Monday, March 23, 2015

Rising above merit

Meritocracy is a great idea to build a society around. It upholds the ideal of equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of social background; ethnicity; creed; or any other impediment that might hold an individual back from doing better in life. Our country is built on the idea of Meritocracy. Those who prove they can, deserve the biggest rewards is what we believe. Unfortunately for us, that's not how Meritocracy works. I'm not saying that our version of Meritocracy doesn't work, I'm saying that the mechanic of a meritocracy in general does not work the way we think (or wish) it would work.

The central tenet behind Meritocracy is "the best man (or woman) for the job". True. Whomever has the ability will also have a job. But no one said the job had to pay well. Meritocracy works fine in determining an individual's starting point. The transition between schooling and getting employed is certainly determined by the merit of one's academic qualifications, no question there. Entry-level requirements and starting pay can be said to follow along a merit-based scale. So it's no lie to tell the kids to study hard to get a good [entry-level] job.

But once in a job, merit is acquired by meeting job requirements, and sometimes taking up higher education is part and parcel of those job requirements at higher levels. So far, that's what we do understand of how Meritocracy works. What we haven't quite grasped yet is that being competent in one's job is not commensurate with the expected rewards that go with it. So when we berate our overwhelmingly well-paid top policy-makers for not being competent at solving the problems they are being paid to solve, what we fail to comprehend is that they are not actually being paid to solve those problems.

Let's talk about 'competence' first. Being competent means to do one's job well. It's a matter of training, a little aptitude, and a whole lot of experience in order to be competent at one's job. The longer one stays in a job, therefore, the more likely one will become increasingly competent in it. This is especially true if the job is a safe, normal job that many other people are doing and thus it is easy to benchmark one's 'competence' against an industry average. If the job we are competent in is a job many other people are also doing, that's a job that isn't likely to be well-paid because everybody's doing the same thing.

So how do some "lucky" people wind up with the jobs we know are better paying? The better paying jobs are the ones that have few common equivalents. These are the jobs that shoulder huge risks, or are so incredibly difficult that no one knows how to do them properly -- or what 'properly' even means in this context. At these levels, people are rewarded, not because they are competent but because they are willing to take on those risks. We're talking about the risk of epic failure; of losing big and committing career suicide; of facing daily public ridicule and disparagement; of losing fortunes, family reputations and possibly their personal freedom if their failure is somehow interpreted as a criminal act; of letting down lots of people who depend on their continued success (which no one has guaranteed). In short, these people are not being paid for being competent, but for their gumption and audacity to take on these risks which we ordinary folk would never dare to even consider.

Ironically, while the top paying jobs are the jobs we prefer not to do, the least paying jobs are also jobs we would rather not do. The "sandwich class" is stuck being competent in our little fish-bowl world.

It's easy to be competent swimming in a little fish bowl, not so if we choose to swim in the ocean. There is potential for much reward out there in the ocean, but it's safer in our fish bowl where we get three square meals a day -- that's it. Maybe we are so competent we can actually solve those big problems we complain about every day, but unless we are willing to take that plunge from frying-pan into fire, don't count on those well-paid people to solve them for us. It really isn't their job to do so.

In short, the way to the best rewards in a Meritocracy is to say "yes, I'll do it!" and take responsibility in situations we have absolutely no experience in; to tackle problems no one (not even ourselves) knows how to solve; and to basically make people believe the impossible can happen. If we don't get it right, or if we screw up, say we are learning from our mistakes and we'll do better next time. It's either that or face the consequences and die.

The Meritocracy our society is today was envisioned by our late former PM, Mr Lee. We are fortunate that when he stepped up to the plate, he faced the impossible and made it happen. Although we paid him well for his efforts, we all firmly believe that he didn't do it for the money. His life was exemplary -- someone who made huge waves abroad, yet kept a humble, frugal, incorruptible personal life at home. He did what he had to because he believed in us. He fought for us; played hard-ball for us; he WAS us to the end.

With his passing, the mantle has firmly fallen on us, the next generation to continue where the previous generation has left us. Now we will we find out if our generation is made of the quality of steel he and his generation were made of. Will we discover that the meritocratic state that hems us in and determines how we are to live does not actually define us? Like him, can we rise above Merit and just do what needs to be done, do whatever it takes because the bigger picture means more to us than our individual whims and fancies? I don't know, but I will say that Mr Lee was an extraordinary gentleman, and  -- I hope -- the likes of whom we will see again in this present generation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

An appeal for normalcy

No, the education system does not need a major overhaul. What does need an overhaul is the mindset that anything less than an 'A' grade is an Asian fail. This mindset is killing everyone: kids; parents; teachers and so on up the food chain.

It is an unrealistic expectation of what it means to be 'normal'. In statistics, what we understand as 'normal' bunches up in the middle, tapering off at both extremes. When we take extreme position 'A' to be 'normal', the whole distribution shifts to compensate when the frequency of 'A' does indeed increase because now, 'A' has become too frequent to be 'normal'.

Many factors could account for the shift towards more kids scoring'A's. The biggest factor is probably the availability of after-school tuition. But while it does give a boost to the individual kid, the system suffers because too many kids sacrifice too much time on developing themselves into what they (and their parents) think is academically 'normal', and not enough time on developing their other facets that will make them well-adjusted, really normal people. And in the meantime, their collective academic achievement turns up the pressure on the next cohort to do just as well if not better, because if your older sibling could do it, why can't you? But the fact is, yesterday's goalpost has shifted further and smaller because too many goals were being scored, making the game unbalanced and unrealistic.

Some people see this continual raising of standards as 'progress', but in fact, just because more kids are acing their exams doesn't mean they have learned anything apart from how to score in their exams. Exams, after all, are games with rules, and once we understand the game of exams, we learn how to game the exam. Everyone out there in the marketplace, and frequently in the schools themselves, offers tips and tricks; methods and strategies; and game-breaking techniques that with enough drilling and when applied properly are likely to score the aspiring student the sought-after 'A' without needing to understand the subject even at the foundational level. And because the end result is an 'A', no one questions if any real learning has taken place or not.

The way back to sanity is to regain our respect for the 'C' grade and to stop disincentivizing failure. Once we allow our kids to bunch up at 'C', it does not mean we are settling for mediocrity, but rather we are accepting normal for what is realistic, and therefore putting an end to academic curriculum escalation. Exams can carry on as they have for centuries and still continue to deliver what they have been always supposed to deliver: providing a hypothetical controlled environment in which a student puts into practice what he has learned in order to demonstrate mastery of the subject being tested and to receive correlated feedback therein. If there's any competition in the system, it is against one's previous efforts and not against a fellow learner. Accepting a 'C' grade tells the student that there is more to achieve, a further step to take. There is forward movement when you dangle a carrot in front of a donkey, and none when the carrot is already in its mouth.

The main concern we have today is how to tell if an 'A' grade a student has scored is the result of real learning or just from gaming the exam. A simple rule of thumb is to ask how the student acquired the knowledge. If it was acquired without question, it was probably taken as doctrine, memorized, rehearsed, rehashed, and learned for the sake of the examination. If the student questioned the material (you can always check the quality of questioning); failed it often and showed slight increments in progress over time (big jumps do happen, but they are rare), most likely we are looking at a student who really does know his stuff.

Because questions are such a big part of the learning process, we teachers, too, have to be mindful that in our eagerness to teach, we do not anticipate questions and provide answers before the kids ask them. One sure-fire way to kill curiosity is to over-inform -- which we tend to do a lot -- and take the mystery out of life, leaving them jaded and think they already know-it-all at such a young age. And also to not shoot down questions, assuming the kids haven't been listening (whomever can listen and get it right the first time?) when we have a curriculum to cover.

Exams are necessary to school-based instruction, but they need to be taken in the right spirit. The overhaul being asked for is for us all to put exams back in their proper place. To hold exam results as a predeterminant of human lives and their future is asking a little much from a measly scrap of paper that gets replaced by another over time in a person's life.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Wo men de Drama Malam

Lots of things were different about this year's NYeDC show. It was a single matinee performance, held on the first day of the March hols. It was also a combined effort with the Malay and Chinese cultural groups, so in all we put up a total of four relatively short plays in three languages.

It made a lot of sense for a triple joint-venture. Dwindling resources means pooling whatever we can afford together for a single show rather than risk three separate, patchy ones. We also significantly reduced our competition to attract the same audience and make them pay separately for each. Usually, by the latest performance in the calendar, audience fatigue would set in and the last show is also usually the least attended. Today, we all got to perform to a full house, and that was very satisfying, indeed.

NYeDC's item was "Staying Alive!" by Haresh Sharma. It explores the reasons why people entertain suicidal thoughts and builds up to a happy resolution in which the characters find their motivation to stay alive. Despite its morbid undertones, the play has its light, comedic moments and isn't too heavy on moralizing and preachiness. Yup, sounds like NYeDC's style.

The Malay and Chinese groups were equally hard at work these last two weeks getting the publicity and ticket-selling going, while putting in a lot of rehearsal time as well. I will commend highly the Audio-Visual team who was always there, first to arrive, last to leave, making sure sound, lights, curtain, screen, projector worked their magic.

Given our new realities, we knew production this year was going to be tough, but though it wasn't always smooth-sailing, our three groups worked surprisingly well together. NYeDC still have our own big event coming up later this year, but could combined performances be the way forward for us? Guess we'll find out after our post-mortem.

Anyway, here's our happy ending for the family that wants (or rather, DOESN'T want) to kill itself. Glad it all worked out well for them in the end!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

New rims

Rather than focus on what could have happened when I got a punctured tire on the road, I'll concentrate on what did happen.

When M2 began limping, I knew exactly which tire had gone flat because I'd felt the same thing happen before. Fortunately, the nearest service station was just on the other side of the road. I made a careful u-turn, got myself parked and waited for opening time. Meanwhile, I went back across the road for prata and grading papers.

When the mech arrived, he said he didn't have tires my size. So he directed me to limp down to the next tire shop down the road.

Long story short, the tire shop convinced me to trade in all four of my existing rims for new and lighter RSW Racing rims and Bridgestone tires for a special festive season discount price of only $750 (normal price $1k). They gave me a choice of silver or black rims. I chose silver, they said 'silver no stock' so they gave me black instead. Black works with M2's body paint, so no regrets there.

They also threw in the special socket tool to remove the hub nuts, gratis.

I'm kinda' sad to lose my stock 17" rims, but the RSWs actually feel lighter and does improve acceleration by a bit. Cool.

I suppose it could have been avoided, but I'm short of cash again this month due to today's expense. But considering my existing tires were kinda' old already, I guess it was better to change them sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What's Tsupp?

After a 2-year hiatus, The Supplementary Paper (a.k.a. Tsupp) is making another go at publishing student reviews of what's new in the worlds of whatever they're indulging in outside of schoolwork.

Our current roster allows us to publish one story every weekday, as long as the contributors' interest holds up. *fingers crossed

Be nice, click on the link and give the kids some encouragement, 'k? Thanks!

Friday, February 06, 2015

Excuses, excuses

I wonder if my excuse would be considered 'valid' if I were a kid and had to explain why I was late for school this morning?

Y'see, Sir... just as I was leaving my house, I stopped to say 'goodbye' to my cat who was sitting at the door. I bent over double to pat his head, but he took the opportunity to jump on my back, proceeding to settle himself down by kneading my tailbone area, a feline activity sometimes referred to as 'making biscuits'.

As I was working out how to get him off without startling him and consequently getting stabbed in the back with his claws, my other cat approached for his morning head-rub. So there I was, one cat nicely settled on my back and the other around my ankles soliciting tactile attention. If you can picture it, I am in quite an undignified position, like Liang Po Po being mobbed by a couple of furry, over-familiar autograph hunters.

Suddenly, from behind me, there was a gurgle and a splat. The cat on my back had upchucked his breakfast -- right onto my shirt and pants. Some had got under my waistband and was trickling down my butt-crack too.

That called for an equally Liang Po Po-like hobble -- claws be damned --to the bathroom to seek human assistance in cleaning up areas of my person beyond the normal reach of my own arms. Then a quick shower and a change of clothes before returning to clean up the mess remaining on the floor at ground zero. And only after that, could I leave for school.

And that is why I was late today.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Pioneer Generation

It's good we can recognise our 'pioneer generation' with some kind of tangible tribute. What the old folks went through, and what they had to be prepared to do to put us where we are today was no mean feat. They deserve what we taxpayers are awarding to them, all $8 billion of it, so that they can have a better life in their twilight years.

What I worry about is that we start thinking of that generation as the only pioneer generation. That today, because of their efforts and their sacrifices, we have it made. We haven't. Every generation has its share of struggles, and especially for our little island, every generation is its own pioneer generation.

The generation we hail as 'Pioneer' is the generation of immigrants that made our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural fabric work. They created a sense of belonging by embracing and cooperating with each other. It was a sense that they, regardless of ethnicity, background, or opportunity belonged to the place.

If we really want to honour our 'Pioneer Generation', the money is good -- but it's more important that we don't undo the good they did by turning it around and start acting like the place now belongs to us.