Oct 31, 2009

Poems for the Weekend

Two Baby Hands was published in June. Since then, I haven't really tried to write any new material. However, the recent writing retreat on Pulau Ubin was quite inspiring. And so - two new poems:

        Poetry Workshop

        A girl in the class raised her hand and asked,
        “Why are your poems so sad?”
        I told her that I write happy poems too,
        bright, cheerful poems filled with sunshine
        and the scent of flowers,
        but although the others nodded their heads
        the girl grew unconvinced, dissatisfied,
        as if in my words she had detected
        the faint but unmistakeable traces of a lie.
        Indeed the world’s best poems are often sad
        their lines infected with darkness or
        at least mild despair, the protagonist grappling
        with some black, perplexing circumstance
        and I should have admitted then
        that the best poems are also always honest -
        in fact they are sad because the world
        is sad and they are honest,
        like a sick man who looks into the mirror
        and sees for the first time
        that he might be about to die.

        The Buddha on Pulau Ubin

        You bike along the last remnants of a dirt trail,
        rattling your bones on gravel.
        All around you there is birdsong and greenery,
        White clouds in a clear blue sky,
        And somewhere in the distance a wild dog barks.
        Not another human being is in sight.
        Then suddenly there is a shrine
        And in the shrine the statue of a buddha,
        towering well above your head.
        Welcome, the Buddha’s voice seems to boom,
        I am pleased that you have come!
        Giant lips stretch across his face in a clown’s
        Impossibly wide and manic grin,
        an error of proportions committed by some
        inexperienced or underpaid sculptor.
        Somehow you imagine that a buddha should be
        more sedate, less excited,
        but then Pulau Ubin has already begun to die.
        Abandoned, even a buddha can grow lonely here,
        So lonely that a little madness might
        Eventually touch his mind.

"Poetry Workshop" is not about an Ubin workhop, but a previous workshop I had conducted at Cedar Girls Secondary. "The Buddha on Pulau Ubin" still feels unfinished to me; it needs some more work, but I'll come back to it another time.

Incidentally, folks, in case you haven't noticed, in recent times I have grown tired of socio-political blogging. Although I don't plan to give it up completely, it's probably not going to be the main theme of this blog much longer. If the hardcore social/political stuff is what you come here to read, you might be better off visiting other blogs.

Not sure what exactly I'll be writing about here on this blog. I guess it will be more along the lines of personal reflections and thoughts on my own life.

Oct 29, 2009

Trembling in the Tropics

Right now I'm sitting in my office blogging and eating lunch at the same time, and although Singapore is a tropical country, I've got my nice, warm jacket on. Why? Because the central air-conditioning here is just too cold for my comfort. Ironically, here's an article from the Straits Times today. Note the title:
    ST Oct 29, 2009
    S'pore a green building hub
    New council to boost green construction; deal with UN unit to promote best practices
    By Jessica Cheam

    SINGAPORE took two major steps on Wednesday in its drive to position itself
    at the forefront of the increasingly vital field of 'green' construction practices and technologies ....
I'm not here today to discuss whether Singapore is indeed a "green building" hub or not. I just wanted to point out another example of poor sub-editing by our mainstream media.

Once again, there's a big mismatch between the title of the article, and its actual content. The actual content makes no claim whatsoever that Singapore is a "green building hub". Instead it says that (1) a new council has been set up to promote sustainable construction, (2) the BCA has signed some document to promote good building practices, and (3) Singapore has the ambition to be the "green building hub" of the tropics.

Now, having the ambition to be something is quite different from actually being it. This should be a rather obvious point, but I guess it eluded the ST sub-editors.

The rest of the article is below. Now, please excuse me while I go and shiver .... Brrrrr.
    A Singapore Green Building Council (SGBC) has been set up to promote sustainable construction. This includes driving efforts to green at least 80 per cent of buildings here by 2030.

    And the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the United Nations Environment Programme to collaborate on promoting best building practices across Asia.

    The move fits in with the Government's aim to set up a Centre of Excellence in sustainable building and construction in the future to cement Singapore's ambition to be the green building hub of the tropics. Details will be released later, said the BCA.

    Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Teo Chee Hean announced the new council at the opening ceremony of the inaugural three-day International Green Building Conference held at Suntec convention centre on Wednesday.

    Mr Teo noted that even as the world tackles the global economic downturn, 'we are faced with a policy imperative... that of ensuring sustainable development for our current generation, so that our future generations will have a future'.

Oct 24, 2009

Some Reflections on a Trip To Pulau Ubin

Just back from a week-long stay at Pulau Ubin. Still feeling a little surprised with myself, for having even gone in the first place. I'm not used to being away from my family. Also, my typical idea of an island getaway is more along the lines of a 5-star resort in Bali, Bintan or Phuket. Not Pulau Ubin, a quiet island with a population of only about 100 villagers.

Then again, I had not gone to Pulau Ubin for a "holiday". I had gone for a writing retreat. There were two instructors and twelve participants. The retreat was intended for experienced writers only.

Nearly all of us had previously written at least one book each, and some of us had written several. A few were professional writers (i.e their full-time job was to edit or write for newspapers, magazines or other publications). The members of the Ubin 12 (as we jokingly called ourselves) included past and present winners of various literary awards, including the Young Artist of the Year Award for Literature; the Singapore Literature Prize, and the Golden Point Award.

The retreat was very, very interesting for me. I would love to blog a lot about it. However, I have to somewhat restrain myself. That's because all the writers agreed, on day one, to a concept of "shared privacy".

Over the next five days, as we collectively explored new writing ideas, styles and techniques, we would go on to hold workshops and discussions. Topics that came up included race, religion, politics, sexuality, history, society, family relationships, censorship, crime, violence and more. The individual writers shared their own experiences, some quite personal. Hence the need for shared privacy - "What happens on Ubin, stays on Ubin", as one participant put it.

I did take the chance to bike around and explore Pulau Ubin. It is actually quite an interesting island, and I'm a little embarrassed, as a Singaporean, that until this week, I knew so little about it. I visited places like Chek Jawa, which was fascinating for its bio-diversity; and the little German Girl Shrine, which has an interesting story as to its origin. Pulau Ubin also has a mountain bike park, with trails of varying difficulty, to challenge dirt bikers with different levels of skill and courage.

I also had two mini-Discovery Channel moments - the first was watching two dogs gang up to chase a wild pig; and the second was watching a monitor lizard munch on a pigeon.

Oct 12, 2009

Poor Quality of Media Reporting

I don't know why the local media's standards are so low. I am not trying to be nitpicky, but I do regularly see errors, inaccuracies and poor sub-editing in the local media, and it's just appalling. Here's one example:
ST Oct 12, 2009
Women's World Cup
Feng Tianwei in 3rd place
By Lin Xinyi

NATIONAL paddler Feng Tianwei will have to settle for a third-place play-off at the Women's World Cup after losing to China's world No. 2 Guo Yue in the semi-finals on Monday morning.

The world No. 7 went down 8-11, 11-5, 10-12, 11-8, 6-11, 8-11 in just under an hour at the Guangzhou Gymnasium.

Feng, who finished third in this event last year, will need to beat defending champion and world No. 3 Li Xiaoxia of China on Monday night to repeat that result.
The title is wrong. Feng Tianwei is NOT in 3rd place. If you read the article, you will see that actually, Feng Tianwei will be playing tonight in the play-off match for 3rd place, against Li Xiaoxia of China.

That means that Feng Tianwei will be in 3rd place, if she wins tonight.

Not Home

"Not Home" is a poem of mine that was first published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. The poem also appears in my book Two Baby Hands which was released in June this year.

The poem is short but psychologically complex. I usually prefer to create simpler poems that are more accessible to the general reader. So Not Home was somewhat experimental for me.

      Not Home

      I was eight, and alone.
      Waiting in the garden I talked
      to trees. Seeds sprouted.
      Crickets sang. In the house
      Grandma lay dying.
      Caught an insect, held it
      in my hand. Plucked a leg off,
      as I softly sang. Very cruel,
      very bad. Surely Papa would
      come home, if I were bad.
      Make me hurt, for being bad.
      One more leg then, and another.
      Time crawled. I lost count.
      Finally there were no more legs,
      but Papa wasn't home.
      I dropped the useless insect
      on the ground. In the house
      Grandma went on dying.
      On and on her body twitched,
      till I crushed it with a stone.
      Papa wasn't home.

Interestingly, I've just been told that A Cup of Fine Tea has recently done a critique of the poem. The piece is co-written by Tammy Ho and Jeff Zroback. They have pretty much "caught" the essence of the poem. Here's an excerpt of their commentary:
Children can be so cruel. This is certainly the case in Koh’s “Not Home”. The cruelty of children often arises from their innocence of the world and self-absorption, characteristics demonstrated by the persona in the poem. In the poem’s opening, we see a young person playing alone outside: ‘I was eight, and alone. / Waiting in the garden I talked / to trees. Seeds sprouted. / Crickets sang’ (L1-L4). The whole scene is written to reflect the child’s state of mind. The lines are deliberately short and jump between foci, revealing a child’s short attention span. We also see a young person’s imagination at work in phrases such as ‘I talked to trees’. But it is the imagination of a particularly lonely child; one forced to take refuge in a make-believe world after being excluded from the real one.

The reason the child is alone (whether by choice or by adult instruction) becomes clear in the next sentence: ‘In the house / Grandma lay dying’ (L4-L5). The persona then takes his or her frustration out on a helpless creature: ‘Caught an insect, held it / in my hand. Plucked a leg off’ (L6-L7). This is not just blind violence but is an act motivated by a strange and disturbing kind of childish logic: ‘Plucked a leg off, / as I softly sang. Very cruel, / very bad. Surely Papa would / come home, if I were bad’ (L7-L10). That the persona’s aggression may stem from violence he or she has suffered is apparent in the suggestion that the father would ‘Make me hurt, for being bad’ (L11). There is a terrific unsentimentality and complexity here. The child craves the father’s attention; however, this attention is likely to be violent, suggesting that in some way the child wants to be hurt.

Despite the child’s wishes, the father does not return. The youngster, however, continues to torture the insect in hopes of attracting the parent: ‘One more leg then, and another. / Time crawled. I lost count. / Finally there were no more legs, / but papa wasn’t home’ (L12-L15). There is perhaps a lapse of voice in the phrase ‘Time crawled’ as it is unlikely that a child would use this expression. Regardless, its use proves apt, providing as it does a nice contrast to the insect slowly losing its own ability to crawl while its limbs are torn off ....
For the rest of the article, click here.

Oct 6, 2009

Challenges on the Job Front

I found this article on the Little Speck website:

A resentful citizenry
Singaporeans are not annoyed by their arrival, but the overwhelming numbers and sometimes having to play second fiddle to them.
By Seah Chiang Nee.
Sept 26, 2009

AN ELECTRONICS firm that advertised last week for a “preferably non Singaporean” engineer has added fuel to a worsening controversy in this migrant city.

It particularly stipulated that “permanent residents are welcome” to apply for this “mid-career job (salary negotiable)”.

A copy of the advertisement found its way onto the web.

Applicants should have a diploma or a relevant trade certificate, with 3-5 years’ work experience, and “preferably non-Singaporean (PR welcome),” it added.

This provoked strong reactions from Singaporeans who are already upset at the large number of foreigners allowed to work here.

One asked if such discrimination is legal. “This sort of ad would have landed this company in heavy trouble in most developed states,” he added.

Another writer said: “Now we know where we stand. The policy has downgraded Singaporeans to below foreigners.”

You can read the rest of the article here. Of course, it does not really surprise me. For years, Singapore has been moving steadily in the pro-foreigner / anti-citizen direction.

I'm not going to bitch or moan about it. Yes, I do think that the PAP government has repeatedly made some bad mistakes. Still, we're not the only country in the world with stupid politicians. Each of us just needs to find a way to move on, adapt and survive - notwithstanding the government's errors.

No point complaining about it. Just take the PAP as another challenge in life you need to overcome. Take your small, steady steps to deal with it.

Here's one small, steady step I took. I updated the "personal particulars" section of my resume. It indicates that although I am a male Singaporean, the SAF does not call me up to go for annual NS duties (due to medical reasons).

On the career front, this helps me to avoid the kind of discrimination highlighted in this old post of mine - NS and Employment. (Incidentally, that post dates back to 2006. That simply goes to show how none of these issues are new).

Oct 1, 2009

Academic Success and Socio-Economic Status in Singapore

ST Oct 1, 2009
Kids can excel with right strategy, says parent from working class

I READ with interest the news and views regarding whether housing type and financial wealth affect how well students do academically, and would like to offer my perspective.

I have two children of average academic ability pursuing the Integrated Programme (IP), and I am a working mother living in an HDB flat in the heartland.

What is important in getting children to excel is a combination of parents:

- Showing an interest in learning how the education system works;
- Thinking and proactively developing a strategy and path for their children; and
- Devoting time and effort to realise that strategy.

Let me illustrate.

Getting into a primary school of choice: Since getting into a primary school of choice depends, among other things, on distance of home from school, parents can select a home (including HDB flats) within the 1km mark. Choosing a primary school affiliated to a good secondary school, or a Special Assistance Plan school where students are drilled in Higher Chinese from a young age, will enhance the child's chances of doing well in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

Getting into a secondary school of choice: Unless your child is very academically inclined and likely to score 255 points or more in the PSLE to get into an IP school, think what other options are available to get him admitted, apart from the academic route. Consider the co-curricular activity (CCA) route for Direct School Admission - sports, arts and so on.

Do you need to be wealthy and living in private property to take this route? Not necessarily. For example, if you want your child to offer competitive swimming at his secondary school, you can sign him up for the competitive swimming programme that is taught at public swimming pools. The monthly fee is in the low two digits and the quality of training is high.

If your child is not inclined towards sports, there are other avenues, such as uniformed groups or robotics. These are all CCAs offered in primary school and cost next to nothing to join.

What I want to say is this - do not be hung up on the idea that you must be wealthy or live in private property for your child to succeed in school. If you have this mindset and rub it off on your children, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I am a heartlander from the working class, my children are not academically very bright, but they managed to get into the IP through the strategy I have outlined. If my children can do it, there are many others out there who can too.

This is my note of encouragement to all of you.

Lim Chiu Mei (Ms)

She studied the system, she learned the rules and it looks like she's played the game well, so far anyway. Congratulations to Chiu Mei and her children. A good strategy is indeed important for doing well in school (not to mention in life generally).

Of course, the richer you are, the easier it is, to follow through with a good strategy.

For example, Chiu Mei said that to get a child into a good primary school, the parents can "select a home (including HDB flats) within the 1km mark" of the school. Chiu Mei was referring to the school admissions rules that give higher priority to children who live near the school.

However, most of Singapore's top primary schools are located in exclusive neighbourhoods. For example, Nanyang Primary School and Raffles Girl Primary School are at Bukit Timah. Most homes in that area are big bungalows and high-end condominiums - not HDB flats.

It seems that Chiu Mei also went for the Direct Special Admissions strategy. This is a relatively new scheme. Primary 6 students who demonstrate high standards in some activity (for example, music or sports) can use this to try to gain a place in a good secondary school, even before taking their PSLE exams.

Each of the DSA schools is free to set its own criteria under the scheme. For example, if a particular secondary school wishes to establish a niche in music, it can decide to accept students wcho excel in choral singing, playing the violin etc. From Chiu Mei's letter, we can guess that her children secured their places in an IP school, by virtue of their swimming prowess.

The whole idea behind the DSA was to encourage all-rounded students (as opposed to students who excel only in their studies). In principle, I think that the DSA is a good idea. How it may backfire is that eventually, young kids will be pressured to excel not just in their academic studies, but in their chosen hobby.

My son is in Primary One this year. For his school CCA, he's doing Speech & Drama. Unlike most CCAs in my own day, his Speech & Drama activity follows a proper, structured programme. In fact, next month my son will be taking his first exam in Speech & Drama. An external examiner from Trinity-Guildhall in London will be flying into Singapore to conduct the exam.

If my son sticks with Speech & Drama for the next four or five years, he can expect to take more exams and collect his certificates. That might eventually help him to gain DSA admission into a good secondary school. Once he's in, I guess that there will be some "moral obligation" for him to represent the school in activities like debating or drama.

I feel that all of this is worthwhile, if my son continues to enjoy Speech & Drama. Currently, he does. I hope that it stays that way.

It may be relevant to point out that I have to pay extra money for my son to take part in Speech & Drama, and a separate set of fees for him to take the exams. While I can easily afford this money, not all HDB heartlanders will be able to do the same.

In this sense, the DSA scheme does disadvantage kids from poorer families. These are the families which don't have the spare cash to send the child for ballet classes, golf lessons or piano lessons.