Tuesday, March 27, 2007

welcome to the fold: you are in hostile territory

recently, there has been some "spamming" going around the plogosphere on posts related to ministerial salaries (Dr Huang, Ben, Kitana, Lucky Tan, Ian, etc), and they all come in the form of two comments. the first is a cut and paste of this blog article, left by a pseudonym of "Young PAP". the second goes: "Ms Elaina Olivia Chong is the Vice Chairperson of Young PAP Women committee ok! U should show your respect." left by the pseudonym of "I love PAP".

because of the consistency of how the first comment never fails to be followed by the second comment, it is safe to assume that "Young PAP" and "I love PAP" are the same individual, or two individuals working together. i am of the impression that the original author, Ms Elaina Olivia Chong, is not the one behind this spamming of comments (although i could be wrong). it is quite possible that this "I love PAP" chap could be an over-enthusiastic pro-PAP netizen who wanted to use Ms Chong's article to rebut the views espoused in the aforementioned blog posts. it is also not an impossibility that this spamming was actually done by an anti-PAP netizen, to draw overwhelming attention to the Young PAP Blog (currently over 115 comments on their latest blog post) as well as to destroy street cred (the second comment by "I love PAP").

whatever the case, well or ill-intentioned, our attention has now been drawn to the Young PAP Blog, which i believe, had been escaping plogosphere attention since its inception in late February (interestingly, about 3 weeks after the announcement of PAPAnons). i recommend, for those who haven't, to go read the entire blog (only 16 posts so far). with one notable exception, i actually find the blog rather well-written. I may not agree with all the views, but i have to admit that it is, for the most part, intelligently and coherently articulated.

i am particularly impressed that there are actual written criticisms on the government on issues pertaining to the GST hike, anti-protectionism of SMEs and the current CPF schemes. and Ms Elaina Olivia Chong, regardless if you hold her vice-chairpersonship in high regard or not, seems to be a pretty good blogger. (she also responds to comments, and seems rather respectful). i think this helps to dispel previous fears that PAP-affiliated bloggers have no room for individual opinions and are forced to trumpet the official views of the ruling party, i.e. nothing but mouthpieces of propaganda. i think it may still be too early to judge, but the indications are healthy.

i for one, welcome the PAP into the blogosphere. even if they are nothing but propaganda, this is hostile territory, and to be anything but anti-establishment is to go against the grain. if they are still willing to wear their allegiance on their sleeves (unlike one other blog which has partisan roots but chooses not to disclose that fact), and yet manage to respectfully and sensibly engage the views of their detractors, they just might succeed in their agenda in convincing the blogosphere that the ruling party isn't that horrible after all. or they might not. but i applaud them for trying.

[a separate issue: go read the full transcript of Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's speech to the foreign correspondence association, also found on the Young PAP blog. i think the term "ceremonial censorship" may have been quoted out of context, leading to criticisms by several bloggers. the example used in the speech was of the censorship of 100 pornographic sites, even though thousands others are available, which is old news. he might not be talking about blog censorship. if so, perhaps it is the CNA article which is to blame for this, and earlier today i criticized CNA too.]

unimportant omission?

my attention was just drawn to this article on CNA.

the article was about a recent email exchange between Mr Philip Yeo and a blogger, and Mr Yeo invited the blogger to tea. the blogger agreed but wanted another party to be present and also wanted to record their conversation and put it up on his blog. Mr Yeo refused, saying he did not want to be "interrogated" in presence of a "witness". the article also mentioned about the issue of "how the young should speak to an older person", and the article concluded with Mr Yeo's views about the young generation perhaps not having a value system and if so, that will spell "no future".

this is not news for those of us who have been following this, this and this. i have nothing to say regarding Elia's conditions for Mr Yeo's invitation to tea. i also have nothing to say about Mr Yeo's reasons to decline, or even Mr Yeo's comments in the article. [although i suspect some other bloggers might find Mr Yeo's comment about young people being "worse than mercenaries" somewhat ironic in light of the recent debate on ministerial salaries]

i do, however, have something to say about the fact that CNA failed to mention that the blogger mentioned in the article is the exact same blogger who was threatened a lawsuit for defamation by Mr Philip Yeo in 2005. did CNA think this was unimportant and irrelevant information in the context of the article, and hence okay to omit? [did CNA think this wouldn't be noticed?] would all the insinuations about the above mentioned blogger (and all young people) being disrespectful and lacking values still be the same, if such information was given in the article?

somewhat disappointing journalistic standards, to say the least.

[related: the recent Sunday Times also published an article on the "spat" between Elia and Mr Yeo (including details about the 2005 issue). see here and here.]

Monday, March 26, 2007

talent, salaries and a greater cause for concern?

As expected, the announcement of the increase in ministerial salaries caused much commotion in the plogosphere. Many bloggers talked about if we use higher salaries to attract people into public service, we might attract self-serving individuals. Others might have talked about the formula used to peg the salaries and asked if that was the appropriate formula. These are important issues that need to be thought through, but I will not be talking about such issues in this discussion. Instead, drawing from the views of MM Lee and Ben, I want to first discuss the issue of "talent".

Let this following view be called "Assumption T":

"Talented individuals are those individuals who possess great intelligence, critical thinking and decision making skills. Possible manifestations of talent include good business acumen, success in professions such as law and investment banking (and perhaps engineering, medicine, and scientific research). One metric of identifying talented individuals at a young age is academic success."

Assumption T (or similar versions) seem to be the main view of "talent" when SM Goh was talking about Singapore "leaking talent". Some bloggers questioned if Assumption T was elitist and claimed that it ought to be debunked altogether. When talking about justifying ministerial salaries, what constitutes "talent" comes into question again. Not just mere "talent", we are talking about the very "top talent" or "the best". Again, assumption T seems to be called into play here, and some bloggers are already starting to question if "intelligence and brilliance" alone makes up "talent" for the case of ministers, if certain "values" are found lacking.

The purpose of this post is not to debate Assumption T. Personally, I am not certain about what makes a good minister or a good policy maker, and for the purposes of this discussion, I'm willing to accept that talented (Assumption T) individuals make good ministers and civil servants. And we don't just want a "good" minister, we want the "best". In fact, according to the views of the young-PAP bloggers (currently running amok all over the plogosphere), because Singapore is so difficult to govern, we need nothing short of the VERY BEST to do the job, or else we are screwed. I personally think part of the reason why Singapore is so difficult to govern is due to both internal and external forces, and part of the internal forces could possibly be blamed on the government for trying to have their cake and eat it. Nevertheless, I'm willing to buy the argument that the future of Singapore (think aging population, competition from China and India, etc) does not look quite as rosy and hence we want really really smart people at the helm at such a difficult time.

Given so, does this justify raising the salary of ministers who are already earning $1.2 million per annum? I personally think it is difficult to make the case, but something else caught my attention: the timing of such an announcement. Why is this announced so close to the GST hike, which already cost the government much political capital? Is this not political suicide? Why could they not wait, and announce it, say, one year later? What did they have to lose if they did that? Cynics might say: implementing one year earlier is one more million dollars earned (or whatever the raise in salary is), and the money grubbing ministers are just being greedy in implementing it now. Maybe the government is confident in its ability to manage public opinion, and hence see no need to delay the salary raise. But perhaps this is a sign of something else, which could be a greater cause for concern that even the millions involved in raising ministerial salaries.

What I'm thinking about is that there could be a problem in successorship, not just for ministers and politicians, but also for important positions in the civil service. I suspect that the civil service is facing a huge HR problem
(or projecting a HR problem in the near future) in the leadership echelons and is, heh, leaking talent into the private sector and overseas. Incidentally, the bond-breaking problem is related to this. Our most talented (using Assumption T) individuals are lured to the public sector via scholarships, but some break their bonds and leak away. Even if they serve out their bonds, many leave the public sector once the bond ends because they can earn much more being financial bankers, or if they work for Google or Microsoft.

I think the situation might be dire enough that the debate is no longer about "can we find talented people with the right values to be civil servants", but "can we find ANY talented people at all to be civil servants". Keeping in mind that 20 years down the road, we really want the very best, top talent, to lead Singapore through difficult times, and just "quite talented" may not be good enough. (Not to forget that MM Lee will (probably) not be around anymore then.) Other indicators which point to this could be the disappointing showing of MP backbenchers in the budget debates. Perhaps it is the ministers themselves who are the most embarrassed when the Straits Times criticized the backbenchers for only being cheerleaders.

If there is a serious HR problem, then this raise in salaries could be seen as an attempt to try and rectify that. There might be a neglected sector of talented (Assumption T) individuals who might have the desire (and the "correct heart") to be civil servants, just that they find the job prospects of Google or private practice much too attractive in comparison. Raising salaries might attract such individuals back to the public sector. [One question: how large is this sector of individuals?] Nevertheless, raising ministerial salaries seems like a clumsy move, which looks like it will cost much political capital. Perhaps a less clumsy move will be to raise public sector salaries, but NOT the salaries of MPs and ministers.

This leads me to suspect that maybe the PAP has already asked several individuals to drink tea and they have all replied "I am flattered but I would rather remain a lawyer/CEO/doctor, because I get better pay and perks". And of course we're not not going to hear about these individuals because they might change their mind in the future, but if information that these folks rejected the offer was leaked out, then they will be much less willing to enter politics in the future. And if these folks are really talented (Assumption T), then perhaps Singapore loses out.

I believe ministerial salaries is a cause for concern, especially since the raise in salary is probably not an insignificant amount, and perhaps could be better spent in say, workfare. But if there really is a talent shortage in the leadership (or future leadership) of the public sector, and for the nation, then perhaps this is a greater cause for concern.

Friday, March 23, 2007

this is not a book review

i just finished reading Thinking allowed? (politics, fear and change in Singapore) by Warren Fernandez (currently foreign editor of straits times), and i have 3 thoughts to share:

firstly, this had got to do with a subjective perspective lens. the first time i came across this book was several months ago, shortly after i first started blogging. during that time, i was still relatively influenced by anti-establishment views on the blogosphere, including this report on the resignation of Mano Subnani from TODAY. because of this report, i was very wary of Fernandez, and was highly skeptical and suspicious of his book, believing it to be but disguised propaganda. [back then, i was also too fearful to borrow any books authored by Chee Soon Juan or James Gomez (even though they were openly available for borrowing in the national library) for fear that the gahmen will track me down using my library records.]

i re-borrowed Fernandez's book recently as i remembered that i have not finished reading it several months ago. quite surprisingly, i actually found myself agreeing with much he had to say, which would have been unthinkable several months ago. i still thought he was too fervently patriotic in some of his articles, but i find that he was generally very well-reasoned and moderate in most of his views, something which i definitely would have disagreed with the first time i read the book. now of course, the book was the exact same book which i read several months ago, so the only factor why i have such different views of his book has entirely to do with my own predispositions. in particular, i am currently not as anti-establishment as i was several months ago, and this affects the way i judge the reasoning of other people, Fernandez in this case.

secondly,i found it almost uncanny that the issues which are discussed by Fernandez are exactly the same issues being dicussed in the plogosphere today (such as ageing population, the education system, immigration, bilateral relations with neighbours, ethnic sensitivities and OB markers). this is noteworthy because some of the articles compiled in the book, are written as far back as 1989. in fact, Fernandez noted that former DPM Dr Goh Keng Swee criticized Singaporeans for being too obsessed with examination results, way back in 1967.

why are such issues so "timeless"? (Fernandez calls them "old chestnuts"). the fact that we are still discussing the same issues as 10 or 20 years ago, does this mean that we have not solved old problems and we have not progressed? will we still be discussing such issues 10, 20 years from now? to be fair, i think different issues have different reaons for lasting so long. issues such bilateral relations will probably always be existent due to the nature of foreign affairs.

the issue of an ageing population, and the related issue of not having sufficient retirement funds are "time bomb" issues. they might be recognized over a decade ago, but the full effect of such issues won't be felt until a decade or two in the future. nevertheless, the nature of such issues require action to taken way in advance (like now) to prevent a real crisis from happening in the future. the increasing competition from China and India might be a similar "time bomb" issue.

some issues, such as criticisms of the government being too paternalistic, not open to feedback, and too restrictive on freedom of speech, sound exactly the same 10 years ago as they do now. one might easily accuse the gahmen to be stubbornly refusing to change or are simply not interested to change, and that continual existence of such criticisms are proof of their unwillingness to listen to feedback. this is however, a more complicated issue than meets the eye. one factor to consider is that blogs and the internet are nowhere as proliferated ten years ago as they are now, thus resulting in what appears to be more vocal criticisms, which may not be an accurate reflection of the actual number or the actual percentage of the populace who hold such critical views. are more and more people becoming critical of the gahmen, the same people, or less and less people? the nature of blogs and the internet makes it hard to gauge.

lastly, more than once during reading this book i was lead to contemplate the possibility of me starting to blog about politics. if you have been observant, you'll notice that i don't blog anything at all about political or policy issues. i have 3 fears of blogging about politics or policy: fear of being guity of claptrap, fear of attracting flak, and and fear of gahmen scrutiny. as time passed and the more i blogged, i feel less and less of the last 2 fears. i am however, still quite fearful, being someone who only 6 months ago was a completely apathetic young singaporean, that when i open my mouth i don't know what i'm talking about, and i spout nonsense.

however, i am feeling the increasing sense that should not matter as much on the plogosphere. blogging ought to be more about expressing my own (carefully thought out) views. people are free to engage and disagree, and quite possibly i may be persuaded to change my views when i come across a better argument. at the end of the day we are all better off because we had the opportunity to engage in a dialogue and learn from each other, even if we cannot agree, or even if we turn out to be wrong.

perhaps it is time for me to be a little less fearfully but a little more opinionated?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant and bond-breakers

[This is my second attempt to use basketball analogies to desribe apparent disagreements over the blogosphere. Some knowledge of NBA's system of drafting and trading players may be required to fully comprehend this analogy, and I apologize if anyone finds my analogy incomprehensible.]

In 2004, Kobe Bryant was in the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, the only team he had ever played for (for 8 years) and the team he had won 3 championships with. Despite later proclamations that he wanted to be a "Laker for life", he did not sign an extension of his contract which was earlier offered to him. Why not? Being a bona fide NBA star, Kobe Bryant would be the hottest commodity in the NBA trade market when his contract expires. Beside the Lakers, several other NBA teams would also make offers to Bryant, hoping that he will sign on with them. The Lakers, not wanting to lose out, will offer an even more lucrative contract to Bryant, to lure him away from the other competing teams. Rejecting the initial contract extension would mean that he would get offered a even more lucrative contract later, so obviously it makes sense to reject the extension, even if it was the team you wanted to play with anyway. Such was the mentality of Kobe Bryant, and such was the mentality of probably all NBA players, and when NBA teams propose contracts to NBA players, they know this full well. At the end of the day, NBA players look after their own interests first.

Another celebrity NBA player, Yao Ming's contract with the Houston Rockets was expiring in 2007, making him probably the hottest commodity of that year. Yao Ming is considered by many to be the best player in the center position in the NBA, and many teams, including the LA Lakers, will be interested in signing Yao Ming. However, before his contract expired and before he could be offered different contract proposals from different teams and choose the most lucrative, Yao signed a contract extension with Houston, in a move totally opposite to what Kobe Bryant did a year ago. Why did he do so? Did he not know that if he waited until his contract expired, he would probably be offered better deals by other teams and Houston? One of the reasons Yao Ming gave was that his "heart is always in Houston", and that he is deeply grateful to the organization for helping him overcome the various obstacles preventing him from being an NBA player several years ago. Unlike Bryant (and probably every other NBA player), self-interest was not the only issue in his mind when deciding which contract to sign, but also loyalty, honor and gratitude. This was somewhat an oddity, because no one really expects Yao to be loyal to Houston, and it is quite difficult to make the claim that Yao was obliged to be loyal. NBA players just do not function that way.


There is currently a long discussion going on in Aaron's blog about scholarship bond-breakers. Aside from the fact that I didn't know such a diverse group comment on his blog, I also realized that regarding the ethics of bond-breaking, there were distinctively two camps of views. One camp, which I shall call the "Yao Ming" camp, came to regard scholarships as not just a legal contract, but something like an agreement between gentlemen. There is a promise involved, and it is on your honour not to break such a promise. If a scholar does not feel so, then he/she should, for such is a nature of a scholarship. The other camp, the "Kobe Bryant" camp, just believes that a scholarship is but a legal contract. There is no implication of being immoral if a scholar breaks his contract, but still pays up the liquidated damages as described in the contract.

Of course I am not the only one who realizes this dichotomy, and that the basis of such a difference of views lies in a gap in our fundamental beliefs of the nature of scholarships. But perhaps what is interesting (or pointless) about this debate, is the realization that it is quite impossible for a Yao Ming to argue by deductive reasoning alone, that a Kobe Bryant is wrong, and vice versa. Lucky Tan uses the analogy of one person liking blue shoes, and another liking green shoes, and we argue about which colour of shoes is better. Although that may be an accurate description of differing worldviews, typically a blue shoe lover does not accuse the green shoe lover of being immoral in choosing a green shoe over a blue shoe.

I think this is an interesting case study in differing worldviews (fundamental beliefs), since it unlike the other usual case studies (abortion, homosexuality etc ), religion does not come into the picture here. Aaron, and perhaps other Yao Mings, do not just say that "oh, if the scholars are fellow Yao Mings
then they are immoral for breaking bonds, but if they are Kobe Bryants, then it is okay". Aaron believes that all bond-breakers, regardless if they are Yao Mings or Kobe Bryants, are being immoral for breaking the bond (ie, moral permissibility of bond-breaking is not agent-relative, to some extent). And probably, even if the scholarship bodies themselves realize that most scholars are Kobe Bryants (which I personally believe to be the case), and they actually prepare and design the scholarships with the Kobe Bryants in mind, that still does not deter the fact that bond-breakers ought to be regarded as immoral.

I personally am a Kobe Bryant. My reasons for being so are experiential. I have several friends who are scholars, and I know a couple of bond-breakers myself, I generally sympathize with their plight and feel that labeling them as immoral seems unfair. I wonder if Aaron (and other Yao Mings) got to know such friends of mine and listen to their stories, would they still believe that bond-breaking is immoral? Or perhaps, if myself (and other Kobe Bryants) listened to Mr Philip Yeo and how bond-breakers create all sorts of problems for the organization and the nation, then maybe we might change our minds? Although it has come under criticism of late (in Parliament!), I still believe that "anecdotal evidence", is often the most persuasive evidence we have when it comes to issues which cannot be easily agreed upon by reason alone.

[My thanks to Cognitive Dissonance for her helpful input in a recent discussion we had on the issue of bond-breaking]

Friday, March 16, 2007

quarter life crisis?

today is my 25th birthday. how am i going to spend it? i'm probably going to stay at home and read blogs. this has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the post, but i just wanted to whine and mope. =P

both BL and Mr Wang felt inclined to give advice about career choice recently. BL shared his personal story (which is also found here), and talked about finding a dream and a passion and making it into a career. this prompted me to think about my own situation.

some time ago, i had a passion for the study of physics, and i thought of becoming a professional scientist. yet, shortly after i started studying physics proper, i realized how painstakingly difficult it was. i quickly lost my initial passion, and i let the window to be a scientist close on me without regrets. during the same time, i discovered philosophy and loved it. i even thought about being an academic in philosophy. yet after a while, upon digging deeper and facing several difficult challenges in the study of philosophy, my love for the subject waned. i do not know if the window to be an academic has closed on me (i may need to check with Huichieh about this), but if it has indeed closed, i don't think i will feel much regret. not to long ago, i decided that what i wanted to be was a successful professional musician in Singapore. but yet again, after being exposed to how musicians struggle to make a living, as well as the politics and the ugliness of the local music scene (plus parental objections), i started to question if this was really what i wanted to do. after i started blogging, i practiced my instrument less and less.

i suspect i am the kind of person which gets bored easily. although at one point in time i may be very passionate about one thing or another, my passion leaves as easily as it comes, and i'm back at square one. i'm not sure if i can take BL's advice on taking "a dream and a passion" and "make it into a career". probably i will lose interest halfway and just give up. i'm 25. too young to know what i want to do for the rest of my life. maybe i still won't know when i'm 40. nevertheless, i'm too old to sit around, mope and do nothing. i have responsibilities, and i need to start thinking about earning a living, and providing for myself and my family, if not for a passion, then for the sheer sustenance of existence. yet, when time passes, more and more windows close, and the options of what i can choose to do get less and less. will there come a time when i regret letting a window close on me?

one of the best speeches i read recently is this one by Steve Jobs. "you got to find what you love" he says, and talks about his against-the-odds stories of how he founded Apple and Pixar. no doubt he is encouraging, just like BL, that we stick to our passions and persevere against the odds. but what i took away from reading that speech was about finding meaning in our individual lives. and meaning starts with identifying what we love.

i think what we are passionate about and what we find meaningful need not necessarily be something that we want to turn into our career. although it is important to try and reach for the stars, and there will be stories such as BL's and Steve Jobs to remind us that it is possible, at the end of the day, not everyone will make it. many of us are doing jobs we aren't really passionate about. i don't think there is necessarily any less dignity in that. the questions we need to ask is "for what do we work for?", "what do you find meaningful?", "what gives you happiness?" and the answers to these questions depend on the individual and the individual alone.

is ultimately what gives you meaning in life your family? then i believe there is no lack of dignity to work hard for your family (but pls find the time to spend with your family because your presence and company is as important as your income hor). do forming personal relationships and close bonds with friends what gives you meaning in life? then i believe there is no lack of dignity to work so as to support your lifestyle of spending time with friends and close ones. is what gives you meaning in life the obedience and servitude to God? then i believe there is no lack of dignity in whatever job you do, so long as you try your best to live your life in piety and humility.

what do i love? what do i find meaningful? what gives me happiness? to be perfectly honest, i'm not sure. i'm only 25 mah. maybe, just like the things which i am passionate about, these change over time also. i dunno. but i think finding out is the first step. exploring and finding out more about yourself is also what life's about isn't it?

the clientèle of education

This is the follow-up post to my article on streaming, as previously promised. Piper wrote that everyone is quick to criticize the teaching profession, whereas people are less inclined to do so for other occupations, such as handphone makers, or fast-food restaurateurs. Piper makes the valid point that most of such critics are not teachers, and have little idea the kind of challenges and difficulties individual teachers face in their profession. If they did, their criticisms may not be as harsh.

A friend once remarked to me, "everybody thinks that they are experts on education". There is at least one sense which most individuals are qualified to criticize the education system, and that is that these individuals have been through the education system itself, and hence have experienced, as students, some of its good and bad. Yet, the experiences of students in neighborhood schools, SAP schools or "top" independent schools are different, and your individual experience, although not irrelevant, does not form the complete picture. Similarly, the experience of a student is not the same as the experience of a teacher, or that of a principal, or that of MOE policy makers. Which brings me to the question I want to ask in this article: "Who are the real clients of education?"

I asked my friend who is a teacher this question and she replied that the word "stakeholders" is probably more appropriate. This brings to mind the image of an investor. Because you invest into say, a company, there has to be something you get out of that company, dividends perhaps, otherwise you would have no reason to invest in the first place. Also, because without your investments, the company would not exist in the first place, you feel that you deserve a say in certain decisions which the company makes. What gets complicated is when different investors have conflicting interests, and yet the management of the company still has to make a decision. Making any decision will inadvertently risk alienating one group of investors or another. The analogy isn't perfect, but similarly in the education system, there is more than one party who are stakeholders. Who are they?

Once, nearing the end of a math lecture, many students were impatiently packing their bags eager to leave the room when the lecturer still had not finished. He then commented, "Students are the only consumers in the world who actually want to get cheated". Probably everybody agrees that students are the most direct consumers of education, and insofar as education is considered a "service", students are the most immediate clients. Perhaps this makes students the most important stakeholder in education. After all, it seems that any education which is actually NOT beneficial for the student at all, can hardly make the case that it deserves to be called "education".

Especially for non-tertiary education, parents are those who pay for the school and tuition fees of education. This is especially so for private or independent schools. So in a sense, parents are like the investors of the education corporation and therefore there is some pressure by educators to please parents. But the investor analogy is not really that accurate. After all, most parents do not really have a choice (unless they are quite rich) to send their children to another education system if they are displeased with this one. Nevertheless, there is an aspect where most parents feel that they are the ones ultimately responsible for the education of their own children, and hence they have ought to have a say on how educators educate their children.

Even though educators are part of the education system, in a very basic economic sense, they are also stakeholders. Teaching is an occupation. Teachers do work, and in return they get paid (and perhaps other benefits). This is an economic exchange, just like any other occupation. If the system is such that teachers receive atrocious pay and horrible benefits, nobody will want to teach, and the system collapses.

Perhaps not as obvious, but academic institutions themselves are also stakeholders. Just as with the case of individual educators, schools need funds to function. The more funds allocated to (or generated by) a school, the greater expenditure of such funds on education resources and supposedly, the better the quality of the education. I am under the impression that schools under MOE actually fight among each other for a greater slice of a pie of funds from MOE, and they will try to prove why they deserve certain funding more than other schools. There is also the intangible aspect of school "branding". It is in the interests of academic institutions to continually "better" the name of the school, perhaps to seek a greater slice of the pie, but I suspect also to seek reputation for it's own sake.

Society and the State
Using the same investor analogy, citizens pay the taxes which funds the education sector of the civil service, and taxpayers will want to have some say on how those tax dollars are spent, regardless if the children of the individual taxpayers are actually going through that education system. But aside from this, education (from the point of view of the state) is about preparing for the future of the nation. More than just merely supplying the necessary qualifications and skills to enter the workforce (and hence contribute to the economy), education also shapes the skills set of tomorrow's workforce, and this ties in to what the state envisions (or hopes to make) tomorrow's economy to be. The prime example of this is life sciences. The state came to the decision that life sciences would be a good industry to develop, for the overall (economical) good of the nation in the future. However, the life sciences sector requires a skilled workforce which isn't available at present, and thus the state encourages the study of life sciences.

It is quite obvious that the interests of these stakeholders do not always coincide. To an individual student, it may not be in his/her best interests to study life sciences, but he/she might have ended up doing so because of the encouragement by the state. A teacher struggling to get a decent grade in his/her ranking may not have the resources to cater to the individual needs of a student or two. A parent may not want his/her child to get the impression that premarital sex is permissible, but a teacher may think that it is in the best interest of the student to have a comprehensive sex education. A school, in the pursuit for more awards and a better "name", may result in an overly competitive atmosphere which is detrimental to its teachers. The list goes on.

I think that sometimes, because we all think we know a lot about education and what education ought to be, we have been too quick to criticize. Teachers who aren't helping students enough are labeled selfish or lacking in passion. Schools who strive for awards are criticized for being self-serving. Parents for being more concerned with what they want their own child to be than what is really good for the student. MOE for participating in social engineering. I think education is really more complicated than it seems, and nobody, including the higher-ups and the policy makers in MOE (I suspect), have a really clear view of all the different aspects of education and how it affects other areas.

Some might want to argue, shouldn't students be the ONLY stakeholder in education? Despite its good intentions, the state should not intervene with education, just like the state should not intervene with whether or not we have babies. Personally, I don't think that view is realistic. Shaping the skill sets of our workforce of the future may be necessary in order for the nation to thrive (or even survive) in the future, with growing pressures due to globalization and improving neighbors, even if such decisions are prone to error. And "the nation" includes yourself, your children and your children's children.

Lastly, it is important to note that what is in the best interest of the nation, the school, or even the teachers, may not be in YOUR best interest or the best interest of your child. Therefore, when making decisions pertaining to education, scholarships or career choice, it is best to think carefully about your personal situation and not be overly influenced by the views of others.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

blogosphere sabbath

recently, i've been involved in a debate with ben. thinking about what to say in this debate has took up several hours of my time, and i've been feeling rather tired. also recently, i went to a library to borrow some books to read. i haven't been reading not because i don't enjoy reading, but i just haven't been able to find the time to do so. then suddenly today i had this idea. i should take a blogosphere sabbath every week. so from today onwards, every saturday, i will not do any blogging, read any blogs or comment on any blogs. if possible don't even go online or switch on the computer.

i am quie surprised how much time it freed up. i now have time to do other things which i considered important, but have been neglecting, like exercising, practising my instrument, studying Japanese (i'm currently taking lessons) and reading. in fact, i'm so committed to trying to establish a habit of reading, that i'm going to have a "currently reading" thingy on my blog, if only to remind myself that i should try and set aside some time for reading.

i find it quite amazing how many hours i spend on blogging-related activites per day. and i don't even blog that much. i can't help but wonder if other individuals *ahem* *nedstark* *ahem* might be suffering from spending too much time in the blogosphere, and perhaps should take a blogging sabbath too. i believe reading and contributing to the blogosphere is a good thing, and to be encouraged, but i also believe moderation is important. there are many other things in our life that also need our attention, time and energy, such as responsibilities, friends and family.

but there is also another sense where i think moderation is good. if only to show that you've got self-control and self-discipline. let's say you are a WoW gamer (i'm not. bo lui mah.) and you've completely fulfilled all your responsibilities, and you've got great academic results, and your parents are perfectly fine with you spending 4 hours a day WoWing. you might still want to say, i want to set a day as WoW sabbath. maybe i won't play WoW every monday. why should you do so? just to prove to yourself that you CAN live a day without WoWing. that indeed you are in control of your WoWing, and it is not the case that WoW is in control of you. in the same way, i feel the blogging sabbath is good for me as it is proof that my blogging activities do not have control over me, and is also my attempt to prevent that from happening.

aiyah, or just go get a life lah.

Monday, March 05, 2007

publicity for stressed teacher

once in a while, some folks would visit my list of teacher-bloggers, to read what's been happening with them. i actually haven't been following their blogs, but on impulse i just decided to read one of the blogs on my list, Stressed Teacher, and find that she's been writing some pretty good stuff. i think you guys should check out that blog.

research break

paiseh, i know i have been taking alot of breaks already lah....

i've come across something which i wanna do some extensive research about. i know not the result of my research, hence i will not promise to blog about what i decided to go research up, or even reveal what exactly i am researching.

i may not totally abstain from blogging during this research break, but expect not productivty from me.

streaming and intellectual discrimination

Recently, Trisha talked about the topic of streaming, and Piper has talked about how everybody wants to have their say about education, and how it should be done.

I would like to talk about streaming too. When streaming is discussed in public discourse, there usually are very few pro-streaming views. Perhaps everyone who saw Jack Neo's I Not Stupid will agree that our education system and its streaming policies are responsible for promoting academic elitism and the social stigmatization of academically weaker students.

If streaming is so intrinsically bad in the first place, why then does MOE implement streaming in the first place? Perhaps some people would be quick to sarcastically cry "Meritocracy!" After all, our government wants to create elites because it is the elites who will be our future leaders, and streaming is part of that process to identify and separates the elites from the peasants. Although I suspect there is some truth in that assertion, as mentioned by Piper (in the comments thread), there are also good pedagogical reasons for streaming.

For a teacher, it is easier, and more effective to teach a class of students who are approximately of the same academic aptitude, then to teach a class with a very wide range of academic abilities. The weaker students will have difficulty catching up if the class is taught at a pace catered to the rest, and the stronger students will become bored and unmotivated if the pace of the class is catered to the weaker students. Someone noted to me that most of the critics of streaming have never seen a normal (technical) or a normal (academic) class during an actual classroom lesson before, and have never experienced how much a teacher struggles just to keep the class in order, and still yet have to finish a teaching a fixed portion of the syllabus within that class period. (Perhaps Piper can share some of her experiences?) It also makes pedagogical sense for weaker students to study a simplified syllabus, given that a teacher needs to spend more time to get through the same amount of academic material for weaker students. And also, if weaker students take the same tests and exams as the stronger students, they will inevitably just get horrible grades, and this too does not do wonders of the students' self-esteem.

But how about elitism and social stigmatization? Yes that is a real issue, just like WSM was a real phenomenon. But streaming is not the only factor behind this issue. Streaming labels students as "Gifted", "Express", "Normal (Academic)" or "Normal (Technical)", but perhaps it is not so much the labels themselves which causes elitism and social stigmas, but it is our attitudes towards such labels.

Streaming or not streaming, there will be some individuals who qualify for University and some individuals who don't. There will be some individuals who will be more bright, and some individuals who will not be as bright. I absolutely believe that there are different kinds of intelligences. I also believe that someone who appears "stupid" may in fact be extremely gifted in other kinds of intelligences. I also believe that academic grades may not be the best metric for intelligence. All absolutely true. But if you claim that "No one is stupid. Everyone is equally intelligent, just intelligent in different ways.", then I think you are fooling yourselves and that is a lie you tell yourself because you don't have to deal with the word "stupid".

In the same sense, the claim "there are no differences between races" is a lie so that we don't have to deal with racism, and in reality this lie just exaggerates the problem. In the same way, this issue is really about discrimination. "Intellectual discrimination", if you will. Yes, being academically bright will give you a higher chance to succeed in society, than if you are not so. But is this sufficient reason for us to treat intelligent individuals as if they are superior human beings, and not so intelligent individuals as inferior beings?

Imagine this scenario: there is still streaming in schools, but all the individuals involved (parents, teachers and fellows students) treat "normal (technical)" students with the exact same kind of respect and love as "gifted" students. In such a scenario, will the "gifted" student grow up to be elitist? Will the "normal (technical)" students grow up feeling inferior about themselves?

Perhaps some might say: students are still young. It is only natural for young students to feel superior and prideful about themselves if they are academically brighter, and it is only natural for academically weaker students to feel inferior about themselves. That may be true, but I believe it is precisely because they are so young, their attitudes toward others and about themselves are the most malleable. Recall the movie I Not Stupid. When the EM1 kids bullied the EM3 kids, did you think the EM1 students were more to blame, or was it the teachers and the parents, who themselves looked down on the EM3 kids, who failed to prevent the EM1 students from developing such attitudes, or perhaps even encouraged such elitism through the display of their own attitudes?

I am not saying it is okay to call children or students "stupid". I think it is not. That is because "stupid" is no longer just a descriptive word, but a derogatory one. You cannot call someone "stupid" without insulting them. I believing that there are individuals who are more intelligent than other individuals, and we should not deny this fact. But I think we should never use the word "stupid" to label those less intelligent, since such a label is nothing but destructive.

If the real problem behind social stigmatization and elitism is not the labels conferred upon students by streaming but instead, how we choose to react to such labels, then are we not pushing the blame to something else when we criticize streaming for being the cause of such problems? Are we, and not the system, the ones to blame?

Friday, March 02, 2007

the ice cream post

i like to eat ice cream. =)

one of the brands of ice cream i used to eat regularly is Ben & Jerry's. B&J ice cream is most well known for its diverse and unique flavors, usually with a lot of liao mixed in the ice cream. i knew i was a B&J nut when I went to see what were the top 10 flavors of B&J ice cream and i realized i have tried all of them except no. 10: vanilla ice cream. my personal recommendations? half-baked (no. 5), new york super fudge chunk (no. 6) and peanut butter cup (no. 9).

if you explore the B&J website, you'll notice than B&J are not just ice cream makers, but activists, and self-confessed "left-leaning liberals". i'm not a "rightist", and hence I don't have anything against B&J by virtue of the fact that they proclaim to be liberals, but sometimes I look at some of the issues they champion, and i wonder if i would support such issues. and if i would not support such issues, then i ask myself, should i even buy their ice cream and help fund such movements which i don't agree on? but if i don't buy their ice cream, what other brand can satisfy my craving for brownies and cookie dough in ice cream? dilemma. this is why it sucks to be a politically aware (and non-left leaning) ice cream lover.

what is this post really about? i was reminded of my B&J boycott-dilemma when i read kitana saying "i'm never buying a dove product again" (after dove's "campaign for real beauty" advertisements). i remember reading when Mr Brown left his job at TODAY, there were some cries to boycott TODAY. recently, Sperenza Nuova urged us to boycott companies which display racist attitudes.

why do we boycott? do boycotts work in Singapore?

according to wikipedia, a boycott is an "expression of protest" or a "means of coercion". will my not buying B&J, or Kitana not buying Dove soap, constitute "means of coercion"? Highly unlikely. There will be too many left-leaning liberals to continue buying B&J, and unless Kitana can get several hundred dove users to agree with her, the sales of Dove products will probably not be affected. (the scenario might be different for these companies identified by Singapore Patriot to be racist, but then again, maybe singaporeans are so apathetic that it is not.)

does this constitute an "expression of protest"? well yes, if you mean "are you expressing your unhappiness by this action?" but maybe not, if you mean "is this action you express a successful protest?" what makes a protest successful? surely, the if guy you protest about does not know about, or does not feel the effects of your protest, then how on earth is your protest useful in any way?

i'm not saying boycotts are not useful or if they will always be unsuccessful. boycotts are about strength in numbers. today, the internet (and the blogosphere) provide powerful tools for the consolidation of such numbers. but currently, singaporeans are either too bochup or kiasee to seriously consider joining in such boycotts. and if i'm quite certain mr Ben and mr Jerry will not even know about my boycott, and will never feel the effect of my boycott (economically or otherwise), then why the heck should i deprive myself of that delicious pint of ice cream?

perhaps, its not about coercion, or about protest. it's not about being able to change things. it's about being true to yourself. i suspect Kitana will say, i can't possibly live with myself if i use a dove product, after that commercial. so even if it doesn't change things one bit, it doesn't matter. it's about me, my values and my beliefs.

as for me, i like to eat ice cream. but a diet is good too.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

sex education revisited

Just before Christmas last year, Aaron (on Singapore Angle) wrote an article on sex education. Following Aaron, Ben and myself also wrote articles about the issue. Ben and myself also engaged each other in the comments thread of this article.

Last week, Aaron, Ben, Kitana and myself had the opportunity to meet up over coffee. Among the issues we talked about was sex education, and Kitana has blogged her views on the discussion which transpired between us. This post is a reply to Kitana, as well as an attempt to clarify certain issues which I think are muddled together.


Firstly, I want to talk about moral obligation and responsibility. Shinaux (the Legal Janitor) commented in Kitana's article that it is the responsibility of parents to teach children about sex, and if they shirk this responsibility, then they are "morons". Being a young person and not a parent, I would feel rather uncomfortable calling parents "morons", but generally I do agree with his (and Ben's) sentiments. I don't think any one of us feel as if it is NOT the parent's responsibility to teach sex education. If you are a parent, and you really believe that no it is not your responsibility but the government's responsibility to teach your children about sex and you don't need to talk to them about it, and if your children get unwanted pregnancies or STDs then it is the government's fault, then I have to say sorry sir (or ma'am), I have very little respect for you.

However, to be fair, some parents are simply helpless, clueless, or ignorant on how to teach children about sex. It is not that they think they SHOULD NOT teach their children, but they don't know how. Or maybe even if they did, the children are not receptive to what they say (generation gap?). Or maybe they keep thinking, later then teach lah now they still young and don't realize until it's too late. Or maybe they think, since the schools surely got teach this, then they probably do a better job than me anyway, and hence I don't need to teach. Perhaps Ben is thinking about the last kind of mentality when he suggested that the state should just not have any sex education at all. Don't give parents an excuse not to teach sex ed to their children.

In a deontological sense (Aaron, I blame you for spamming this technical word!), Ben's suggestion is rather satisfying. But let's talk about point of view. Let me ask the question: who is the moral agent (the person making moral decisions)? If the moral agent is the parent, the moral question is "Should I teach my children sex education or not? How if so?" But if the moral agent is the government, the moral question then becomes "Should we have sex education in schools or not? How if so?" This is a different question for a different moral agent, and ought to be treated differently from the first question. If the answer is yes for the first question, then it is fair to say that there is moral obligation for the parents to teaching sex ed. However, that does not mean that the answer to the second question is definitely a "no", and it also does not mean that the government therefore has no obligation just because it is the parent's obligation. Hence in this sense, the question "who's burden is it to teach sex ed" is a misleading question.

Let's talk about the second question now. What are the factors that the government need to consider when thinking about such a policy? Governments can take an ideological approach, or a pragmatic (consequentialist) approach to policies. One possible ideological approach could be "we think abstinence is just silly, and hence we'll just teach safe sex". Another ideological approach would be "since sex ed is the responsibility of the parent, it is not our dai chi, so we're not going to give sex ed. If you kids got STD or unwanted pregnancies, that's your problem." These are not unreasonable views, and there can be arguments to defend such views. But the government is not likely to adopt such views, or any ideological views for that matter. Good governance always has a strong aspect of pragmatism, and keeping in mind the consequences of policy.

So if we want to talk about pragmatism and consequences, what are the factors behind state-sanctioned sex education? STDs and unwanted pregnancies definitely. It is in the best interests of the nation, people and government to clamp down on STDs and unwanted pregnancies. But that is not the only factor. Not causing unhappiness among the people by implementing a policy which directly contradicts the values and beliefs of the such people, is another factor to consider.

In the conversation I had with Ben over coffee, Ben talked about "community values". Currently, the community majority would probably frown upon pre-marital sex, and hence they would rather advocate something which promotes abstinence, instead of safe sex. Ben thinks it is okay to implement policies which agree with the community majority, but ultimately, the harm (of STDs and unwanted pregnancies) ought to be clamped down. I don't disagree. I personally think that just the pure dissemination of information (tell the kids what will happen when you have sex without condoms), yet maintaining no stand on advocating either abstinence or safe sex is sufficient to do that. This is probably able to clamp down on STDs and unwanted pregnancies enough without offending community values. If it so happens that it is only the MINORITY of the community which believes in abstinence, I agree that perhaps the government ought to promote safe sex instead, since that is probably more effective in clamping down STDs and unwanted pregnancies (as opposed to a non-advocacy of either view), and maybe the unhappiness of the minority is insignificant compared to that.

A last work about neutrality when teaching sex education. I think that pedagogically, when you tell a student "If you don't use condoms then you will have STDs and unwanted pregnancies", and NOTHING ELSE, that is as good as saying "you SHOULD use condoms when having sex". And that is advocating safe sex over abstinence. To be truly neutral, the teacher might have to say "Different people have different views about sex. Some believe that we should abstain from sex until marriage [maybe give reasons here]. Others believe it is okay to have sex before marriage, provided you are responsible about it [maybe give reasons here]. Ultimately, you decide for yourself which one you want to believe in."

[Addendum: I forgot to talk about the incident of the pregnant 9 year old girl. I think we are too quick to blame lack of sex-ed on this case. The father of the child is a 14 year old. If he was say, a 16, 18 or 20 year old, what will we be crying instead? Pedophile? Statutory rape? I think it is importance to investigate the specific circumstances behind this situation, and find out what was the cause of such a unlikely occurance. After that, we can think about how to prevent such things from happening again.

I had my first sex ed class when I was 10 years old. None of us took it seriously. Everyone was giggling or covering their eyes. I think sex education for kids this young is just not going to work. If there is a problem with sex at such a young age, one must take a look at what are the factors which causes such young sex, and see if there are other ways to curb this problem. Here are two possibilities: greater enforcement for the restriction of pornography to minors, and education for parents on how children might be getting themselves exposed to sex at a young age.]

[Addendum 2: From New Paper (2/3/07): in a survey of 1,553 13 and 14-year-olds,

27% said they had sex before (13% had "no opinion")
12% said they were pregnant or made someone pregnant before (25% had "no opinion")
61% said parents did not inculcate the responsibilities of sex to them (12% had "no opinion")
60% felt that there is insufficient sex education in school (7% had "no opinion").

In the same newspaper, it is reported that MP Ang Moh Seng suggested that to boost birth rate, a new CCA club "the Friendship Club" can be formed in schools to teach students how to "pak tor" correctly.]