A Nation of Noise

There are many countries qualified to this title. Singapore, unthinkable 20 years ago, is now one of them. Compared to two decades ago, the noise now is not only louder but also more prevalent.

Who contribute to the noise? The people. The people everywhere. Who are these people? They are locals and foreigners, old and young, male and female, highly educated and illiterate, happy and sad, intentional and oblivious. We, the citizens of the Noisy Country, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion… People nowadays seem to be constantly broadcasting themselves, in fear of not being heard by the whole world.

There is hardly any place in Singapore where you would not find unbearable noise surrounding you. On the bus, in a shopping mall, along a street, in a park, by the beach, in a food court, even in a library — there would always be people talking and laughing so loudly that you might just want to shut them up forcefully.

Whenever I hear a sudden laughter or some simultaneous human talking voices in an inappropriate situation, I cannot help thinking of Japan, England and Switzerland, where the people know when to be loud and when not to. Talking is a human right. Being free from noise is a human right too. There should be places where you can talk and laugh to your heart’s content, while you do not need to do so elsewhere so that other people, people who do not like loud conversations or merriment, can live their life peacefully.

This entry was started in a noisy food court and finished on a noisy bus.

Kindness

More than often, people shared chicken-soup-for-souls stories with me. One of the themes is it pays to be kind. In some extreme cases, the horrendously obviously made up stories tell how a kind person did small deeds of kindness and eventually the receiving ends of those deeds saved his or her life.

Of course it’s good and noble to be kind. But these stories focus on the benefit of being kind, and try to educate — or rather, entice — readers to be kind. That’s totally wrong: charitable people are kind not because kindness is profitable but because it is the right thing to do.

Another question is, should we save one’s life only because the poor soul had been kind to us? If it were a total stranger who had not done anything nice to us, and we had all the power and ability to save this stranger, shouldn’t we save him or her all the same?

Why should the authors of these stories treat good deeds as some kind of deals and trading? Why should we not be kind for a higher purpose than being helped in return? Are we so shallow-minded that we need such dear incentives to be kind? Why would people be touched and inspired by such nonsense, and pass it onto others still?

My problem is not with kind acts. A kind act, no matter what the actor’s motive is, is a kind act. My problem is with the ways those stories promote kind acts. It’s pure atrocity committed to humanity that kindness becomes a means and not the purpose itself.

My Ideal Singapore

I followed some of the rally speeches, a few of which were very arousing, whereas the rest were boring. Some candidates resorted to emotions, which I disliked a lot. Some attacked the opponents without solid foundations, which I disliked even more.

The Cooling-off Day will start in 15 minutes, marking the end of the campaign period. It is time for me to calm down (thus ‘cooling-off’) and think: what do I want for my nation?

Freedom of speech

Also known as freedom of expression, this freedom ‘includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’, as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In everyday life, it translates into rights of opinions (or no opinions) without censorship or self censorship. Websites, press and films can be rated, but should not be censored. Public figures, including but not limited to political figures, should be confident enough to embrace critics. Lawsuits against political opponents should only aim to clear names, not to elicit large sum of damage.

Fair play

All constituencies, regardless of which party win the seats, should be granted unbiased consideration and priority in development. Town councils should be independent of partisan politics and run by professional civil servants.

Zero corruption

Singapore is almost there. Almost. She will be perfect if not for the ridiculous and largely unnecessary lapses. Transparency in the handling of our CPF is the least the government should achieve. I am not even asking about operations of Temasek Holdings and GIC.

LGBT rights

Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code is a remnant of the British law during colonial days. There is no state religion in Singapore, while there is in the UK, but the latter’s official attitude (cultural and legal) towards LGBT is far more progressive. In Catholic dominant countries like Spain and Portugal, same-sex marriages have also been legalised. Same-sex marriages have been legalised even in socially conservative USA — therefore having a conservative population (whether this is true is another story) should not be an excuse for the NLB to pulp books portraying alternative families.

Better social-economic coherence

I am not an economist, so I have no suggestion on how to narrow the income gap, how to make the infrastructure cope with the ever expanding and less impatient population, and how to make life affordable for the middle and low income groups. But I know it is very expensive to live in Singapore and I do not believe it to be inevitable.

Better transports

The MRT broke down even during this sensitive period. I have no word for this. But faulty railways are not the major problem here. The major problem is, why the buses and trains are so crowded, despite successive increases of fares?

Conclusion

As a public servant, I was reminded to stay neutral and not be involved in any politics during this general election period. No, this post does not imply any side-taking. In fact, I genuinely think that all parties are equally good — in another word, equally mediocre — regardless of their positions on the political spectrum. I am not a fan of PAP, neither am I a fan of any opposition party. I criticise the government much, not because I support the oppositions (I don’t), but only because it is not (yet) optimal.

Implications

‘The ones who attended the blah blah course are in fact bonded to the school for two years. Though they did not sign any contract, it was implied so. And now, two out of the eight have already broken the rules.’

And I am one of the two who have ‘broken the rules’ by leaving the school before the implied bond period starts.

To be bonded without signing any contract is something creative. The obligation (and therefore our breaking the rules) lies merely in implications.

Maybe I am too stupid to comprehend this.

My stupidity implies that I have not been provided sufficient guidance… or cash to study… or freedom to further my learning… you name it. Implications are not finite or exhaustible.

The owner of this innovative idea cannot take any legal action against me, as there is no legal power in ‘implications’. And since I am leaving the school, this idea owner cannot punish me at work either — except, perhaps, saying something nasty about me to my new leader. No, I am not implying that my current leader will definitely do it.

Forgive me for the incoherent ranting (?) above. I just feel it hilariously ridiculous for a school leader to utter those sentences. And this paragraph does imply my despising someone.

Updates

I could not find a better title because this entry is going to be quite miscellaneous — chaotic, messy, disorderly, whatever — but, who cares what title I have used? The above title is as good as ‘untitled’ but let’s just move on from here.

It’s been four months since the last entry. Many changes, subtle and minute they might seem, have taken place. The most obvious is my photos. I no longer do daily casual photography with iPhone. I no longer shoot school events with my Canon EOS 7D — in fact, I sold all my DSLR stuff, large or small, within a fortnight. Instead, I use my new Olympus O-MD E-M1 for both purposes. The sensor may be small but the image quality delivered by the superb lenses is impressive. And it is so much more compact than DSLRs of the same level. Surprisingly I started to shoot in manual mode, which I kept avoiding on my DSLR. I also started to pay more attention to aspect ratios, depth of field and compositions. I used to resist electronic viewfinders, but with E-M1, I realised how useful an EVF can be. There are many features that I enjoy on my new toy, but that is not the focus here.

I took part in a political gathering for the first time ever in my life. On 1st October, I went to Hong Lim Park to join ‘Singapore in Solidarity with Hong Kong‘. Thanks to my being outside the Mainland China, I could voice my opinions and take my stand (relatively) freely; thanks to my being a Singapore citizen, it was legal for me to join such gathering at Hong Lim Park. Most of my friends, Chinese or Singaporeans, have been against the student movement. It has been difficult for me to discuss with them on this matter.

I also tried shaving my head for one month. Artificial baldness was in fact my means to disguise natural baldness, as my hair had been increasingly thin since two years ago. Quite a number of friends told me that baldness made me look much older than my already very old looking usual self. So I stopped shaving around 10 days ago. Now my hair is back, as well as that natural baldness.

I purchased a new domain and server, and set up this independent blog (yet again). This is the first entry on the new site, more than one month after it was set up; the older posts were imported from my wordpress.com site, which still exists but will not be updated. In fact I wanted to set up an online shop, but could not make up my mind on what to sell. I also wanted to write on Chinese language education, but my writing have really deteriorated. Maybe this space will eventually become my own cloud storage.

The haze has been harassing Singapore for two months and I do not know when it will leave us. There were some thunderstorms recently (very late compared with ‘normal’ years) and the PSI fluctuated accordingly; but it will stay high unless the origin is under control — which I doubt will be done by the Indonesian authority.

I applied to transfer to another school. To make sure that I would be able to get out of my current school, I changed my address to Bukit Panjang right before the application period began. The outcome will be announced next week, and I wish I can be posted to the only new school in Bukit Panjang. My current school is my first school after graduating from NIE, and more than once I pictured myself growing old with her; I like my colleagues here, and I love my kids even more; it took me three years to click that button. The decision was difficult to make, but once it was made, everything just followed: I found myself a room in Bukit Panjang, I changed my address, I gave much more to my pupils as I would not see them next year, I planned my CCA activities so that the next teacher can carry on next year, and I am now ready for the announcement.

Talking about the reasons to leave my current school, well, they are not complicated. My pedagogies have not been improved on during my stay in this school, while I learned too much about administration and other non-teaching related procedures. I came to the profession with good passion and enthusiasm, but the leadership and management of this school have frozen my passion and dispersed my enthusiasm. I saw flaws in the system but my words were worthless; I sensed the school going to terminate herself but they put their effort in wrong places. I do not want to accuse absolute corruption as I have no proof, but absolute power is visible and is being used inappropriately; without checks and balances, power can only do harm and no good.

Just as the entry did not begin with a proper title, it will not end with a proper conclusion.

On NLB’s Recent Book Destroying Madness

When I was young, the well maintained and easily accessible libraries became at the same time a paradise for my mind and a sanctuary for my heart. At first I read and borrowed only Chinese books, then more and more English ones; my reading scope widened from pure literature to all sorts of non-fictions. Libraries had become places somehow rather sacred to me, and I continued to visit them after I started working even though I had purchased more books than I could finish reading.

All the rosy images suddenly shattered two days ago when I read the news of the National Library Board’s decision to remove two children’s books from shelves. The decision was made because these books portrayed ‘unconventional’ families, a.k.a. same-sex couples and single parents. I have known that the Singapore society is largely conservative and the majority of the citizens are against LGBT; but I have not imagined that my beloved and supposedly neutral NLB has taken such a stance. My first reaction was a silent ‘WTF’, followed by a tweet, ‘maybe I should start boycotting NLB.’

As a  teacher, I have been teaching my pupils such values as respect, inclusiveness, and embracing diversity, as promoted by MOE. Yet I could not sense these values in NLB’s decision.

The books really do not need to be removed. NLB can have put the books in the adult area. NLB can have even set up a ‘controversial books corner’ where children under certain age can only access with parental guidance. In fact, even without such a corner, if parents really care about their young kids’ reading, parental guidance should be provided whenever a child reads; if the parent thinks that a book is ‘inappropriate’ in values, the parent can just leave it alone.

I thought removing books for such reasons was the worst action taken by NLB. I was wrong. After a heated debate involving a spectacular tide of opposition and engaging a large number of netizens who voiced their protests through open letters and petitions (1, 2), NLB did not reinstate the books; instead, it has decided to pulp the books — not two, but three. This time it was backed by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, citing ‘representing social norms’ as a mission of NLB.

Yes, the society is conservative, and yes, many parents do not want their young children to be exposed to such topics; removing the books upsets me but is still within range of tolerance. But destroying books? Even if removing those three books were justifiable, NLB could have just given them away; why pulp the books? This is what I call ‘madness’, and is apparently a symbolic gesture. And it is a terribly wrong gesture, a gesture that appeases the conservative majority but enrages the open-minded minority, a gesture that sums up all debates and discussions in a simple, forceful, physical action.

As a public institution, NLB is maintained with taxpayers’ money and therefore obliged to involve the public in major or possibly controversial decision making; but it has failed to do so. There was no public hearing, no room for disputation, not even the slightest attempt to be impartial and inclusive. How can we trust such an institution to provide unbiased, unselected and unfiltered information when we do research in its libraries?

If NLB can destroy books because those books depict real, homosexual penguins, happy LGBT families with adopted kids, alternate families with a permutation of family structures, then it will not be any surprise if one day NLB decides to destroy books on evolution, paganism, and non-mainstream versions of major religions; one day it will censor each and every book, destroy all books that do not conform to ‘social norms’ and discard all facts that are against the beliefs of the ‘overwhelming majority’. Call me a pessimist, but this chain of events appeared just too many times in history.

Destroying books is at least a terrible PR move and more importantly a step backward in human history. Dictators and religions pillaged libraries in history because libraries did not succumb to fanaticism or biases. Shockingly ironically, the modern NLB is now doing what tyrants used to do to libraries.

A Semi-Farewell to SNSes

It was not the first time I stopped using an SNS service but it was the first time I was aware of the real cause of my action.

No doubt it all reduced to my antisocial personality but this personality did not stop me from joining many SNSes. What really stopped me from using them was the disgust that I felt, and am still feeling, against the mass irrationality of the easily angered and misled mob and the impossibility of stopping their messages from reaching me.

This group of people — a very large group I should say, so large that this group in fact can represent the mainstream voices online — always impose the strictest moral standards on other people while readily excusing themselves for all mistakes. They laugh at disasters and chaos of nations they dislike or see as rivals, insult states, organizations or individuals because of rumours that they selectively believe, spread private information, call for violence, and accuse strangers without any attempt of seeking truth.

Once I tolerated them because I felt that I should not judge people, or I would become like them (oops still judging!). I tried to get my voice heard but I eventually gave up because in the ocean of irrationality my effort was just an insignificant droplet. I wanted to be more open to different opinions but the majority of those opinions were simply contradictory to either common sense or logical thinking.

The only way to maintain my sanity is not by arguing with these people but to distance myself from them. I should indulge myself in proper books, immerse myself in my work, engage myself in my numerous hobbies and build healthy friendship with people around me. I should technically be a hermit in this information era.

Of course I do not mean to completely severe my tie with SNSes (therefore ‘semi-‘ in the title). I will still use it to search for information and, if necessary, communicate with my friends — just that my involvement will be minimum.

On Space Projects

I used to be very simple-minded and against the Chinese government launching space projects with astronomical (a suitable adjective, at least literally) amount of money when there are many children in rural areas unable to receive proper education. In my over simplistic mindset, the expenses of the government can be invested in many other ‘more urgent, essential’ areas, like improving education, fighting poverty, raising productivity, and so on, instead of those ‘useless, showing off’ areas, like space projects and gigantic constructions.

But I have also been a NASA fan since the first day I came to know its existence. I cheer for every NASA success and love all those NASA legends. Why I supported NASA but opposed Chinese space programmes could only be explained by my deep distrust in the Chinese government and the Communist Party.

Yet I was wrong. Gradually I have come to understand the importance of space projects, even if it is done by communists.

Space projects are not just showing off abilities and strength — in fact, it is the most expensive way to show off strength, so expensive that the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union had to come to a halt without conclusive winner. Space projects are more science oriented, rather than politics oriented; they are to benefit the whole human race, instead of a limited group of politicians.

The technologies developed for space programmes are mostly deployed in civil productions. Military industry of course would be benefited as well, but those benefits can be justified by the benefits bestowed onto the public. Even at the height of space race, NASA carried out scientific experiments and developed many technologies that we have taken for granted today.

The first artificial satellite of China was indeed an ideology propaganda tool, but that does not nullify the importance of Chinese space programmes in recent years. Time has changed.

However, no matter how much I support the space programmes, be it of NASA or Europe or China, I could not make myself agree to the propaganda elements in the Chinese media reports. ‘The hundred years of waiting ends! We Chinese have realized our dreams of flying to the space!’ Frankly that is nothing to be proud of if a country, who thinks highly of herself, can only manage to accomplish what the other countries have accomplished decades before. And talking about ‘dreams’, have the Chinese really dreamed of anything close to this? Those vague, bluffing, bragging, pretentious slogans only make supporters like me disgusted.

Loss of Memory

After 10 years I came to Parkway Parade in 2012. It was so different to what I remembered a decade ago — but what was in my memory? I could not remember so clearly. In fact, Parkway Parade in my memory had been so blurry that I doubted whether it was me who had been here at least twice a week during the period 1998 – 2002.

The sense of loss came to me as well as I visited the district in Swatou in 2010, the district where I lived from 1987 to 1998. I knew it had changed dramatically but I could not figure out how it was like in my blurry memory. It was like everything had been redefined, and my memory had been erased completely.

This happens not only to places but to people too. Sometimes I wonder where the person in front of me has come from and why I get to know him or her because that person has changed through the years and yet I cannot remember how he or she was like when we first met. Is it a punk played by life, or a cognitive phenomenon that is natural to common people?

No doubt I am very nostalgic but my memory keeps failing me.

I cannot remember clearly how Singapore looked like when I first came here fifteen years ago. I can only remember that the MRT system was still a new thing then, and people were generally happier. What has made Singapore so different now, I cannot tell, but she is different.

I cannot remember clearly the life in Chung Cheng High School (Main), but when I went back as an East Zone teacher I could sense the fall of my alma mater. Not that she was at a very high status when I was a student there, but she did fall, as far as my sense told me.

I do not know what has ruined Singaporeans’ happiness, nor can I come to understand why my alma mater has slipped through the years. My memory is not capable of recalling the past and obviously of comprehending the cause of changes. What it is capable of is just a deep feeling of loss.

The world changes fast, no matter how my inner self refuses to accept that. The world changes so fast that my memory cannot absorb the recent events before it needs to face new changes. People say that change is the only constant. I fully appreciate it, and do make myself adapt to new changes. But it is still something lost that I cannot retrieve any more, that saddens me much, that makes my past a worthless mess.

Why I am here is due to my many selves in the flow of river of passing currents, and those selves are all gone.

The Meaning of Photographs

One of my pupils, who graduated from our school 3 years ago and is going to Secondary 4 in the coming year, is now very sad because her iPhone cannot get recovered from iTunes backup and therefore has lost her 4355 photos — she does not have the habit of synchronizing her photos to either iCloud or other cloud storage but solely depends on her backups on a PC.

Of course no one wants to lose anything, or the storage service providers, either online or offline, would not exist. But we do not need to grieve so much that our precious sleep has to be sacrificed in mourning. As I told that pupil, nothing is eternal, and starting anew is actually easier than imagined.

‘Those photos are my memories! They capture those precious fun moments!’ She said.

No, they are photos, not memories. True memories exist not in photos but in hearts and minds. Photos capture those moments, yes, and help to remind you those moments. But if you need photos to remind you those moments, are those moments really precious? Are precious moments not preserved in your fond memory?

Fun moments normally will become sour and bitter in future. They are bad evidence of the past because, in future, either your life is no longer fun or your friends are no longer there to share your joy. Either way it is, is seeing those photos of the fun past not a torment?

I take photography as a form of visual arts. I take photos not because I want to preserve the moments, as I cannot do so by clicking the shutter button. I take photos because the sight is beautiful and it somehow expresses myself through colours and shadows. Beauty is temporary; everything decays. If the world remembers it, then it gains some kind of immortality in the collective memory of mankind, and I do not need a copy for myself. If the world does not, why should my own pride bring the photos to my grave?

Some of my colleagues see me as ‘full of negativities’ because I seem to see only weaknesses, stupidity, inhumanity and irrationality in the bureaucracy. That might be true, but only at work. In life, I can see beauty in every corner and find humour in every speech and action. My cameras, including my smart phones, are deployed to capture the beauty and humour in life, not because they are precious moments and ought to be preserved but the lifespan of photos are much longer than that brevity of bliss. The extra length of this lifespan enables the sight to be exposed to a larger audience with a hint of my personality. That is all.

Never attach too many ‘meanings’ to the photos. Photos are just a media, a platform, and will be gone, sooner or later, together with those ‘meanings’.

In fact, you have lost your childhood friends, your cuteness in kindergarten, your primary school works, the clean air, cheap food, youthful vigour, purity of innocence, ignorant optimism, and many other things when you grow up (and old). Losing some photos is no big deal.