Friday, August 26, 2005

PEARLS is in its death throes. One last frantic shudder before finally resting in peace within the next week or so. With this last gasp, our college Seniors are madly scrabbling for whatever points they can scrape together from their co-curricular activities (CCA) while the system still has a few breaths left.

From an outsider's perspective, I think it's sad that these kids seem so desperate to trade their toil, their effort, their memories for just a handful of brownie points. And conversely, that they can be so easily bribed to sacrifice their sweat and their time for points on an arbitrary scale. The fear is in the comparison of one's "contributions" to one's organization against another's. The more points, the greater the contribution. It's been reduced to that.

Under the old PEARLS system, kids didn't seem to join activities for fun, or because there was a new skill to be picked up, or new friends to be made. Considering the frantic contacts I received today -- "I need points for...;" or, "you forgot to add points for...;" or "don't I get points for...?" -- it seems like it's all about the points. The first response we got when we proposed activities was, "how many points will we get for that?" Honestly speaking, is that all kids want? No wonder they feel short-changed so often. Summing experience into points may work well for RPGs, but that's just too cheap in real life.

But PEARLS dies this year. Our current juniors no longer have the restriction of wondering if their activities are going to be worth how many points because the sum will always add up to zero! Now they can't compare which activity is "better" or "more prestigious" than another. CCA advisors won't have to fret over whether organizing one kind of activity goes against the kids' interests because another type would yield more points due to some technicality in an ever-changing rulebook.

Freedom will breed chaos, no doubt about that. There won't be a convenient point-ranking system that easily predicts who deserves what and so rewarding people can become a real nightmare for the decision-makers. But the Best cannot always be determined in this way. Take for example, last year's Farewell Assembly Arts Faculty Representative, Sarab. On a strict point system, let's just say he wasn't exactly a model student. But the situation called for a personable, charismatic, engaging, humorous personality with a knack for story-telling and with his feet firmly planted between his studies and work experience (and NO points for any of these qualities, though he probably picked up a couple of demerits for them, haha!), and there he stood out from the crowd. He may have eschewed the "system" but when a niche opened up, he fit the bill perfectly; and he gladly took the job and in that capacity delighted the Class of '04 that day.

People don't seem to like chaos much, though. No doubt after a while some control-freak in the future will decide to reintroduce points back into the system and the wheel will turn once again. Let's breathe in the freedom gratefully while it lasts.

Edit 01:
Was made to take certain measurements today. Not all results are in yet, but comparing my scores in relation to everyone else's so far, I doubt that there is anyone left who can challenge my title of "fattest man in the Department." Yeah!
Horribly disappointing game, posting my lowest scores so far in competition. Average has been steadily declining to an abyssmal 130 since the previous game in the tourney. No morale to talk about that any more. Bleh.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

We had another 'Department sharing' at the Colbar this afternoon, before moving our party to the Ministry HQ for a formal seminar with distinguished guest, Prof T Koh, S'pore's most famous personality in our diplomatic affairs abroad. We also had another guest speaker, Dr K P Tan, but Koh was the man I had come to listen to.

As Koh spoke on our national history from the point-of-view of foreign eyes, I began drawing parallels between Singapore and Cafe Rene, the little food & beverage + "entertainment" establishment in occupied France featured in BBC's hit sit-com, 'allo 'allo.

The story of our international history revolves mostly around our one strategy that keeps us all alive and as an independent entity in this dog-eat-dog world: make friends with EVERYONE, great or small.

Cafe Rene operates and survives the German occupation in WWII in very much the same way. It opens it's doors to all and sundry and services everyone according to their needs. It is the one place where ordinary German soldiers, the maniacal Gestapo, ordinary French peasantry, the French resistance, the British Secret Service, and the Royal Air Force rub shoulders with each other every day and everyone still leaves alive and in one piece.

The harried proprietor, Rene Artois, is chiefly responsible for keeping the warring factions from tearing each other apart in his cafe, and he does this mostly by ensuring that their personal business interests stay alive every time they visit. The Germans entrust him with loot which they intend to sell for a large profit after the war; the local resistance gets him to acquire supplies and execute their mad plans against the Germans; he keeps 2 fugitive British airmen hidden in various 'secret' locations in the cafe; and the Secret Service agent helps coordinate anti-German activities in the cafe. Anyone who wants entertainment can always stuff cheese into their ears before the cafe diva delivers another badly-rendered cabaret song (paralleling the state of Singaporean entertainment culture at this time, I think); or if more intimate female companionship is preferred, there's always Yvette who comes with (no pun intended) her own flying helmet and a stick of celery.

Rene himself is under incredible stress trying to keep everybody happy while dealing at the same time with his own personal life that's falling apart at the edges. But unlike the other French peasants who get 'taken outside and shot' on a whim (both Germans forces and French resistance are equally trigger-happy) this fate is unlikely to befall him (actually it happens more than once but he finds a way to escape every time) as he proves himself useful to each faction, and he occasionally earns a small profit from his adventures as well.

Apparently, our foreign affairs department is likewise busy making friends all around the world, enticing them with trade or alliances in order to tie their fortunes with ours. As long as other countries pin their economic hopes on this "little red dot," and we do indeed make their dreams come true, that above all will be our major selling point, our key to survival.

To follow another analogy, the world is like a playground in which the players comprise both big guys and little guys. While we are busy making nice with the big boys in the playground, at the same time we're making friends with the other little 'uns so that if one of the big boys happens to turn nasty, there'll be the others who'll keep him in check, else all the little 'uns gang up with us and collectively our gang isn't as easy to pick on as if we were sitting isolated in a corner far away from everyone else. It's not easy being on everybody's side, but it's worked for us so far.

Service the rich, enrich the poor. Respect the strong, strengthen the weak. The people in the uppermost echelons of our society do this, so why can't we at the bottom follow suit?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I missed the PM's NDay Rally speech on TV this year, but I found the transcripts and poured over them today. A number of items he touched on seems to have been things we've experienced or at least discussed over the last few days. Uncanny.

Let's begin with the call for a "service culture" here. Generally speaking, we don't have one. June went through a number of potential venues to hold her weekend celebration but turned down her #1 choice because the staff she discussed the event with had no clue about putting their customer's needs first. The ambiance may have been gorgeous; the location had some real memories for us; the menu was irresistible; but when it came to actually serving the customer, the staff went strictly by the book and refused to make allowances for a custom arrangement which was what June was asking for. June took her business elsewhere and put her money on #3 choice instead because it delivered much better service.

Some local establishments such as Robinson's and Giordano do make it a point to provide friendly service but the idea has yet to catch on. Simply put, it's having the heart to find out exactly what the customer wants and filling that need because there is a genuine desire to please the customer. As a result, customers are more than happy to spend because not only do they get what they want, they have made a new relationship in the process. What really turns people off is when shop/restaurant staff (and Management) put money first and people second: "No we don't serve ice-water. Would you like mineral water instead?"

Mike and Angela who run The Pitstop epitomize genuine service, taking the trouble to make friends first even before asking how they may be of service. The food they serve up is reasonably priced, yet prepared and delivered with care and with pride. And I'll keep going back there just because they are also animal friendly, a trait sadly missing from our me-first Singaporean culture.

Genuine innovation and enterprise likewise stem from the ability to see or even engineer human needs, then stepping in to fulfill them. It's pointless trying to do something clever and then discover that no one has a use for it. Innovating for the sake of innovation led to ice-cream pratas (yuck!) and dyed-to-a-radioactive-green nasi lemak. Who really cares? On the other hand, Osim products directly target a specific market with specific needs -- people who are tired out from work, who have aching muscles and knotted tendons -- needs met = profitable company. Of course, there are other uses for these same products that are unmentionable in these PG-rated pages, but it goes to show that throwing in 'extras' and being generous to the customer usually pays off handsomely in the end.

Then the issue of keeping the older worker employed has hit home hard. I am now 40, the stage where in theory I'll need to retrain as a toilet cleaner or a McUncle if I had to find another job; given that at present hiring preference for better-paying jobs tends to go towards the younger, healthier, better-looking applicants. This situation is a reality for June whose company is folding up and though she isn't 40 yet, she is past 35 and that's cutting things a bit too close for comfort. As our population is undeniably aging it does make sense for us old(er) people to be resilient and continue learning new tricks, but HR departments will also have to lose their chronological biases as they face the reality of getting increasingly older applicants for their job vacancies.

So the PM's telling us that we are facing some pretty serious problems right now, but we can solve them if we can make the necessary changes to our system. That means Education will have a major part to play in unlearning old habits and modi operandi that served us well in the past, and groom the next batch of little gremlins first to be more humane in their outlook on life which is the immediate need for our immediate future. Now, that'll be a new trick for us to learn.

Monday, August 22, 2005

If any of you have been induced to vomit over the saccharine-sweet nonsense I've been filling these pages with over the last few weeks, I'm glad to say enough's enough and it's time for the old grouch to return. After a heady weekend culminating in an uncharacteristically euphoric climax and blissful denouement, there's nothing like a Monday morning to smack you in the face with a reality check:

Strike One!
As soon as all essay scripts have been marked and recorded, a new batch of comprehension scripts arrive fresh and ready for yet another round of assessment. 2-week deadline, as I understand. Right.

Strike Two!
Bowling total crap again as our afternoon training wore on. Yee's still sick, Anthony sustained a very bad ankle injury over the weekend and had to be verbally thrown off the lanes so he can rest and recover. Vince and I are throwing wild again leaving simple spares unconverted for a pretty depressing 120-140 average respectively. And the tournament is set for this Thursday. Good luck, Gutter Boyz!

Strike Three!
And I feel really bad that after all the wonderful things June did for me over the weekend, today news came from her Head Office in the US that they're closing the local office here. She'll be looking for new employment once the formalities of winding up the business are complete, maybe by the end of the year. As a result, could there be another lifestyle change in the works for us in the coming months? We'll see, won't we?

We can only live one day at a time...

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Couldn't wait to test the new toy the staff-room folks chipped in to get me. The equipment is gorgeous but the quality of the photographs still depends a lot on the skill of the photographer so the "Delete" button is still the most useful function so far. Nevertheless, here's a couple of shots from last night's event:

Some of the staff-room folks, stalwarts, spouses and dates.

Long-time pals: Mary, Jen and Adrian Posted by Picasa

And a couple that I took of the in-Laws, nephews and dogs during the short outing we had this afternoon:

More people we're bringing to sample the tranquility of Upper Seletar Reservoir. Posted by Picasa

The dogs get an airing as well. Posted by Picasa

BTW, The Pitstop is now open only on weekends, in case you're interested to try out the food. You should.

And finally, to test night-shooting capabilities I took this pic of Momo in near darkness:

Apart from Momo's scary eyes, night-shooting seems to work just fine! Posted by Picasa

A magnificent gift, thanks, guys!

Am now trying to collect pix off other cameras floating around last night. Amy and Gerald, care to d/l me shots for my collection?
Anything I say will be incriminating, but verbalisation is necessary. So like a band-aid over a wound on a hairy limb has to be ripped off quickly, so the following must be immediately made known to all:

I've been lied to, cheated and manipulated by my wife, and all my friends who have colluded with her are equally culpable of some very high-quality deception. Like a lamb to the slaughter, I have over the past 3 weeks been pushed, prodded and shoved into inviting myself to my own surprise birthday party. The effort to make such elaborate and extravagant plans AND keep the whole thing from me must have been Herculean for everyone, though I must also admit that I have been quite a Magoo the whole time too.

As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,
Or if due to strength, eighty years.... (Psalm 90:10)
If I consider myself an individual with the additional quality of "strength" then the occasion marked the half-way point of my life-expectancy, according to biblical best-case-scenario. And it was truly a surprise to see so many well-wishers giving me their support and encouragement in the last few hours as I topped the crest and began my descent over-the-hill. Thank you folks so much!

To mi familia, we've kept it tight, and we've kept it together. My early years have been a source of anxiety and uncertainty for you, but tonight you got to see that despite everything, you can be rest assured that I am in the good, safe hands of people who care about me as much as you ever did.

My in-Laws, you've done a great job in raising your daughter who has so much love to give that I'm discovering every day there's always more where it came from.

Adrian, Lay Lee, Jen, Mary, Malcolm (and darling little Janice), you bridged a gap for me where at one time you were as large as my circle of friends went. You are the professional, working people I've kept in touch with but you are also people of vision and ideals which your busy-work never got in the way of. That's what I've always admired about you.

Tina, artist, muse and teacher and the link to my aesthetic self, sad to say that when the realities of love and marriage hit home, the arts were the first to be sacrificed in favour of bread-and-butter responsibilities. I ran away from the circus and gave up my dreams, but I found a new reality in which I can be just as happy in. See you back in rehearsal sometime!

Joyce, you never knew those many years ago what you wrought when you inadvertently put June and me together. You were the fulcrum of the turning point in my life and I am truly grateful to you for your thoughtfulness.

Colleagues, friends, playmates: The Gutter Boyz (Anthony, Vince, Yee), Gerald with Kim and little Edward, NBS, JY, Mel, Luanne, you make work so unlike work. We bitch, we rib, we gossip, we sweat, we compete, we eat together and we really know how to have unabashed, unadulterated, uninhibited fun. I couldn't ask for better working partners.

Party coordinators: Amy and Weng, June and everyone else recount the stress and effort you took over the event. How much fetching and carrying you did to get the logistics set up just right; the scoldings you received for the security breaches you committed though it's understandable that considering the many things you were juggling small mistakes were bound to occur; and the thought you and Vince, Anthony and Wendy put into the right theme, setting and atmosphere to make the occasion so memorable. Special thanks to all of you.

And to the CEO of Party Central, my wife, June, you have a knack for surprises and every year tops the previous. You know me so well and you know how to put that knowledge to good use. It's not just the effort of the last 3 weeks that brought everyone together but rather it's been my life with you these last 5 years that's why everyone could come together on this day to celebrate. If you haven't been keeping in touch with everyone faithfully as you have been, the guest-list would have been much shorter due to forgetfulness and neglect, which I admit is my most major character flaw. You make up for my shortcomings and I knew from the start I married the right woman. I love you!

I love all your gifts. I have never made such a haul since my first childhood, and you have outdone yourselves in generosity. But rather than itemize the gifts, I will say that the memory of your presence will always be the more precious to me. Gadgets wear out, wearables eventually become unwearable, food and other perishables er... perish, but you were there for me, and that memory is something we will share together in my mind as well as yours. That's what counts.

And special thanks to the Drama Club who postponed the Senior's Farewell BBQ till next week so that tonight's festivities could go on as planned.

Now I have to ask, what have I done to deserve such favour from all of you? And the crickets chirp in the darkness of the empty cinema hall...

Thanks, everyone, for a brilliant 40th swing 'round the sun!

Edit 01:
Amy is right. There's no need for me to question what I do or do not deserve. The simple truth is, my friends are nice people and the question takes away so much from their good intentions. I see that now, and I won't bring it up again. Now that's a biblical insight worth gaining.