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Signs of love

signs of love

A bunch of my friends and I are organising an event to raise awareness of the Deaf community here in Singapore (I have a deaf brother, btw). We are also looking for contributions, which go directly to The Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf). We do not represent SADeaf in any way, shape or form, but we want to make a difference to the Deaf community. Your contributions would be much appreciated (details at the bottom of this email)

Here are the details for our event, which I would love for you to attend:

Date: May 1, Friday

Time: 11am-4pm (Registration at 1030am, lunch provided at around 1pm)

Venue: *Scape at Orchard (The Gallery)

Programme outline:

  1. Deaf awareness and experience
  2. Performance (song and dance)
  3. Workshop on sign language
  4. Lunch
  5. Hush Tea Bar workshop
  6. Feedback and reflection




Donation link: – please indicate “Signs of love” in the dedication box when contributing


Feel free to contact me at if you have questions.


Ban these books too

The NLB’s decision to ban two books – “And Tango Makes Three” and “The White Swan Express” – for not being “pro-family” is arbitrary, and as such its reason(s) for doing so will and has attracted intense scrutiny. The content in the two books relate to non-heterosexual family relations and, assumedly, it drew the disapprobation of a patron of the NLB (I suppose you’d be rather conservative if you’re a patron of a social institution; at least, in Singapore you would).

In the name of promoting “pro-family” values, may I suggest the NLB remove the following books from its shelves:

1. Madame Bovary: Emma Bovary’s endless string of adulterous affairs not only led to her husband’s financial ruin and death, but also his family’s ultimate destitution. How can we let girls read such books, lest these impressionable young minds think of emulating Emma Bovary?

2. Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” In the same way that Madame Bovary poses a grave threat to Singaporean girls, boys should be banned from reading about Humbert Humbert lest they all become paedophiles, albeit an polished, erudite one. Girls should also be banned from reading this book, in case they become precocious temptresses that lead men to their downfall.

3. The Catcher in the Rye: God forbid a teenager reads about Holden Caufield and emulates his rebellious behaviour, drinking, smoking and hiring prostitutes. You can’t expect a teenager to objectively read and assess a book like this, can you?

4. Any book by Oscar Wilde: He’s gay, and therefore his books must contain subliminal messages to engage in gay sex, right? 

I hope the NLB seriously consider my humble suggestions. After all, these books can affect children that are at an impressionable age.

The Hangover: Part beer


This a re-post of a blog entry of Daniel Goh’s, aka The Beer Hawker, whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with in his previous incarnation as a PR professional, and mine as a journalist. This is in response to the Budget announcement to increase alcohol taxes and, more importantly, warnings by the authorities to businesses selling beer against “profiteering”.

Here is the full text, reproduced with Daniel’s permission:


Dear MOF/MTI, let me teach you a little about business.

Of course the biggest shock over the weekend for most of us in the F&B industry was the Singapore budget announcement that will see duties on alcohol increase by 25%. Just when our beleaguered industry is reeling from manpower shortages and increased cost pressures from skyrocketing rent, the helping hand and largesse we were expecting from the government turned out to be a slap in the face.

As though stabbing us in our belly wasn’t bad enough, the authorities then twisted the knife by warning the industry against undue “profiteering”, that is – if the duty on a can of beer increases by 20 cents, retailers and on-premise operators should only raise prices by the same quantum.

Quoted in the above link:

“Based on the Ministry of Finance’s (MOF) assessment, even if the additional duty is fully passed on to consumers, the price of a typical can of beer (323 ml) should increase by about 20 cents, while a typical bottle of beer (663ml) should increase by only about 40 cents at coffee shops.”

Excuse me? Do you know how business is run? Because it’s quite evident you don’t.

Let me explain.

The F&B business is exactly that, a business. And business runs on margins. Basically the idea is this – in order for a business to survive, it needs to maintain a certain price margin. This price margin is an invisible floor, a ratio where if your prices in relation to your costs go below that number, your business will go into the red. This magical number basically builds in all the costs – both fixed and variable – that the business incurs, which includes manpower, utilities, as well as the decor that goes into outfitting the business. 

OK I’m no accountant, but if I understand it correctly the increased duties on alcohol essentially pushes up what in accounting they call Cost Of Goods Sold (COGS). COGS has an inverse relationship with margins, so the higher the COGS, the lower your margins. Businesses reach a price point for an item sold usually by considering COGS, and then putting a certain percentage mark up on it to achieve a certain margin. Successful entrepreneurs and business owners are those who watch their margins religiously. And margins are critical for the business because it is a hard-and-fast number for the business owner to control the variables that ensures that the business survives.

Follow so far? 

If not, here’s an example. Assuming that COGS of, let’s say, to sell a beer in a restaurant is $5 per bottle, and the usual markup is 150% in order to arrive at a decent margin, the price charged should be $5 + ($5 x 150%)= $12.50.

So the additional duty on alcohol hits, and that 25% increase places an additional duty of 20 cents which means that the COGS of that product is now $5.20. According to what’s determined by MOF and MTI, this means this businesses should only charge $5 + ($5 x 150%) + $0.20 = $12.70.

But in order for this business to maintain the same margin, it actually has to charge $5.20 + ($5.20 x 150%) = $13.00. 

And there’s that little thing called GST.

GST registered businesses also need to pay GST, and since the duty goes directly into the price of the product, the GST charged by the government also increases. If businesses simply increase price based on the quantum of the increase in duty, is MOF saying that businesses should absorb that GST increase?

As a consumer I agree that businesses shouldn’t take this opportunity to “unduly increase prices”. But for the authorities to point fingers at businesses and blame us for profiteering because we are increasing prices more than the quantum of the increase in duty is disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst. It certainly does not take into account the realities of running a business.

I may be a hawker, but I wasn’t born yesterday.

Original post here.

The Tuition Problem nobody wants to solve


This article is taken off Empty Vessel, a blog by former SPH journalist Ian Tan. You might have seen his name in the Voices section of the Today newspaper, where Ian is a frequent contributor. With Ian’s permission, I am re-posting his latest letter to Voices:

Dear Voices Editor

I refer to the Today report “MPs call for closer look at private tuition industry” (Today 17 Sep 2013)

It was a disheartening story for parents of primary school children to read.

While the original question posed by MPs in Parliament was focused on whether teachers are leaving the Education Service for more lucrative careers in the tuition sector, the replies from Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah was a disturbing indication that the Ministry of Education doesn’t consider the tuition industry to be a critical issue.

Like it or not, it’s time for policymakers to stop ignoring the Tuition Problem if we are to improve the education system in Singapore.

We can abolish the PSLE aggregate score, or change admission schemes, but all these changes will be derailed by the Tuition Problem and its root cause of an unrealistic primary school syllabus.

The facts were laid out in Parliament by various MPs – the local tuition industry may be a billion-dollar industry today and that 97 percent of Singapore students were enrolled in tuition and enrichment classes in 2008, more than double from 1992.

The Minister’s key replies, as reported, was that teacher attrition rates were low and that exit interviews did not indicate that teachers were leaving for the tuition industry. However, attrition rates and the lack of upfront feedback about the school education system do not mask the fact that the nation’s parents are facing a crisis of confidence about the education system.

Parents send their children for a variety of reasons but as many have continually voiced out in the past few years, tuition is now a necessity because of the unrealistic standards in the primary school syllabus and the poor balancing of teacher workloads.

I don’t have the hard statistics but I have many anecdotes from other parents to tell the Ministry this hard truth – The teachers struggle to cover all the topics in the school syllabus, so they rush through the basic concepts when teaching. Students are left bewildered, then asked to do “high-level” and “critical thinking” questions when their foundation is shaky. Parents don’t understand how to help their children, because they can’t even figure out how to answer some of today’s mindboggling exam questions.

Do they have a choice but to turn to tutors?

For many parents, enrolling their children for tuition is not about the desire for top grades, but because of the fear that their children cannot catch up enough to get a decent passing grade.

Then, any free time the child has is sucked up by travelling to tuition classes or doing tuition homework. Where do they get the time to enjoy outdoor activities, learn new hobbies or other things that make them well-rounded individuals?

The Tuition Problem is a symptom, not a cause, of the failures of today’s education system.

The Government spends so much time and money trying to persuade Singaporeans to have children and not to emigrate to other pastures. Are our leaders aware that it is this oppressive education environment that helps kill our fertility rate and reduce our sense of belonging? It is increasingly common to hear  young married couples saying : “I don’t want to have kids and then put them through this ordeal”

The signs have been clear for all parents to see for many years.

Now as our so-called “partners in education”, can the Ministry see the same perspective too?

Ian Tan Yong Hoe

You can see the original post here.

全国对话 早报开讲


I attended a session of Our Singapore Conversation on Sunday, 21 April 2013. It was organised by Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报) and the proceedings were done exclusively in Chinese, with next to no English used other than for clarification purposes regarding concepts and terminology. The Education minister, Heng Swee Kiat (王瑞杰) was present.

Our Singapore ConversationThere were about 32 participants split into four groups of eight: The new normal (社会新常态); Conservation and passing on of language and culture (语言,文化和历史的保留与传承); Towards a more inclusive society (迈向包容社会); and Education (教育现状). When we were done with our small group discussions, we had to present our findings to everyone.

I was in the new normal group. Only five of the original eight members of my group could make it, but these were very interesting people. One was a famous Chinese theatre director; another was a Professor of Chinese Studies at NUS; the other two were former SPH journalists – one Straits times, the other 早报, both agree it’s so much better to have left the media – and currently working at institutions of higher learning. Including myself, that’s three former media professionals who have made a career change and landed in education. The organisers knew we had strong views about politics and society in general.


Our Singapore ConversationWe came to the quick conclusion that 社会新常态其实不是”新常态”, 而是”正常态” ie the new normal is actually the historical normal. We’ve been living in an abnormal state where there is no dissent and no credible opposition. Of the four topics that our facilitator used to portion out the 90 minutes discussion time, we spent the main bulk of it on the social and political aspects of the so-called “new normal”. As you might expect, the main issues were discussed: sacred cows; an elitist society; lack of trust in the government.

(Sidetrack: the solution – almost unanimously agreed upon – was the need to educate our children appropriately to change Singapore for the better. How apt that Heng Swee Keat was the minister who attended this OSC session. I’ll conclude this blog post with that later.)

The language and culture group made one important point: there is a dearth of young Chinese Singaporeans participating in clan (宗乡会馆) activities. On the other hand, there is no shortage of participation from new immigrants from China, so much so that clan associations are now “dominated” by such immigrants, according to an OSC participant. As a result, the nature of being a Cantonese or Teochew or Hokkien in Singapore is changing, and that will bring changes to the ethnic Chinese community – I use “ethnic Chinese” because “Chinese” alone in this context implies mainland China – and the associated identity issues.


Our Singapore ConversationIt was a fortuitous stroke of luck that the representative for the inclusive society group was a lady who migrated from China with her family when she was eight; she described herself as a 旧移民 ie old-timer immigrant. Her group predictably discussed the issues of new immigrants (新移民) fitting into Singaporean culture, and how locals can help in that respect.

She described her experience of social integration as such: when she was in primary school, she was pretty much the only one in her class who was not local; in Secondary School, there were noticeably more; in University, she saw those from China who were brought in on scholarships. She said her assimiliation process was more organic – she chose the English word “organic” after struggling for a split second to find the right word in Chinese; that she didn’t use “有机” spoke volumes of her degree of assimilation and also the language dominance in her thought process – than the many new immigrants who, unlike her, have the mental crutch of their fellow countrymen to hang around with.


Our Singapore ConversationEducation was a common thread that held all four groups together. In a nutshell, Singapore – culturally, politically, economically – can only be changed as far as its children can be educated. The representative was a Chinese teacher in a Secondary School, and she took the chance to lay bare all the problems facing teachers: too much admin work, along with bureaucratic problems e.g. too many passwords to remember, leading to inefficiency and lower productivity; these passwords are for schemes that were meant to make teachers’ lives easier.

The irony wasn’t lost on the minister, who concluded the session with a little speech…in Chinese, no less. For a Harvard-educated potentate, his Chinese was considerably better than I had expected it to be, but it was his openness that perhaps struck me the most. I’ve said all along that this government has heard the ground loud and clear: your policies have messed us all up, and you need to fix this.

Whether one thinks this is all wayang or a sincere attempt to manage the political realities is irrelevant. What matters is what the G will do after hearing what the people have to say. I don’t suppose I’ve said all I’ve wanted to on Sunday due to time and language constraints (我的中文水平至少还算过得去,但如果要谈政治,哲学与社会我就得自叹不如了).

As such, I’ll probably be signing up for an English OSC session. You should too.

The Boston Massacre


The picture you see above is that of a residential building. It is located at 11 Tetlow Street, Boston, MA 02115.

I spent 3½ years in Boston attending college. I chose to name my blog after this particular address because it was where I rented my first apartment, a personal milestone on my journey to adulthood. Much of who I am today is shaped by my experiences in the beautiful city of Boston, which has suffered terrible sorrow borne of heinous acts of terror at the Boston Marathon.

I read earlier today that one of the three fatalities was a graduate student at my Alma Mater, and that another student is seriously hurt. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the families of the victims, but it quickly dawned on me that this could have happened when I was there. That thought throws a curtain of gloom over the collective memory of the city – mine included –  just as the terrorist acts threaten to change Boston’s DNA going forward. In short, things might never be the same ever again.

One if by land…

Boston is known for a few things: clam chowder; a high concentration of colleges; its prominent place in the American Revolution. Those interested in American politics might also tell you that John F. Kennedy grew up in the Boston suburb of Brookline.

Boston is also known for its high concentration of Americans with Irish roots, due in large part to Irish farmers fleeing The Potato Famine of 1846-1850. Today, you can find more than a few Irish-Americans in South Boston -“Southie” to the locals -, where Matt Damon’s and Ben Affleck’s characters in Good Will Hunting are from.

385 Dorchester Street, Boston, MA 02127

385 Dorchester Street, Boston, MA 02127

I rented a summer sublet apartment (left) in Southie from an Indonesian schoolmate who had returned to Medan to visit his family. My building super (short for supervisor, a handyman hired by the landlord to take care of the tenants’ needs) was an elderly Irish gentleman named Dan.

Dan called every man he didn’t know “Guy”. “Hey, guy, you need help with ya cable, ya call me, ya hear?” “How waaa ya, guy?” Dan had little formal education, but he often told me that while education was important, everything was “all in the head.”

385 Dorchester Street

385 Dorchester Street, Boston, MA 02127

My Southie apartment was right on the edge of the neighbourhood, a fairly rough one. I heard gunshots and witnessed policemen draw their guns at a man following a fight at the bar next to  the apartment (“The Connection” in the picture to right; I don’t think it’s called that back then).

These less than salubrious surroundings were where a Vietnamese family opened a laundromat following their escape from collapsed Saigon in the 70’s. The owner had imagined American streets of gold, only to be confronted with litter-strewn sidewalks and petty criminals.

By the time I was studying in Boston, the laundromat owner had settled into American culture, with English-speaking children attending American schools. I can’t recall if I spoke Cantonese with him and his wife, but I remember chatting with them during late night laundry sessions. We got along pretty well.

31 Fairfeld Street, MA 02116

31 Fairfeld Street, MA 02116

Of course, there are nicer neighbourhoods. 11 Tetlow Street was nice and cosy, but my last apartment in Boston had the best location. The picture to the left is that of 31 Fairfield Street, one block away from the bombing.

From here, I remember walking to all the Boston landmarks and attending cultural events: Boston Commons; the Boston Public Library; Copley Square; and the Fourth of July celebrations by the Charles River.

There were other, earlier excursions: Keith Lockhart conducting the Christmas concert by The Boston Pops Orchestera; hanging out at Harvard Square; watching the Boston Celtics taking on the San Antonio Spurs; and summer crew class on the Charles River.

…Two if by sea

Crew on the Charles River

Crew on the Charles River

If memory serves, I was the only international student to sign up for the crew class in the summer of ’98. Most of my international schoolmates either flew back home for three months or signed up for summer academic classes instead.

Crew class left an indelible mark on me for a simple reason: I felt…White. If I recall correctly, all the other rowers were Caucasian.

I pondered if I should replace “white” with “privileged”, but somehow the former felt more on target. This was certainly a sport you wouldn’t find in the inner city ie Southie, and even if you lived near the Charles river, not everyone had access to crew boats. I couldn’t quite put it into words – it’s just something I did that provided me with another flavour of Boston that I wouldn’t have known if I had stuck with watching movies in a mall.

Boston Massacre

Those experiences form a large chunk of my memory of Boston. Others will have their own unique stories to tell, be they of some charming, comical, and even frustrating aspects of this fascinating city. But anyone who has lived in Boston will have common experiences to unite them as Bostonians, born or adopted: the “T”, snow falling horizontally, and referring to a motor vehicle as a “caaahhh”.

The bombings, however, will become an unwelcome addition to that list of things in common. For anyone with ties to Boston, that shall be the case. It is now a part of Boston’s collective memory, in the same way 9-11 has become part of New York’s. New Yorkers said after 9-11, “If we stop doing the things we love, then the terrorists have won. They will not win.”

I have every confidence that Bostonians will not let them win.

Childless in Singapore

BabyI came across this BBC article about night nurseries in Sweden earlier this week. It struck a chord with me because 1. I am married with a view towards having children, and 2. I worked night shifts and weekends in my previous career (12 years) as a broadcast tv professional. More than that, it provided insights into a model that the Singapore government would do well to examine.

I was struck by the headline-grabbing numbers: even the most highly-paid Swedes qualify for state-subsidised childcare that costs no more than US$200 a month. These services are not only affordable, but increasingly available overnight and during weekends. It’s perhaps no surprise that 78 percent of Swedish mothers with children below seven years of age go out to work.

The childcare is state-subsidised and costs considerable money. According to the report, Sweden spends more on preschool subsidies than it does on defence. Perhaps Sweden faces less geopolitical risks than the little red dot that is Singapore, but it illustrates clearly the policy objectives of the Swedish government and its willingness to spend to achieve them.

I need not parrot the Singapore government’s argument against going down the Swedish route. Tax rates would have to go up to pay for these services, and to be fair to the G, Singaporeans are getting a lot of services for relatively low taxes. The fear of over-consumption that comes with generous subsidies is justified.

However, such subsidies would help the government achieve its stated objective of maintaining a strong Singapore core. By providing affordable and abundant childcare, it would not only relieve a main source of stress for parents, it would also encourage mothers to work. Increase the workforce and possibly increase the population – isn’t that what the G is gunning for?

I state nothing new when I say the G is still hung up with its “citizens should take responsibility of their own lives” mantra. Yes of course Singaporeans understand that; after all, the G has been drumming that into us via mainstream media for as long as we can remember. But when there is a clear example that works, the G refuses to embrace it or at least incorporate the best bits of said policy. Why the ideological strait jacket?

That’s not to say the Swedish model is perfect. The BBC report also quoted parents who observed unhappy children being dropped off at childcare while parents headed off for night shift work. I am no psychologist but it makes sense that when children go to bed, they would want to be around family rather than be in a socially constructed space that facilitates their parents’ role as economic cogs.

Regardless of that, such childcare options have been proven to produce more children. Question is: will the G even consider such a path?