[Review] Marsiling’s Automated Tray Return System

First published on The Blogfather’s Facebook Page here.

Marsiling: this seemingly innocuous estate has seen a bit of drama over the last year, firstly when it quite inexplicably lost its representative Member of Parliament to an unfortunate incident many of us now refer to under our breath with a disgruntled, forceful spray of spittle as the Reserved Presidential Election.

It looks like some of the people managing Marsiling want to keep the momentum going, this time with an absolutely brilliant idea that will surely thrust the constituency into the forefront of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative, complete with green and pink robots sprouting multiple arms out the sides of their bodies.

***

I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the only two-month-old Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre, and to observe for myself how the much-lauded Automated Tray Return System worked.

It didn’t.

No trays. Just everything else.

It isn’t technically broken or anything. As far as I can see, the tray return belts were running, there were cleaners manically sorting and cleaning utensils inside, but having sat there for the entire duration of one Sunday night dinner plus about 15 minutes of idling, no one actually used it to return any trays.

Right next to the tray chomper, they do have “manual” utensil return station. But the whole set-up is just kind of intimidating to the casual user, to be honest.

One wonders why… until one actually buys food from the stalls. Most of them don’t provide trays. And the patrons of those that do, don’t use them, preferring to hand-carry their purchases bowl by hot soupy bowl to their tables.

See any trays? :/

Meanwhile, the tables remain haunted by the remnants of its previous occupants, while the cleaners worked more swiftly than usual to try to keep the otherwise new food court pristine.

The cleaners do try their best when the diners don’t seem to even want to try.

Oh dear. What could have possibly gone wrong? Why is this new, innovative technological approach actually making things worse? And are they really going to implement this incredibly idiotic idea into 23 other hawker centres? Will somebody please stop these NEAncompoops?

In order to demonstrate just how badly this scheme has so utterly backfired on itself three times over, allow me to respond to some fantastic quotes from another CNA article that covers the tray return system specifically.

“With the ATRS, cleaners will be able to focus on cleaning tables instead of having to clear the plates of cutlery left behind.”
Two hawker centres start automated tray return, to charge deposits for trays [29 Jan 2018, Channel NewsAsia]

In fact, the complete opposite has happened. Cleaners are working double-time to clear the cutlery off tables because there are no trays for them to pile the cutlery on and remove in a single motion. and then they clean the tables. And given the circumstances, I really give all my respect tot he cleaners for maintaining the food centre’s sanity despite this. I would add that if not for Marsiling being so ulu in the first place, they would have easily been overwhelmed by the work they had to do to keep the place clean.

“Changing the behaviour and mindset of the public will take time and it will take patience.”
– Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources and Senior Minister of State for Health

Actually, it took absolutely no time at all to change the behaviour and mindset of the public. Thanks to the complete lack of forward thinking in implementing the idea, we all hate it so much that no one is coughing up the deposit for the trays, resulting in patrons not even using them any more. People are even revolting against the idea, returning only the trays but leaving the crockery behind; the news picked up on this just 2 days after Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of oh-you-know launched the thing.

Even worse, there are people who actually want to clear their table themselves and return their trays and crockery, but the System has made it so inconvenient to do so that the considerate ones would rather not come back a second time, even though the food there is really not half bad. And anyone who has encountered elderly people feeling completely and utterly lost in front of ATMs can just imagine how they would feel when facing these tray-eating behemoths, and for what? 50 cents?

Wah. So advanced until people don’t use.

Hawkers aren’t buying into it, either; I mentioned that most of them had given up providing the trays already since their customers weren’t taking them. They could use the extra countertop space anyway. But the idea of charging a tray deposit makes even less sense; despite having an easier time with washing up (which they have to pay more for as well), these stallholders already have to contend with a drop in business on top of higher cost of operations. Who has the time to manage a separate stash of deposit money that isn’t even theirs?

“We need to sustain this and of course, continue to encourage the community to support this.”
– Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of This Is Just Too Long To Type Already

I actually have no problem with the technology itself. I imagine people might have fun watching 2 hawker stalls swallowing copious numbers of trays and crockery. But why do our stat boards believe our people have to be managed with money all the time? Timbre+ did okay with a similar system; their deposited is included into your dine-in meal cost by default, and failure to returns is as good as forfeiting your deposit – h/t Shawn Toh). The food they sell there is so overpriced anyway you barely feel it. Besides, people expect a private enterprise to use money as their language for control. Why does our public sector keep thinking the same language applies to their work?

Dear, dear National Environment Agency (NEA). The solution is incredibly simple, and you even get to keep your dirty-dish swallowing machines (even keep installing new ones) and still contribute productively to the country’s Smart Nation drive. Simply forego the bloody 50-cent/$1 deposit, tape up the coin return component, put the non-automated tray return stations back next to all the pillars keeping the food centre roof up, SUSTAIN your education of the public on the virtues of habitual table clearing, and of course, continue to encourage the community to support THAT.

And please don’t take too long, because Marsiling is making you look really bad right now. And I really don’t feel like visiting Bukit Merah Central either.

I didn’t eat this.

Coffee, Tea or MOE (or Oops, I Overdid It Again)

(LONG POST AHEAD)

So I was asked to a teatime dialogue session by the Ministry of Education’s newly formed Engagement and Research Division. I thought it was because I called their minister a knob, and it didn’t help that when I was the first to arrive at the cafe we were supposed to meet, I was led to a table for four. And when the other invited guest (yes, just the one other), I wondered is she called the minister a knob as well.

As it turned out, the Divisional Director preferred to keep things “cozy”. Shortly after she and another colleague sat down and we made introductions, they opened the discussion for their guests to talk,  without setting an agenda. So, me being me, I just let it rip… for 1½ hours.

(Of course I wasn’t the only one talking the whole time, but I don’t quite have their permission to put their bits in, so I’m going to just put mine ad verbatim… more or less.)

“Okay, so. I see three issues with the MOE.

You have this huge archaic machine of an education system running on a 50-year-old ideology that draws further and further away from today’s reality as every year passes. But you can’t make radical shifts and do something like eliminate the PSLE altogether because then you’d void your secondary and tertiary level streaming processes it would cause the rest of your academic levels to come crashing down. Our government is way more measured with how it institutes change, and I can appreciate that. It doesn’t help that you have an education minister who’s been undermining your efforts with how he’s been presenting himself in the public eye. You probably can’t do anything about him either.

“But your biggest problem is parents.

“One question has been bugging me ever since my son got inducted into academic life (mind you, his experience with primary school stress took effect as early as preschool level). My own primary school education 30 years ago was never this hard and stressful, and now I’m flipping through my son’s Primary 2 Maths textbook and finding he has calculus in his syllabus. I opted out of A-Maths at A-Levels just to avoid doing calculus! How did the bar get raised beyond the appropriateness of our children’s age and learning capabilities?

“Your problem is the parents who have confused wanting the best for their child with wanting their child to be the best. Back in the 80s I was sent to tuition classes because I was falling behind. Then parents started treating tuition into a level-up solution, where kids go to keep a step ahead of their school syllabus, and our schools find themselves having to adjust to the raised bar to keep up with the kids. Then comparing PSLE T-scores became a trend, and the pride of the top-scoring parents draws the envy of the nearly top-scoring, and the insecurities of the not top-scoring end up getting everyone joining the T-score race, and that’s how our tuition industry exploded.

“We turned into a world-class education system because of neurotic parents. And because they’ve been speaking the loudest whether through words or actions, you’ve had to adjust your own policies and syllabus over time to keep up with their demands.

“May I say the idea to switch from T-score to banding isn’t working, because it’s still a points-based system that parents can make their kids chase after; in other words, your neurotic parents are still at it, and all you did was simplify the race for them.

“I want to suggest you try a more skills-based or values-based banding system, like banding based on creativity, logic and reasoning, hands-on work, leadership, followership, empathy and compassion, determination and hard work, and so on. Something that will tell parents that no matter what level, their child is worth something to society, to their family and friends, to themselves.

“No, it’s not the Direct Schools Admission exercise (DSA). You’ve set the DSA to apply only to a minority of the primary school cohort, and even then the idea, however well-intentioned, is being gamed by the neurotic parents. I have a neighbour that’s been putting her Primary 1 kids through table tennis lessons in a bid to qualify for DSA. We hear from her maid that they’re horrible at table tennis.

“Look, If you can iron out the kinks in your DSA programme, then what I’m suggesting is expand it and apply it as a standard streaming scheme across the board. Keep the PSLE if you really need to supplement the process  with an ‘objective, tangible’ evaluation system. Offering a much broader scope of choices gets parents who still want to game the system to reduce their emphasis on grades and start looking at their child’s development a lot more holistically.

“But more importantly, I think it’s high time MOE starts engaging with these neurotic parents. Up until now, the public doesn’t hear from you guys enough. For me to know you were actually actively trying to solve these issues we’ve been raising and diligently plugging holes in your archaic machine took me a lot of discussion, debate and digging with other people, sometimes from other industries, but up until this tea session, not from you guys. In fact, when I first saw the name ‘Communications and Engagement Group’ in your email signature, I thought to myself, ‘Where have you guys been this whole time?’

“I think last year’s news about the teen suicides actually helped you guys in that it made these parents do a lot of soul-searching. But you do need to follow through on pushing this message across. As an education ministry, you need to tell people that our children’s education is by no means the sole responsibility if the academic institution, and that the things our children need to learn that schools cannot teach, have to be taught by us parents at home.

“If you want to really hear what the ground is saying, you might want to tag along when your colleagues at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) do their engagements, because a substantial portion of the issues raised are about education, but even their Ministers there tell us they can’t speak for MOE, so much of those questions get very limited responses, if at all. I know we all could really use your presence at their dialogue sessions. Just please don’t send your own Minister to these engagements, at least not until he learns some empathy.

“And I don’t know if you realise it, but you already have a ready platform for engaging parents: parent support groups. Nearly every primary school has its own PSG, each housing a pool of up to a few hundred parent volunteers. No, you don’t go through the PSGs to get to the neurotic parents. The PSGs are the neurotic parents. Why do you think they join the PSG in the first place? They get to keep tabs on their kids in school, get an intimate look into what their kids’schools are doing, and form a larger network of like-minded neurotic parents to supplement their class WhatsApp group chats so they can all collectively freak out over last week’s homework due tomorrow together.

“Think about it. Nearly 200 primary schools with PSGs that hold annual thank-you dinners for their volunteers in assembly halls attended by 100-200 parents, and your top-tier influencers for the rest of their parental cohort. A captive audience of the exact psychological profile you’re looking to engage.

“You don’t really need to worry about the rest of us. Less neurotic parents know well enough to care for their kids and not depend on the education system to serve out what its not equipped to, so you won’t hear very much from us other than what the neurotic ones are making us freak out over. If you can use that same sphere of influence PSG parents have will naturally trickle down to the rest of us, and through engaging them, you can shift the mindset into one that allows you to adjust your policies more peaceably.

“MOE really needs to communicate; instead of unwittingly stopping discussions short with a blanket statement like ‘We know what’s happening and we’re dealing with it’, tell us exactly what you’re doing and what problems you’re facing. Some of us might actually understand you, and a few might even have workable suggestions you could use. And at any rate, we’d much prefer to hear from the heart of your organisation—you—than its head.

“After all this, I guess the only bugbear I have left is your boss. I originally came in to this session with the mind to say he’s just wrong for the role, but I think it would be much more constructive to ask that he improve his own understanding of how parents and children across the spectrum approach education, and not just assume everyone can ‘chiong’ their way through life, or that cleaners aren’t okay. From interacting with some of his Cabinet peers, I know better than to hold him as an example of who are running our country. But the public is not as discerning.

“I’m really glad you’ve taken the time to listen to me, and I’m really, really glad for  your Division’s existence. Let me know if you need any more from me, I’d be happy to get a cup of tea with you again. I’ll leave you guys to your work now; you have a lot of catching up to do.”

That's Not How You Make a Better World, Kid

Seen this one before? The comic strip about two mothers telling their respective children the value of a good education through two different types of messaging went viral on 9GAG back in February last year—exactly one year ago, in fact. And I’m going to say straight out, I really didn’t agree with this back then. I said as much when I first saw it on a friend’s Facebook feed.

Now, this friend recently reposted the comic strip, intending to use it as an example of “reframing” the way parents can communicate an idea to turn a negative message into a positive message. Please allow me to add a further frame to the story:

And who taught you to talk about people from across the road?
And who taught you to use people you don’t even know as an example for your children?

Then last Friday, one of our Ministers for Education decided to share the comic strip again because “it struck a chord with him”.

And of course, The Blogfather had to take issue with it again.

And of course I screencapped this right after posting because this kind of thing has a tendency of disappearing.
And of course I screencapped this right after posting because this kind of thing has a tendency of disappearing.

Actually, if there’s just one thing that would have made the original strip work, it would be to inject some proper empathy into the situation. It’s obvious Mrs Pointy-Fingers doesn’t have any, but you’d also be mistaken if you think the other mum was exercising any, because if she was, she’d much more likely be going up to the street cleaner himself to ask if there was anything she could do for him.

Many of us are fortunate to be in a position of privilege—mothers, mentors, and ministers included. And many times we speak from that position without first considering of the plights of those not in our position. Fortunately, I’ve met a couple of people in authority that are so conscious of this that they tend to make their decisions very carefully, sometimes at the cost of being criticised by the ground for being too slow to react to the times.

Minister Ng, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. I’m not going to contradict myself by judging him based on his (not-very-long) history. But for urging students to “chiong” in a sweeping motherhood statement just as this year began, without stopping to understand the many different problems these kids face that are keeping them from doing so, and now this insufficiently considered Facebook post drudged up from an already debated, quite divisive comic strip, I don’t know that I can trust this man with our nation’s education.

Proper empathy ensures we help people the way they need to be helped—by listening to them first. And much as we would like to think we are blessed with a world-class education system, that personal, one-on-one level of empathy—which is what I feel to be essential to “making a better world” for him, her, they, us—isn’t something we can adequately learn from “studying well” in school; we learn it from our parents first and foremost, from society in general, from our own experiences of moral good at every point of our lives.

Last year’s spate of teen suicide stories have already spurred a group of well-meaning parents to convince us not to depend on “studying well” for the sake of our children’s sanity (and even then I don’t particularly agree with how they’re doing it). “Reframing” that discourse this way, as motivational or magnanimous it sounds, isn’t going to help de-pressurise the system for our kids.

We’ve been conditioned to encourage good intentions. These days, I don’t know if we’re defaulting to that encouragement even when the morality of those good intentions are brought to question. Regardless, may I please request we think before we teach.

The Big PSLE Freakout

This is beginning to be as sensitive as talking about religion. And it’s getting worse and worse every year.

Then there are all these positive initiatives getting people to share stories and PSLE T-scores in the name of telling Nintendo DS-denying parents grades don’t matter (she’s since learned an important lesson: be careful what you say in front of a journalist).

First: I love that this is happening, I think it’s important that it’s happening, but I’m sorry this is happening.

Second: please, please stop for a minute. We’re making things worse. All these hundred stories from a hundred voices about defining and achieving success a hundred ways, all these I-did-well-despite-my-studies-so-can-your-child-now-let’s-group-hug hullabaloo, all this is as useful to our PSLE-worshipping parents as telling a person with depression to try some exercise (and in case you think that’s okay, it’s not).

This is how the Democrats lost the US Presidential Election. It’s how parents unwittingly lose their connections with our children. It’s how we lose people to suicide.

We don’t help anyone by talking about what you’ve done, how I can do what you do, how it’s the right way; I’m not you, so stop making yourself look so obnoxious, because you’re starting to sound like the person whose mindset you’re trying to change. As parents who have gone through our children’s first years deciphering their cries and behaviour in a bid to lock in their mealtime/potty-time/bedtime routines, one would think we’d understand that it doesn’t really help when we tell our kids, “Look at the boy at the next table, so well-behaved”, or even, “Look at me, why can’t you be like me?” (To be honest, the Wife and I haven’t gotten that right either.) But what does help is when we listen and observe our own child, then learn how best to do life together.

So listen.

The KiasuParents gang—the parents that really need the help, us, me—have the impression, probably from going through it ourselves some 25-30 years ago, that the PSLE T-score is the first major measure of academic efficiency across the education eco-system—students, parents, educators right up to the Ministry itself—and to us, it’s been so deeply entrenched in the system that up until 2014 an Education Minister has said it won’t be abolished (even though MOE will be replacing the T-score with a new banding scheme in 2021, a potential whole new can of worms on its own).

We hear murmurs about how teachers are still ranked against each other using the class T-score aggregate as a key performance indicator, or how schools still have to depend on T-score aggregates to report faculty performance (every school a good school but how good still has to be measured by the overseeing authority). After primary school, secondary schools, even DSA schools, use T-score cut-off points to filter their student applications. T-scores still play a part in assessment of bursary and study grant disbursements. And T-scores are used to sort incoming secondary school students into Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams—the streams aren’t just a matter of academic division to allow tailored teaching, learning and resource allocation based on academic ability, but inadvertently a division of social classes as well… and that’s how teens lose their childhood so quickly.

For as long as the PSLE has been implemented into our system, this T-score has remained in our minds as the most tangible of performance indicators that the system can use, and can’t easily be let go as much as everyone wants it eliminated.

It’s far from the full story with our education system, though, as the teachers, principals, administrators nd policymakers working in the system will read this and start tearing their hair out saying “You’ve got it all wrong, you ninnies!” In fact, the MOE has been trying to de-emphasise PSLE with specialised schoolsApplied Learning and Learning for Life programmes, elective modules, how secondary school allocations are also based on portfolio presentations and interviews, how bursaries are also evaluated based on student conduct (which presents its own problems). Educator/school performance evaluations conducted by the ministry vary from school to school, but at its fairest, they’re based on sophisticated formulas of Bell curve positioning, teaching efficacy, CCA performance, student background mix, student well-being, leadership quality, financial planning ability, overall health of the student body… T-score aggregation, if it’s even used, is just one fish in a much larger school. These solutions are far from perfect, of course (for example, the DSA programme can be gamed to get academically sound kids through to their parents’ preferred schools, and denying places to kids who actually deserve it), but the much bigger problem the ministry has is finding a way to communicate this to the parental masses without us glazing over and falling asleep in class.

Then last Thursday, a thread started by a rather good-looking dude who reminds me of John Molina if he got a PhD is making it look like PSLE T-scores do determine career tracks for a lot of us.

Now, if you’re from the #gradesdontmatter side, you’ll see that all that T-score-and-occupation talk doesn’t matter because people are content enough with their own lives to not bother about the correlation (or lack thereof). But the people who do scrutinise grades, the same people that the contentment message should really be hitting, will be looking at all your grades, and judging all of you, because there is a pattern that can be drawn from the comments—and you probably can see it as well—that the higher the commenter’s T-score, the higher the commenter’s career is flying. You can even see the “streaming”: the under-200 level, between 200 and 250, and the over 250s.

Call it generalising, but consider those who aren’t sharing their T-scores and occupations because of Dr. Khairudin’s thread. On the one hand, the ones who’ve actually scored high and are doing phenomenally at their careers will feel they’d just be seen as humblebragging. There’s also the inadequate ones; all this sharing is also creating pockets of insecurity among the people who are just looking on and not sharing: “I scored the same/higher, why haven’t I done as well?” I felt the same way looking at the comments section, and as encouraging as I see the number of comments and shares on Dr. Khairudin’s post, I got the feeling quite a bit more are reacting the same way I did. And I don’t even remember my own PSLE T-score (and I can’t find my primary school report book).

Look. I know you guys mean well. But like I told another advocate group before (and I do hope the group took that to heart at that inaugural dialogue session last Saturday), we should take some time to refine what message we want to send out to those we want to engage with before embarking on storytelling campaigns such as these, because the stories that are being told right now, while commendable, aren’t necessarily the kinds of stories that are all that useful for your intended audience. And please don’t use the traction gained in your efforts, the amount of likes, comments and shares as a gauge on how successful you believe your endeavours to be. It’s confirmation bias, and that’s dangerous in our climate of skeptics.

If you want to change mindsets, understand all this first before you try and bulldoze your opinion into us, because none of this is actually assuring anyone that grades don’t matter,  other than those that already know that grades don’t matter. You’re just making those that don’t subscribe to this belief not want to listen, much less talk to you.

Listen first to those you seek to help, then help them. And if you listen well enough, it might actually dawn on you that this discussion shouldn’t even be about education. #plottwist #jengjengjeeennng

 

Coping, with Success

I think we all live through this phase in our lives believing that we are invincible, that we can do anything we set our minds to, that we can get anywhere we want. And up until I was 35, I wanted to be successful, too. Or at least, I was taught to want it.

I’ve talked about how my mother wanted me to become a doctor to complete the set of children with noble professions that she always wished for, and how my dad, when he had lost hope in me doing well for my O-Levels, sat me down to plan my future career cooking Indonesian cuisine.

Somewhere in the middle of that, though, I wanted to be a musician. I picked up the electric guitar at 13, managed to work myself up to a level where I could impress girls, and then when I turned 20, I took night classes for a music technology diploma at some obscure, now-defunct private school. Then

I wanted to become a lawyer. I never graduated from that diploma course. When I was younger I was told by my mum that I could bloody argue my way out of anything, so since I can’t become a doctor, why not do law? I took up a position in the Supreme Court as a transcriber, then nine months into the job, I got hired by a dotcom run by lawyers (one of whom was my eldest sister), writing and editing content for their legal portal for two years, then

I wanted to become a marketer. At the peak of the company’s most intense internal conflicts, I quit to enrol into Polytechnic and did a full-time mass communications course as a mature candidate using the CPF money I amassed from work. I managed to graduate almost respectably (in my second year I managed to cause some administrative trouble by petitioning for the removal of a lecturer). I joined my second sister’s furniture company as a marketing executive, and as I got comfortable,

I wanted to try everything. For the next five years, I jumped from department to department doing just that… and I burned out. At 32, I quit, partly because spending 3 weeks out of every month in India while my son pass all his developmental milestones at home really really sucked, and our try because I was quite at a loss as to what I wanted.

I wanted to go back to school, to try and earn a psychology degree. But I needed money for that, so I went back to work with my eldest sister at her boutique law firm (litigation and divorce specialists), and lasted all of two years, gobsmacked at how people can still call their lawsuits “civil” after seeing how they conduct themselves in court, and drained by watching seemingly successful people completely and utterly fail to love their spouses and children. Then

I wanted to be a writer—any kind of writer. I tried to pursue writing and failed catastrophically, then went into copywriting and just couldn’t fit in, and then tried PR and became even more miserable.

These days, I’m not sure if the job I’m in now (I’ve still got my writer hang-ups; I’m working for a publishing house) is the job. For that matter, I’m not even sure my boss at my current workplace even likes me.

Then there’s this website, this persona, these stories you’ve been reading that I wrote. Now don’t get me wrong; as far as I know, everything I write here is genuine experience, genuine opinion, genuine me. That said, people think I’m this stand-up family man that takes no bullshit, that no one dares cross because I’m a parent blogger that talks back. They don’t see the breakdowns I have when an argument with the Wife goes too far, the unbridled outbursts when I found two-week-old untouched worksheets my Primary Two boy “forgot” to do, the chair I broke one time during a particularly bad fight at home that nearly injured my 2-year-old daughter. People don’t talk about their failures here. And people don’t hear these stories enough when we really need to.

I’m not a success story. Nor do I want to be deemed one.

Success is such a subjective, short-term notion. People will define success in their own terms: whether it be successfully establishing their own businesses, successfully acquiring their dream jobs, successfully living a sedentary beach bum lifestyle, successfully getting out of bed in the morning to live another day, or successfully learning that success doesn’t matter. Heck, I can fail everything and say I successfully learned from my experience.

So instead of the 1% trying to tell the 99% that “I was just like you, and you can be like us!”, can we have the average Johan teach us how he manages instead? Because these days, we seem to have a serious problem knowing how to manage our own live and our children’s. And then when we think we’ve got more than the hang of it (success!), we try and help others, we somehow manage to miss the point entirely.

I’ve said before that when my son was born, I decided my life was no longer mine to live; my driving force as a father, and what I believe is the driving force behind every parent who cares, is for our children to cope, and hopefully to cope well, too. Successful parenting is coping well, day by day.

We get to an age where we realise life isn’t all about us, and then we worry about the generation that we’re bringing up to take over us, where they are heading, whether they’ll get there because of us, or in spite of us, and whether they’ll be doing the same with their kids when it’s their turn to realise life isn’t about them either.

When shit happens, we cope. We have to cope, or we die. I’d much rather people successfully live to see another day without buckling under all this damn self-inflicted pressure than cry in a corner of a swanky office they can’t afford because Adam Khoo once told their mother they could be somebody.

Please Stop Teaching Us How to Raise Successful Children

This is an appeal to any person, group or organisation that plans parenting talks, seminars, workshops, forums and conferences.

Since I’ve started blogging as a parent, I’ve received invitations to attend (and a couple of times, sit in the panel of) quite a few of these parenting events. It wasn’t until recently that the messages some of these events organisers are using to market their events started to concern me.

Back in 2012, I attended a half-day seminar called “Raising a Successful Child”. The content served isn’t nearly as overbearing as their promotional copy makes them out to be. In fact, one talk I attended actually used case studies of so-called “successful children”—medal-winning athletes and academic geniuses suffering from anxiety and depression—as a warning to parents not to push their children too hard.

I was glad when I came out of that talk, because I was expecting a lecture on how to over-parent. That same talk I attended, I saw parents walking out in disappointment that the seminar didn’t actually provide a concrete method for raising a successful child—well, not one that they thought would work, anyway.

I’m a  copywriter, too, so I understand the core function of such promotional copy is to generate sales. But seeing copy like this makes me wonder if such organisers are misrepresenting the content that their speakers are aiming to serve, or are they really trying to sell us something we really could do with a lot less of right now.

Case in point:

parenting-seminars-featured

I write this in the hope that people who write these things can exercise some responsibility and think through their messaging not just for your paying customers, but for the benefit of our society-at-large that incidentally take in your messages without the intention or means to obtain tickets to your show.

As important as we think ensuring our children are able to strive for themselves is, we already live in a climate of fear, thinking that our children have to excel in our pressure-cooker academic environment in order to survive in life. I want to ask these parenting/education coaches and family-targeted MICE organisers, particularly the ones who tout such phrases as “raising a successful child”, “bring up a champion”, “your child can be better than everyone else”, to please not perpetuate that fear in us any more, because we really don’t know any better.

What we really need you to tell us are these:

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Don’t teach us how to change our kids, teach us how to change ourselves. Don’t try and tell us what our kids need to excel. Tell us how to be present for our children, how to love them properly, how to raise our expectations of ourselves as parents instead managing our expectations of our children.

Don’t teach us how to parent; teach us how to be parents.

Life After Suicide: How to Live with a Permanently Broken Heart

He wore a sadness in his eyes throughout the forum, despite his candid smile, his laid back posture, and the punches of light humour when he exchanged banter with co-panelist Irene Ang (who was present as a survivor of three attempted suicides, something she has not shied away from talking about as a celebrity). I knew beforehand that the forum panel would also consist of the parent of a suicide victim, and while I knew that would make for one of the most interesting episodes of Talking Point I ever watched or participated in, I was not quite sure what to expect.

And when Steve Chia mentioned that the founder of youth outreach foundation Over the Rainbow had lost his only son to suicide seven years ago, Chow Yen-Lu corrected him, “Seven years and 3 days, actually. We’ve been observing his passing the last few days.” One could feel the weight of that knowledge bear down on the audience the rest of the night. While the ever-entertaining Irene Ang kept us light-hearted, and IMH’s Principal Clinical Psychologist Dr Ong Lue Ping’s offering of facts and figures would be greeted with nods and murmurs, each time Mr Chow spoke, the room would fall still and silent to listen intently to his slow, measured responses.

As the moderator opened the discussion to the floor, I raised my hand. Referring to the news report last Friday that mentioned what the mother of the P5 boy who committed suicide cried as she found him, I asked Mr Chow, “That statement resonated quite deeply among parents, but beyond the context of what was said, speaking from your own experience, how did you pick yourselves up from there?”

“We get asked that question a lot,” he said, leaning back and looking thoughtful. “It was difficult. But one of the first things that we did was not to blame ourselves or blame each other, number one. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here today, we would have gone down the other path.”

His calm demeanor belied a quiet pain as he replied me, and I started tearing as I listened.

He continued, “Number two, to accept what’s happened. Third, to find meaning in what’s happened, and to do something about it. So through this experience, we found first of all it’s a wake-up call for us. So we took this up as a cause. Our motto is we want to transform youth mental wellness for the 21st century. Actually, when we do this, we are also helping ourselves; We help ourselves to heal.”

From left: Andy Lee (Sengkang Babies), Chow Yen-Lu (Over the Rainbow), me (you know where) anad Meiling Wong-Chainani (Universal Scribbles) | Photo credit: Andy Lee

Since the above-mentioned news report came out last Friday, and word even spread around the world; there was even news commentary on the BBC World Service saying how common such suicides are in developed Asian countries such s Japan, South Korea, China and Singapore. And of course, there followed a flurry of discussion online: who is really to blame? What are the authorities doing about it? How can parents prevent this? There are even posters crafted by the Ministry of Education with multi-step-step processes outlining how to encourage our children and be present for them were spread around on Facebook, in the hopes that they be used as a guide on how to prevent suicide, even though they weren’t explicitly created for that purpose.

Over and beyond these, there are also the people who survive their loved ones’ deaths. We tend to treat this category of what I consider suicide survivors as well as mere side plots, used to help the story along from a human interest angle, and, as mentioned, sometimes as a potential target to blame. But these are the people with the experiences we really need to hear of, with the lessons that we really need to learn from.

It must have been difficult for Mr Chow and his wife the last seven years, and it will continue to be difficult. But they managed to break through the barriers of their own grief and despair, to reach out and help others as a means for themselves to heal, and to give us that much-needed insight from their own experience.

As the discussion was thrown to the floor for questions, the audience seemed to betray the mindset of our pressure-cooker society: that failure is not an option. But as progressive a nation as we have become in the last 50 years, our failure to accept failure also happens to be our biggest failure. And no, I’m not just talking about parents.

When I read what the mother said next to her son, my heart broke for her, I saw a woman trying to and failing to grapple with the last memory she has of being with her son, because whatever little reason she had left in the moment told her that was why her son took his life; she was crying out the words in overwhelming, debilitating regret. And she is now facing the rest of her life in self-persecution, having to try and hold together a permanently broken heart.

Yet here we are lambasting her for saying what she said, using her words to condemn an imperfect education system that we, too, had a hand in creating, and using her dead son as an example of “a tofu generation”. And we call ourselves a civilised society. I believe we were once better than this, and that we should have been better than this. But this week, we failed.

Now, how do we accept this failure, learn from it and move on with it instead of away from it? Therein lies the lesson that these suicide survivors teach us, and if we learn it well, it’s a lesson that we don’t just teach to our children in multi-step processes, we show them how we do it.

Kidzania: Understanding the Mania

The week before, I took a day off to bring everyone to Kidzania Singapore to see if we could get tickets, but we arrived at Beach Station at 2pm, and seasoned parents of Kidzanians will point at us and mock us in utter noobery of not knowing that we can’t just get walk-in tickets into Kidzania Singapore in the middle of the afternoon during the school hols. So early this week, I took another day off, and The Wife, Xan and I verbally committed ourselves night before to wake up at 7am and get to Sentosa by 9am (Yvie just wakes up whenever the hell she wants, so we didn’t seek her approval on the idea).

We woke up late. But we did manage to get to Kidzania a little after 10am, which isn’t as bad. And we already had tickets which The Wife managed to pre-purchase online just a day before they all sold out.

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Not that it’s cheap, either. When The Wife quipped that the Singapore edition was probably the most expensive Kidzania in the world, I believed her. But for the purposes of fact-checking (because bloggers are sooooooo reliable with facts, aren’t we), I later went and compiled a table of global Kidzania ticket prices for comparison (because bloggers are also soooooooo free, aren’t we).

Kidzania Global Pricelist
Click to view larger image

Singapore’s S$58 kid’s ticket is the 5th most expensive Kidzania ticket in the world, behind Tokyo and Koshien in Japan (between $68.42 to $71), Seoul and Busan in South Korea (S$68), and London (S$61.24). Our $35 adult ticket, however, is the second most expensive, second only to Kuwait’s $35.88 price tag. Put the children’s and adult’s prices together (because almost every Kidzania outlet requires each child to be accompanied by an adult) and Kidzania Singapore actually ranks a very close 3rd most expensive after the 2 Japanese outlets.

That’s a lot to pay for, especially when the adults don’t get to do anything other than pay for their own meals and buy merchandise (great, more spending). But as we spent our day there, I managed to find something about the place that made it worth my wife’s money: other parents, because I just love observing how these intrepid caregivers of their own offspring try–and fail–to operate in a place where kids are trying to be adults and in helping them do so, the adults unwittingly behave like kids.

1. The I-am-my-children’s-representative parent

At Kidzania, the kids are required to do adult things, like delve into different occupations, make their own food, and manage their own money. They also have to queue for everything they want to do. It’s even stated in the signs plastered on stations where queues form. But of course, who has time to read signs?

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This one dad decided to help his kids book a spot (and a good one, too) in the queue for the Qatar Airlines First Officer training course, the most popular station in the place.

The guy stood there for a good 10 minutes arguing his case and getting increasingly agitated while 1 crew member, then 2, then 2 crew members and 3 security people tried to get him to leave the queue. As he argued the rest of the parents and maids either made their kids replace them or silently skulked away. The resistance he put up earned him a firm hand around his arm at the end of it as he was escorted out of the queue and away from the group of children and onlookers wondering if he knew how foolish he looked.

2. The over-indulgent parent

On a number of queues that Xan joined, the kids surrounding him had their heads bowed down playing on tablets or phones in stoic silence. In one particular instance, he caved and asked if he could have my phone to play with. I said no. The boy in front of him, completely oblivious to the conversation, carried on with his mother’s phone.

10 minutes later, the queue moved. The kid with his mum’s phone didn’t. Trainer came out of the station to manage the queue and saw him, then went up to him to try and get him to rejoin the queue. He didn’t budge. Mother then came back as the next session was about to start and saw her boy, about 5 metres away from the end of the queue, still playing with his phone.

3. The over-reaching parent

No, the woman in the foreground is not the Mother of Xander.
No, the woman in the foreground is not the Mother of Xander.

One mum whose son was in the job session the KZ Express courier station managed to ask the trainer for a small uniform that she can let her under-3 daughter try on. She subsequently didn’t give it back until the end of the session, and let her kid run amok with her brother, while the trainer somewhat freaked out at the subtle daylight robbery of her equipment. “She’ll be back, I promise. She’s just going to the toilet,” she said, before running away with her kids (and us, because her son was paired up with Xan) to take photos and videos of that proud moment all her children went on a mock delivery run as fake despatch runners.

4. Overbearing parents

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They run around with their kids at the stations where running around outside the station is required (e.g. City Parade Performer, Maybank Vault Cash Officer, KZ Express Courier).

Okay, I did that too, but we’re bloggers, and it was for this blog post, so stop being so judgmental.

And then if the kids are in a vehicle (e.g. WTS Travel Tour Guide or Tourist, SCDF Firefighter, SPF Police Officer, Mount Elizabeth Hospital Paramedic) they don’t just follow the vehicles their kids are in; they reach in and hold their child’s hand, while the vehicle is moving. And they’re not just taking photos and videos of that proud moment all their children go on a mock delivery run as fake despatch runners. They’re telling them what to do, encouraging them and telling them no, they’re doing it wrong it should be that way, because this really is what happens in real life when kids become adults and still need their parents to tell them how to work in their jobs every step of the way.

If you thought I was being sarcastic, I really do know some adults with parents like that… still.

5. Over-inquisitive parents

So the adults can’t partake just about all the activities the kids take on in Kidzania (unless you brought a toddler, in which case you get to hang out with your child at the Kindergarten and RightzKeepers Residence). The policy is especially felt when our kids enter enclosed stations like the Paddle Pop Ice Cream Factory, the Lim Chee Guan Traditional BBQ Meat Store, and the Qatar Airlines Aviation Academy,  and some of us adults just can’t handle it. So at the very first opportunity we get, we grab the first trainer coming out of the station our kids are about to get into and ask 374 questions about everything inside that we can and can’t see from the glass panels outside and their grandmother, and we ask really fast because we don’t want to take up their time from doing their jobs.

Guess what? We take up their time from doing their jobs, sessions get delayed, and by 6pm, the session count runs short of the number scheduled and less kids get to play.

6. Over-excited parents

You know those parents who bring their kids to their first day at primary school, and then stay there, hanging out at the classrooms peering in, continuously waving at the kids and knocking on the windows trying to get their attention just so they can wave at them and smile and take photos, or tell them to pay attention to the teacher, and take photos, or pass them some inane item like tissue paper to wipe their sweat, spittle and snot, and take photos?

They’re at Kidzania Singapore, too.

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As far as theme parks are concerned, I will say put aside your skepticism if you can afford it and try Kidzania Singapore at least once (and if you really only want to do it once, don’t get a B-Kidzanian Pazzport for your kid; you get more benefits, but it’s your kid’s passport to an addiction on a global scale), if anything for the very valuable life lessons the place offers your child to learn and for you to teach (such as money management, time management, trying everything before you settle on what you want to do in your life, or don’t wave around your Kidzos in front of others like an obnoxious rich kid).

More importantly, leave your kid alone. Yes, Kidzania requires adult accompaniment, but the only reasons we are there is so the kids don’t leave with strangers (children’s RFID wrist tags are paired with their families’ or guardian’s tags so they can’t leave the premises with other people) and that immediate response can be had when a child gets hurt, gets lost or gets in trouble.

The entire premise of Kidzania is to be a foundational space for teaching your child how to navigate the world we adults experience as independently as we do. To that end, the Kidzania staff really actively try to to maintain that sense of independence in as joyful manner as they can muster for our kids, and as much as they try to also maintain high service standards as politely as they can with us adults, our incessant interference isn’t helping them or our kids.

So let your child run free in a mock economy to work in mock jobs fronted by familiar commercial brands, so they can spend their mock money climbing up and down mock buildings (very imaginatively called Climbing Building) and making mock ATM deposits, while you find a seat somewhere within the sprawling 2-storey space mocking other parents and hoping you don’t do anything that will invite mocking from mock celebrities such as parent bloggers.

Dont live a life of regret. Let your child queue for himself at Kidzania Singapore.

A photo posted by Winston "The Blogfather" Tay (@blgfthr) on

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If you didn’t get the hint already, this post was sponsored by Mother of Xander (a.k.a. The Wife), who paid for the tickets because I gawked at the ticket prices the first time she mentioned it, the second time when she bought it, the third time when we got there and the fourth time when I wrote this post. The Wife has a habit of being on Facebook a lot, which can be really fun because she’s actually very entertaining. Oh yes, Mother of Xander blogs, too.

The Lee Our Children Don't Know

Before the Blogfather resumes normal complaining tomorrow, I’d like to add my bit for Lee Kuan Yew’s passing.

When Xander woke up for school yesterday morning, I turned on the television to watch the Channel NewsAsia broadcast announcing MM Lee’s passing and his various tribute clips. When I told him what had happened, he watched the screen for a few quiet seconds and said, “Ye ye will have a new friend going to meet him.”

Later, when the Mother of Xander went to fetch him from school, she asked him if the school explained what the one minute of silence observed during assembly was for. He replied, “No. Maybe Lee Kuan Yew don’t like noise?”

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Lee Kuan Yew is as polarising in life as he is in death. I would hesitate to teach our kids what really happened during his time; the man had a steel grip, a stout heart and a stubborn streak, and his words and actions were sometimes not comfortable, most times not easy. But we wouldn’t have been where we were today without him. And we also wouldn’t know if things might have been good/bad/different without him. Such is his legacy that no generation that hasn’t experienced him will understand no matter how hard we explain.

The gravity of his existence took half a century to play out. The legacy he leaves will live on as long as we continue to call ourself a nation.

Much Ado About St Patrick's Day

Disclaimer: I work for the appointed PR agency for the St Patrick’s Day Parade and Street Festival, but I wasn’t involved in the handling of this account. As such, much of this information was sourced through my own communications with the people involved and my own experience of the event.

Its history goes back centuries, yet its evolution not so clearly documented; when you want to talk about how St Patrick’s Day found its way into Singapore, Wikipedia simply will not cut it. The death anniversary of the British-born, Ireland-based bishop, which should actually have been observed today, has transitioned from being a religious affair, to a cultural celebration, to just a really good excuse to eat, drink and be merry, while literally going green all along the Singapore River.

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But therein lies the confusion, the misinformation, and a problem that grows larger, more dire, and more ridiculous as well, threatening to cast a shadow over any and all celebratory events in Singapore.

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The Singapore chapter of St Patrick’s Day is actually pretty young still; Peter Ryan, the then First Secretary of the Irish Embassy, had only just begun work in Singapore and was looking for a way to get to know the locals, particularly through the strong and tight-knit alumni at St Patrick’s School. Through the combined efforts of the Embassy, the band of Singaporean Patricians – and as the years progressed, SJI’s Josephian alumni as well – and the local Irish community, Singapore saw its first of many St Patrick’s Day Parade turn the Singapore River into a jolly stream of green (and usually sponsored by Guinness) every year for the last 10 years.

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Now, despite its namesake, the St Patrick’s Day we see here isn’t really premised on religion at all, and if you delve deeper into the crowd that happily participates in its festivities, not that Irish, either. As St Patrick’s Day got installed over various global (and interstellar?) locations like New York, Japan and the International Space Station, the celebration adopts a cultural inclusiveness that doesn’t take anything away from its cultural identity. And in Singapore this year, the Parade went all out, at one point giving a band of urumi drummers led by M Ravi a place in the middle of the Parade (and they were actually pretty damn good).

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I mean, for crying out loud, they even got Down Syndrome Association (Singapore) to close the Parade with a Thai traditional dance.

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And in case you were wondering what the road closure was for…

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So at the heart of Saint Patrick’s Day in Singapore are three main tenets: family, friends and feasting. Of course, it helps even more if you happen to be a fan of Green Lantern and the Incredible Hulk (both of whom aren’t Irish, either).

But let’s be completely honest here, life in Singapore hasn’t exactly been a bed of fresh green roses, has it? Particularly when one of our own local festivals, one the Blogfather had a special place in his heart for, was marred by an unfortunate incident that was just as unfortunately managed in the public eye on many fronts since.

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Even more unfortunate is that the failings of one incident can have such a far reaching effect that it has managed to permeate into every festival, parade and procession that has followed. Such is the power of the red that we see; such is the recklessness of the anger that blinds us.

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We have to stop doing this; we do no one any favours by being this ugly towards our world, least of all ourselves as a nation. Seriously, how far would we get in trying to create a more open society, when we then turn around to shut out other parts of our society that would otherwise help us prove we are capable of being an open society in the first place? It makes absolutely no sense.

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Ironically, the most valuable lesson that was dealt last weekend didn’t come from the online voices of disgruntled Singaporeans, trying to speak up for the mistreatment of our minority groups. We were, instead, schooled by another, otherwise unrelated minority group, mostly adorned in green, who really doesn’t care what colour anyone wore, only that everyone feels welcomed and loved, in the spirit of family and friendship.

“The St Patrick’s Day parade is and always has been organised by a joint Singaporean and Irish organizing committee. We welcome everybody to join; next year, please come down and bring your drums. Bring everything! We welcome you!” – Colin McDonald, St Patrick’s Day Parade chairman and vice chairman of the Singapore Ireland Fund

50 years on, Singapore still has a lot to learn about being one united people, regardless of race, language or religion.