Friday, October 03, 2008

good job lah, China

Skype has just admitted that China has been tracking and archiving users that use specific key words such as "Tibet", "Communist Party", "Democracy" and "milk powder" (heh) in their internet chat messages. not only are the messages stored, IP addresses, usernames and "other information" are also tracked, probably sufficient to identify the senders and recipients of such "sensitive" messages. of course Skype denies any wrong-doing, they were only notified of such tracking last week.

the next question: does the Singapore government do this as well?

actually, i don't think so. i highly doubt that our civil service has the resources (or the inclination) to do something like filter and track all "politically sensitive" MSN messages, Facebook wall greetings, and emails. i also don't think MSN, Facebook or Google will be involved with some shady deal with the Singapore government. (then again, i'm not sure how much influence Singtel has....) i remember there was some concern about sms in the past, but i doubt that the government closely tracks that like they probably do in China. (i DO think there is some "loose" scanning of political blogs, forums and related websites though.)

but that's just my opinion. and since when has my opinion been a deterrent for conspiracy theories? so, in a hypothetical conspiracy theory, say the Singapore government does scan our Skype chats, MSN messages, SMS messages and what not, what would be the specific "keywords" they want to look out for?

LKY? LSH? Nepotism? FamiLEE? Lee Regime? Opposition Party? CSJ? JBJ (probably not anymore....)? PAP? WP? MIW? Gahmen? ERP? Ministers' Salaries? S377A? Mr Brown? Mee Siam Mai Hum?

and did i just shoot to the top of their list by listing all the tracked keywords in one paragraph above?


Thursday, August 07, 2008

what does the olympics mean to you?

i haven't written a purple post in close to a year, so i thought that i will say a few things about the Beijing Olympics. (National Day? what National Day?)

for me, most of my attention about the Olympics is focused on basketball. can the NBA-star studded Team USA win back a gold medal on the international stage after humiliating losses in 2002 (finishing 6th), 2004 (losing to Argentina, finishing 3rd) and 2006 (losing to Greece, finishing 3rd)? this year's team is considered the most talented USA team since the "Dream Teams" of 1992 and 1996. the media has called this the "Redeem Team" as it seeks to redeem USA back to basketball glory. however, in the last practice game USA had before the tournament begins, USA barely scratched out a win over Australia, which is not even considered to be a medal contender. how will USA fare? i will follow every game closely.

a good many of us follow soccer. but soccer at the Olympics is not as exciting as it is an under-23 tournament, and most of the big names will not be there. the biggest name there will be the fallen-from-grace Ronaldino (who is not under 23, but each team is allowed 3 players above 23). but perhaps, what everybody is concerned about is not soccer per se, but the "club vs country" debate that has kept Lionel Messi (arguably the most talented player eligible) out of the Olympics so far. fearing injury to their stars, a few clubs are reluctant to release their players for international duty, much to the chagrin of FIFA.

[Addendum 8/8/08: Barcelona has released Lionel Messi at the last minute to play. FIFA president vows never to let this happen again in the next Olympics.]

how about the other events? traditionally, some of the more popular spectator events are those with aesthetic components: diving and gymnastics. we will follow swimming and athletics because we are fascinated by the fastest swimmers and runners of the human race. we will watch weightlifting, because we want to witness the strongest men in the world, but perhaps also because weightlifting brings back the glorious memories of Tan Howe Liang.
sailing, table tennis, badminton and shooting would also be prominently featured on TV, since that is where our athletes will be competing in.

talking about Team Singapore, did anybody have as much difficulty as i had in trying to find out who the members of the contingent are? i can't find the names on either the SNOC or the SSC website. in the end, i had to rely on trusty wikipedia for the info. it didn't fail to escape my notice that the SSC website has a "medal tally" and a "our medallists" section (but no "our contingent" section). a little optimistic, don't you think? that is not to say that Team Singapore stands no chance of acquiring medals; Ronaldo Susilo and (the bored) Li Jiawei stand an outside chance at their respective sports but maybe you are more interested in their love life than their chances. (anyone notice how we all got tired and stopped talking their non-local origins?) i think the best medal chance lies not in the Olympics but the Paralympics, where swimmer Theresa Goh previously earned 5th placing in Athens. [i also found it a little ironic that our best medal chance does not even have her own wikipedia page.]

maybe, in an ironic way, the Olympics is not about sports. Singapore's recent (successful) bid for the youth Olympics brought back some memories of Beijing's bid back in 2001. i remembered how disappointed my mother was upon reading that Beijing won the bid. "they will disgrace themselves on the world stage" i remembered her saying. prophetic? we will need to wait and see. sure enough, China currently has to deal with a quagmire of issues surrounding the Olympics, including unfulfilled promises made back in 2001, as well as natural disasters (just another earthquake 2 days ago). (i also find this a little disappointing, especially since Beijing's air quality obviously isn't that great).

but historically, the Olympics have always been political. (and some argue, they should be). maybe Beijing is no different? perhaps after all the noise has been made, people start to watch the actual sporting events, and 2 few weeks later, everyone has forgotten about all the nasty stuff that was said. maybe. but there is a growing concern that the unhappiness over this Olympics may go beyond verbal spats. the Xinjiang explosions just a few days ago unnerved many (some are more sympathetic than others). there has not been any major violence in the Olympics post-9/11 (maybe because there has only been one Olympic Games, Athens, post-9/11), but a repeat of something similar to the Munich Massacre or the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park bombing would cause very serious damage to China's international reputation.

we are not surprised when the Olympic torch brings out sentiments of nationalism among the Chinese both in and outside of China. however, what i personally find most disturbing is that levels of nationalism are so high that university students are lynching each other (in a school like Duke no less). are these ominous signs of things to come in countries that have a significant PRC population (like a little red dot you know)? Taiwan has been relatively quiet of late, imagine what it would be like if things don't work out well with Taiwan.

what's the Olympics to you? the burden of Kobe Bryant? Lionel Messi's no-show? girls in leotards spinning ribbons? crossing your fingers that Singapore wins a medal? crossing your fingers that no more explosions occur? Tibet, Darfur and Myammar?
Chinese chio bu? a brewing storm?

2 weeks after the Olympics are over, would you continue to care?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

teacher tells student to get tuition: what's really happening?

KTM (in the comments on my inaugural SA post) brought this ST forum letter to my attention. The parent was writing in to complain that the school recommended his/her son to get private tuition because he "needs more help". The parent, well aware that private tuition is not cheap, is livid that that is the solution given by the school, supposedly the main provider of education. At first I thought that this was an irregular case. Certainly by recommending tuition, the school is admitting that they aren't good enough to do their job? But after reading that another parent was told the same thing, and Piper's thoughts, it occurred to me that perhaps this was not such a rare occurrence after all.

I want to do two things with this article. Firstly, I want to run through some possible but different scenarios and play the finger pointing game.

Scenario 1:
The teachers are horrible in doing their job. That is the reason why this parent's child and his classmates are all doing badly in school. These teachers, recognizing their helplessness, or fearing their performance bonus, encourages the students to get private tuition to save their grades. Whose fault is it: teachers, and maybe those who hired them.

Scenario 2:
The students are really really weak academically. Many schools practice streaming of some kind, and is not surprising to find the weakest students in each cohort grouped together in a class. You would expect this class to get the worst grades right? That also explains the "challenging class to teach" remark. The teacher knows this, but the parent is unhappy. The parent demands a solution to improving his son's academic results. Short of any other solutions, the teachers suggest private tuition. Whose fault is it: parent, for being unreasonable.

Scenario 3:
The parent stated that it seems to that the school called up the parents of all the teachers. If only one or two classes are doing badly, this shouldn't be the case. Perhaps, whether doing well or not, it is actually the middle management that demands the teachers to call up all the parents. Why? To encourage all parents to push their children a little bit more, perhaps by providing private tuition, so that all the students would do better, generating better KPIs and performance bonuses. Whose fault is it: middle management, for putting KPIs above individual needs of students.

Scenario 4:
The student in question is over-committed in several different CCAs. Because he spends so much time training, he suffers from lack of sleep and skips many lessons due to competitions. He also does not have enough time or energy to study and do his homework. He is falling behind in his studies but the teacher, who has 39 other students in the same class, decides that he/she cannot cater to the needs of this one student. In desperation, the teacher suggests tuition. Whose fault is it: the student, primarily. But also the school, for not limiting his involvement. [This is an unlikely scenario, as the teacher is likely to feedback to the parent about the student's overcommitment]

So which scenario is true? I don't know. And unless you have some inside information, nobody knows either. It may have elements of more than one scenario. Or it may be a scenario totally different from the 4 mentioned above. So whose fault is it? I don't know. And unless we have inside information, nobody can tell.


What we can and do know however, is that private tuition is not only prevalent, it is lucrative. Regardless of which of the above scenario is true, there is one constant: the tuition teachers earns the big bucks. The question I would like to ask is this: what does the existence of the multi-million dollar (tax-free) industry of private tuition reveal to us about education in Singapore?

1) Exam-oriented culture
At the end of the day, only your exam results matter. By its very nature, the platform of private tuition helps the student score better than school education, since school teachers might carry the "silly" notion of holistic education. Even if you have an excellent school teacher, it doesn't hurt to go for tuition just the same right? Probably may help you get 1 or 2 more marks.

2) Stressed and overworked students
I have a friend who had 9 tuition teachers at one point in time. Now imagine you go to school 5 times a week, you have CCA that meets maybe 3 times a week, and you have school assignments to do. You might have to do some group work, so you need to find time to meet up with your group members. Then, on top of that, you have to go for Chinese tuition, Math tuition, Science tuition, English tuition and violin lessons. And you need to practice your violin everyday. And sometimes your tuition teachers give homework too. How many of you guess that this probably isn't a good for the student long term? Or does having good grades in exams overrule all other considerations?

3) No need to take classroom lessons seriously
Private tutors do not teach anything the student has not been taught in class already. They re-teach, but with greater attention to the student since a school teacher has more students in the classroom. A student who knows that he has a tuition teacher at home paid to give him one-on-one attention going through the exact material gone through in class, is more likely to not the the actual class seriously. School is for socializing and having fun rather than for learning. The poor school teacher, meanwhile, has to deal with misbehaving and disruptive students while trying to impart some knowledge to 40 students.

I think there is little doubt that private tuition is more a bane than a boon to education. Students may score better in exams, but the costs of that (i.e. having no childhood) are great. Many Singaporean students eventually develop a "score well at all costs" mentality, resorting to cheating and academic dishonesty. Other Singaporeans attach so much of their self-worth to their grades that they suffer from low self-esteem and may develop suicidal tendencies. We are already know that too much stress is counter-productive to the student, and that the student needs to play to develop creative and lateral thinking skills. But we are slow to admit that we are giving our own children or our students too much stress. By the time the damage is done, it would already be too late.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

excuse me, are you from ITE?

I've stopped blogging completely in recent months, but the remarks by the principal to her Sec 5 students 2 weeks ago piqued my interest, and I started reading what some people were blogging about this incident. BL gave a good overview of the different issues involved, and Mollymeek has an interesting commentary on what this reflects about our society. It is also interesting to note that two teacher bloggers were not quick to condemn this principal. I have only one point to make. Molly and Piper did make this point as well, but did not articulate this as explicitly as I am going to do so:

What's wrong with going to ITE?

Some bloggers have pointed out that the remarks of the principal reveal the fact that she looks down on ITEs and this was unbecoming, especially from someone in the education sector. Well that may have been true, but it cuts both ways: the outrage shown by parents (and the public in general) reflects that they look down on ITEs too.

How dare you suggest that my daughter go to ITE!

Is this suggestion that offensive? Why so? Is ITE such a horrible place to go? Despite its impressive collection of accolades, despite being called a "jewel in Singapore's Education system" by Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam, despite all that taxpayer's dollars spent to upgrade ITE's facilities and image, deep down in our hearts do we still think ITE is a place for losers, a place of disgrace?

Perhaps I'm mistaken. Perhaps the suggestion that these Sec 5 students go to ITE is not offensive, but rather the outrage was directed at the harsh pedagogical approach of the Principal. Or perhaps the outrage was directed at the assumption that the principal cared more about the school's ranking than the individual well-being of the students. Or perhaps we are indeed offended that Sec 5 students be suggested to go ITE. But it is not the fault of us, it is the fault of the system. Meritocratic, merciless, the system forces those with poor academic qualifications to be doomed to a lesser life.

That the less academically inclined be doomed to a cycle of poverty, blame the system if you like. But that the ITE graduates be looked down upon, be treated as losers, there's only you and me to blame.