Home > Archives > January 2003 > 1-10 January 2003


1-10 January 2003

9 JanBastion of Celibacy Threatens Nation's Survival!
9 JanRSS Courageous Collision, follow-up
9 JanDesire Line
5 JanGangs of Singapore?; my New Piano Teacher
5 JanRSS Courageous Collision
5 JanWhat Should I Do With My Life?
1 JanGangs of New York
1 JanBreaking from the Norm/The Chinese Elite

Bastion of Celibacy Threatens Nation's Survival!

9 January 2003 1:06 AM SGT (link)

First, I apologise for the delay in commenting on this article that appeared on Jan 5 (Sunday). Those of you with print copies of the ST could take a look there, because the online version might not be there forever.

Now, this was a most interesting article: Schooled in singlehood. It starts with some alarming information:

...X is one of the top single-sex secondary schools. Its students are notoriously clever - and famously square. According to the patient, the school's ethos is one of a de-sexing of the girls.

The impressionable adolescents are, through messages spoken and subliminal, taught the virtues of being prim and proper, of not showing interest in boys.

They are told that brains are more important than beauty, and that good girls should only have eyes for their books and time for healthy co-curricular activities like drama and netball.

The school of the odd-sister-out does not have this puritanical hang-up. Unlike her other three siblings, she is able to mix easily with boys. The patient ascribes this sister's good fortune in finding a husband to attending the right school. She blames her own and her sisters' singlehood on the social awkwardness engendered by studying in X.

She is not the only one to think that attending X mars a girl's chance of getting married later. This school is legendary for it - so well-known that if you hazard a guess, the first school that comes to mind would probably be the right one.

- Schooled in singlehood, ST, Jan 5 2003 [all emphases mine]

The columnist mentions that his source is his doctor who "told [him] about one of her patients" who made the claim about School X. Apparently of the patient's siblings (4 sisters, including her), 2 are from School X, and are unmarried, whereas the one who is married "studied in another secondary school". Later he mentions a Christmas party host and the other guests are alumni from the school, and they exclaim "it's so true!".

That, folks, is his basis for suggesting later that:

...If one of the causes of the high incidence of singlehood is the culture of certain schools, would it be fruitful to nip this problem in the bud instead of waiting to change people's attitudes when they are much older and perhaps too late?

And can this be done without tipping it to the other end of the scale such as over-zealous in relationships with opposite sex becomes a problem?

This I feel is something that the Ministry of Education and some of the schools can look at.

- Schooled in singlehood, ST, Jan 5 2003

Yes, so it was all about the unprecedented decline in the nation's birth rate, and the potential for it to be alleviated if the MOE - somebody - take action against these schools that are despoiling our nation's economic progress and social stability by choosing to inculcate celibacy into their students.

Apocrypha does not a conclusion make

To borrow Col. Jessep's words in A Few Good Men, I'm an educated man, but I'm afraid I can't speak intelligently about any "hidden curriculum" that is taught in School X and others, and which is seemingly resulting in the lower birth rate. But what I do want to say is that throwing together a few anecdotes, and indulging in gossip and rumours, will not result in a useful conclusion. All he has proved is that there is a perception - a huge one, going by the likes of the people he interviewed - that the claim is true for School X, but what of its reality? There are no statistics on the percentages of married women from Girls' School X vs. that of School Y - he can only drag out the national statistics which have hardly any bearing on his claim. He has, count 'em, a handful of people to back up the claim that School X is actively engaged in a campaign of misinformation (his implication) to act prim and proper & dissuade them from forming healthy relationships with the opposite sex, hence resulting in a lot of unhappy middle-aged single alumni. Or worse, that other schools are taking too laid-back an attitude towards short-lived relationships which will likewise result in less people wanting to get married in their later years. Has he seen a member of School X's staff remonstrate against the evils of BGRs on the school bully pulpit? Propaganda? Disincentives, even? Does he need to send in UN inspectors? It reminds me of the old story about never being able to find the real source of any rumour, after everyone passes it around & embellishes it for their audience's enjoyment. (But if any of my readers do know of these incidents, please tell me.)

Besides my question of what basis he makes such extravagant claims, I also take offence to the implication that because you're from School X & the school supposedly inculcated the values of chastity and maiden virtue in you, then that is the cause of your inability to form meaningful romantic relationships with men & get married. This victimhood complex is terrible because to me, it's a cheap attempt to evade responsibility for your own actions. I think the alumni who are bemoaning their fate should look at themselves first: their mindsets, their behaviour, their thoughts about relationships. Has the school somehow crippled their students' natural instincts? Caused them psychological trauma? Checks up on their marriage status years afterward to determine your alumni club membership? Failed to give dancing and socialisation lessons? (probably no school offers these as official policy). Are four years of secondary school really enough to eviscerate the human part of you that wants to get married, settle down, share a life intimately with someone else?

Try this: Are you too focused on your career, working 60 to 70 hours a week and having no time or energy (much less the inclination) to socialise? For some it's a conscious choice, others not. Are you an ultra-feminist who believes in being an example for the rest, a showcase of the independent woman? People of School X are "notoriously clever", so they naturally end up with greater achievements and high-flying careers: are the expectations of your husband-to-be too high? All these factors - behaviour, environment - lie in the individual now, whether or not she might have had the perception that "boys are trouble" years ago.

To me, these acts of crying victim, procrastination (to get married) and finger-pointing are even more detrimental to the quest to raise the birth rate, more than any temporary lessons any school or schools can give. & this is really beyond MOE or MCDS - it lies in the hearts and minds of the eligible but single and fervently so.

P.S. I know this will probably never happen, but it would be interesting to hear the official response of the School X in question. I have a hunch they will not take responsibility for the celibacy of their alumni, as I've said here.

RSS Courageous Collision, follow-up

9 January 2003 12:55 AM SGT (link)

In the past few days the questions I asked in my post on this, like why the ship's technology apparently failed to detect the oncoming container vessel, have appeared in the mass media & are, I believe, the first thing the results of the investigation, whether the MPA's or Mindef's, will have to answer. The bias I felt the papers had, favouring a cause that did not involve the navy ship, seems to have dissolved too. The reporting is now concentrated on the extensive search for the body of the last servicewomen not yet found (despite the insistence that "'I'm here to find my missing colleague, not a body'") and numerous human interest stories on the lives lost. For a pretty good summary of the issues see the ST's editorial (7 Jan 2003), Tragedy at sea:

IT HAS taken a tragedy to bring to Singaporeans' notice the growing role of women in the nation's defence and security...

- Tragedy at sea, ST, 7 Jan 2003

True, but methinks the statement also applies to the media.

A "you've-got-to-be-kidding moment" when reading Skipper of Navy boat kept away from media, ST:

...If the MPA finds the RSS Courageous to be at fault in the collision, the captain is likely to shoulder some responsibility, even if he was not on duty at the time of the accident.

His chances of promotion after that are likely to be very slim, said the retired officers, and he is also likely to lose command of the ship and probably not be given other command positions.

But a stagnant career and a black mark on his resume are probably furthest from his mind right now, agreed all five retired Navy officers whom The Straits Times spoke to yesterday...

- Skipper of Navy boat kept away from media, ST, 8 Jan 2003

What can I say: Duh? Or should I be disgusted that the issue need even be raised?

OK, seriously, I suppose it is a valid question, and point of interest for people who would like to be informed on how your career in the Navy might be affected if some of your crew perish under your command, and worse, that you might have had something to do with that.

More seriously, a stagnant career? As I recall, the captain of the USS Greeneville, the US submarine that surfaced on a Japanese research vessel in Feb 2001, leading to a collision that killed 9, was allowed to retire but didn't lose his pension, since he wasn't directly to blame for it (CNN, Apr 23 2001: Greeneville's skipper reprimanded, allowed to retire).

Desire Line

9 January 2003 12:36 AM SGT (link)

Another juicy neologism from WordSpy today:

desire line
(di.ZYR lyn) n. An informal path that pedestrians prefer to take to get from one location to another rather than using a sidewalk or other official route.

- The Word Spy, desire line

I read somewhere once that a new building, perhaps a university campus, decided not to pave permanent pavements before opening the place for use. Instead it let the people walk wherever they wanted to, and inevitably these desire lines emerged, which then were filled in nicely with cement. Initially it might be ugly and unsettling to supporters of order and propriety, but in the end I think it works out beautifully. I wonder if this is apocryphal; would appreciate it very much if anyone could find some kind of reference to this story, preferably an online one.

Gangs of Singapore?; my New Piano Teacher

5 January 2003 10:40 PM SGT (link)

The response to my "Gangs of Singapore" idea has been tepid, lacklustre. No, more accurately, there has been none, excluding Eugene's post, which I'm not sure whether to count or not. Anyway if I had any say, I would put English, Chinese and Malay subtitles so that 90%+ of the people in Singapore should be able to understand what's going on.

Sigh it's quite disappointing.

My New Piano Teacher

This morning I paid a visit to a piano teacher recommended by my previous one (who couldn't teach me any more due to personal reasons), and she has admitted me as her student. Mismatch of expectations: judging by the address I was thinking of a three-storey bungalow & a grand Steinway piano or something (whoa...), but it turned out to be a penthouse and an old English upright piano that badly needs tuning. But, to be honest, I liked its rustic charm, and agreed to the whole deal despite the fact that her fees are quite expensive.

To go off on another tangent, this new teacher prefers that I not play the left-hand quavers in a detached style (this is a J. C. Bach piece), although the ABRSM editors suggest it and their sample recording (played by Rolf Hind) applies it. This detached style apparently comes from the fact that the piece, or generally all Baroque-era music, were played on harpsichords or organs, not the new pianos they had then, and in any case musicians did not play notes legato (smoothly without breaks between notes) unless the music was explicitly scored that way. But I guess my teacher, and other people, prefer to just follow what's on the score and not interpret the exact requirements of the composer further; would J. C. Bach have preferred a legato style had he the modern piano to compose on? Who knows...

Correction: WoWs is correct: J. C. Bach belonged in the Classical era together with his more well-known contemporaries like Haydn and Mozart (around the 18th century). I guess I confused him with his lao pei who was in earlier times, J. S. Bach. But it seems that the detached style was still considered proper in J. C. Bach's time.

RSS Courageous Collision

5 January 2003 10:19 PM SGT (link)

Singaporeans express shock over collision involving navy ship (Channel NewsAsia): Incidents like this can serve as timely reminders of the sacrifices our sailors, air crew and soldiers make, whether in their time, energy or even their lives, to protect our nation's interests & keep us safe. So for those in combat or front-line units, you should really take more pride in what you are doing - it does mean something to all of us.

Still, I find it difficult not to speculate on, among some things, the emphasis on Pedra Branca being linked in our minds to the recent diplomatic spat about it between Malaysia and Singapore - until one hears the details, one might even think there's some conspiracy afoot! More seriously we should not merely indulge in - we must know - the answer to the perennial SAF question, not just to close the book on the matter & have some kind of explanation for the dead personnel's families, but to ensure that this never happens again.

Now, with that said, it seems to me that in this day and age, military vessels, if not commercial ones, have some kind of radar capability - I find it quite incredible that the crew of the Courageous would not know if a container vessel more than 100 times its tonnage and several times its length was bearing down on its stern. And the Courageous is an anti-submarine patrol ship, which makes this miss, if it was one, all the more unbelievable, and possibly the result of gross negligence. This Straits Times article (Where it's a close shave for vessels daily), though, tries to make the case that conditions were difficult (and there is also subtle innuendo that somehow the container vessel was to blame for not sticking to the sea lanes), even though visibility was reportedly good. Another point: the smaller vessel is naturally more manoeuvrable - if the ships were on course for a collision, IMHO, the Courageous would have been able to steer clear of the much larger container vessel rather than the opposite.

Caveat: All this is speculation on my part - I am not necessarily seeking to blame the crew of the Courageous or anyone else before the truth is uncovered - I just thought some things that are obvious to me (i.e. the radar) should be made known to anyone who's reading the news on this matter.

What Should I Do With My Life?

5 January 2003 9:41 PM SGT (link)

... Addressing the question, What should I do with my life? isn't just a productivity issue: It's a moral imperative. It's how we hold ourselves accountable to the opportunity we're given. Most of us are blessed with the ultimate privilege: We get to be true to our individual nature. Our economy is so vast that we don't have to grind it out forever at jobs we hate. For the most part, we get to choose. That choice isn't about a career search so much as an identity quest. Asking The Question aspires to end the conflict between who you are and what you do. There is nothing more brave than filtering out the chatter that tells you to be someone you're not. There is nothing more genuine than breaking away from the chorus to learn the sound of your own voice. Asking The Question is nothing short of an act of courage: It requires a level of commitment and clarity that is almost foreign to our working lives.

- What Should I Do With My Life?, extract from Po Bronson's new book of the same name

Those who know me should be aware that I don't have a clear, defined game plan for the rest of my life - goals, career etc. - and I thought this article was really meaningful. It talks about the importance of the Question and myths that hinder us from finding the answer, like "first earn the money, then pursue the dream" (his argument, which I find very true, is that this quest for money changes you in the process - you will be mentally and financially invested in that environment, and you'll be more reluctant to leave it to pursue old dreams). There are more extracts at Po Bronson's site, plus explanations of why he undertook this quest to understand people's experiences in wrestling with this Question.

On a related note, the Washington Post has an article on two people who did not get into premier Ivy League colleges but managed to find success in life. One of them might be familiar to many, which is why some academics studying the issue have deemed this the Spielberg effect. This situation might be more applicable to Americans, but I imagine those of us who are going here or here, or maybe not even these, but had aimed higher can derive some consolation and inspiration from this article.

Gangs of New York

1 January 2003 10:44 PM SGT (link)

Gangs of New York I watched a sneak preview with my ex-classmates right through the New Year countdown. Gangs of New York is a cinematic epic - if not in story then at least in execution. The whole filthy, violent, crime-ridden environment of New York circa 1863 is brought to life in a huge, astonishing way. Rivalling fire companies who take the opportunity to loot the building, politicians that ally with street gangs to "bring in the votes" (literally), fresh Irish immigrants shipped off to fight in the Civil War, everyone invoking the Christian God's name in their quest for success/vengeance - the film manages to deliver an alternative view of American history as the bloody mess it was (for some part), and satirises everything from democracy to the burgeoning Union and Lincoln.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays William Cutting, or Bill the Butcher, who heads the Nativist gang of "native Americans" in Five Points, a place in New York notorious for its anarchy & violence. He kills the leader of the Irish new immigrants, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), and 16 years later his son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns for revenge. Cameron Diaz plays Jennie Everdeane, a pickpocket brought up in Bill's care who falls in love with Amsterdam. All this is set against the rapid Irish immigration fleeing the potato famine and the societal tensions arising from the Civil War draft that erupts in the riots of 1863. I admit it's a simple story but the film, as very good films do, transcends it. Apparently the whole set was created in an outdoor studio in Rome, not computer-generated, and the final scenes of the riots involve such intricate and large-scale cinematography, costumes and set design that it seems demeaning to call them such.

But be warned: it is harsh and violent - something you might expect with the head "villain" who has a liking for chopping up pig or human flesh. Bill the Butcher, brilliantly played, is cast as the villain but I didn't come away from the show thinking such because ultimately Bill and Amsterdam's blood feud is swept up in larger events, national events, so to speak. And Scorsese explicitly makes it about his love for the city of New York, how it rose out of this "cauldron of hell" to become what it is today. Some could denounce the ending as predictable; I say it's apt, and beautiful in a perverse way :-). Dare I say this: it is just as good as, if not better, than The Two Towers's finale. Please watch this show.

My inner Scorsese

I watched his Bringing Out the Dead (starring Nicholas Cage as a paramedic who has an existentialist mental breakdown because of his job) but was not very impressed, but Gangs took my breath away. This kind of historical epic is really attuned to my love of good movies and interest in history, even though the Bill vs. Amsterdam clash was fictional (but the 1863 riots were real). Imagine having him teaching New Yorkers history! Goodness that will single-handedly revive interest in it.

Some time back I thought of the possibility of a movie based on Singapore's early history, because I was fascinated by the possibilities of computer graphics and artificial intelligence (see this post, where I mentioned this with regard to The Two Towers) and thought if it could be done to simulate the scene at the Singapore River, circa 1800s (not very sure of the exact period), in the burgeoning port of British Singapore. Bumboats crowded bow to stern, laden with goods like rice & spices transported from ships further offshore, & coolies all over heaving them on their backs & carrying them to the docks and warehouses along the river; loud cries in a dozen different languages & dialects; the filth of the river port somehow permeating the screen to reach the imaginations of the audience; maybe some rats scurrying about too!

Of course you couldn't do a movie about the port - that'll be more of a very expensive documentary - so I thought of something that would involve a murder of, say, a rickshaw-puller, and this young enterprising Malay inspector will be called in to investigate, with a Chinese partner that's conversant in a few dialects & hence also acts as translator. It becomes obvious soon enough that this is no innocent murder but with some underlying secret society/gang dispute, and the Malay inspector learns the rules of the game on the street are quite different from what his British colonial masters might wish or expect. The Singapore River scene would take place when the inspector's on one of his perambulatory patrols and ruminates on the crime a la Sherlock Holmes. Unsavoury characters lurk around the town and threaten to disrupt the peace if you as much as say the wrong thing (the Malay inspector will be the eyes and ears of an outsider, the audience, essentially the clueless, pampered modern Singaporean), which is why his translator partner is so important - it gives him a window into the world he's unaware of, and not capable of dealing with (at least at first). Perhaps it could even be tied in to the actual riots between the Hokkien and Teochew communities in 1854 or so. In the end he might conclude that the real murderer can't be found, but this will not be a cynical conclusion but more like a realist one, dare I say, a hopeful one. Somehow this could also pre-empt the creation of the Chinese Protectorate, even if that came along only a few decades later.

It's obvious this idea is chock-full of National Education ideals, mainly because I think N.E. as it is now lacks the immediacy and excitement that one needs to engage in the young of this video-game, MTV age. Languages: I think it's such a sexy Singaporean concept to have a film where the languages used are Malay (inspector to family, inspector to partner), Hokkien/Teochew/other dialects (for the rickshaw-pullers, gang members etc.; no Speak Mandarin campaign here) and stiff British English (British colony officials). Languages you hardly hear nowadays (not Tamil though, that would be a hard sell). Closeness to Singaporeans: I don't think you can beat a panoramic view of the non-reclaimed, non-cleaned-up Singapore River that's choked with boats and rubbish and men from a dozen places & cultures - Chinese towkays, British officials, Arab traders, Chinese coolies, Malay fishermen... It would be the picture of the decade! A coup for N.E.: the lessons of multiracialism, multiculturalism & the need to reach out, not just merely tolerate, other people different from us will be imbibed by the audience not with the attitude cynical, world-weary Singaporeans use to face what's seen as government propaganda, but as essential lessons in a dramatic tale. You might call that Orwellian, but I also call that the skill of a good filmmaker and storyteller. Goodbye Jack Neo - this is a film that doesn't merely reflect the kopitiam cynics' complaints but tells a compelling story that creeps up on us and engulfs us unexpectedly - that's the potential power of the modern art of filmmaking. It brings to life the stuff of dead-tree history textbooks: "The Bugis imported spices. The Chinese imported silk. Secret societies caused unrest." blah blah blah. Have a screening of this movie and 10 lessons discussing it & that'll be all you need for Singapore history, 1819-1942.

Of course, at press time (now, or rather, before I watched Gangs) I didn't have details in my head like the title & (more importantly) the exact ending. I did have the beginning: (as credits roll) raindrops pattering off the luxurious rainforest trees, as we move towards the smaller then-Singapore town - its roads and alleys, and then the cinema stops moving to espy a sack sitting at the side of the road. Then the credits end, and a curious passer-by takes a look at the bag & gives a gasp. Then we cut to the police station with the inspector being assigned the case. You can imagine the rest.

Then I watched Gangs of New York.

Filthy surroundings, check. Cramped living quarters, check. Gang violence, check. The brimming chaos of an emerging metropolis, check. A major battle in the streets in the end, check. My goodness, if my little movie idea ever went beyond germination, it would look pretty much like Gangs of New York (plus indigenous things like rickshaws and British officials). I mean, I didn't think Scorsese stole my idea - nonsense! - but I felt robbed anyway. I will never have a close-to-100 million budget to execute something on the scale of what Scorsese had done, even if I did have his skill, but it was a nice thought anyway. Somehow, now that it's been presented on the big screen, it's like what I thought could be my own private nice little idea has been transformed into something possible, achievable. Greatness was in my grasp, but only fleetingly! I could have been the Singaporean Scorsese!

Yeah right.

Now anything that is done on these lines, even in the future with a developed Singaporean film industry with that 100 million to spend, will be judged based on the level of Gangs of New York. Not so much as it won't be original, but it wouldn't have much hope of the jarring, awe-inspiring effect it would have if nobody had even attempted a spectacle like this. Something like how Peter Jackson's effort is dropping jaws all over the planet because nobody had ever tried it on a scale like he has. He did it. Scorsese did it too. Spielberg, among others, are in this club, for good reason.

Sigh this has been an intensely personal post; long too. Maybe I'll get another great idea for a movie someday.

Breaking from the Norm/The Chinese Elite

1 January 2003 10:22 PM SGT (link)

The ST has some articles on the schools that will be doing away with the 4-year O Level, 2-year A Level system in the coming years: Schools that break from the norm (ST 1 Jan 2003, H4):

I'll leave the details, such as which batches of students can opt for which programmes, school fees and the curricula to parents and students concerned, because it looks quite complicated. But I expect it to be clear enough by 2004, or else, we'll be in for some chaos. I am pleased to see that all four programmes make room for students of non-affiliated schools to participate should they choose to, ensuring that Rafflesians, for instance, don't spend 6 years in the same place, amongst the same people.

Again, if anyone's wondering why I'm so interested in developments that have nothing to do with me, I'll say that the reason is all the changes, the "sweeping waves of reform", the possibilities that by 2008 we can see pre-university graduates from the Singapore system that have had a more varied and empowering education than the rote-learning, exam-cramming one we've gotten used to.

The elusive Chinese elite

Additionally there is talk of Chinsee High and Hwa Chong offering a curriculum that "has a strong focus on Chinese language and culture." [Top schools to merge to groom Chinese elite (ST 1 Jan 2003, page 3)] Some might remember PM Goh's call in this year's National Day Rally speech for the growth of a "Chinese elite" to engage China economically. Sales pitch:

At the end of the six years, a Chinese High student is expected to be equally adept at cutting business deals or discussing Tang poetry with people in China.


Mr Chan Soo Sen, Minister of State (Prime Minister's Office and Ministry of Community Development and Sports), also likes the idea that Chinese history and culture will be taught, beyond just the language.

He said: 'By understanding China's social environment, Singaporeans can begin to empathise with the Chinese. This may not translate directly into more business deals.

'But in China where interpersonal relationships are so important, it definitely helps when Chinese businessmen feel they can trust you because you understand them.'

- ST, Top schools to merge to groom Chinese elite

So I guess the Chinese business bigwigs lao Chen and lao Zhang will be more eager to deal with this future Chinese renaissance man who can spin Tang poetry around his Raffles & ACS counterparts. Hahaha... Of course I'm not suggesting that this education in Chinese and Chinese ways should not be explicitly advocated for corporate or financial gain - heck I don't think you'll find very eager learners if that's the case - but this prevailing perception of education as a route to financial success is just so egregious.

Besides if we were to get into the real reasons why Chinese culture and language has been downplayed since this nation's independence, in favour of a language (English) and culture (capitalism) that encompasses all, thus resulting in the need for a "Chinese elite" now, we would uncover some unpleasant truths: that the present government squashed Chinese education - and I mean squashed, not fine-tuned it to fit the nation's realities - to build a nation (strong and free...) & also because it was turning into a communist/socialist base of opposition. Now you have everyone speaking English best, not Chinese, because it was designed that way; you can't expect a "Chinese elite" when people aren't speaking Chinese more of the time & are effectively discouraged from doing so. This is not a Marxist, Communist or anti-PAP perspective: these are the facts. And I'm not saying we should topple English education; I'm doing the equivalent of shrugging my shoulders - you made, or we made, these choices some decades ago & they've done good (integrating the Chinese, Malay and Indian communities), but don't now complain about the missing "Chinese elite".

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