drip of male longing held within austere language, mimicking styles of the period:

                The Peach Terrace glints under the autumn moon
                pink as skin seen
                through red silk gauze.
                ("The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him")

              This historical trajectory is followed to the moment of Western incursion, and in "The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys," a Western man ogles several Chinese prostitutes.

              However, this history is connected to the present-day, and at the end of the poem sequence, the modern narrator is introduced as an inheritor of this past of illicit love and sexual exploitation. His father shows him this history as a venture to the Gates of Hell, and this section has constrained parameters written in an ABA rhythm that boils with emotion. When the author turns to male love, the inevitability of this development is clear, but so is the misunderstanding. The poem ends in America, miles from the pain of family, but unsettled:

                I am left standing beside the golden shock
                of cattails tall as I am, gazing across


                ... Then a burst
                of knocking, from the thicket, the smart stabs
                of a woodpecker tapping in a bowl of bark.
                I should go. Winston's coming up.
                ("Hungry Ghosts")

              In these lines, homosexual love is finally naturalized in a vivid, descriptive language structured in formal meter that is Koh's true and modern voice.

              This first sequence charts Koh's identity formation by tracing the narrator's debt to the past as well as his inevitable need to leave Singapore. In the second section, his poems canvass America, and are energy filled with exploratory energy, but also the emotional displacement concurrent with this choice:

                Since citizenship doesn't follow coming out,
                but childlessness does, we understand our whereabouts
                are recognizable but never familiar.
                ("Actual Landing")

              Jee Leong Koh uses formal structures to hold surges of desire, anguish, and imagination. His repeated trope of the ocean embodies humbling and vast depths of feeling. The symbol is key to understanding the overpowering, at times magical forces of the Earth that Koh describes.

              The phrase "equal to the earth" is evoked forcefully in "Blowjob" which follows a man/elusive sex object who works with machines harnessing the crude oil beneath the sea floor: "You master the force compressing bones / to crude trapped in the earth's scrotum". The character in this poem is homo-erotic but heterosexual in his relationships, inscrutable but thrilling in the intensity that he represents.

              Thus energy and mystery begin to describe Koh's project, but his message is driven home in another poem, "Raznovmenie, or Nonmeeting,"
              previously published in this journal. "Raznovmenie" is written in forceful triads that think that love is defined by its remove as well as intimacy:

                you're exerting a force equal to the earth's
                a capsule taken, paradoxically, by spitting it out.
                This is not so ridiculous as some may think.

                for didn't Tsvetaeva and Pasternak live like this,
                not on one planet, but on two hurtling asteroids.
                We have nothing, Marina wrote Boris, except words.
                ("Raznovemenie, or Nonmeeting")

              The way Koh explains love's power, even in physical absence, through allusion to Tsvetaeva and Pasternak is extremely effective. The Soviet poets Tsvetaeva and Pasternak maintained an artistic and romantic connection entirely through correspondence. Koh draws on their pain and even the absurdity of their relationship, filled with writerly energy but starving from a lack of any real and physical connection. As unsatisfying as this may seem, "the writing of non-meeting" only emphasizes the unearthly strength of love in the words themselves. The poet writes to dominate the lines, but the writing sometimes dominates.

              Jee Leong Koh and Gilbert Koh view Singapore differently—one as a country of origin and a central focus; the other as a point of departure and a backdrop to a new flowering of identity. Their volumes are equally promising and rigorous in the different directions they take, and together only suggest that the country's poetic climate is not easily reduced.

            Nov 20, 2009

            Brief Thoughts on Religion in Singapore

            An email from an American reader:

            Hello Mr. Wang,

            My name is Gregory Hoffman, and I am a High School student in Miami, Florida. In the coming weekend, I am representing Singapore in a Model U.N. competition. I will be the delegate for Singapore. In the general assembly, we will attempt to create a resolution on two primary topics: religious intolerance, and the situation in Afghanistan.

            In researching I have found very unreliable information throughout the web on religious tolerance(or intolerance) in Singapore. I understand Article 12 of the constitution of Singapore gives equality to all citizens of Singapore, and clearly states that discrimination on the ground of religion is prohibited. Furthermore, Article 15 speaks upon the freedom of religion within Singapore. That said, I am aware in the middle of the 1900's a few riots occurred. Since then( preferably more recently), what has Singapore done to promote religious tolerance? In the model U.N., I must represent my country's interests and work towards a resolution with other countries with similiar interests. Any help you are able to give would be GREATLY appreciated.

            Thank you very much,
            Gregory Hoffman

            Here is the 2-cents-worth reply which I dashed out in a few minutes:

            Hi Gregory:

            You are referring to the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950. At that time, Singapore was not a sovereign nation yet. Therefore the Constitution you refer to did not exist at that time. Singapore only became an independent nation in 1965.

            I might as well add at this time that for any country, what the constitution says and what actually happens in the country can turn out to be quite different. A constitution is a paper document, and while paper documents can espouse high ideals, they cannot actually stop people from physically fighting in the streets.

            In general, Singapore has been a very peaceful nation since 1965. There have been no noteworthy incidents of religious violence since then. In fact Singapore is one of the rare places in the world where you will find, say, a church built on the same street as a temple, or a temple next door to a mosque.

            The government here is determined to maintain religious (and racial) harmony. It is a point that they have consistently reiterated through the years. It was a point to which the Prime Minister devoted a significant part of his speech in the most recent National Day Rally (which is traditionally one of the most important political speeches that the Prime Minister makes, in any given year).

            Having said that, I should add that while the government treats all mainstream religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism) with respect, its treatment of minority groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses can be rather shoddy. But I will leave you to your own Internet research.

            Mr Wang
            As an afterthought, I sent the following additional note:
            The clue in my earlier email might have been a little too subtle. So here's the main thing - google straight for the PM's most recent rally speech. The PM is quite long-winded, and prone to repeating old news. So his speech will cover your question - "what has Singapore done to promote religious tolerance?" - quite adequately.

            Nov 18, 2009

            The Rationale for Banking Secrecy

            When I read articles like the one below, I can't help feeling that the financial crisis has caused many people to seriously misunderstand the concept of banking secrecy:
            ST Nov 17, 2009
            Stamp out bank secrecy

            BERLIN - GRAFT watchdog Transparency International hit out at rich countries over shady banking practices on Tuesday as it published its annual rankings naming and shaming the world's most corrupt countries.

            'Corrupt money must not find safe haven. It is time to put an end to excuses,' said the Berlin-based group's head Ms Huguette Labelle.

            In the wake of the financial crisis, the Group of 20 (G-20) industrialised countries turned up the heat on tax havens, targeting rich countries with long-held banking secrecy laws like Liechtenstein and Switzerland. But Ms Labelle said extra efforts were imperative, calling for more bilateral treaties on information exchange in order to 'fully end the secrecy regime'.

            Overall, the 2009 corruption list is 'of great concern', the organisation said, with the majority of countries scoring under five in the ranking, which ranges from zero, highly corrupt and 10, which is very clean.

            The bottom five nations - Somalia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan and Iraq - show that 'countries which are perceived as the most corrupt are also those plagued by long-standing conflicts, which have torn apart their governance infrastructure,' TI said.

            The five countries seen as least afflicted by corruption were New Zealand, Denmark, Singapore, Sweden - and Switzerland. New Zealand scored 9.4 points whereas Somalia scored 1.0 points.

            The score is based on perceptions of the degree of corruption as seen by business people and country analysts.
            So what do we see here? Transparency International publishes its rankings of corruption levels in different countries around the world. At the same time, TI also says that it's time to put an end to banking secrecy. The way TI puts it, it sounds as if banking secrecy and corruption go hand in hand.

            On the other hand, TI's actual research leads to the opposite conclusion. Both Singapore and Switzerland have an extensive banking secrecy regime (Singapore's statutory banking secrecy laws are in fact modelled on Switzerland's). Yet both countries are in the list of world's top five least-corrupt countries.

            So it's very simplistic to suggest that banking secrecy leads to corruption (or creates a conducive environment for it).

            It's important to go back to basics and remember why banking secrecy exists in the first place. Banks hold a lot of information about their customers. If your company is planning an IPO, your bank knows about it. If your business is losing money, your bank knows about it. If you pay your suppliers through your bank account, the bank knows who they are.

            In fact, just by looking at your credit card statements and bank statements and GIRO arrangements, your bank knows where you shop; what you buy; where you've travelled to; what's your salary; how much you got for your bonus; whether you use Starhub or Singtel; and what's the name and address of that other woman who's not your wife but with whom you share a joint account. Etc etc.

            That's all private information. It's not anything illegal, but it's private. Banking secrecy evolved as a legal regime, precisely because the law needs to stop banks from blabbering your private information to people who have no business knowing it.

            Now of course banking secrecy, as a legal regime, has its own built-in exceptions and qualifications. For example, a bank may legally disclose your information to the police, if you've become a suspect in a criminal case and the police need to know about your money matters. A bank may legally disclose your information to its own professional advisers (eg its own lawyers and auditors). And a bank may legally disclose your information to the tax authorities, if there's a tax-related investigation.

            But to say that the world needs to "stamp out bank secrecy" and "fully end the secrecy regime" - that's ridiculous. Newspapers will have a fun time reporting Britney Spears' latest credit card purchases. Your nosey-parker kaypoh auntie might call up your bank to find out how much you really have in your savings account. Banks might sell your telephone number, email address and personal profile to telemarketers selling anything from insurance to club memberships to massage chairs - see how many nuisance calls you get then.

            Little Discoveries on the Rental Route

            My wife and I have started searching for a place to rent. We checked the ads; called up several property agents; drove around the relevant neighbourhoods; and viewed a number of apartments.

            This is a new experience for us - we've never rented before. Mrs Wang is fussy about details like the bathroom design, the shape of the bedrooms and whether the aircon is working. I'm fussy about details like the term of the lease, and whether amenities are nearby, and how the kids are going to get to school.

            I also learned that landlords can be very fussy about their tenants.

            Some of the things I'm going to write about next will sound offensive to some people. Well, these are not my personal views. I'm just describing life as it is in Singapore (the warts and pimples and prejudices included). These are things that I've recently learned, heard and encountered:
            1. Some non-Indian landlords do not accept Indian tenants. They feel that Indian families might make their apartments smell funny. (A property agent told me that).

            2. One landlord wanted to investigate my religious beliefs. Being a Christian, he was firmly against accepting any tenant who might bring "false idols" into his apartment and set up an altar there.

            3. One landlord refused to rent his place to three single Australian expats who had come to view. That landlord feels that ang-mohs like to hold wild parties, get drunk and damage the furniture. A previous ang-moh tenant had left stains on his designer sofa. Alcohol, semen and ... vomit?

            4. One evening, I went to view an apartment. At the same time, three young PRC ladies in scanty clothes and heavy make-up also came to view. In the kitchen, I overheard the owner angrily telling the property agent not to bring any prostitutes to view his place.

            (I don't know why so many PRC prostitutes are in Singapore these days. This particular apartment was not close to Geylang or any other traditional red-light district, by the way).

            5. Landlords are interested to know what kind of job you have, and whether you're rich. They don't want troublesome tenants who end up being unable to pay. It helps to tell them that you're a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant (if you are).

            6. Interestingly, I met a security guard at a condominium who was moonlighting as an unofficial property agent. When I told him that I had come to view an apartment, he promptly brought me to view another apartment. The owner (who had already moved out) had given him the key. I gave the security guard $10 for his kind assistance.

            Nov 13, 2009

            PR Buys HDB Flat for $653,000

            This is the story of how young Singaporeans are being squeezed out of the housing market. The PRs are squeezing them out. One account does not tell the whole story, of course, but you know who has the full figures, don't you. And that's why you will also never know the full story.
            ST Nov 12, 2009
            Record $653,000 for flat
            By Jessica Cheam

            A FOUR-ROOM Queenstown HDB flat has sold for $653,000, setting a new record for price per sq ft (psf), amid continuing red-hot demand for resale flats.

            The buyers, a male Indonesian permanent resident and a Singaporean woman, could have bought a condominium unit in an outlying area for the price.

            But they were won over by the location, just five minutes walk from Queenstown MRT station, and on the top, 40th floor of the block, with unblocked views of greenery from all windows.

            The four-year-old 969sqft unit at Forfar Heights, Strathmore Avenue, sold for $68,000 above valuation - a level determined by an independent valuer.

            This works out to $674 psf, smashing the previous record of $609 psf, achieved in January last year, by about 10per cent.

            This may be an unusually high price but resale prices have been moving up.
            This isn't a bad purchase, by the way. It all depends on the seller's individual needs and circumstances, but I can easily see how it could make sense to some people, to fork out $653,000 for a 4-room HDB flat.

            Firstly, the flat is very nicely renovated (the Straits Times has photos) and looks as classy as a new condo. Secondly, on a psf basis, the flat is still cheaper than many condos. Thirdly, it is really quite close to an MRT station and a HDB hub of coffeeshops, supermarkets, clinics etc.

            Next, there is the issue of privacy and facilities. People are generally prepared to pay more for condos, because of the quiet, privacy and the facilities. On the other hand, a HDB flat on the 40th floor is going to be quite peaceful and private anyway; very cool and breezy if you open the windows; and the view would be absolutely spectacular.

            As for facilities, the odd thing is that many condo residents end up not using the facilities very much anyway. This is one assessment that buyers need to make for themselves. It's all very well to live in a condo with a big swimming pool, two tennis courts and a gym. On the other hand, if no one in your family is actually interested in swimming or playing tennis or working out in the gym, then effectively you're paying extra money for nothing. In that case, you might as well buy a HDB flat.

            Nov 12, 2009

            Strange Tales From Cyril Wong

            After publishing half a dozen poetry books, Cyril Wong must have grown bored and decided to try his hand at writing short stories instead. Let Me Tell You Something About That Night is the result.

            I must confess that when someone described the book to me as a collection of "modern-day fairy tales", I was a little skeptical that this book was going to be worth reading. Happily, I overcame that initial skepticism enough to pick up the book at Kinokuniya.

            I'm about halfway through the book now, and quite enjoying it. Gerrie Lim has a little blurb on it which goes: "Cyril Wong is proving himself to be a prose stylist of a calibre that threatens to outdo his poetry, with words so poignant and heartfelt, and a narrative drive that's often direct and bold yet breathtaking in its fragile beauty." I think that those words sum the book up pretty well.

            Cyril Wong is writing fairy tales, but these are not fairy tales for children (maybe for young adults and older). The stories do not quite end with a "happily ever after" and the characters are much more complex than the usual handsome prince or big bad wolf. A subtle gay theme runs through several stories, and that will put off the Thio Su Miens and the like-minded, but the stories themselves are not sexually explicit.

            Several of these fairy tales are set in a recognisably modern, and even Singaporean, context. For example, one story is about a condominium security guard on night duty. Using his CCTV cameras, he spies on two women who have entered into the lift, only to discover that they are not quite human. In another story, a Malay schoolboy discovers that he has the ability to see how each person will eventually die.

            Let Me Tell Something About That Night is something fresh and different. It's a welcome new addition into the existing body of Singapore literature. Do yourself a favour, go and get the book.

            Nov 9, 2009

            Congratulations to the Boy

            Stephan is a German expat working in Singapore. He married a local lady and settled down here. They have twin boys. Stephan is also a long-time reader of my blog and we had met for lunch a few years ago.

            I recall Stephan telling me then that his boys were sporty, and good with their hands, but not academically inclined. He was a little worried that they wouldn't be able to cope with the Singapore education system. He didn't know the education system here very well, but he had heard some horror stories.

            Stephan's concerns look a little misplaced now. He just emailed to tell me that one of the twins has qualified for the Gifted Enrichment Programme. That puts the boy somewhere in the top half to one percent of the general student population.

            The question is whether the boy should accept the GEP place. That would mean that he has to transfer from his current school, to one of the GEP schools. Neither twin is very keen on this idea, because they, being two good brothers, want to stick together in the same school.

            I think that joining the GEP has some practical advantages. One such advantage, as I understand it, is that a few top secondary schools will accept GEP students under the DSA programme, without even waiting to see the GEP student's PSLE results. Okay, you also have to show some ability in some sport, art or musical activity, but the main thing is that you are a GEP student. That's what makes the door swing open.

            This also means that if GEP students know how to play their cards right, they can enjoy a relatively fun-filled, stress-free time, from Primary 4 to 6. Sure, they can also choose to slog, if they prefer. But at least they have the choice. It isn't exactly imperative for them to do very, very well in the PSLE.

            One concern that parents may have is that the GEP child may feel unduly stressed, about having to compete with other extremely bright kids. I don't think that this is such a major concern. With some parental guidance, the GEP child should quickly understand that the GEP student population comprises the very brightest. Even if he is the bottom 10% of his GEP class, in all likelihood he still compares very well to the wider universe of non-GEP students. His ego need not feel too bruised.

            Also, between being constantly bored in a normal school (because you are too bright and the the usual curriculum doesn't challenge you) and being stressed in a top school (because the GEP curriculum is too tough), I actually think that it's better to be stressed. Boredom is a kind of suffering too.

            If Stephan eventually decides not to send his son to the GEP, then I think that Stephan should just constantly bear in mind his son's giftedness anyway, and give him regular, ample opportunities to develop and explore his own interests. (Of course, the same applies to the twin brother too).

            A useful book I once read was The Gifted Adult, by Mary Elaine Jacobsen. The author made the point that gifted people tend to develop quite intense interests - this in itself is one of the defining characteristics of giftedness. Although the book was about gifted adults, I believe that this point applies equally to gifted kids. So if you're a parent of a gifted child, do try your best to give him the room, space and resources to pursue his hobbies. He will appreciate that, because that's how he grows.

            Nov 7, 2009

            On Writing For Yourself, and On Writing For Others

            I got married in 2000. My first kid arrived in 2002, and the second kid, in 2004. In that same year, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. This was an emotionally difficult time for me.

            My father had his surgery, to remove the tumour, and he survived. However, the doctors explained that in the next few years, the risk of recurrence would be high. I felt that I should spend more time with my father. I also wanted my children to spend more time with him. It was entirely possible that there wouldn't be much time left.

            Soon after my father was discharged from hospital, I took him and my family on a holiday. This was the first time I had ever taken my father on a holiday anywhere. As he was still recuperating, we opted for a quiet, peaceful holiday at a Bintan beach resort.

            While at Bintan, we spent a lot of time just lazing around the beach. I would park myself on a beach chair with a book, while my father took my son to play by the sea. I would just watch them from a distance - this was their special time together. Out of this holiday, the following poem emerged:

              My Father Takes My Son For A Walk

              Small waves sing and sigh and run to the shore,
              Push and pull at their ankles, as they walk hand-in-hand
              Along the edge of the sea.

              My father is white-haired now, his shoulders stoop.
              With each step he is approaching the end of his life
              Altthough in this moment he does not think of it.

              My son is a young child. Shells and boats excite him.
              In the years ahead, the old man beside him will
              Become for him an uncertain memory.

              I have my own journey. I am watching them,
              As if from a very great distance, as if I were a wave
              Travelling out into the endless sea.

            This poem has attracted very mixed reactions from readers. Those who liked it, really loved it. But apparently, those who didn't like it, quite detested it. First, let's take a look at the positive feedback:

              "Very effective. The perspective of three generations in a few lines."

              "Simple, yet so effective. He's "a wave travelling out into the endless sea." One day he will be the grandfather taking his grandson for a walk along the edge of the sea, and his son will be the one watching. Gilbert, great images. Thanks."

              ... In particular, I love this poem. It strikes a chord in my soul and evokes much tenderness."

              "How lovely. Your detail for things that move the heart is very special. I have pictures of my mother and my son when he was young. Oh how I miss her!"

              "It's lovely. I love the ambiguity of the last line, a sense of movement and loneliness. Nice."

              ".... reading it now, I still feel the emotions rushing towards me. I feel especially touched by the line 'In the years ahead, the old man beside him will/Become for him an uncertain memory.' How true these words are."

            What about the readers who hated the poem? One of them, an SPH journalist, disliked it enough to write an entire article about it. An excerpt from her article:
              The cliched personification of the waves, simple monosyllabic words and obvious alliteration all open the scene on much too precious a note. The emotional tenor - one of quiet reflection - is appropriate ... but the poem crosses the line into sentimentality.

              Stock images, such as the `endless sea' and the `white-haired' old man, do not help matters - which is a shame, because Koh does have an eye for detail.

              The trick is to write simply without being simplistic, but the poem doesn't quite achieve that balance.

              .... The syntax is equally unimaginative. The short declarative sentences and plain old subject-verb-object word order ... lend unbearably slow pacing to the poem.

              It is a quiet, sensitive snapshot a moment, but Koh's writing is too spare. Any emotional resonance soon fades with the final vague image of receding waves.
            I am never that surprised when readers respond differently to any of my poems. I've learned from experience that this is quite possible. Maybe it's just something about the way I write, or perhaps it's just the way that poetry generally is.

            In the past, I've asked a number of experienced poets to give me frank feedback on my poems. Every now and then, the feedback on the exact same poem would return in sharply different forms. For example, a poem might thoroughly impress Felix Cheong, but receive a ho-hum response from Cyril Wong. Conversely, Cyril might praise a poem enthusiastically, but Felix would just say, "Errrr, this one doesn't work for me at all."

            As I look back now on My Father Takes My Son For A Walk, I find myself no longer interested in discussing the merits or weaknesses of the poem. What interests me is another kind of question - the extent to which poets should write for themselves, or for others.

            When I first wrote My Father Takes My Son For A Walk, I never intended to show it to anybody. It was a highly personal poem, written just for myself. The first draft of the poem I completed in less than 15 minutes, literally while I was on Bintan's beach watching my father and children.

            But a year later, I felt ready to show the world the poem. First, as usual, I had to edit the poem. But this time I found it really difficult. I knew that some words and phrases arguably didn't work so well. I experimented with deleting them, changing them, shifting them around. I also came up with one or two new ideas to incorporate into the text. Finally I produced a revised version that I felt would be more satisfying to a critical reader.

            The only problem was that the emotional tenor of the poem had changed. It no longer quite captured what had happened that day, on the beach. The old man had become slightly larger than life; the sea less placid, a little more hostile; and as for the protagonist, he was still reflective but somewhat more certain and assured. Yes, the revised poem was still a snapshot of that same day, but it was like a doctored photo, Photoshopped with special effects. It was no longer the real thing. No one would ever know, of course, but me.

            After some consideration, I threw away the revised version. And went back to the original version (or something very, very close to it).

            Nov 6, 2009

            Chess, Poetry and Homework

            Something odd just arrived in my inbox. The sender's name I shall not disclose (anyway, I do not know her personally). It appears that she first sent the email to "" (QLRS is the acroynm for a literary journal in Singapore). After that, she forwarded the email to me.

            The email is a little cryptic. The person made no attempt to introduce herself or explain why she had written to me. She didn't even say "Dear Gilbert" or "Hi there". She merely wrote:
              Discuss the effects of juxtaposition for the poem between the "old folks" and the "bright-eyed teenagers" or other examples of juxtaposition. Discuss the speaker's attitude towards such school trips, as evidenced in the poem, with regard to his tone and use of irony. Reply asap thanks.
            Looks like a Literature essay question. And I even know which poem the question is referring to. It's one of my own poems, entitled Old Folks Home. Years ago, I gave permission to the Ministry of Education to reproduce the poem for teaching purposes. It appears that they're still using the poem. And it appears that the email sender is hoping that I'll do her homework for her, LOL. Anyway, this is the poem:
              Old Folks Home

              All day long they lie on the
              straight rows of white beds or sit
              in the heavy-duty wheelchairs
              pushed out into the breezy sunshine
              of the gardens.

              Resigned to the prisons
              of their own failing bodies,
              they drift in and out of the haze
              of senility, half-forgetting
              themselves in the patient wait
              for death.

              Still the bright-eyed teenagers come,
              on Saturday mornings, by the busloads,
              sent by their schools
              on compulsory excursions
              to learn the meaning
              of compassion
              as outlined in the ECA syllabus.

              They bring gifts of Khong Guan biscuits,
              they help to mow the lawns,
              they clap their hands performing happy songs
              and valiantly they attempt the old dialects
              trying to communicate.

              Later they will clamber noisily
              back up the departing school buses,
              and next week in class
              they will write startlingly
              similar essays
              on what a meaningful,
              memorable experience they had
              at the old folks' home
              last week.
            I grow a little sentimental. I wrote this poem a long time ago. The term "ECA" betrays the poem's age, because no one says "ECA" any more. Nowadays the official term that the schools use is not "extra-curricular activities", but "co-curricular activities", or CCA.

            The original seed of this poem - I still remember. At that time, I was about 13. I was visiting an old folks home, to play chess with the old folks. It was a volunteer trip, organised by a local chess club (I was a member then).

            So there I was, having a nice quiet game of chess with a frail old man in a wheelchair. Then suddenly a big group of school students showed up. It was their school field trip. There were so many of them. Some of the big boys were playful and rowdy. A teacher started yelling at them to stand in line, keep quiet and behave themselves. Many of the students, I could tell, didn't even know what they were supposed to be doing there.

            Most of the old folks looked either indifferent or annoyed, about the visiting school boys. As for my chess opponent, he was in a winning position. But suddenly he made two bad moves in a row, and lost. I felt bad, defeating him in that way. He complained bitterly that the school boys were making too much noise and he couldn't concentrate.

            I told him that we could play again. He sighed and said, never mind. Then he brightened up and said in Mandarin, "One thing about those school boys, they often bring Khong Guan biscuits for us. I don't like the boys, but I like their Khong Guan biscuits. I hope they brought some Khong Guan biscuits today."

            He went on and on about his Khong Guan biscuits. He wouldn't stop. Something in that moment really moved me. I put the chess pieces back into their box. I felt sorry for this wrinkled old man. He had so little left in his life to look forward. Even Khong Guan biscuits were a big deal for him. I wished I'd thought of bringing a big tin of Khong Guan biscuits, just for him.

            Years passed. Somewhere along the way, I took up poetry. I also became a better and better chessplayer (in fact, I became the NUS chess champion and captain). One day, as I was analysing a chess position, I suddenly remembered the two bad moves. In my mind, I saw that frail old man, sitting in his wheelchair, shocked by his own blunder. So I stopped analysing, and started to write a poem instead. Old Folks Home came out.

            You can't see the old man in the poem. But I can. Although he must be dead by now, I can still see him, and I can still hear him going on and on about his Khong Guan biscuits.

            How To Read The People In The Poetry

            Over the years, I've met many writers in Singapore, but I spend little time with them. In a year, I attend no more than two or three literary events. Still, at these events, there are always a few writers who talk to me as if they know me very well. I also talk to them, as if I know them very well.

            Actually, we do know each other very well. The reason is that we've read each other's works. Obviously, the details of a writer's personal life do seep into his writing. In fact, if you read, say, Cyril Wong's poetry, you don't just meet Cyril Wong - you also meet his father, mother, sister, boyfriend etc. Cyril will even slice them open and show you the insides of their heads.

            Beyond the biographical details, a writer's works give you a peek into his inner world. If you're a sensitive reader, you can feel the writer's personality. You can sense his mind and soul. You may not be able to describe it with words, but you feel it nonetheless. It's the vibes.

            Gwee Li Sui commented on an earlier post, saying that I am a person of "sentiment and reflection". Actually he is very right. Oddly, many people who do meet me regularly in real life would never know that. They see only the Aggressive Investment Banking Lawyer side of me. But Li Sui, whom I think I've met only once before, was able to pinpoint a deeper side of me, simply by having read a number of my poems.

            David Fedo is an expat working in Singapore, and also a poet. I'm now re-reading his book, Carrots, which was published this year. I like David Fedo. In real life, I've only met him, and his wife Susan, twice. Both of them are warm, kind, honest, sincere people. I pick up the same vibes in David's poems. It's a psychic thing. David is a good man, the kind that eventually goes to heaven, if heaven exists.

            For those reasons, I keep coming back to his book. David feels like an old friend, somebody I'd meet over coffee to talk about old times. It's an odd thing for me to say, because as I had mentioned, I've only met him twice - we have no "old times" to talk about. But that's poetry for you. That's what poetry does.

            I see clearly in David's poetry the advantage of age. The older you are, the more you've lived. The more you've lived, the greater the wealth of personal experiences and memories you can tap, for the purposes of creating poetry. The continual passage of time itself creates new perspectives in the writing. Here's one poem that I like:

                Unknown Poets, Unremembered People

                The shaggy-haired young man from Ohio,
                stanzas dancing in his head,
                and some even on paper -
                dead long ago in Vietnam.
                Years later
                a sister, wondering, sends me his photograph
                and some of his work.
                It is handwritten,
                untidy, a bit unformed -
                quite wonderful.
                I write back, saying inadequately,
                "Thanks for sharing this with me."

                Another poet, a decade ago,
                so prolific in the established journals -
                those short-lined insinuating lyrics,
                so much promise,
                images that might even stamp an age -
                what happened to her?
                Then one day a colleague tells me
                she's been dead for three years -
                a stroke, he thinks, someplace in Virginia.
                The poet disappears, then the poetry.

                Like my cousin,
                not a poet,
                killed thirty years ago
                when his plane lost an engine,
                hit a mountain.
                In my mind I never see Dennis not smiling:
                his special genius was to be happy.
                Now I am of a vastly diminishing number
                who even remember him or the broad smile
                or who know (for example)
                what happened to Weldon Kees,
                who was a poet,
                or who ever think
                of my three talented and unknown uncles,
                all strangely dead early of heart disease.

                The dead and forgotten,
                the living and unknown,
                the stones on an Artic shore,
                have their own lonely histories.
                Of course one might say
                that all histories,
                even for Hart Crane and Anne Sexton
                and the other famous and remembered,
                are lonely and vanishing too.
            Poetry is subjective, of course. But David's style has all the elements that appeal to me. Firstly, the poem is not a trivial one, but tackles a significant, heavyweight theme (life, and death, and the deeply human desire to remember, and be remembered). Next, based on that theme, the poem proceeds to tell a story. The story is simple and moving. The poem finishes, takes a bow and makes a quiet, dignified exit.

            No theatrics, no histrionics, no self-indulgence. No techno-beats or disco lights. No attempt to execute any attention-grabbing "Look, Ma, no hands, I'm so clever" type of literary devices. The poem is honest and heartfelt. It respects its own theme. It remembers, respects and honours all the people and places in it.

            Some people would say, "But what about the craft?". Craft refers to the poet's technical writing skills. When we talk about a poet's craft, we usually talk how inventive and original he is with language, whether he uses innovative images or striking metaphors, and perhaps whether he arranges his line-breaks into interesting shapes etc.

            But there is another kind of craft. David's poem demonstrates it. This aspect of craft is subtle, unobtrusive, largely invisible. Most readers will feel its effects, without ever being able to put a name to it. It is the ability to say a lot, with very few words. David also has the ability to say it so smoothly that the reader swallows the poem, digests it whole, with nary a hiccup. Look at the poem again:

              The shaggy-haired young man from Ohio,
              stanzas dancing in his head,
              and some even on paper -
              dead long ago in Vietnam.
              Years later
              a sister, wondering, sends me his photograph
              and some of his work.
              It is handwritten,
              untidy, a bit unformed -
              quite wonderful.
              I write back, saying inadequately,
              "Thanks for sharing this with me."
            How easily the poem flows. But an inadequate critic would not appreciate this. If you approach the above stanza mechanically, as if you were marking the answer to a 10-year-series exam question, then the stanza looks like a poetic failure. After all, out of 12 lines, arguably only one line possesses a "poetic" attribute - that would be Line 2, with the image of stanzas "dancing" in a person's head. Every other line is just "prose" pretending to be "poetry".

            But to me, all 12 lines are not only poetic, but beautiful. The artistry lies in the way every word, every phrase works to bring out shades of meaning in every other word and phrase. The 12 lines operate as a highly united team. In 56 words, David creates three human beings so real you can almost reach out and touch them. You learn that there was a man, he was young, alive and vibrant with ideas, and then he got killed in a war. Years later, when the sharp edge of grief has long passed, you sense what his sister feels - she is wondering, hoping to learn more about the mystery of the man that her brother was, and she tentatively reaches out to a stranger for possible answers. And David is that stranger. You can feel his thoughts, as he holds the photo and the papers, his final connection to that shaggy-haired young man he once met, so many years ago.

            (All this is achieved, in 56 words! Those of you who are unimpressed should do a little experiment yourself. Try writing a story, in 56 words - see how far you get).

            Reading David's poem gives me the sense of travelling a vast distance. In its entirety, the poem is less than 2 printed pages long. But in that space, David has successfully compressed the life and times not of one person, but several different persons. These people - they lived, and died, and were almost forgotten, and then suddenly the poem, like magic, breathed life into their memory again.

            That's no mean feat. I love this poem, and I love Fedo's book.

            Nov 5, 2009

            "Boo!" Said The Critic

            An NUS student has reviewed my book Two Baby Hands. The review was extremely negative and I think that many people were surprised by it. In response to the review, one reader even wrote:
              "I strongly believe that reviewers are entitled to express their own opinions. Still, to me, this review was really way off. I was very, very surprised by how one-sided it was. In fact, I got the distinct feeling that the reviewer has some personal grudge against Mr Wang. Just my guess."
            (The reviewer has denied this).

            Virtually overnight, a small troop of Singapore writers also appeared on this blog, to find out what's been going on and/or to chip in with their two cents' worth. Actually I am slightly taken aback at how quickly they all popped up (I wonder how many of them might in fact be long-time lurkers here). The writers included Alvin Pang; Gwee Li Sui; Toh Hsien Min; Alfian Saat; Laremy Lee and Teng Qian Xi.

            I was also told that the quality of the review (and presumably the merits of the book) are now being hotly debated on some Facebook group discussion. However, I am not privy to that.

            Since the time the review came out, I have received a number of encouraging, supportive emails from friends. I appreciate this, but also expected it - that's what friends do for each other, right? What did surprise me was that a few people whom I've never met before also made the effort to contact me and share their thoughts. For instance, here's a nice email I received from Tammy Ho, a poetry editor in Hong Kong, relaying a message from one Bob Bradshaw, who lives faraway in California:

              "Dear Gilbert,

              We at Cha read a review of Two Baby Hands at QLRS and felt that it was an unfair analysis. Bob Bradshaw (our former guest editor and regular contributor) has the following to say, for example:

                "I don't recall seeing a more cruel review than Gilbert Koh has received at QLRS. Gilbert Koh is a fine poet. I haven't read the book, but I have enjoyed a number of his poems. I was appalled at the attack. Please pass along my feelings to Mr. Koh. He deserves much, much better! ...."

              Anyway, we enjoy your poetry and we are sure many many others like your work."

            Thanks, Tammy & Bob. You brighten my day. :)

            At the moment, I am still feeling quite annoyed. But oh well, in the end, what's a review? One person's opinion. Life goes on.