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.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Who's an unhappy camper?

S'poreans show their unhappy side again, this time with their employment situation. That is, compared across the board against our South-East Asian counterparts, our employees are the most unhappy.

I wonder what we would see if we cross-reference our job happiness index against a corresponding survey on general income levels? My guess would be that S'poreans are educated, and have expectations of higher income and better job prospects that are set somewhat above realistic; whereas our neighbours are happy to have a job that puts food on the table for their families.

This observation is intended to be neither snarky nor mean. It's probably a human trait that when we have more we make ourselves unhappy by wanting even more; conversely when we have but a little, we are happy being grateful for that little.

We also seem to be looking at the wrong things to be happy about:
Singapore respondents felt that getting a new job (30 per cent), a higher salary (19 per cent), or receiving recognition from the company (9 per cent) would help increase their job happiness.
These perks offer immediate gratification. But they don't come around too often, and when they do, they usually also come with more work, more responsibilities, and more time spent in the office -- side-effects that make us more unhappy in the long run. We accept them anyway, in order to justify the happiness we feel from achieving these very temporary rewards.

We actually have a good problem. To be able to have and want more is a good thing. But it means that if we also want to be happy, all we need to do is realise that happiness is a choice we make for ourselves. Choose wisely!

An afterthought: perhaps the jobs of Management and Middle-management is inherently unhappy? Managers neither own the company nor do much of the actual production work, so they are sort of in-between, easily replaceable and sometimes even an obstacle to getting real work done. Who'd be happy in a job like that?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Getting through

T -1 day to promotional exams. The going metaphor is that the exams are like a door to get through, which makes sense. Once past that door, the successful get to face a new arena containing a new set of trials and tribulations to traverse before they arrive at the next door.

Some kids think that they need a 'passport' or a 'password' to get through the door, and that they can find it in the assigned reading materials or last-minute hints dropped by their tutors in the last days leading up to the exams. But they are being silly. The fact is, there is no one guarding the door to hear the password or stamp the passport. The door is simply locked.

Who has the key, then? The good news is, there is no 'Master' key, so there is no need to scramble for a limited resource that doesn't exist. There is also no need to acquire a key in a standard design, because there isn't one either. Remember the trials and tribulations mentioned above? They exist to train each student how to pick the lock for themselves. Yes, not a key, but a set of lock-picking tools unlocks the door to the next level.

I like the lock-pick metaphor because unlike keys; passports; and passwords that only work once per door, we always hold on to our lock-picks, find new ways to manipulate them and pick up new upgrades along the way. Lock-picks work on every door, and how they are used is unique to the user, as long as they consistently practice their skills, being in the moment and not constantly worrying about the next door ahead.

Cliched, but if people valued the journey rather than the destination, they'd have less anxiety approaching their exams.

Monday, September 05, 2016

It's just a job

My Teachers Day thoughts, though a bit belated:

I'm a teacher. That's my job. But don't expect me bend over backwards and rip my own heart out to help each kid pass their exams when they aren't.

My best teachers were those who taught me nothing. They didn't pretend that their words were gospel or that if I didn't heed them, my life was over. They did share their ideas, but let me form my own thoughts and reach my own conclusions, and we had enjoyable tutorial discussions because of this kind of mutual understanding. They were an interested audience to my exploration of less popular pathways of coursework and were pleased to give me space and independence to bring back my discoveries for evaluation. Though they often graded my work with raised eyebrows, they were fair as well.

For my own part, all I really am is just some dude who picked up a couple of skills over a few decades of experience. All I do is pass them on to those who need them and can make use of them. I entertain no further aspirations nor illusions about this job my mother tells people I have.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The mask that students wear

The biggest stress factor in being a student is being a student. The "student" is a mask that kids wear to play a game involving arbitrary and often unnecessarily petty rules of conduct and impossibly difficult tasks that have little to no bearing on who they really are under their masks. The students we meet in class are pale shells of who they really are. It is when they are not in school that's where we find their true selves.

Keeping the two identities apart for a sustained period every school day makes school the torture that it is for most kids. The ones who suffer the most are the ones who have the clearest sense of self identity -- the musicians, the dancers, the athletes, the computer whizzes and the entrepreneurs -- who have to keep their real selves hidden while they pretend to be sheep when in school.

The identity of the "student" is formless and shapeless. Always incomplete, and hence always having to defer to the wisdom and authority of the "teacher". Students have nothing to say because they don't know enough. They are lumps of clay or rock which submit to the hands of the teacher who sculpts and molds them to whatever shape the school needs them to be -- usually a cube or a brick that easily fits in with everybody else who has been successfully 'bricked' after doing their required schooling time in their turn.

Schools and parents emphasize that exams are their kids' top priority. Everything else can wait until all the prerequisite 'A's have been garnered and paraded among family members and the education community. All the more so among the tuition agencies for whom exam results are their raison d'etre thus making the "student" identity perfectly solid. In the meantime, the identities which have been kept hidden often get forgotten or shelved in the process of brick-making.

Kids hate school because schools subvert individual identity, and level every student towards the lowest common denominator. The tasks they are assigned, the subjects they grapple with, the pressure they get to do their best apply to their student selves, but are completely irrelevant to their real selves. On our part, as teachers, we are stymied as to how to motivate our kids to work harder and do better; and for other kids who have no identity beyond the mask they wear, how to manage their stress before they go bonkers.

What if kids and schools agreed to dispense with the "student" mask and allow their true selves to flourish instead? We take the emphasis away from common exams in favour of allowing the kids to develop themselves as musicians, dancers, and whatever else they see themselves as first. Rather than have them suppress their talents and put them aside to study for exams, we show them how being smart in their academics supports their personal development and helps them become better at what they are or want to be good at. While they develop their physicality and skills, we train them in becoming better thinkers, analysts, strategists, and storytellers. That way, the exams make sense as they become part and parcel of their overall development rather than as a separate and unrelated obstacle they have to overcome before they are allowed to chase their dreams.

I'm not asking for much to change other than mindset. I want us teachers to recognise that we are supporting the cognitive development of individual people offering a wide variety of talents and abilities, rather than training a common mass of drooling zombies to jump through exam hoops. I want kids to bring their true selves to school and to class -- the ones who know who they are and who they want to be successful as, and not the "student" who only does things because they are told to do things.

A good school isn't the one that goes all-out to deliver the best exam results. It's the one which develops its kids to be whatever they want to be first, then good exam results follow as an after-effect.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Essay as a verb

It's always interesting to look at kids' faces the moment they flip over the essay test, scan through the question list and realize that they don't know the answer to any of the questions. There is shock, confusion and, more often than not, a look of having been betrayed.

It's true. The questions are seldom like what we had discussed in tutorials before, and deliberately so. No one is supposed to know the answer to an essay question beforehand. If anyone does, they probably cheated. Or worse, they think they know but they are operating on flawed assumptions at the very least.

The essay is the result of an activity -- in this case, the activity of essaying. Yes, 'essay' is a verb meaning 'to try', 'to put to the test' and 'to make trial of'. Look it up. Knowing the answer beforehand, therefore is prejudicing the outcome of a test or a trial.

The essay proceeds as a trial. There is the accused who is accused of a crime. The essayist has the prerogative to present the case as either prosecution or defence. Based on whatever due diligence they had done prior to the trial -- through research, study, tutorial activity, and topical readings for example -- the essayist has to improvise putting together the case and then presenting it formally as the essay submission for grading by the marker who plays the role of the judge.

Spending tutorial time preparing kids in advance with pre-digested answers does them a disservice, and is a waste of time. While we can and do help the kids with content material which is key to their case preparation, they need far more practice in courtroom procedure. As lawyers, their job is to develop their arguments through asking the right people the right questions in order to arrive at the conclusion that is most favourable to whichever side of the case they stand on.

The hard part of teaching kids to ask questions is in figuring out how to get them to switch off the parts of the brain that makes them think like parrots, and how to activate the other parts of the brain that make them think like people.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

National Day 2016

National Day 2016 begins with an early morning walk along the Marina Bay area with dogs in tow. Also a good opportunity to GO, if you know what I mean. Heh.

Good food goes with good company. Not finding the cafe we intended to park ourselves and dogs, we blundered into Bread Street, which gladly accepted our canine companions at the al fresco tables. When we were being seated, it dawned on us that this was the Bread Street by Gordon Ramsey.

To our relief, the price of breakfast was very reasonable. That is to say, not different from anywhere else that serves a similar menu. My Eggs Benedict was delightful. Eggs poached without being too runny on top of a generous helping of smoked salmon on top of a crispy, fluffy inside English muffin. The whole thing held together by a lovely Hollandaise sauce, creamy and smooth. Staff were attentive and friendly, offering our dogs iced water with lots of ice.

Scored tix to National Day Parade 2016. It was the debut of the new National Stadium as an NDP venue. A big flash and light show, the presentation was spectacular, but relied so much on special effects that much of the human element got lost during the mobile display segments. Dance movements were barely visible, overwhelmed by the massive sets and the barrage of ever-changing colours in a constant swirl. Individual performers were barely recognizable in the mass, lost in the alternations of bright and dark spaces in the performing area.

 Acted on some good advice and left the stadium just at the start of the finale to go outside and get a good view of the fireworks.

We picked out a great spot with fireworks almost literally exploding above our heads. Never been so close before. A superb closure to a fulfilling public holiday!

Saturday, July 30, 2016


With all this angst and rage over university orientation programmes leading to a full-on ban on orientation this year, I recall my own experience as a frosh during orientation week.

Every activity was voluntary. The ones I remember were a lunchtime concert by a homegrown band called 'Nacho Cheese' which never made it to big time; an evening double-bill movie screening of A Clockwork Orange and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (an experience of which I have never seen the like, and have not yet found found possible to duplicate); and a serious talk about responsible drinking on campus. There was a social tea event for scholarship students to meet each other and key faculty members as well.

I think it was Prof G who observed that orientation at York was much tamer more mature than most of the other Us in the province -- mainly due to our student population's average age being 25, including a large proportion of grad students. Sure, mature and dignified. That's us.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The baseball-equity cartoon

No, no, no. The above cartoon attempts to explain how equality does not necessarily mean fairness. Actually, what our three friends are demonstrating is criminal activity -- watching a game without paying for a ticket. How are these three moochers being fair to those people in the stands who paid for entry?

In the right panel, all barriers to accessing the game have collapsed. And because nobody needs to buy a ticket, the sport has no more money to maintain a nice, fancy stadium any longer; all the pros have lost their jobs. Goodness knows what our three friends are still watching. Happy now?

Unless... the transparent fence represents a TV screen? It doesn't cost as much to watch a televised game, and every viewer has clear line-of-sight to the action, regardless of how vertically-challenged they may be. The stadium still functions and the professional players are still employed.

All the tweaks we might make meddling with human political systems for the sake of 'fairness' will always leave some party or another dissatisfied. It is perhaps technology that is the greatest leveler in the end.

Footnote: Located the original artist of the graphic. Craig Froehle is now tracking in fascinating detail the meme he created. Click here for an interesting read into how it has spread in its many permutations since its conception in 2012.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The gentle art of fencing

Teaching kids to argue is like issuing each of them a personal sword and teaching them to fence. At first, they are all excited with the weapon in their hand. They wave it around, wildly slicing the air and make sound effects as they play with their new toy [it's NOT a toy].

When the excitement has died down and they are calmer, maybe they will start paying attention to the rules of the sport. The most important rule: stop looking at your opponent's sword. As fun as it may be, the score is not counted by the number of times you hear the sound of metal hitting metal.

In this game, you keep your eyes on the target. You win by stabbing your opponent through the heart.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Last show of the season

[NYeDC in rehearsal at The Arts House]

Just when we thought we were done for the 2016 season, Sirius engineered an invite for NYeDC to perform at Celebrate Drama! 2016. The theme was "Celebrating Diversity", and it so happened that one of the items at Drama Night suited the bill. Not sure how the item entitled, "The Outsiders", fit the definition of "celebrate" but it was about the exclusion of foreign workers from the society they work in and for.

Our biggest problem was that in its original form, the script was very harsh in tone. While we tried to play it for laughs, our in-house audience saw little humour in it as the behaviour depicted was critical and accusatory of our local population. In rebooting the script, we initially struggled with feelings of being censored by our audience feedback. It was hurtful that this item, featuring one of our stronger scripts, was not as well-received as we hoped, and that to be allowed to perform it in public, we had to "balance" the treatment ad make it less insulting to to the people we meant to insult -- or at least to make them reflect on their treatment of foreign workers.

So, how to make the narrative more audience-friendly without watering down our authorial intent? First, we took out all specific location references and kept them to "foreign" and "local", suggesting the same situations could occur anywhere in the world. Then we gave the characters some psychological and emotional depth so that they no longer were playing out stereotypical scenarios to amuse one another (as in the original script), but rather to depict personal experiences and explore how the discriminated feel about being discriminated against. We kept the Singlish delivery because it sounded more real to the narrative.

Having taken audience feedback and reworking the parts that didn't work, we eventually devised a much stronger script than before. The item carried more weight and more authenticity. The situations were still absurd, but the intentions and emotional linkages were much clearer for both the performers and the audience.

And at the end, the one performing the closing monologue delivered with real emotion: the tears; the cracking voice; the breath pattern; the pauses; all real and nothing like we had ever seen her rehearse before. We couldn't have asked for a more powerful closure. Later, we asked her if the script really meant that much to her. And she said she was really feeling the weight of this performance... being the last one of the season! #oscarmoment

Anyway, such an exciting run for the 2015-6 batch of NYeDC members. The 2016-7 lot have big boots to fill.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Spoonfed all the way

The dude that posted that "Teaching, not research should be universities' main mission" is sadly mistaken about the role universities play in society. The university is not play-school. The university is where the big kids go to learn stuff. Learn, not be taught. Universities are where discoveries are made, where expeditions into the unknown are undertaken. Universities are all about research, and for the verification of that which is purported to be True. Eventually, from those discoveries, new knowledge trickles down to be taught in schools.

At the university, there are no teachers. Every student is both a learner and a sharer of that which he or she has learned.The more experienced staff -- the professors and graduate students -- share their research, the undergraduates learn what it takes to challenge the research being shared with them, and if qualified, get to undertake research on their own in time.

Ironically, the letter writer has no clue that what he is asking for is at cross-purposes with itself:
Tertiary students are self-propelled, literate, curious and energetic. The “what” and “how” of engaging them should ride on this spontaneity. Let them participate and seek new ways of learning.There should be space for inquisitive minds to explore disciplines beyond their specialisation. Let them take elective modules in colleges outside their own.
They should be exposed to diversity, with student populations representative of the world. Cross-cultural acumen is imperative in this age of globalisation.
He is absolutely right about his observations about the activities that go on at the university, but if by the time one gets to become an undergrad and still doesn't know how to teach and make the best use of available resources for oneself, one is already handicapping one's own learning -- by going in with a fail-blame-other-people attitude. Such 'students' are only interested in possessing a titular degree, but have little respect for the responsibility that comes with it: that of contributing in return new knowledge through their own research thus enriching human understanding as a whole.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


Made use of AA and got a towtruck for M2. Yes, the poor fella with the leaky radiator. Been quoted $400+ to replace it. Ok. Do it!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Overheated and dehydrated

M2 is usually a good boy, but today, first his engine temp light started blinking for a while before holding steady. Then the engine warning light lit up. And then the blue temp gauge lit up too. The dashboard was a Christmas tree of red, yellow and blue lights. Managed to make it to a location where he would be safe for a couple of days.

When the engine had cooled down enough, I checked the radiator. It was dry. It thirstily drank down a whole juice container of water. 10 minutes later, I checked under M2 and found a puddle of water that was significantly larger than there was 10 minutes ago. Confirmed: radiator leak.

Can't do anything about it 'cos I'll be busy tomorrow. Hopefully, I can take care of him on Tuesday.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Cut off

What the cutting off of civil service computers from the Interwebs really means is that the Gahmen is tired of providing free surfing privileges for us. Now if we want to surf, we have to pay for it from our own pockets. We buy our own workstations and subscribe to our own mobile hotspots. Guess the era of free Internet is over.

Edit 01:
Except for us in the education fraternity. Phew!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Standards and expectations

Thankfully, good sense prevails once again. Old Man Cambridge is still front and centre with his guidelines for grading GP essays. We just have be more specific about our expectations per question and grade accordingly. Ok, I can live with that.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Life got no standard

My thoughts on the 'standardization' of grading GP. Old Man Cambridge has already given us a fine set of guidelines that are a broad-based, flexible instrument that easily scales up and down as the need requires. Any tightening of these guidelines second-guesses the original intentions of the source and ultimately turns our subject into an assembly-line grading system, as the sciences and math have been for a very long time already.

If what we are grading is purely information content, then sure, an assembly-line makes the grading process quick and efficient. A tick here, a cross there, a rubber-stamped numerical assessment made assigning a piece of work into one quality band or another. Answers that are either right or wrong, without wiggle-room for interpretation, with the use of the appropriate formula applied correctly lend themselves to be graded via an algorithm. The math and sciences reign supreme here, some papers being done on an optical sheet and graded by computer even. If it can be done by them, then why can't it be done by us, goes the common sneery criticism.

Very simply, in GP we don't just grade for information content. The bulk of our attention goes into each student's ability to communicate their ideas to us, and communication is by nature a subjective thing. If I, the reader, am able to understand what is being communicated, then great! But that does not mean that my colleague will understand the same piece of work in the same way, or at all. That's because our medium of communication, the English language, is a slippery, imprecise means of transacting ideas, with lots of different interpretations and connotations complicating matters. And Old Man Cambridge's original guidelines are made broad enough to accommodate a general sort-of categorizing. But when we have to decide how 12 marks is different from 13, the endless quibbling effectively renders the point difference moot.

One concern that's been buzzing around is that the kids compare their scores now and wail when they got a particular grade while another who wrote the same thing got another.  We got this whole grading thing wrong. It's because we made every assignment a high-stakes life-or-death survival Hunger Games type deal, so every kid is desperately scrambling for any point he or she can scrape from the bottom of any available empty barrel. When we stop making every assignment such a mercenary concern, the comparisons will stop. Problem solved. But by standardizing GP grading, we are making each assignment even more high-stakes than ever. Promise equality and we will have to live up to it.

Standardizing GP grading goes by the assumption that we are going to get a lot of similar answers. That could very well happen when we emphasize practicing past exam questions ad nauseum; when we base content knowledge on the same set of 'content packages'; and when we prescribe formulaic approaches in response to identified 'question types'. But if I encounter two or more similar answers in GP, my first concern would not be whether they get the same marks or not. My first concern would be that we have a plagiarism issue. Replicating one another's work is not a trait to be encouraged in JC as the kids will get into serious trouble for it when they get to the Uni. So let's please not start a process that will eventually teach the kids the wrongest of values to bring with them to the Uni.

Besides, it's good to have at least one subject graded on a subjective basis. That's life.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Reminiscence 2016

Drama Night 2016 marks the close of performing season. A wild ride, taking on big risks and braving every possibility of a crash 'n burn. But I will continue to say, everyone pitched in and gave their all. I am humbled by and grateful for the amount of faith that carried us through to a successful finale. NYeDC, staff, coach, kids, and alumni, hat's off to you all! Thanks for such a fantastic run!

Friday, April 29, 2016

"The myth of the universality of human rights"

In today's IPS lecture, Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan discussed the myth of the universality of human rights. That is to say, the concept of 'human rights' exists as an ideal we aspire to, but because it is also a mental construct, its application and implementation are very much dependent on context and wide open to interpretation.

I think we know what 'rights' means. The problem is that we can't define 'human' satisfactorily enough because we are too close to the subject matter. Human rights are easier to conceive of when we think of it in terms of the very broadest ways in which we humans differ from one another: the physical, the psychological, and the identity of self. For example, in our national pledge we are all equal 'regardless of race, language or religion'. Whomever we are, we can be identified as human despite of our race, language or religion, and no one is likely to dispute that -- unless our society totally breaks down and we become paranoid and insular.

But when human beings begin to define themselves by increasingly narrow criteria, they run the risk of defining themselves outside of what the majority can roughly agree is identifiably human. If you define your needs as so particular that I don't identify your needs as my needs, then we are going to have a problem agreeing that you have a right to meet those needs of yours.

Minority groups have this problem of getting their particular needs met and recognized by mainstream society. Paradoxically, perhaps the best way to help minorities is to not recognize minority differences at all. Recognizing minority groups legitimizes and therefore draws attention to characteristics of those groups that make them different from everyone else. The more marginal the difference, the less mainstream society is likely to sympathize as whatever need arises from that difference, it really isn't mainstream society's problem to deal with.

It's a two-way street, of course. Mainstream society is just as likely to identify minor differences in certain groups of people and exclude them from the mainstream and the privileges therein, like legal protection, education, opportunities and otherwise a decent way to make a living for oneself. In which case, if mainstream society sees itself as being overrun by minorities, it usually is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where we see difference, there is difference.

What is a democratically-elected government to do when the people are fractious and tense because differences are everywhere? I guess you start with doing right by the majority of the voters, since your mandate comes from the majority, but make policy such that people are treated fairly across the board within the broad definitions of what we can agree are what makes us all 'human' -- such that we no longer see the differences between 'us' and 'them', and 'they' no longer see how different they are from 'us'.

Too idealistic? Too naive? If we leave dealing with difference at policy level, it means the ground isn't ready to make any meaningful progress where it matters the most. Complying with policy is not the same as making a personal choice at the individual level to extend understanding and support to the people among us.

In the end, perhaps rights can be defined as the privileges we are willing to give up in favour of doing right by the other person. What could make us more human than that?

Thursday, April 28, 2016


Finally, after 8 attempts since I've been with NYeDC, we have achieved a coveted Certificate of Distinction from the big bi-annual youth drama festival.

I shouldn't feel this elated because theatre shouldn't be a competition between productions, but I've learned that it's ok to celebrate an achievement, especially one this long in coming. Every other year I've been cool just to meet expectations, but there's no stopping the rush to have for once exceeded them.

This year's entry was a true collaboration from start to finish. Beginning with a self-written script by one of our members, it was workshopped, tweaked, rewritten and polished in bits and pieces. Everyone helped out, whether onstage, backstage, admin. With Sirius directing and delivering the final script (her first ever!) we were in good hands the whole time.

Feeling very grateful to everyone who pitched in. It's nice to be on top for once. XD

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


Nice to know that I didn't get shredded this morning. It was a presentation to an audience of very experienced cross-department colleagues on a perspective that could have come across as heretical if taken the wrong way. Instead, the audience asked the right kind of questions during the Q&A and was very kind with its feedback. Perhaps the ground is ready for some new ways of thinking?

Personal insight gained: I can diagnose problems and prescribe workable treatments, and maybe I can make a convincing case to my fellow physicians. But what I haven't yet learned is how to make the patients take their medicine.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Remembering 'If I could tell my past self something'

Things that have to go on record about our entry in this year's big Drama Festival 'cos they won't be mentioned anywhere else: Touching up our movable flat screens with white primer, we got streaks of paint on the Concourse floor. That's for not lining the area with newspaper first. Not pictured is me, the wife and Sirius, sitting on said floor, using nothing but water and lots of elbow grease scrubbing the floor with brushes for over an hour until the sun went down. But we did a great job. Little trace of our unintentional vandalism left that could be connected back to our activities of the previous day.

With this slick move, our lead tosses his hat offstage as a time transition cue. Today at the show, his tossed hat landed smack in the face of an official sitting in the audience. Her lanyard indicated she was probably from head office and likely to be an organizer of the event. While we hope that this little blooper isn't going to cost us too dearly in points, it also confirms to us why this boy is in Drama Club and not in a sports CCA.

And finally, a shot of our team this year. Proud of you guys! You make us laugh and give us heart attacks at the same time! But it's not over yet. Drama Night is just around the corner...

More photos of our rehearsal process can be found here.

Edit 01: Forgot to mention the bus. The return bus stranded us at the venue having mistaken our order to depart at 1445 hrs to mean 4:45 pm. Sirius kicked up enough of a fuss with the bus company to get one delivered pronto, though the delay was still about an hour.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Core business

"The sole purpose of education is to get a good job." This statement is clearly absolute, but that doesn't mean that the proposition has to be automatically rejected. Not when the reasoning behind the statement is logically sound.

Education arose from a tradition from which craftsmen and merchants taught their apprentices the necessary skills of their trades. The higher the skill mastered, the more trusted the trainee grew to handle increasingly complex tasks. Apprentices were trained on the job for the job. What they chose to learn was to make them better at their jobs.

The situation has not changed. The motivation for people to get an education is still, ultimately, to be in a better position to claim a better job.  The motivation to set up an education system is primarily to raise the knowledge and skill levels of a population so that collectively it is better positioned for better paying jobs.

Without this motivation, who would go to school? Attending school delays an entire generation's employability in hope of increasing its future occupational prospects. Students delay their independence while in school, continuing to be treated like children by their teachers and parents though, biologically, they are already capable of starting and tending to their own families. What keeps them in school is the promise of a good job at the end of their studies.

Even if schools provide personal enrichment opportunities such as co-curricular and "Service-Learning" activities, these efforts are still directed at providing experiences that develop employable skills that are certified via official testimonials, attendance checklists and other documents.

Today, schools are still in the business of training, assessing, qualifying and assigning students to the jobs they are best suited for, but are also expected to play surrogate parent. This dichotomy results in schools being conflicted, forced to be both dispassionate and objective while being compassionate and empathetic at the same time. These clashing objectives make education more onerous and cumbersome than it has to be.

There is nothing wrong with seeing education's sole purpose as getting people the best employment opportunities as possible because this is what schools do. In fact, if schools dared to accept this truth, their programmes would be much more focused and much more purposeful. It would make the core business of education so much clearer for both schools and their attendees.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

'A' almighty

Getting an 'A' for learning to do something well is not the same as getting an 'A' for doing what we're told. The result may be the same. An 'A' is an 'A'. But only the former is worth anything.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Don't ask why

Finally figured out what annoys me about the so-called "paired approach" of responding to GP essay questions.

The "paired approach" is a fancy name for a "reasons-for vs reasons-against" pairing as we consider a given proposition.

Reasons are prompted by the question "why", to which the logical response is "because...". Conversely, to answer "because" only makes logical sense when responding to "why".

Therein lies the problem: GP questions are never "why" questions. Therefore, to argue "because this... however, because that..." neither makes sense, nor is any help in the decision-making process.

The "paired approach" is inherently self-negating, yet it is the default technique by which across the board we teach kids to argue essays. When the kids do what we taught them to do, we say they aren't answering the question, and they don't get it, no matter how much we teach them. We are logical readers, after all. Then we wonder where we went wrong.

Well, at least now I know.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Love and marriage

A realization arising out of a classroom discussion over the topic of marriage:

If two people are in love, then they will remain committed to each other regardless of whether they are married or not. Which means that marriage exists to ensure that two people stay committed to each other even after they fall out of love with each other.

So, marriage is like an insurance policy that operates in the background while we are lovey-dovey as a couple, but kicks in once we can't stand each other any more.

Marriage is certainly not a decision to be taken lightly, if so.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Eclipse over campus

A false image of yesterday morning's solar eclipse. The actual eclipse is taking place somewhere up and to the left of this seriously cropped photo. This here is lens flare that has inadvertently captured the sun's crescent penumbra while I was trying unsuccessfully to shoot the eclipse itself.

But the point of this post is really to say how pleased I am that the kids were naturally captivated by the celestial phenomenon. Almost everyone was out in the open trying to capture a shot or a glimpse, one way or another.

Best of all, although it was time for morning assembly, no one rushed the kids to get in line in the parade square. A rare event to be marveled at took precedence over a weekly routine, and I'm glad we could recognize that fact.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Not yet predictably successful

After the big final results were released on Friday, instead of being relieved at the hugely successful percentage pass rate, I had been feeling disappointed at the small number of distinctions (a.k.a. 'A' grades) achieved by my kids.

It was almost like what I teach them doesn't translate into top band results at the exams. It doesn't seem to matter how or what I teach: it still isn't good enough. And this isn't the bosses talking, it's my own internal voice telling me that the results should have been much better.

But my disappointment is also an encouragement that GP is still worthy of respect and therefore still worth teaching. It means I haven't discovered a 'winning formula' yet for scoring As. It means that the exam still tests an individual's skills and knowledge on the spot and that it has not yet become just another just-fill-in-the-template-for-an-A exercise.

No cheap A grade here. Everyone works hard, but only those who really deserve it can celebrate their A. Reminds me of how tough my own high school English course was; how hard I struggled to perfect my exercises and research paper; and how proud I was of the result. Though I was hoping to get an A, I could respect that it truly was a hard-fought B that I could triumphantly say, 'YES!' to.

And it means my job isn't over yet. There is still much for the Master to learn. There is still room to avoid past mistakes and try new stuff. It's only when things get predictably successful that's when you know you're in a rut and it's time to retire.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Being qualified vs being educated

First off, as an industry insider, I don't believe that our ever-improving exam results is in any part due to grade inflation. If the letter writer is concerned that we are handing out cheap As, it isn't true. We and the kids really do work our collective butts off to achieve those results.

What our industry is highly proficient at is quality control, emphasis on control. We have identified the factors that make the 'A' grade and distilled them into a system that, if followed as prescribed, will give the student every chance of success for a desired outcome at the exams. It's a system that handsomely rewards the obedient student -- the one that does what he is told to the letter. Study this. Do it this way. And when everybody studies the same material and does it the same way, the As come pouring down like manna from heaven. Our children are nothing, if not obedient. And as far as tangible indicators go, the industry has achieved its highest criterion year after year. Everything is transparent and fair, and the customer is more than satisfied.

But if our new acting co-CEO is going to get his way, This system that we've so studiously developed over the years will to have to go.

What Mr acting co-boss has identified is that there is a huge difference between being qualified and being educated. The industry is excellent at qualifying our students. Every factory follows a uniform standard of teaching, learning and assessment, each product follows a uniform assembly-line process and passes through stringent quality control checks before being certified fit for the next level of processing.

The good thing is that the system ensures very little waste. The dropout rate is low, and there are learning and career opportunities available for everyone who leaves the system without necessarily following it through all the way to the end. The not so good thing is that at every level, each individual product is barely distinguishable from another -- being mass-produced within predetermined specs. Totally obedient, but empty; non-functional until programmed, or at least given very specific instructions. And it isn't their fault if something screws up, because you didn't give clear enough instructions. Yes, in the end, the qualified student is very good at taking orders, not half so good at giving them, and hopeless when working unsupervised. Just ask local employers.

The industry hasn't quite figured out how to educate students quite as well as how we qualify them. Education occurs in a much more chaotic environment than we are used to. It requires lots of space and time for unsupervised creativity; for failure; for mistakes; and for problems to be solved by the kids themselves. Not hypothetical problems in class, but real ones in life. Messy problems involving emotions, issues with peer socializing and personal safety which we adults are too anxious to step in and take over before the poor delicate things hurt themselves. Minor bumps, bruises, scratches, blood, mud and tears are part and parcel of the hard knocks of education, and we adults must learn to deal with these problems in proportionality to their occurrence. But as we industry employees have now been made aware, every ounce of prevention is far better than a lawsuit.

We need our future adults to exercise human judgement. We need them to be innovative and adaptable. We need confident decision-makers, who can work with and identify relevant partners in the pursuit of new opportunities. We need brave adventurers who explore unfamiliar paths and rugged individuals who can work around and through obstacles to attain their desired outcomes (preferably legally permissible ones). In order to get such people, they cannot be handed everything they want on a plate when they are young. We can't say to them, if this is what you want, then this is how you're going to get it. Instead, we have to follow them on their own path, help them up when they fall (or fail), discuss with them their learning points, and then let them go again. It'll be one horribly messy school system, but the average grade will be back to a more realistic 'C' since most kids won't be spending their time cramming for the sake of cramming any longer, but rather on their own interests and pursuits, many of which are ungradable except to their own standards of personal engagement. Education can't be manufactured. It's a craft.

For now, it looks like the boss is asking for a paradigm change in the industry-wide mission, and as a result, a major overhaul of our systems. It's a much needed change, but I wonder if we can use the momentum we've already achieved and just change track at the next switch, or whether we have to hit the brakes, come to a stop and completely reverse the train in the opposite direction. Either way, like it or not, change has to come.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Like pulling marrow from the tulang

I turned down a good cause. A door-to-door representative from the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) approached me and I flatly declined to donate either my time or money to the cause. Donating my bone marrow was out of the question. Was it worthy cause? Yes. Were they asking for much? No. Could I have been inclined to help out? Maybe. So why didn't I?

It was the sales pitch. The boy, bless him, was such an android doing everything he had been programmed to do. He started off by offering me some very unpalatable alternative ways to be a contributor. While he wasn't asking for my bone marrow, he suggested that I could be a volunteer like him, then he reminded me how busy I probably was and so I wouldn't be likely to consider contributing that way.

Next, he went on a heartbreaking spiel on how young some of the bone marrow recipients were -- "months... months old only" and how would I feel as a parent of such a child, separated from parental love being confined in a glass box and stuffed full of tubes? I happened to be holding on to the dog at the time, so it was hard to empathize.

He complimented me on my interior decor (seriously?), hoping to trigger a psychological reminder of how well-off I was, then offered me a suite of possible tax deductible donation plans and which demographic each plan was targeted at. He surmised that like so-and-so and so-and-so who signed up (ooh, neighbour envy), I might undertake the middle-income plan, at which point I had heard enough and closed the door on him with a "thank you for the information, sorry for wasting your time."

Understand that the boy did everything he was taught.He smiled at the right time, he picked up on the right cues, he asked for reasons for my concerns... he was trained well. And that's my problem. I turned him down because he was doing what he was told.  While he may well have been personally motivated for whatever reason to volunteer for this worthy cause, his performance was perfect as a mouthpiece for whomever trained him and didn't sound sincere at all. Most of all, I hate being manipulated. This template-dialogue just made it so obvious.

Perhaps karma will bite me in the ass someday, but if and when I do donate to a good cause, I want to do so because I genuinely believe it is the right thing to do, and not because I couldn't say, "no", to someone groping around looking for the right buttons to push on me.