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.

Twenty Fifteen

So here we are, at the beginning of another year. 2015 will see the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta of England, the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Singapore, and my first year in the second school since I became a teacher.

I do not like to write resolutions because I seriously lack imagination. But anyway here they are:

1. To survive, and survive well, in the new environment

Having spent 3 days in the new school, I am still trying to adapt to the new environment. There are new colleagues to befriend with, new facilities to make use of, new pupils to educate, and new leaders to work for. I will try my best.

2. To get fit

Getting fit does not just mean slimming down. I will try some strength training, and also not to get sick. The new school is just 1km away, so I can walk to and back from work every day. Bukit Panjang Plaza is in only 1.4km walking distance from my house, and 1.4km from the school; I can walk there too. Eateries are very convenient at Fajar Shopping Centre, which is only a few steps away, and the proximity of eateries has effectively reduced my tendency to over eat; in the past, I needed to walk quite a long distance for meals and tended to eat too much, or to order food delivery too frequently, because of the high time cost in travelling.

3. To save more money

Renting a much cheaper room already saves a lot. The nearness of my school and shopping centres also cuts down travel expenses. Since I eat less now, I will also spend less on food. With my newly opened OCBC 360 Account, I will earn more interest from my deposit too. And I no longer need to buy so many photography gadgets, as I have moved from Canon EOS to Olympus OM-D. Just hope that I will not develop a new hobby in the new year!

4. To get a driving license

Hopefully I can get my license within this year. Bukit Batok Driving Centre is very close, 3.8km away, just in the distance between my previous house and previous school. With an emphasis of ‘working smart’ and a work-life balance policy in the new school, I believe I can manage my time and accomplish that. Whether to buy a car — and whether I can afford one — is another question.

UPDATED: It looks like I will not be able to learn driving after work because I am mentally exhausted by the time I go out of the office. Look at it this way: at least I save another 2000 dollars…

5. To travel out of the Malay Peninsula

I am not a traveller. My first step out of my comfort zone was taken 16 years ago from Swatow to Singapore, and the second 10 years ago from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. I think maybe it is time to take another step, and a longer one. There are four options: Britain, Taiwan, Japan, and New Zealand. I shall make the decision according to my wallet size — and my mood.

That’s it. I know I am boring. Whatever.

Chirping of Stars

Looking up, I saw the beautiful stars blinking upon me. Night breezes stroked my face; it was so quiet, except the chirping of some insects, likely crickets.

It was so familiar. This whole setting. The scene, the touch, and the sound.

When I was four years old, I spent a lot of time in a rural village that I called my homeland. On many summer and autumn nights, I sat in the courtyard, overwhelming myself with stars, ten times more then and there than now and here. The adults were listening to radio and chit-chatting in the rooms, while my cousins were either too old or too young to share my little paradise in the courtyard. Night breezes stroked my face as gently then, and I heard the chirping loud and clear. ‘Where is the sound from?’ I looked around and found nothing special. Then I looked at the stars. The stars, as they always are, were blinking in rhythms, ‘apparently’ according to the beats of that loud and clear sound. I thought I made a great discovery. I did not share this great discovery with anyone because I felt it might be obvious to anyone else.

Of course the stars do not chirp. I realised my mistake on a winter night, when the stars were still blinking but I heard no chirping. But I had no idea where the sound came from, and that troubled me for some time, until on a later summer night my elder cousins told me the truth.

I remember that ‘great discovery’ so vividly because, whenever I look at the stars, I still feel they are chirping, with their rhythmic blinking, although I have already known the truth.

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.

The Worst Ankle Sprain Ever

On the first day of the holiday I sprained my right ankle so badly that I could only stay home for almost two weeks — the full duration of the holiday itself.

At first I could not even stand upright. By the support of walls and railings I brought myself to the street, and struggled into a cab, heading to my favourite TCM clinic that fixed my joint problems for at least thrice in the past. The bandage and medicine helped, and I could stand upright on the second day of the treatment, but could not walk properly; every step made by my right foot was sufficient to induce a collapse. The extremely hot and humid weather of those few days also made my right foot itchy with the bandage; the skin became irritated and I dared not apply any more bandage.

Seriously in need of a pair of crutches, I searched online for any retailer within Tampines that carried stocks. The search was in vain; the most promising shop was an online shop that could only deliver crutches in three days. In despair I tried my luck at getting a pair from the family clinic beside my block, which I visited every time I needed and the friendly staff and doctor had known me as ‘Mr Weng the teacher’. Over the phone I asked whether they were selling crutches, and the response was, ‘no, we don’t sell crutches,’ and just as I was about to sigh, the response continued, ‘but you can borrow them! We have two pairs here. Ask your family or maid to collect for you as you can’t walk…’ Since my flatmates were at work and I had no maids, I decided to walk to the clinic; it was not so far anyway. The loan was free and indefinite. I almost shed my tears there in gratitude.

On the 4th day I visited the TCM clinic again, this time with more ease, thanks to the crutches. Other patients opened the door for me as I was too clumsy with both crutches. I felt so much better after the treatment, though no bandage could be applied due to the irritated skin. I continued to use the crutches for another week, before I could walk without them, in a laughably wobbly manner though. So I decided to get a walking stick. I used a walking stick for 5 days, and finally I could walk — limp — without it.

So, for most days of these two weeks, I ordered fast food and struggled to the minimart across the street to get some bread and drinks. I planned to walk around Singapore and take many pictures during this holiday, yet I could not even move around the house freely; I used my swivel chair as a wheelchair as much as necessary. I could not do any routine exercise, because all my routine exercises required strong feet or legs: walking, cycling, planking, squatting, staircase climbing…

I did feel upset and desperate. At the beginning, the pain kept waking me up at midnight, and turning in my bed, I kept thinking what I should do if I were to kill myself at that moment. The saddest part was I could not even terminate my own life because I could not move to either get a weapon or to fling myself over the corridor railings.

But darkness subsided before I realised. There were so many people that showed me graciousness and care. The staff of the family clinic, and the patients at the TCM clinic, are just two examples. One of the fast food delivery men was shocked seeing me with crutches; he chatted with me about his wrist sprain and wished me to get well soon. On some days I had to take bus (because I was disgusted by the daily fast food) with a crutch or a walking stick, and many passengers gave up their seats for me; at least three bus drivers waited patiently for me to catch the buses. The restaurant waitresses and waiters helped me carry my bags and guided me to easy-access seats. Singapore is full of kindness and love.

Now that the holiday has come to an end, I will try my best to be fully recovered, and hopefully I could be as active as before soon.

Writing

I used to express my awe in sunrises and sunsets in poetry and proses; now I have replaced them with iPhone photography. I used to be very sensitive to breezes and stars and reflect this sensitivity in my writing; now I have replaced it with occasional 140-letter tweets. Time has changed, but more blame should be on my own lifestyle. I am no longer the sensitive and productive, though unsuccessful, writer of youth and vigour, but a technologically enslaved and bureaucratically toiled teacher who seeks consolation in reading and alcohol but not in writing or art activities.

I would not say whether this is a bliss or a curse; to me it has been natural, though it should never be pre-destined. It is the easier way out, with iPhone and Twitter as my tools. Sometimes I found it difficult to limit my thoughts within 140 characters; but when I tried to write it in this blog, it could never exceed 200 characters. My mind has been adapted, or trained to adapt, to the fast-food-like, fragmented writing styles of the modern technological era.

I ask my pupils to write more while I myself stop writing; I preach the importance of frequent writing exercises while I myself seldom write. My personality has been torn and my integrity has been ruined; but what should I do? I have had interesting ideas that could have been expanded into a voluminous novel, just to meet my limited time and skills. Without the pious practice I have lost most of the zeal and techniques, and it would be unfeasible, or at least impractical, to pick them up at the moment, under the current circumstances.

Or maybe that is just an excuse. Maybe I am just too lazy, hopeless, pessimistic and negative. Being nostalgic does not help. The action-denial itself is devastating. I often convince myself that I can resume my writing enterprise any time I like, but of course it is not true. I can only mourn for the past, for the beautified memory and rosy past, like what I am doing now.

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.

Requiem

Is Mozart’s Requiem for optimists or pessimists? As a pessimist I love it; as a trying-to-be optimist I cannot refuse it.

Whenever I feel down I listen to it, but it never soothes me but makes my heart resonate with that dying soul. I seek no comfort in the beautiful melodies, nor do I lift my spirit up in that grand choir; I simply submerge, and indulge, myself in the sadness, thinking of the inevitable end of everything.

I believe in no god(s) or heaven, and I seek no refuge in Elysium or Paradise; my soul, if it ever exists, cannot be quieted by the vague promise of heaven.

Is it a contradiction that an atheist fall in love with religious music, or it is an evidence that music knows no boundaries among religions and races?

My awareness of the fact that my paragraphs above are incoherent brings this post to the end; yet wearily I am still struggling through the overwhelming helplessness even when I have stop thinking.