Monday, October 17, 2016

A brighter shade of Danger Dan

A Danger Dan update!

First up, #3 of the Danger Dan and Gadget Girl series has arrived! Introducing The Gruesome Garden. A behind-the-scenes reveal: the original shade of the cover had a lot more yellow and was closer to an olive green. I didn't like it. To me, Danger Dan is synonymous with all things bright and unsubtle, much like his personality. So I kept asking the Epigram Books designer to go "Brighter! Brighter!" like some attention-seeking Ah Beng.

This is the result...and I LOVE it. Thank you, Lydia!

This book was one of the more fun ones to write in this series, because its storyline somehow flowed naturally and there weren't any plot holes to cover (I shan't reveal which one gave us the most trouble). The jokes also came quite easily.You may not realise this but coming up with original jokes can be quite a challenge, especially if we're feeling uninspired. Being funny is hard work!

Here's a sneak peak of what is perhaps Lesley-Anne's and my favourite illustration, not just of this book but of the series. I wish I could have a framed copy of the pic - it's so comical it never fails to crack me up. Elvin, our illustrator, is a genius! (I'm showing a sneak peak of the two accompanying pages so the illustration makes sense).

It'll probably take a couple of weeks for the bookstores to stock the book. By then, exams should be over, making it the perfect time to go grab a copy for your kid :)

More news: Secrets of Singapore has been nominated for a couple of book awards! The first one is the Popular Readers' Choice Awards 2016. This is the third consecutive year a Danger Dan book has been nominated in the English (Children) category. You can cast your vote from now till 31 October. Popular vouchers are up for grabs.

The second award nomination is for the Red Dot Book Awards 2016-2017. These are books recommended by school librarians in Singapore and include overseas books, so we're very honoured to be part of the list.

It's been an absolute thrill seeing our books gaining traction. Media publicity is something that's notoriously hard to come by, so it's gratifying to know that more kids have come to know about and read our books nonetheless. In fact, three of our books have recently gone for reprint (Secrets of Singapore is into its third print run, hooray!)

Finally, the annual Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) is coming up in November and this year, Lesley-Anne will be participating in two panel events - Singapore Through Their Eyes (10 Nov 7-8pm) and Write This Way: A Guide for Teens by Teens (13 Nov 5-6pm). If you'd like to meet her and listen to the other participants, do come for the events.

Check out this piece by the SWF which lists her as one of the 8 Singaporean writers you should know about. Sharing as a proud mama, of course! Do support us, ya?

Monday, October 3, 2016

The happy boy graduates

Last weekend was a momentous one for Andre. For one, it marked his graduation from secondary school. "But wait!" you might say. "What about the 'O' levels?" Ah yes. The 'O' levels will begin for him on 19 October but most secondary schools hold the graduation ceremony for sec 4 and 5 students at the end of September. The rest of the time up to the 'O' levels, the students are on home study leave, although they are still free to contact teachers for consults.

The graduation ceremony on Friday was a blast. Unlike at elite schools where the graduation ceremonies tend to be serious affairs, the one at Andre's school was noisy, fun and well, downright celebratory. 

The students went up on stage to collect their testimonials, to loud cheers from their friends. I kid you not when I tell you that at least a couple of students took selfies with their teachers right there on stage! To me, it was such a joy to see the abundance of spontaneity and merriment.

But more than the fun and laughter, what came through during the ceremony was how much the teachers of this school cared for their students. A long video was played, featuring messages from many form and subject teachers wishing their classes all the best. Most of the messages were not generic ones. For instance, Andre's form teacher (also his geography teacher) created a powerpoint that inserted all sorts of funny puns using geography terms that the students had learnt. A literature teacher read out some of the inspiring poems written by the students in her class.

Then another video montage was played which featured photos of the graduating cohort, not just in 2016 but all the way back to 2013 during the sec1 orientation. The hall was in an uproar as the students would whoop whenever one of their friends appeared on the screen. It's amazing how much some of the chubby, cherubic kids have changed over four years, especially the boys!

Later, Andre showed me the cards he's received. One was a personalised note of encouragement from a teacher who was his form teacher for only a short while in sec2. Yet, she took the time to write to everyone who was in her class then. This same teacher had made them write a note to their future self. She had kept the notes and returned them on graduation day. One of the goals Andre had written was "Must learn more about Minecraft", next to "Must listen more in class" :)) It was a wonderful way for the students to see how far they've come.

Neighbourhood school, champion teachers. I couldn't have asked for a better school for Andre to grow in his secondary school years. Here, the teachers always looked beyond academics to see and care for the whole child. Even when he was failing badly, they never quashed his spirit and always looked to encourage him in other ways. The response of the students during the graduating ceremony was testament to what the teachers have accomplished. 

With that, Andre has (more or less) completed his secondary school journey. Just before he celebrated his 16th birthday on Sunday. I can scarcely believe that in a matter of months, both my kids would have entered the higher education phase of their lives.

More challenges ahead? Probably...but I'm ready! Armed with old flower eye glasses and glucosamine cream for creaky knees, I'm looking forward to the journey.

Monday, September 26, 2016

On the pages of Simply Her Magazine

A couple of months ago, I was interviewed by Simply Her Magazine and the story is out! It's in the October 2016 issue under the feature "Mumpreneurs We Want As Our BFFs". I noticed that I'm the only mum featured in her 40s, everyone else is in their 30s

The focus of the interview was on how I set up my writing agency and how it empowers others mums. As is usually the case in such features, there's a word count constraint, so the article is a heavily summarised version of the interview. For the benefit of readers, here's the full Q&A of my interview.

What is the main target of your company?

In essence, we want to help organisations communicate better through writing that is simple, clear and creative. It sounds straightforward but you’ll be surprised how difficult it is to achieve this. Often, when you’re in an organisation, you can’t see through the fog caused by massive information overload. Everything is important! And it’s made worse when people throw in jargon and buzzwords indiscriminately, often to mask the fact that they’re not quite sure what they really mean.

My writers aren’t just adept at writing, most of them also have extensive business and marketing experience, so we are able to capture the essence of what organisations want to communicate and wrap it in a succinct, readable package.

What made you decide to set up? What inspired you? How did you see the gap in the market?

In 2002, I’d been heading corporate communications departments in different organisations for about 10 years. My kids were only 5 and 2 then, and I didn’t want to miss their crucial, growing up years. So armed with a passion for writing, I decided to start a copywriting business, working from home. Thus, Hedgehog Communications was born.

It was a riskier decision than many people realise today. 2002 was at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis. Jobs were scarce, businesses were failing. Furthermore, back then, outsourcing writing wasn’t the norm. It was almost unheard of. Most PR departments took care of the writing internally. So it was actually a huge risk. I was giving up a great job and salary as head of communications at SMU to start this venture. With two very young kids to feed! Many friends thought I was out of my mind.

What life changes did you have to make personally to start your business up?

I didn’t have to make any drastic changes financially because writing has very low overheads and start-up costs, plus I did have clients almost from the get-go. However, once I moved from being a salaried employee to an entrepreneur, I started counting every cent. Somehow when your wages are not paid to you automatically every month, you tend to be more careful about how you spend your money. 

How easy was it to set up? Tell me about how you started, and what was easy, and was tough.

The physical aspects of starting up a writing business are almost non-existent – all I needed was a computer and I was good to go. What was harder was learning the ropes about starting a business. When you’re a one-woman show, you’re basically the manager, accountant, sales rep and worker all rolled into one!

Did you have a slow start or did the business boom immediately? How did you go about garnering interest and drumming up advertising?

In the beginning, winning the business is always the hardest part. I knew I could write, but convincing people to pay me to do so was another kettle of fish! But I gave it my best shot. I made a gazillion cold calls, knocked on doors and hawked my cv. Having said that, I must say I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had people willing to give me a try pretty much from the time I started. From there, word of mouth helped my business grow steadily and I never looked back.

After about five years, I found myself with so much work that I had to turn jobs down. That’s when I started thinking of ways to grow the business and I looked for copywriters to join Hedgehog Communications. It was slow at first because I only wanted copywriters who could write with the level of professionalism that Hedgehog Communications had come to be known for.

One group of people I actively sought was mums like me who wanted flexi-work so they could spend more time with their kids. It’s my way of paying it forward but I have to admit, it’s not entirely altruistic. I find these mums an untapped and underappreciated resource. They’re very capable, often with years of corporate experience behind their belt; they’re reliable because they’re used to getting things done quickly and effectively; and they’re loyal because they’re grateful for the opportunity to engage in meaningful work. I’m very pleased to say that eight of my 13 writers are mums with young kids. All my writers are on flexi terms, meaning they’re free to take on as much or as little work as their schedules would allow. And we have an extremely collaborative and supportive culture in Hedgehog Communications – when a writer is suddenly unable to take on a job due to an emergency, someone else will always step in or lend a hand. That’s the “mum” culture at work right there!

How has the business developed (staff, money, popularity etc)?

Today, Hedgehog Communications is one of the most established writing agencies in Singapore, especially for the public sector. Unlike some other companies which may be fronted by senior personalities but farm out the work to junior staff, all our writers are experts in their own right. We have among us, an ex general manager of a public relations company, managing editor of a publishing firm, deputy editor of a national magazine, communications head at an MNC, etc. And these are the people who actually do the writing, hence the quality of our work.

We’ve taken on many, many projects that help both public sector agencies and private companies simplify their written communications for websites, brochures, reports and so on. I don’t advertise at all so I’m sometimes astonished (and mystified) that clients from as far as London and India have heard of and wish to engage our services. It’s something I’m incredibly proud of – to have built a setup that I didn’t know whether would last six months, to an enterprise that serves a real need in the community and provides meaningful work for many people. I find great satisfaction in that.

How has your life changed since becoming a Mumpreneur?

Where do I even begin? The bond I have with my kids is strong, I mean elephant-glue strong. Even though my kids are now teenagers, we still chat all the time and we discuss anything from our love of books to our love of food! I even write books with my daughter, Lesley-Anne. Our first series of five children’s books, titled "Danger Dan", was published by Epigram Books from January 2014 to July 2015. The series has been supported by the National Arts Council. The series was successful enough for Epigram Books to offer us another series, so we embarked on the "Danger Dan and Gadget Girl" series, the first book of which was published in April this year. As mother and daughter, we also conduct talks and workshops at various events, such as the Singapore Writers Festival, and at primary schools.

As for work-life balance, most definitely. When I work, it’s in short productive bursts, which leaves me a lot of down time to be with my kids or to do other things.

What are the downsides?

Like with all businesses, financial uncertainty is right up there. There are good months and bad months, and the current situation is not necessarily a good predictor of the future. Fortunately, Hedgehog Communications is pretty stable now, but in the early days, I would get nervous whenever I faced a lull period.

What plans and hopes do you have for the future of your business? 

I’m actually quite dismayed by the standard of English I see in official collaterals and signs. How is it that with English as the official language of business and instruction, people are increasingly unable to use the language correctly and appropriately? It’s a lofty ambition but I hope Hedgehog Communications can play a major role in raising the level of written communications in business and the corporate setting (well, in Singapore at least!)

What advice would you share with other mums who are considering setting up their own business please?

Do your homework! It can be rewarding but running your own business is challenging. Having a passion is not enough – you need to have a plan, scrutinise the business aspects and make sure that it’s financially viable in the long run.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Early admissions to polytechnic

You might have noticed that the updates on this blog this year have mostly centred around Lesley-Anne - 'A' levels, university choices, scholarship, etc. There have been so many developments this year that time has just tornado-ed by. Are we already coming to the last quarter of 2016? Gosh!

No, I haven't forgotten that I have another kid (the perpetually hungry one). It's not that it's all quiet on the Andre front. It's just that some events were up in the air so I haven't been able to talk about them yet...until now.

This is Andre's 'O' level year and as any parent of a kid sitting for a national exam would know, it's called the "Year of No Life". Apart from mugging, there's really little time for much else. Andre's last experience of this was in 2012 when he sat for the PSLE. As mentioned in a blog post then, his leisure time was mostly spent playing sports like mini ping pong.

Four years on, the mini ping pong has made a comeback!

In reality though, these upcoming national exams are a lot less stressful than the PSLE. One reason is that being four years older (and hopefully wiser), Andre is more responsible when it comes to planning his own revision and timetable.

There's another reason though. In 2014, I wrote about how Andre communicated to us that he wished to pursue the polytechnic path instead of jc and study a particular course. Since then, his interest in that industry has strengthened and he's now very sure that's where he wants to go.

So earlier in June this year, he applied for Early Admissions Exercise (EAE) to the course. EAE is essentially like DSA for p6 students, except it's for sec 4 or 5 students to apply for early admission to the polytechnics. It was previously called Direct Polytechnic Admissions (DPA) but was changed to EAE this year as the process was tweaked. You can find out more details about EAE here.

As part of the course criteria, Andre had to attend an interview and sit for an aptitude test. When Lesley-Anne and I were prepping him for the interview, we could tell he was pretty nervous as he'd never attended an interview before. He kept asking, "What if they ask me this? Or that?" until I said, "Aiyah, then just use your common sense!" To which, he replied rather indignantly, "Like I have any!"

Andre is usually quite chill so it was quite unusual to see him behave like an eager beaver during the process. On the day of the interview, he arrived at the venue a whole hour early, prompting the person marking attendance to mutter, "Wah, this is very rare." Thankfully, Andre was not nervous during the interview. He could answer all the questions asked and he felt that he left a good impression. It probably helped that he was captain and vice-captain of his school badminton team for four years (leadership attributes matter in EAE, from what I understand). The aptitude test was a series of general knowledge MCQs specific to the industry.

His instinct was good because when the results were released in end August, he found that he was successful in his EAE application. Woohoo! Once again, as with Lesley-Anne's tertiary journey, we'd prayed for God to grant Andre this pathway only if it was right for him, so we're very glad that all indications seem to be yes.

It definitely takes the pressure off the 'O' levels as he will just have to meet the minimum criteria and not the cut-off point for his course. But it's the knowledge that Andre has finally found some direction in life, that is more rewarding and reassuring. We've warned him not to think that polytechnic studies will be a piece of cake, that it requires consistent effort. He knows this but he says he's motivated to work. And that makes all the difference.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Overcoming the Chinese wall

During the Rio Olympics, one of the sports we followed closely was, of course, badminton, since Andre is a badminton player. The epic match was the semi-final between long-time rivals - Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan. It was cathartic to finally see Lee Chong Wei beat Lin Dan at an Olympic setting (Andre has idolised Lee Chong Wei ever since he could hold a badminton racket). Unfortunately, the fairy tale was still not to be as Dato Lee was denied the gold medal once more by yet another China player - Chen Long.

The less talked about match though, was the one where Viktor Axelsen, in his first Olympics, beat titan Lin Dan in straight sets to clinch the bronze medal. That was a real shocker and prompted some to say, perhaps Lin Dan tanked that match cos he didn't want to stand third on the podium.

I don't know if that's true but it certainly made me sit up and notice the 22-year-old Dane. Then he talked to a Chinese journalist after the match and that nearly made me fall off my chair. Because Axelsen spoke to the journalist in perfectly fluent Mandarin.

Later, I found out that Axelsen had only been learning Chinese for the past two years. WAH! Colour me impressed. I showed Andre, who struggles to get even the intonation of basic words right, the video. He watched it, mouth open, and mumbled, "What am I doing with my life."

The Chinese language was a topic of interest in our household recently because Andre had just completed his 'O' level Chinese exam last month. Studying Chinese has always been an uphill battle for our kids, even for Lesley-Anne who basically memorised her way to a B3 in Higher Chinese. Andre has even less aptitude and interest. Let's just call a spade a spade - we're a jiak kantang family lah.

For the Chinese 'O' levels, Andre flubbed his oral component because the topic was on water polo and he had no clue what water polo was called in Chinese. So we were mighty relieved when the results came in and he found out that he had managed to pass his Chinese exam. Woohoo! He was whooping so loudly when he received the results in school that his friends thought he'd scored an A. 😂 Hey, different strokes for different folks, ok? Don't judge.

For us, we're satisfied with his grade so he won't be retaking his Chinese exam at the end of the year. But we were surprised to find out that 90% of his school cohort intend to retake the exam. Except for those who had already earned their A1s, most of the students want a second attempt to improve on their score. In fact, for students like Andre who didn't want to retake the exam, the school asked for a parent's letter explaining why they should be exempt.

Where do I even begin? Here were the thoughts that were running through my head:
  1. After 10 years of learning Chinese, Andre's Chinese is still atrocious. What makes you think he can suddenly improve in 2 months? 
  2. We prayed so hard for him to pass. In other words, pass = miracle. If he takes it again, he might FAIL. 
  3. I dowan to pay for any more Chinese tuition. 10 years is enough. 
  4. He has 6 other O level subjects where he has a chance of doing better in. Can focus on those instead of flogging a dead horse? 
  5. Not everyone is like Axelsen.
In the end, I sent a polite version of this letter, thus marking the end of a chapter. Not that it's the end of Chinese in Andre's life, just the structured lessons bit. I'm sure at work or in life in the future, Andre will need to use Chinese at some point, and hopefully he'll be fine in this respect, outside of the academic environment.

Maybe the trick is just to find an Axelsen to play badminton with.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Scholarships and universities - letting God lead

This post is a testimony on Lesley-Anne's scholarship journey. Some of you may recall that I blogged about how Lesley-Anne would only go overseas for her university education if she could secure a scholarship.

While most students think of the scholarship bond as a burden, Lesley-Anne holds a different view. Since she's looking to study Liberal Arts or Literature (which don't necessarily have the best job prospects), she sees the bond as an advantage because it would guarantee a job upon graduation. I guess she's unusual that way.

So when exploring scholarships, she applied only to organisations where she was interested in carving out a career. One particular organisation stood out as her first choice. Funnily enough, it has nothing to do with the arts. What she found out about their role and work intrigued her. She was invited to go for the first round assessment centre and the process was rigorous. Lasting a full day, she had to analyse real industry papers, present recommendations, participate in a debate and do a written test. While it was exhausting, she found the content fascinating. That reinforced her belief that it would be interesting to work for this organisation.

From our past experiences, we have learnt not to just pray for something as what we want may not actually be good for us. So we asked God to grant her this scholarship and create a place for her ONLY if this organisation was right for her.

Lesley-Anne must have done well in the assessment centre because she received a call-back the very next day to attend the first round interview. Yay!
We were hopeful but the interview didn't turn out the way she wanted. She came back all moody and said "I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT." Later, the kaypoh in me managed to pry a little out of her. She said the HR director, who was the main interviewer, started off cheery but as the interview progressed, he didn't seem to like some of her answers and started looking bored. At one point, he even slumped in his seat.

She was deeply discouraged but I reminded her of what we prayed - if it's right, God will make it happen. If it's not, then it's actually a blessing in disguise not to get it because it wasn't right for you.
To be perfectly honest though, we all kinda thought it was a lost cause. She was shortlisted for interviews/assessments with other organisations, so she began preparing for those.

It was also around this time that Lesley-Anne had to consider which university she wanted to go to. She had received 4 offers from UK universities to study Literature, including UCL and University of Edinburgh. Apart from those, she also had an offer from Yale-NUS, the only local university she had applied to. If she didn't manage to secure a scholarship, the choice would be clear because we had told her we would only be able to fund a local tertiary education. However, if she did manage to get a scholarship, she would have to indicate her preference.

One attribute about Lesley-Anne is that she's terribly indecisive. If we left her to decide where to have dinner, we'd probably starve. On one hand, she knew that going overseas would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. On the other hand, she was very attracted to the Liberal Arts programme in Yale-NUS, with its broad-based curriculum, international student mix and incredible opportunities for overseas exchanges.
There she was, swinging like a pendulum from one to another, unable to decide. In the end, she added a request to God - if she were to land a scholarship, let the organisation tell her where to go. I could just imagine God smacking His forehead and going, "Aiyoh, this girl! Everything oso must specify until liddat." (Yes, in my imagination, God speaks Singlish).

Then out of the blue, the first organisation called her back. She had been shortlisted for a final interview with the top brass! It was an unexpected and fantastic surprise. I don't think the interview panel knew what to make of Lesley-Anne. She's just so different from their usual candidates, most of whom chose to study fields relevant to the industry, like engineering, law or economics. Here instead was this girl who had written books, enjoyed dance and applied to study Literature and Liberal Arts. She was an outlier if ever there was one.

But clearly, they must have seen something in her because in the end, after a long excruciating wait, they offered her the scholarship! We later found out that the organisation only gave out 7 scholarships out of 1,500 applicants this year. (I'm glad we didn't know the odds beforehand as she might have just given up due to the sheer improbability!) What was even more amazing: hers was the ONLY award where the organisation specified the university - they wanted her to attend Yale-NUS.

God answered every request she had made. Tell me that's not divine intervention. Everything happened with such uncanny leading that we could scarcely believe it.

A little more related information: after she was offered the scholarship, she was shortlisted for a final interview with the CEO and Chairman of another organisation. My gut tells me she would probably be successful in that application as well, as the people there like her and it's an arts-related organisation. Plus that scholarship would probably allow her to go overseas.

Some people may think, oh why not try for it then? But Lesley-Anne turned down that final interview with our blessings because she knew what the right path was. Isn't it great when God has shown the way so clearly, that you know that's the one to take? There's no better feeling.

So long story short, Lesley-Anne did get her scholarship but the irony is that she won't be going overseas after all. Sometimes, God is funny that way. And it's all good.

Monday, August 8, 2016

5 things I'm thankful for this National Day

Ah, Singapore. Sometimes, we love it, other times, the claustrophobia living in this tight 719 km² of space makes us want to run (swim? fly?) screaming. However, since it's National Day tomorrow, I thought it would be timely to reflect on some of the things I'm thankful for in this country. It's by no means a complete list, just a rojak aggregation of items that came to mind.

1. Healthcare

Healthcare tops the chart on my list because I don't think Singaporeans know how good we've got it. In many countries, especially in the West, people don't go to the doc for coughs and colds, partly because it's very expensive. In addition, Western docs are sometimes tight-fisted with meds. A couple of friends recounted that they went to the doc with a hacking cough or painful sore throat and all they got from the doc was: "Go out and get some fresh air! Your flu will cure by itself." Getting antibiotics from the doc is almost unheard of.

Even in specialist treatment, I've seen again and again how public healthcare staff really care for patients. Recently, I discovered that if you're referred to the National Cancer Centre, whether you're a subsidised patient or not, you will receive an appointment within 6 days. Do you know how unusual that is? I was even more amazed when I found out that the NCC sees 70% of cancer patients in Singapore. In most other countries, you wait yonks to see a specialist and when you finally get to see one, they treat it like it's your privilege to see them. A friend who was living in Los Angeles for a few years finally received an appointment for her special needs son to see a child psychologist, after months of waiting. The appointment lasted only a few minutes and they were treated very condescendingly. The psychologist asked a few bored questions and dismissed them with barely any explanation or diagnosis...and a bill for a couple of hundred bucks. In contrast, when my mil goes for her Singapore National Eye Centre consultation, her doc, a very senior specialist, always treats her with respect and sometimes even waives consultation charge because of her age.

The efficiency and service are even more admirable when you consider the quality of healthcare we receive. The standards of our docs, treatments and equipment really are top notch. An aunt living in Perth always comes back to Singapore when she needs medical treatment because she's wary of the Australian healthcare system and how it commonly botches up simple things and records, leading to wrong treatments being given to wrong patients, for example.

And it's not just the medical service I appreciate. I'm amazed that whether I need to go to KK Hospital or SGH or the National Skin Centre, there's always a shuttle bus from an MRT station. FREE. The fact that the hospitals care enough to provide patients even with transport - that's huge.

2. Food

Of course, food! We're not a nation of foodies for nothing. Eating out in restaurants here is expensive, I'll grant you that. I hate that the GST and service charge significantly increases my food bill so I end up paying more than I expect (although in the US, you have to add a minimum of 20% service tip, which is also enough to make you cry). I don't see why many other countries can have GST incorporated in the menu pricing so you don't get saddled with the extras, but ours has to be charged separately.

But the appeal of Singapore's food is simply its abundance of cheap local food, and the variety is staggering. When we were in Hong Kong, which many consider a food haven, we got bored after 5 days. Seriously, what they have is nice lah but how much dim sum and roast meats can you eat? After a while, we were longing for prata and carrot cake.

2013 photo of Andre enjoying an Indian meal
And prices - gosh we were quite shocked. They don't have hawker centres so the closest to street food would be those little hole-in-the-wall stalls. A bowl of noodles in an ordinary no-name shop would cost at least S$8. Milk tea (which is nowhere as nice as our teh, in my opinion), is S$3. And I hear that in Hong Kong, they think nothing of raising prices every year. Whereas in Singapore, people complain when a hawker raises the price of fishball noodles from $2.50 to $3 after 6 years. For me, I'm so glad I can get Indian rojak down the road, next to the bak chor mee, almost any time I want. Wash it all down with a $1.20 cup of teh tarik.

Funny story...Lesley-Anne's ang moh schoolmate: "This bread I bought from the bakery is unbelievable! So soft and delicious. Singapore has the best bread ever!" It turned out to be chiffon cake. :)) Bread or cake - it's cheap and good!

3. Internet

Cannot live without. No internet for a couple of hours and I start to experience withdrawal symptoms. Cannot check Facebook! Cannot check email! And for some friends, cannot play Pokemon GO! How??

I often hear Singaporeans complain about how slow our internet is and jeer when they read that Singapore has one of the best internet connections in the world. Seriously, you have no idea what it's like in many parts of the world. When I was in Australia and New Zealand, I was completely taken by their scenery and pace of life. Such serenity and beauty! But by the time we had left, I decided that I could never migrate there because their slow and expensive internet connection would make me want to drown myself in one of their picturesque lakes.

By the way, when we were in Hong Kong, we visited a cafe which advertised "free wifi". By the time we had ordered, polished off the dim sum and paid our bill, we were still waiting for the wifi to connect. Mega fail.

4. Online Services

We probably have one of the largest number of government services available online and as a child of the internet, I appreciate it loads. Whether it's opening a utilities account, renewing my passport, declaring my taxes or renewing library books, I can do it quickly and hassle-free online. No need to queue up for half a day or fill in onerous forms. I even get reminders via SMS or email which is such fantastic service.

For me, because I run my own business, I appreciate online services even more. I can make my CPF contributions, bid for government jobs and send invoices without ever leaving my desk. And because all government records are centralised, I don't have to keep refilling forms asking for my particulars. A real time-saver.

5 Transport

This one is a hot potato. We all know the MRT system has its kinks and the breakdown rate is alarmingly frequent. We all complain about this (me included). However, the way you hear some people talk, it's like train breakdowns are unique to us. Guess what, you just have to google "train breakdown *insert country* and you'll find news of breakdowns all the time, everywhere. Yes, even in Japan and Hong Kong. In some countries, strikes compound the issue. I'm not saying it's an excuse - it's not. I'm saying some perspective would be good.

What I do appreciate about our trains is that they're very clean. I guess it's not something that immediately jumps to mind, unless you've seen trains in other parts of the world. The London Tube seats are filthy. And the Paris Metro? Gosh, it's not just the trains. The Metro stations stink to high heaven because people pee against the walls at night. And these are first world countries hor.

Our fares, while not the lowest, are also pretty reasonable, I feel. When we were in London two years ago, planning a Tube trip had to be as strategic as preparing for a PSLE Maths exam. A single ticket in Zone 1 (central London) cost £4.40! Yes, per person. Even for just 3 stops. That was more than S$9, by the way. Imagine a family of four. I hear prices have since risen.

As for road traffic, yes, the COE is a pain and yes, jams are a pain. But once again, traffic jams are not unique to Singapore - they're a problem in most cities. In London, we once moved 100 metres on a bus in half an hour. Of course, the Bangkok traffic is legendary. We were once stuck 20 minutes at ONE traffic light. Lesley-Anne took a nap on the coach and when she woke up, she found that we were still in the same spot. Singapore is such a tiny country and building more roads is not the solution. So until we can convince more people to go car-free or until we invent the flying car, I guess the COE and ERP are here to stay.

I'm not naive. I know Singapore is not perfect and there are lots of things here that could do with improvement. However, in the spirit of National Day, I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge that there are many things to be grateful for. #Championgrumbler for 364 days, surely I can spare one day to give thanks.

So here's wishing our sunny island many more peaceful days to come on her 51st birthday - wave your flag and be proud. Happy National Day!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Let's talk about sex, baby

Yesterday, The New Paper ran a story about how some NUS orientation camps have become increasingly sexualised. Some of the activities the kids had to do were just plain disturbing. Even when I was in NUS yonks ago, there was a tendency to push activities down the boy-girl route. I remember in the NUSSU camp, a musical chairs game where the boys were the "chairs" and the girls had to sit on their laps. That was as far as it got though and considered mild by today's standards, if the news reports are anything to go by.

But more than the games themselves, which are horrible enough, what's even more appalling to me is that the students who organised these games didn't see what's wrong. In this article, there were students who said some girls just like to complain, accused them of being narrow-minded, or said they could simply sit out, what's the big deal.

It IS a big deal. And it bugs me to see that 21-year-old men who have served NS and considered adults, are unable to see that trivialising rape culture and objectifying women are NOT OK. It reminds me of those frat parties in the US where your alpha males and females will subject noobs to demeaning activities so they can belong to a club. I suspect it's the same here - just a small group of individuals looking to boost their own egos and power by humiliating the freshmen. It's called bullying. Why should someone, who joined an orientation camp to get to know more people and the university, have to choose to sit out of doing a cheer? Just because someone thought it was funny to put in dirty words? By the way, that's not adult. That's extremely juvenile.

Part of the problem I feel, can be attributed to the woefully lacking sex education programme we have in Singapore. Unless you have enlightened parents who tell you what you need to know at home, you're going to learn nothing in school. Or at least, random bits and pieces that you struggle to make sense of yourself, usually in whispers among friends. In sec3, Lesley-Anne had a sex ed session in school. This was the video shown: a girl wanted to sleep with this guy who, unbeknownst to her, previously had unprotected sex with a prostitute. Both of them lie side by side on a bed fully clothed. They go under a pink blanket and emerge 2 seconds later, still fully clothed and not even touching each other. Voila! Two weeks later, they both have HIV and are going to die.

When Lesley-Anne told me about this video, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It's ludicrous beyond belief. What is the message we're sending to the confused kids? "You can have sex in 2 seconds without taking off your clothes!" "Sex leads to death!" "Pink blankets are dangerous!"

Lesley-Anne's teacher tried to make the session more educational by allowing for questions but the students were too afraid to ask much. One girl finally asked "How does it work?" (meaning sex). Unfortunately, the teacher thought she was trolling and didn't answer the question.

So here's the thing: why do we assume that kids know how sex works? Oh sure, most of them know the dictionary definition but how can that even be enough to address the messy and complex issue of sex? For example, the definition for oral sex is "to sexually stimulate orally". For a long time, Lesley-Anne thought that meant talking dirty or kissing. When you think about it, it does sound logical. How would you know what it was if nobody explained it to you?

By the time the students hit JC, the school assumes (wrongly) that the kids would know the mechanics of sex, so once again, sex ed is focused on the dangers of STDS, complete with graphic images meant to make the students wince. In fact, the talk Lesley-Anne attended harped on and on about the dangers of sex, how you can get pregnant, get all kinds of diseases and how even tests for STDs can be false negatives! By the way, it's so ironic that her JC principal at other times tell the students that it's their responsibility in the future to "go and procreate for Singapore".

This skewed form of sex ed means that most kids only have a vague idea about sex and are afraid to ask since the message they've been receiving is that it's dangerous and downright wrong. I feel that in Singapore, MOE is pressured to preach abstinence, either by religious groups or proponents of the "Asian values" camp. Hence, sex ed here is very moralistic and focuses on STDs instead of real information.

I think we've gotten all muddled because we're unable to distinguish between values and fact. Abstinence is a value. It is a choice to be yielded by the individual. It should not influence information-giving. I find it terribly parochial how some people feel national messages and programmes should only provide information in line with their own values. I especially take issue with alarmists who think teaching children about sex is encouraging them to have pre-marital sex. Aiyoh. That's like saying since I advise my daughter not to walk in alleyways after dark, I don't have to teach her how to defend herself. In fact, I shouldn't teach her cos that would make her want to go out walking after dark!

Do parents honestly think that in this age, they can realistically enforce abstinence by withholding information? When kids can't get information from official channels, they turn to unofficial ones - mostly friends (who are equally in the dark) and well, porn. And that's why you have student orientation leaders who think it's fun and perfectly ok to simulate rape and ejaculation, and get girls to lick cream off a boy's bare chest.

Sex is such a multi-faceted issue and the level of ignorance (coupled with the raging hormones) among our youth is simply trouble waiting to happen. Schools have the opportunity to educate students about sex - properly, responsibly and factually...and they're not doing that. We need to teach our kids what sex entails, how it affects them physically, emotionally and mentally, and also very important related concepts such as consent. Not constant fear-mongering.

As parents, it's up to us to cultivate the values we want in our kids. Honestly, if you're afraid that your child will engage in pre-marital sex once she knows more about it, then perhaps it's time to examine why the values weren't that well embedded at home in the first place. On the contrary, good sex ed teaches you how to value your body and yourself, and treating others with respect. That's a good thing and that's what we need for our kids.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reforms in PSLE scoring - good news for most

Finally, after much anticipation, MOE has released the new grading system for PSLE, to start in 2021 (meaning that those in p1 this year will be the first batch to be affected).

How it works is that scores for each subject will be calculated on 8 bands or Assessment Levels (ALs) as follows:
Source: MOE
Very simply, your PSLE score will be the total AL score for all four subjects. Eg. if you score AL2 for English, AL1 for Maths, AL 4 for Science and AL5 for Mother Tongue, your total score will be 12. It's very similar to how the 'O' levels are calculated, ie A1 for a subject = 1 point, B3 = 3 points and so on. For PSLE, the minimum score is 4, maximum 32.

The scores will then be used for secondary school posting. The better your score, the higher up your queue number is to select your school.  Which stream you will be eligible for depends on your total score as follows:

Source: MOE

A Step in the Right Direction

1) This banding scoring style is long overdue. From the time this move was first mooted in 2013, I've written about how the fine stratification of the PSLE t-score is meaningless and only serves to exacerbate the kiasu culture among parents and students, to chiong for every last mark. Banding sends the message that whether you score 91 or 99, you're considered equally high achieving in that subject.

Some people are curious as to why the AL bands don't all have a similar range of marks, eg. AL2-4 have 5-mark ranges while AL5 has a 10-mark range and AL6 a 20-mark range. After all, someone who scores 45 marks in a paper (a fail grade) can hardly be considered of the same achievement level as someone who scores 64 marks, even though they would both fall under AL6.

I've always felt that the PSLE is less of an ability gauge and more a school placement device. If every school was equally in demand, the PSLE would simply need to test if a student understood the fundamental concepts for each subject. If yes, then congrats! Off you go to secondary school. But that sort of Utopia exists only in Sesame Street and we're more like Harry Potter - everyone wants to go to Gryffindor and nobody wants Slytherin. Hence, my gut feel is that the ALs are carved out as such to facilitate school placement. In other words, whether you score 45 or 64 marks, it probably has less consequence on the range of schools available to you (because fewer people are vying for one or two particular schools).

2) Another major change in the scoring is the departure from t-scores to raw scores. I'd previously written in detail about the brutality of using the t-score in PSLE. The t-score calculates your score in relation to others'. While it's more efficient in determining placement for school posting, it encourages unhealthy competition because the more people you beat, the better you score. At that tender age when we're supposed to be nurturing kids, the t-score sends the message: To hell with helping my friends. Winner takes all. Kinda like the Hunger Games.

Raw scores, on the other hand, reflect individual effort and ability, not in comparison with one another. In other words, just do the best you can. However, banding based on raw scores means that many kids are likely to share similar scores, unlike in the past where your t-score can be differentiated down to decimal points. So MOE felt the need to impose three other criteria for school placement, in case of ties. These are (in that order):

2) Citizenship
3) Choice order of school
4) Balloting

I have to admit, I chuckled when I saw the last criterion. To me, that's like MOE subtly giving kiasu parents the middle finger. You see, I can just imagine how vexed MOE must feel, that every time they try to introduce a different initiative to create a more holistic system or level the playing field, some parents will find innovative and extreme ways to game the system. Take DSA, IP, niche schools, etc. By introducing balloting, getting into the school of your choice could come down to pure, dumb luck. Hah! Try getting around that!

Let the Angst Begin

As mentioned, I feel this change is long overdue and it's good overall. It's more holistic and kinder in its assessment of students' abilities. However, as with every announcement about changes in the education system, there is bound to be anxiety among parents, often due to the uncertainty.

One group would be the ones whose kids are consistently top performers and gunning for schools like RI/RGS/HCI/NYGH. Suddenly, a perfect score may not guarantee entry to these school. If these parents are protesting that it's "unfair to deprive a perfect scorer a place in a top school", may I be so bold as to suggest that the changes are necessary precisely because we need to change this sort of narrow-mindedness. For the better of society, we really need to move away from the prevalent mentality that 1) some schools are superior 2) because a kid beat another by 1 mark in an exam paper, he's somehow more entitled to go to that school.

A school is a conduit for learning. If a child is that good, he can do well and receive fantastic opportunities anywhere. In the past couple of decades, we've seen how the narrow funnelling of top scoring kids into a handful of schools have led to a proliferation of young adults who are completely oblivious that the world doesn't revolve around their middle-income families, paper distinctions, high end tuition centres and overseas stints. While this new scoring system may not completely solve this elitist mindset, it is more likely to spread the top scorers across a wider range of schools, allowing for better integration and socialisation.

Other parents might be concerned about how to choose schools, now that choice order is a consideration. For the first year at least, there will be a lot of uncertainty since there is nothing to refer to. If my child scores 12 points, which school should he pick as first choice? Or if my child scores 4 points, how many other kids scored the same? Should he opt for a less competitive school just to be safe? It's anyone's guess, really.

Even after the first year, we might not have a clear idea what the cut-off point for each school is. Since the points are now based on raw scores, not t-scores, the distribution of total scores for each year can vary quite a lot, depending on how easy or difficult the papers are. In fact, if MOE wants to play puppeteer, they can theoretically adjust the difficulty of the papers to affect the results. For example, set very difficult papers to restrict the number of 4-pointers or very easy papers to flood the market. Such manipulation will need to be handled with care though, because it could drastically affect the proportion of kids qualifying for the Express stream, for instance.

If they want to be extra sneaky, they can also "tweak" the raw scores, the way they've been doing for the current PSLE scoring. Whether you get an A* or A today is supposed to be based on raw scores (eg. 91 marks and above for A*) but in reality, the grades for each subject are based on a bell curve drawn by MOE. I'm wondering if they will resort to this down the road if the results deviate too much from projections. Anyway, these are all speculations. I suspect they will observe the workings of the system and adjust it as they go along.

Good...But Faster Can?

So yes, there are some kinks to work out and that's probably why MOE is taking so long to implement it. If I have one criticism of the initiative, it's that it will only be rolled out in 2021. Considering this was first announced in 2013, that's 8 years to implement what is a relatively straightforward system. MOE says they want to give people time to get used to the new system. I think they're being too kind. That's giving parents another 8 years to find ways to game the new system and chiong for DSA harder than ever. If it were up to me, I'd say rip off the band-aid and get over the pain quickly.

There are two gaping loopholes which I feel MOE needs to review quickly with this new announcement, namely the DSA scheme and MT exemption. While they were both implemented with good intentions and have their uses, again that hasn't stopped some parents from exploiting them purely to get into branded schools.

The stress that I commonly hear people complain about our education system is both a result of the system and parents' attitude. Changing the system itself isn't enough unless we change our mindsets, but at least we move away from rewarding and hence reinforcing kiasu-ism. For that, I would say we're on the right track.

Monday, July 4, 2016

What's the tradeoff?

Lesley-Anne will be starting university come end July, so naturally, the conversations over these past few months tended to include university selection and who's-going-where among her friends. Since Lesley-Anne attended one of the branded JCs, there might be some perception that most of her school mates would be studying overseas.

This turned out to be untrue. By far, most of the students I know are enrolling in local universities. In fact, some of Lesley-Anne's super bright friends, previously from GEP, top schools, etc, will be studying in exactly the same university and course as their peers who came from neighbourhood schools/JCs and didn't score as well as they did in the 'A' levels.

Why I bring this up is because I wanted to highlight how pointless this grade-chasing game is. Some parents are so hung up about their kids getting straight As that they have spent the last 12 or more years packing their kids to enrichment classes day and night, piling them with assessment books, etc, believing that the pie is so small that you have to do everything in your power to edge everyone else out. The truth is, many of these straight A students will end up in EXACTLY the same place (university-wise and at the workplace) as the less academically inclined students because, guess what - university applications and the workplace don't draw the line as myopically as these parents do in their heads.

Speaking to my friend who teaches at a JC confirmed my hypothesis. She says the kids in her mid-tier JC practically kill themselves volunteering for every possible community project and leadership opportunity, mugging till midnight, basically living their two years like a zombie, thinking all these extras will somehow matter in their university or scholarship application.

At the end of the day, for 95% of these kids, they won't. That's the kicker. The kids who get enrolled in the most sought after programmes are truly a minority and often, these are the kids who already have what it takes (I like to call it that extra spark). All the padding on your CCA is unlikely to make a difference. Even more so for those want a scholarship to study overseas - the success rates are miniscule and even straight A students with a fantastic portfolio often get rejected.

I'm not saying our kids shouldn't try and should just give up. It’s not a bad thing to try and do well in school and take on extra curricular stuff. The trouble is the lack of balance. It seems like the motto among some Singaporean parents (and students themselves) is: "If there's something worth doing, it's worth overdoing." Let's be honest - there's always an opportunity cost. What I see being sacrificed includes sleep, play, a social life, and important intangibles like curiosity, a love of learning, values, and time and the ability to think beyond what is given in a textbook. Do we even realise the enormity of the tradeoffs?

Some parents have the warped sense that the school years are a sacrifice and pre-payment for the reward they hope to eventually get. In the end, these formative years have become so detestable for our kids that they're exhausted and can't wait to be done with school. I find that very sad. The school years form an important part of the journey of life to be experienced (and ideally enjoyed). Our kids should be able to look back at them with fondness, not relief that they're over.

From my own experience and talking to others, I hope to reassure you that a lot of the chiong-ing is unnecessary and probably not have that much of an impact on the eventual result as you think. Work hard, but don't over-burden yourself to the point where you sacrifice physical, mental and emotional health. It's not worth it.

Today especially, on Youth Day, I hope we can remember that youth is a time when we should be celebrating vitality and discovery. Don't rob yourself (or your kids) of this very pivotal part of life. It's a time to experience and to be cherished. Happy Youth Day!

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