Good ACT to Follow

UPDATE: Winners announced below!

Sometime in mid-June, the Mother of Xander and I were invited to what I thought was an interactive theatre performance. No doubt you’d have read about There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly, which a number of parent bloggers gave mention to a while back. I wasn’t keen initially, but I redacted the notion when I remembered who the hosts were.

You probably know them for longer than you’d care to admit. They appear every now and again, offering theatrical performances and workshops focused squarely at entertaining and educating kids. Some might even vaguely remember them from the late 80’s, but the name holds more significance for Singapore than you might imagine.

ACT3

Ruby Lim-Yang, R Chandran and Jasmin Samat Simon first got together in an acting and writing workshop organised by that big media entity then known as Radio and Television Singapore back in 1979. 2 years later, they formed ACT 3, and would stage mobile theatrical performances for children, beginning with the flagship MPH Bookstore at Stamford Road, and on to public parks, private parties, sports clubs and, if you remember, school halls during afternoon primary school assemblies – all mostly out of a van.

In 1984, they went full-time as a children’s theatre group, with a couple of firsts under their belt – they staged an outdoor English-language performance called “Treasure Island” at Bras Basah Park in 1983, and were the first to come up with a made-in-Singapore theatre musical called “Makanplace… A Singaporean Musical” in 1988. (Wait, not TheatreWorks’ Beauty World meh? NO. And lagi not to be confused with the now-defunct My Makan Place @ Beauty World Centre hor.)

33 years in, ACT 3 has now sort of split 3 ways (yes, “3” is a sort of running theme with these people). Chandran now runs ACT 3 Theatrics with wife and theatre actress Amy Cheng, focusing on training kids in theatre writing and directing, while Ruby now develops ACT 3 International as its artistic director, which runs children’s theatre and arts festivals, as well as ACT 3 Drama Academy, which dishes out drama courses and workshops for children and teens at their Cairnhill Arts Centre headquarters as well as in schools.

ACT-3-2003
Remember Ruby? She’s the one on the extreme right.

Ruby would tell me over e-mail, “I still keep in touch with Chandran from time to time, a little less with Jasmin (who is living and working in Jakarta). Although (Chandran and I) are running separate entities, both our focus remains very much on children and their development through the Arts. Many roads lead to Rome as the saying goes, and each of us provides a unique approach, taste, and quality. While we differ in approaches, our beliefs are similar.”

***

ACT3-play-acting

Initially, watching Xander and the 40-odd other kids participating in the modern-day rendition of the trio’s labour of love through the very capable drama instructor Ms Frances Lee (who has been teaching with them for 5 years now) reminded me of the fun I had watching and screaming along on cue with ACT 3’s performances back when I was their age.

ACT3-Frances-Lee

I took up acting and directing as part of my formal studies back in poly (and I got a B+ to show for it, too), which largely explains my penchant for drama in my daily life. I mention this otherwise very how lian point because, when I got back from our late lunch (it was a drop-off workshop so the Wife and I could take an hour off being Xander’s parents), I caught a glimpse of, and recognised – some of what Ms Frances was doing amidst all the play-acting with the kids. It was by no means the typical “Come children, let’s do some weird stuff that nobody can understand in front of your parents so they think these nonsense activities we’ve come up with are adding value to your learning experience” mumbo-jumbo other learn-through-play outfits might pull over your eyes. These were actual acting techniques adjusted and deployed for children’s sensibilities, so kids could learn how to emote and express themselves properly through sound and body language.

The whole exercise got me wondering if the drama academy could help Xander find his voice in his everyday communications as well, because our boy has a not-very-small problem with expression and self-confidence, especially when it comes to telling us what he wants or what he is feeling.

So the Blogfather wrote to enquire about their term classes, and visited their campus at 126 Cairnhill Arts Centre for a trial lesson (parking is a little tricky, and it’s a bit of a walk from the nearest train station, but you get used to it). One month later, Xan is now 3 classes into the term (mind you, we paid in full, minus a small regular discount they offer for Children’s Development Account cardholders).

You’d know when class was starting when you hear Ms Frances’s full-bodied operatic voice booming across the school compound for the children to gather into their designated classroom. Like the standalone workshops, these are drop-off classes, and parents don’t really get to hang around or see what they’re doing for the hour that they’re in there, though there are waiting rooms for parents in case you decide to hang around until classes end.

And it’s usually when their activities end that you see your kids do interesting stuff, like this:

We know Xan can read pretty well, but the Wife and I are quite impressed that the boy is actually able to recite an entire poem – complete with actions – after only having been taught in a one-hour class, without having to read the poem off the handout at all.

Or maybe we’re just easily impressed. Regardless, we’ll see what transpires when Xander completes his 10-week term.

***
ACT 3 International has also kindly offered up 2 sets of 4 tickets (2 winners of 4 tickets each) for the 27 September, 10.30am to 11.30am performance of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Eric Carle Favourites at the Drama Centre (on the 5th floor of the National Library Building on Victoria Street, if you don’t already know), followed by an exclusive, not-for-sale backstage tour happening after the play (11.50am to 12.10pm).
publicity
The results are out, and this has been one of the bigger responses The Blogfather has had on a giveaway! Thanks to everyone who has participated. The winners are:

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We’ll be contacting you shortly via PM for your contact details!

Primary 1 Registration – Going Into Ballot

81.

That was Xander’s alloted ballot number. I assumed it would be a smaller number, seeing as we were one of the first registrants for the Primary 1 registration under Phase 2B for this school. But it was just as well, because we got to the school about 10 minutes late. I overslept; it’s one of the ways I handle anxiety.

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And when we finally shuffled into the packed multi-purpose room full of anxious parents (all not enough sleep, I bet), the school’s vice-principal was already reciting the list of registrants into the 30s. Midway through, another school staffer would interject, saying that the balloting equipment (the spinning dome, balloting balls, and procedures are supplied by MOE, and the entire process is strictly governed “to ensure fairness for all”.

One set of parents in the room were particularly anxious; they were parents to a pair of twins, both of whom were sharing one ballot number. The vice-principal made sure to explain the technicalities behind this arrangement (siblings go together as per MOE policy, so if their ballot wasn’t drawn, they’d draw another ballot ball at the end for the extra seat. They were allotted Ballot Ball 1.

When the vice-principal got to the last name, a call for questions is thrown to the floor. Everyone keeps quiet. After a 5-second pause, the spin begins.

They announce every single step,from the shuffling of the balls in the spinning dome, to the drawing of the balls announcing of the numbers and reciting the name of the child attached to the number.

Nerve-wracking is an understatement. Each spin of the ballot dome, every crackling of balls hitting each other sends reverberations of tense hope, and every time the dome stops, so does the heart of every single one of the 100-odd parents sitting nervously in the room.

At the announcement of the 3rd or 4th ballot ball, one mother couldn’t contain her yelp of joy and relief. The slight commotion was met with awkward stares all around the packed room, and the excitable mother couldn’t compose herself quickly enough. No one else dared yelp after that.

15 balls in, the school bell rings. Children are cheering for the end of one period and the beginning of another, oblivious to what’s happening in the room packed full of parents. I couldn’t take much more of this. I turn to look at the Wife with a slight pained expression, and say to her in a hushed, serious tone, “I need to go toilet.”

That’s another way I handle anxiety.

I return, relieved somewhat, and Xander’s ball still hasn’t been called. Towards the end of the balloting, Ballot Ball 1 is called. The announcement is followed by a loud murmur throughout the room; the twins have their places. The vice-principal then addresses the murmur by saying there are now 11 vacancies left. The tense reminder silences the room again. The dome spins again, then stops. A ball is drawn, and the vice-principal raises his microphone.

“81.”

***

What of the unsuccessful registrants? The vice-principal was mindful enough to let them know after the balloting was done that their registration documents will be sent back to them, and the parents will be required to re-register again for the Phase 2C.

Postscript Update: It must be said, this post was meant to be a first-person documentation of at least this part of the P1 registration process (as detailed as MOE’s explanation is on their website, one can barely find any commentary on what goes on at any given part of it – now we all know the primary school balloting process is really like an official drawing of winning Toto numbers).

The Blogfather feels just as iffy about the entire phasing mechanism as anyone who has an opinion about it does (and it looks like there’s a lot of people who have an opinion about it). But whatever can, should and will be said about the Primary One registration process in all its wonderful segregatory glory, it’s the only process we have at present, and it’s a national process. So we’re all going to have to get with the programme.

For now.

Every School a Good School – But Which One is Best?

The atmosphere is infectious. And not in a good way.

Young parents stand nervously around the school porch waiting for their number to be called. Those who’ve volunteered their time to help handle the crowd at last year’s registration will know, the timing of your number being called is crucial. If your number is called too early, it usually means a document is missing, or a qualifying criteria wasn’t met. If your number is called late, there’s likely been a hitch in administration, and your agonising wait is made even more agonising by the delay.

It doesn’t help that the parents come to register in pairs as a safeguard in case one parent is holding information or documentation that the other one wouldn’t have on hand. The waiting crowd visually inflates the actual number of registrants vying for the vacancies (and, based on the registration phases progress chart helpfully posted on a makeshift whiteboard nearby, not much more than the 20 reserved seats for just this phase).

Aside from the school administration staff handling the paper shuffling, who have to put up a brave front during these events, no one else is smiling, even though some of us know each other from our parent volunteering stints over the past year.

P1-reg-wait

Our number gets called up. We submit the one and only form we were asked to fill out in triplicate indicating our family’s information and that we fulfilled our parent volunteer obligations as a pre-requisite for Phase 2B. About 15 minutes later, our number was called again, and we were handed one of the copies of the form indicating that the results of our application would be announced on Friday.

The next day, a fellow parent volunteer messaged me to tell me we’re going into balloting.

***

Phase 2B this year has turned out to be more tense an affair than last year, with a record 31 primary schools oversubscribed compared to 24 from last year. It also puts to rest once and for all any speculation that parent volunteering ensures you a place in the primary school of your choosing. There’s been rising dissent to the phasings of the Primary 1 registration process, so much so that stop-gap measures had to be put in to ensure certain groups get priority over others (right down to who gets to go in the balloting box: first priority to Singapore citizens, followed by closest distance between applicant’s residential address to the school). Unsuccessful applicants from a previous phase can try again in the next phase, but again, this is by no means a guarantee of a spot; if anything, the competition will only get stiffer with every unsuccessful play because you’ll be contending with a new, larger batch of applicants together with the spillover from the previous phases.

When Education Minister Heng Swee Keat first came up with the tagline “Every School a Good School”, parents of young children across the nation let out a collective, sarcastic snigger so loud he had to re-explain the phrase he tried to coin. Top school principals were reshuffled into heartland schools, school banding was eliminated, and the MOE Facebook page started regularly publishing features on neighbourhood schools that, in the Minister’s own “let-me-clarify” words, “good in its own way, seeking to bring out the best in every child.”

But the reputation of the really good schools precede them, and that precedent has so far only managed to overtake the efforts to play down their worth. And having brought us all up to judge our peers, our environment, and ourselves based on the logic of meritocracy, one simply cannot expect to stop a nation of self-respecting parents not to want the best for their child. No one has ever faulted the Singapore education system for being sub-standard (in fact, we’re actually complaining that our kids aren’t failing enough),  but with a list of 187 primary schools, all segregated in clusters, inevitably parents will seek to do some banding of their own. Therein lies psychologist Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice, creating his similarly-implied anxiety to both the parent shopping for a primary school, and, as it were, the national education provider.

I know of parents that have refused to partake in this anxiety, choosing to be allocated a school in their immediate vicinity; they have the Blogfather’s full respect for being able to resist what we could not, but even they will tell you the only reason they took the stance was because they, too, were afflicted with the same anxiety when it was time to take on the Primary 1 Registration monster. As I said in the beginning, the atmosphere is infectious, and not in a good way.

Ultimately, the only thing you can be assured of is that your child will go into a primary school, thanks to the government’s long-standing no-child-left-behind policy.

The primary school of your choosing“.

Interestingly, my son, who is the centre of our whole ordeal with the registration process, has absolutely no idea what is going on. Until things are firmed up as to which school he will ultimately enrol in, we’re just going to let him lead his almost-carefree kindergarten life for the next few weeks…

… while we continue to infect the atmosphere with our anxiety as parents of a child going into Primary 1.

Three Books, The Book and Barbra Streisand

I was told yesterday morning about a press conference that the NLB was holding to address the book removal issue that became a thing the day before.

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Up until Today Online started covering the conference, I was trying to figure out why they wanted to hold a press conference when a) they already released a vague statement reiterating their stance on the issue, and b) the lady who first gaffed on NLB’s part (and whose name most of the first responders just couldn’t get right initially), Assistant Chief Executive and Chief Librarian Ms Tay Ai Cheng was still on leave (and won’t be back until next week).

As it turned out, nothing much was said in the new statement that wasn’t already said in the last statement (reproduced below), except for a few clarifications on how many requests they receive on average (about 20 book titles are challenged every year) and how many actually get cut (about a third; this year, it was only And Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express and Who’s in My Family, all 3 challenged by the same complainant(s) who started this whole mess).

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What I see just about every single report immediately latch on, though, was that (quoting Today Online) “(t)he three titles will be pulped in accordance to library policy…

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Oh for the love of penguins.

You do not tell a group of people who write for a living that you, the largest book repository in the country, destroy books. I am so lost for words, probably because NLB pulped them.

Other media outlets decided to use other synonyms (I saw the words trashed and destroyed on separate occasions), but none tried to play down the fact; the sentiment was felt all round – you might as well have said you burn books.

But It Has Never Been About the Books

I cannot understand how a statutory board (or 3 seeing as NLB says it follows MSF and MDA family policy) allowed this moved so quickly from pissing off the LGBT crowd, to pissing off the non-conventional family unit crowd, to pissing off the literary and journalistic crowd. I honestly thought the press conference was engineered to spite those who disagreed with the action, until I found out from a reporter who was there that it was a question thrown from the floor – a question the poor lady who had to take over her colleague who was on leave simply wasn’t prepared to answer.

I really would advise the NLB to please stop doing or saying anything else at this point because at the rate you’re going, you’ll only have the We Are Against Pink Dot in Singapore group left on your side, and honestly, that’s actually not a lot of people, and from what I hear from a choice number of my other pro-family theistic friends, also not quite representative of who they say they represent.

The speed at which this incident has gained traction has also left some confused; all this over 2 (now 3) books? I would have gone into a good few paragraphs about how this had never been about the books, and how even the so-called “pro-family” activists should be very very worried about what they started, but Remy Choo beat me to it (and he even pulls a Luke 6:31 with a legal case involving the Bible), so allow me to just quote:

“Is the National Library Board’s (NLB) removal of two titles for being insufficiently “pro-family” the first step down a slippery slope to controlling publicly available information for narrow and sectarian ends?

I hope not.

The prospect is frightening, and it really should concern all right thinking Singaporeans, gay or straight, religious or atheistic, pro or anti-government.”

The Streisand Effect

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The Streisand Effect (or the unintentional drawing of the exact kind of attention one doesn’t want) has been mentioned in discussions about the PM vs Roy Ngerng, and now here. All this talk about the books has gotten me, a cheapskate blogger who can get meals, toys and entry to events for the price of about 800 words each, to plonk down a grand total of $50.53 on Amazon to purchase 3 kids’ books that were probably all just gonna read once and leave to collect dust in a shelf for until the authorities decide to check our homes for pulpable material. More importantly, it’s getting us to talk to our children about sexuality and complex family units more readily than had we never gotten wind of what happened.

But there’s a dark side to the Streisand Effect as well, which the Mother of Xander raised in our after-dinner conversation last night: instead of getting us to not teach our children about homosexuality, we’ve now grown extremely unwilling to discuss certain religions with our children. We cannot explain the hate emanating from some of the people that represent it, and no children’s book of the subject currently exists that can help us.

The only solace we can take from all this is knowing the actual penguins involved don’t even know what the hell’s going on. And I believe they honestly don’t care. Maybe that’s something we all should really learn.

Update 18/7/2014: Looks like the voicing out worked.

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The Blogfather’s first post on the issue here.

Getting Older

Dear Xander,

You’ve always been a lot closer to your mother than to me. It is a perfectly reasonable bias, admittedly; she is much more better-looking than I am, for one. And she does treat you better than I do on most occasions.

I do envy your mother sometimes for the attention she receives from you. Perhaps it is because we spend so much time together, that I can’t help but use her as the superior parenting benchmark and wonder where I went wrong.

One evening when I was giving you a shower, you taught me where I went wrong.

I was just recovering from a gruelling bike training session the night before, and my body was still aching from the exercise. So when it came time to soap you, I let out a groan as I knelt down to your height and started lathering you up.

“Daddy, why you pain?”, you asked as I grimaced at the feeling of my aching thighs.

“Sigh. My body is not as nubile as it used to be. So after I exercise, I will feel pain when I kneel down. Daddy’s getting old already,” I said with a smile.

You froze, your eyes fixed on my face with a look of concern (despite not knowing what the word “nubile” means), and you maintained that stare despite the water and shampoo trickling down your face.

I returned the stare, albeit in confusion to your reaction. “What?” I asked you.

You contemplated my query for a second, then said in a measured tone, “Daddy… don’t die.”

“Huh?! Why do you think I’m going to die?” I asked.

“Because you say you old already. I don’t want you to die,” you replied. The concerned look never left your face the entire time.

I laughed. “Don’t worry. Daddy’s gonna be around for a long time.”

That one moment we shared – just between you and me – was a profound one. That moment, I learned I was important to you too. And i was competing against no one; you only have the one dad.

And I’m gonna be around for a long time.

Love,

Dad

Dear NLB – Singling Out Penguins & Swans

To:
Ms Tay Ai Cheng
Assistant Chief Executive & Chief Librarian
Public Library Services Group
National Library Board

Dear Ms Tay,

My son, my wife and I are long-time patrons of your excellent establishment. My son, especially, particularly loves your vast collection of books, and he would like to also extend his heartiest commendations to the Board’s recent My Tree House children’s section revamp of your Central Library.

NLB-My_Tree-House

We’ve always reveled at how we might find rather progressive reads among your children’s titles, and have borrowed many a book to read as bedtime stories to our son. But my family was surprised, disturbed and quite dismayed to learn about a recent apparent decision of yours to pull two titles, And Tango Makes Three and White Swan Express, based on what looks like a single visitor’s feedback and the grounds that they did not fall in line with the strong pro-family stand your establishment takes in selecting books for children.

Coincidentally, just one day before I read about your decision, I was discussing a story that surfaced in social media of two male penguins having successfully raised an adopted chick. During the discussion, I said that although the human concept of homosexuality may be completely lost on penguins, “(a)nthropomorphisms are what we do to try and understand the world in our terms. The same concept creates as much havoc in our own social construct as it helps build our understanding of the world we live in, and each other.”

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That said, I dare say your recent action has taken a rather irrational direction, which is ironic seeing as your establishment has long been revered as a bastion of knowledge for not only this country’s citizens, but around the region. One wonders, if the Board would so readily pull two so-deemed questionable titles based on just one complaint, why the Board has not yet pulled Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (that beautiful story written in a Scottish accent that made heroin addiction cool), Adam Mansbach’s Go the F**k to Sleep (the Samuel L. Jackson audio version, no less), or the most recent of book titles being arbitrarily challenged, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (that one set of parents in the US challenged based on their citation of the “227 instances of coarse language and sexuality”, never mind that the book dealt with abuse, discrimination and bullying in a very strong and honest way).

Given the heated discourse being openly conducted in our country, in part to define family values, I feel obliged to speak up as a husband, a father of two and an ardent supporter of all things valued by family. Family values are unique to each and every family; what might work for one family might not fit into the beliefs of another. I know of enough people around me and around the world afflicted by disability, sickness, death, divorce, financial burden, miscarriage, infertility, or even racial, religious, political and sexual discrimination to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to family creation and management. And if I may say as way of compliment to the Board, I learned how to empathise with all of these people and all these situations through the various children’s books my family regularly bring home to read as bedtime stories to our children, just over the last 4 years alone.

I'd tell you what books moved me and my family, but you'd have to put them back in the shelves first.
I’d tell you what books moved me and my family, but you’d have to put them back in the shelves first.

I believe the Board seeks to cater to as broad a base of readers as you are able to reach, which means you do actively consider carrying a diverse range of material that may each address one psychographic of your audience over another, in a bid to capture as many subsets of the population-at-large as you can. That being said, I feel the need to remind you that our family values are ultimately for our own family to dictate and no one else, much less one who would impose his or her own ideals and beliefs on an entire nation by denying it of knowledge that might ultimately lead to a better understanding of the world we live in, knowledge contained in every book, periodical and media recording that you carry – including but not limited to the two book titles you’re now pulling off your shelves.

Besides, given the immense smorgasbord of topics and categories that you cover, the Board cannot be expected to endorse every view contained in every book, periodical and media recording that you carry, can you? So why would you dig your good selves a precarious hole of such a ridiculous cause by starting with two children’s books that deal indiscriminately with the one family value that should be most emphasised yet is also the most overlooked in our society today – love?

Our future lies in the hands of our children, and you play an essential part in their upbringing. My family and I (not to mention a number of my other friends and likeminded library users – here, here, here and here – from whom you’ve no doubt also heard from already since this unfortunate turn of events) do sincerely expect you will do right by the people you serve.

With hope,

Winston Tay

Update 18/7/2014: Looks like the voicing out worked.

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The Blogfather’s follow-up post on the issue here.