Monday, March 27, 2017

Are you normal?

No one wants to be normal in Singapore. A 'normal' person takes 5 years to complete secondary education. That's too slow. Not when 'express' only takes 4 years. If a person has to take an extra year to be schooled, they must be stupid and are an embarrassment to their parents who will never be able to hold their heads up again among their contemporaries, all of whom have 'express' children.
Faith Ng's play, Normal, directed by Claire Wong, focuses on two students in their 5th and final year of secondary education. Daphne blanked out after studying too hard at her Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE), while Ashley obtained less-than-outstanding results at the same exam -- which they took when they were 12 -- thus qualifying them both as 'normal', and nothing more.
Like every other normal student, they bear the label as a stigma. They have little confidence in their own abilities. Their well-meaning teachers' insistence on upbraiding them on their attire, punctuality and decorum at every slight infraction is simply focused on making the normals conform in outward appearance, but does little to challenge them intellectually where academic learning really counts. As such, with every school day feeling like prison, the normals feel increasingly convinced that they will end up not graduating and their lives will be over.
Unlike the other teachers they have encountered, the new literature teacher who runs the Drama Club takes a different approach with the normals. She believes in them and helps them work out their fears, anxieties and frustrations through theatre and convinces them that they can succeed in the end. But in a plot reminiscent of Dead Poets Society (1989), Ms Hue is alone in her efforts and the system beats down on everyone eventually.
The play is beautifully set. There is the main playing area in which all the action takes place, while a corridor runs behind it framed to look like school chalkboards when lit in front, but becomes transparent when lit from the back (the magic of sharkstooth scrim), revealing the ensemble engaged in a variety of school activities. In a genius piece of lighting design, this corridor-frame is uplit at both ends, casting a shadow that creates the illusion of an old school tower on the upper back wall of the stage.
A snappy script keeps moments of tension, bleak humour, and awkward tenderness flowing at a brisk pace. Scene transitions are done by the cast in low light while singing familiar girls' school songs -- efficient, entertaining and relevant. The dialogue is liberally peppered with colloquial vulgarities, which could be shocking -- if we didn't already know that schoolgirls actually do speak like that. However, in performance, because the dialogue is delivered in perfect English, the colloquialisms feel a little forced and incongruous to the lines. 'Natural' speech is still a paradox local theatre here has yet to figure out. Nevertheless, the few soliloquies at the end are vivid in their revelations of past history leading up to the decision the normals make when events that have transpired cause them believe that kindness has turned to betrayal.
For a play that turns a critical eye on the rigidity of the education system and how it adversely pigeonholes people seemingly for life, it is disappointing that the normals make the decision that they do. The characters of Daphne and Ashley are built strongly and sympathetically. As such, it seems a bit of a stretch that they would succumb to their circumstance rather than rise above it. Perhaps that is the point: that the system wastes much human potential. Like the Alpha, Beta castes of Huxley's A Brave New World (1932), the system gives few opportunities for 'late-bloomers' to excel, or even bloom at all.
But it isn't so much the system that finally drives Ashley's decision as much as her own persecution complex which locks her in a vicious cycle, causing her to interpret every interaction with her teachers as hostile, and escalating that hostility with her own defensive reactions. If Ashley is the architect of her own fate while 22 of her classmates are able to move on from where they are, then the character of Ashley is only there to play the stereotype, pander to audience expectations, and raise sympathy rather than deal with the real flaws of inequality and injustice inherent in a system that is ironically supposed to support meritocracy.
Otherwise, Normal is an excellent and realistic view of school from both student and teacher perspectives. While teachers are well-meaning at heart, their personal biases and choices in responding to their students can be very cruel, indeed.
Review originally published on (26 March 2017)

Monday, January 02, 2017

Cake in a box

He hears, "put the cake in the box."

She means, "putthecakeintheboxthatIgotfromDaisobutdon'tteartheoriginalpackagingwhichhasinstructionsonhowtousetheboxproperlyandbesidesIwanttogivethewholethingtoCousinSallyasaChristmaspresentsopleasemakesureIcanresealthepackagingsoitstilllooksintactandnotlooklikeit'sbeenopenedbefore."

He puts the cake in the box.

She goes ballistic.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Essay: Are foreigners essential to a country's progress?

While others are groaning over a possibly apocalyptic US election result, I'm just going to share another freestyle essay and a self-critique. 'Freestyle' means no plan, just pure improvisation over a 90 minute time limit. And, yes, I do in that span of time allow pauses to compose my thoughts and make edits along the way.

The essay question as follows:
To what extent are foreigners essential to a country's progress? Discuss with reference to your society.

The essay here:

And the self-critique:

Clearly not a standard essay for the General Paper. With no plan, I let the scope of this essay go out of control and ran into trouble bringing the argument back into focus. The definition of 'foreigners' was difficult to nail down as the concept is more abstract than I had anticipated. While the simple idea of a foreigner is someone born outside of local borders, the conception of 'foreigner' is just as telling of a mindset as it is a place of birth. Besides, how does one discuss a relative thing like 'progress'? So many things to establish even before I can begin to make a case. By the time I got to make 'reference to your society', it was really the tail end of what I could manage within the time allotted. As such, the conclusion tries to make a point I hadn't had time to fully develop, ending on a hyperbole with little to no substantiation. And, yes, some evidence is contrived as well. As for balance, well, a resource is either essential (absolutely must have) or not essential (can live without it) and cannot be partially essential (which makes no logical sense at all). I chose to argue 'essential'. Being decisive motivates a stronger argument than being placatory.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Arguing the extreme

Model essay time!

I detest 'balanced' arguments the way they are commonly taught. What usually results is something of a bipolar nature with little basis for resolution. Instead of arguments, what the kids generally produce are almost verbatim reports of 'he said' vs 'somebody else said', which is a neutral approach, but two arguments for the price of one is NOT an argument -- particularly if they are self-negating and hence, inconclusive.

Instead, I prefer turning the essay question back on myself. I don't care what the eternally conflicting straw-men have to say about the issue. What's important is what I think of the unvarnished truth of the matter. While I rail at the world, I am still able to 'balance' my argument by identifying the imperfections that make up the world and our experience of it, rather than shoehorning in balance via the polar antithesis of the question.

Anyway, here's what I think of the 'pursuit of excellence' and whether is is ALWAYS beneficial to [my] country: absolutely, unequivocally yes!

Edit 01:
Coincidentally, I just read this article about the intentional propagation of ignorance by the BBC, making me wonder if we were actively teaching kids to stay ignorant by teaching them to argue through polar opposites.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Staffed duck

Staff retreat. Just ridin' a Duck and feeling like a tourist in my own country.

Getting our flippers wet
Water under the bridge
City skyline
I don't get seasick, else I'd be doing the same
The Sands: view from the Bay
Trusty duck

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Don't wanna go back to school!

To Liu who wrote:
Globalisation could negate efforts in skills upgrading
From Liu Rijing -
October 6
I refer to The Big Read article “Despite being vulnerable, few PMETs heed call to learn new skills” (Oct 1) and wish to raise a few points.
First, threats to jobs come not only from technological change but also globalisation.
So how can we be sure that learning new skills will ensure we do not lose out to global competition when companies relocate owing to cost considerations?
Second is whether a new skill one picks up would still be in demand after one has spent time and money to complete the training.
Third, when companies can choose to outsource professional work to a worker based in a foreign country with a lower salary, how can skills upgrading help then? (Today Online)
If you are looking for assurances, there are none. Sorry. But if you don't want to undergo skills upgrading, that's fine. When enough of us refuse to do so, there will be more opportunities for overseas companies to outsource their crappy, low-skilled, underpaid, exploitative, dangerous jobs to us. That should put your overarching fear of unemployment to rest.

10 cents for career counselling, thanks!

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Wanna bet?

People are understandably concerned about the legalization of online betting in S'pore within the next month or two. Going online makes it more convenient to place bets via mobile app than having to trudge down and queue up at the corner betting store. But will convenience alone cause a spike in gambling as our concerned citizens fear? I doubt it.

This convenience comes with a price: the ability for the authorities to identify individual bettors, track how much each is wagering per transaction and establish their betting patterns over time. Cross-referenced against personal incomes, disproportionate or suspicious spending on bets can be flagged out for intervention if necessary.

If I were a betting man, I'd still go to the corner shop and place an anonymous bet with less-traceable cash. Only if I win big will the world know who I am. Until then, how I bet and what I bet on is nobody else's business. And as a non-betting man, I see more disincentive than incentive to start.