Go with a smile!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Ten or Twenty Raffles Institutions

Something new has come up in Singapore. One of those issues is that people are wondering if Raffles Institution should be elitist. As with economic outcomes, on one hand we desire equality of outcomes, and on the other hand, we are concerned that when we strive too hard for equality of outcomes, the quality of the school – especially the one at the top – suffers.

It's been a tenet for a long time that RI is the elite school in Singapore. It's been around for almost 200 years, even if you consider that for the first 10 years it wasn't exactly active. It's one of the top feeder schools to Oxbridge, probably in the top 10, together with other schools like Eton.

As a person who has attended RI, here's the list of advantages you get from going there. (And this is on hindsight, because if you were to ask me when I was there donkey years ago, I wouldn't have been able to come up with this list.)

1. Classmates of high socio-economic status
2. Smarter classmates
3. Good ECA records
4. Name recognition when it comes to elite university admissions. (Although this will not help you much in getting into NUS)
5. More enrichment programs
6. Less disruptive environment. (It's not true to say that RI pupils aren't naughty, they're as bad as everybody else. But we do this in a way that doesn't affect our grades.)

There is this question about whether you're going to be a small fish in the ocean or a big fish in a small fishbowl. If you're a big fish in a small fishbowl, you never know – you could have gone to RI and found out that you're not just a big fish, you're a whale in the ocean.

But here's the flaw in the logic when it comes to RI being the best school:

RI takes in the highest scorers from the PSLE. Then these pupils are placed in an environment where all the ECAs are excellent, most of the students are excellent, the teachers – well they don't have to do that much to push the students, because the students can do it to each other. They have the best chances of getting into the best schools, they'll tell each other about all the opportunities there are out there. There's every possibility that a “mafia” will form up.

There are two problems that you can see already: first, this is about entry into a relatively closed and tightly knit group. And secondly, PSLE score is supposedly the criterion for entry into this tightly knit group.

Sometimes I wonder if this group can be widened. I don't think the problem is about RI people like ourselves getting the opportunities that we've been getting. The problem is about many other equally deserving people out there who aren't getting those opportunities. I don't know if there's a problem with expanding those programs to a larger number of people. Maybe elite programs don't scale up well. Your pre-U seminars, your Creative Arts Programs, your Science Research programs. But you should be exploring those things.

Another issue is that education is too narrowly focused on university admissions. University, or elite university is not for everyone. Ideally Singapore should be a kind of place where there are some trade schools that lead you to a path to success. (And you define what “success” is). They can be trained in setting up businesses, they can be accredited engineers, technical staff, foremen, coders. You can push them towards path that don't require universities. You don't need a degree to be an SAF officer. You can push people onto that track. SAF officers won't ever have careers as fulfilling as SAFOS scholars, but they won't necessarily be having shit lives either.

Do you need university degrees to be chefs, entrepreneurs, businessmen, operations managers? Not really. But what you need, in any case, is a passion to excel, you need soft skills, you need mental strength and character.

I thought about the RI education I had, the parts that were great. Interesting classmates. Thoughtful discussions. Gruelling physical feats. Exposure to the arts. Exposure to science and mathematics. I want to keep all those things intact, and I don't really want RI to lose what made it great.

And then I think about the parts of RI which were not so great. The public image we were asked to show to the world. It's not true that RI is really cruel to people who were struggling, but it was all tough love. If you weren't measuring up, people would scream at you, but they weren't necessarily going to pick you up when you fell.

At RI you could choose to excel at many ECAs, so maybe that was great. I'm still a little miffed that it was almost impossible to indulge in one or two of my favourite past times. But I managed to participate in a few things that I wasn't necessarily suited for, and I had to stretch myself in the process. It was weird. There were guys who never really fit in, but then later went on to be successful businessmen, or leading figures in Singapore's art scene. So that was the paradox of RI during my day: there were so many avenues for you to fit in, and somehow there were people who still didn't fit in.

So imagine how many RIs Singapore could have if we got better at bringing out the talents of all the students? I still remember Fandi Ahmad telling the story about how he got turned away from the gates of RI for having long hair. Who looks like an ass?

I credit RI with helping me stretch myself and discover abilities I never knew I had. Then again, I wish it could have been even more flexible. RI just wasn't good at teaching their students to empathise with other people. We produced a few good businessmen but I think that was in spite of his going to RI, rather than because of it.

We don't seem to be that short of people becoming critics of the government, though. So at least RI has done more than its fair share of producing rebellious people.

Up till the 1980s, RI was known as the elite government school. It was a place that took people of all backgrounds, and had no elite feeder primary school. It was non-sectarian, and not explicitly associated with any of the elite groups in Singapore. It was Singapore's school (actually for a long time it was Singapore's only school.) I wish they would remember this aspect of its own history.

It would be a great thing if you could build a more limited elite. Raffles Institution shouldn't be the top school year in year out. Instead, the top 10, or the top 20 schools should be operating on a relatively equal level. And it'd be better for your top students if you forced them to compete against each other instead of just pumping all the best ECA / enrichment programs to just 4 or 5 schools. You should challenge all the students to find their own way in life, or at least think of the day that would come when their academic achievements in school stopped counting for anything. So while you still wanted everybody to strive for the best grades, they had to balance that objective with some other things, and you challenged them to find for themselves what that some other thing would be.

What would these 20 schools be? You'd probably have the usual suspects (RI/RGS, HCI, ACS), maybe a few of the SAP schools, maybe even one madrassah to even things out.

One model, but that model is at the university level, is the University of California. You had Berkeley, who has always been the crown jewel of the system. And it seemed for a while that UCLA would be the only other well known school. But the other campuses in San Diego, Irvine, Santa Barbara, Davis and San Francisco would also excel in research. There were 3 layers in the California system, the University of California system, the second tier California State University system, and the Community Colleges. But the California system allowed people to transfer from a lower to a higher tier, so as to allow the best and the brightest a chance to move on up. And this always kept everybody else on their toes. It also meant that instead of having just 1 or 2 world class public universities, California has 5 or 6.

What we don't want is a system that people of higher socio-economic status can game. They can pump their kids with tuition all the way up till primary 6, and PSLE becomes a hurdle that you can only cross when you are really bright and really wealthy. Then there is a perpetuating class system.


Saturday, April 07, 2018

Emotional shelter

I saw this article about parents being concerned about how their kids saw the world. There was this parent who thought that climate change was going to make this world a terrible one for people to live in. Then they started wondering about how they were going to break this news to their kids.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of a parent I would have been. And I'm starting to realise, with a start, that I may not ever get to find out, because the time window for me to be a parent is closing fast. I know what kind of parents I had.

First of all, I remember an article that I read somewhere, that said that the first two most important job of parenting is to provide material security and provide a sense of structure in the life of a child. There is no doubt that my parents have done this. In many ways, our lives were better than that of the ones they lived in their childhood. And yet....

I don't really think that my parents would have been that protective of me. In a way that's good, in a way that's bad. My mother's never hid her feud with my grandmother away from me. (My grandmother was living with us). My father never hid from me how tough his childhood was. They never stopped telling me that my adulthood was going to tough. (I'm an adult now and I'm a little surprised at how I don't get fucked in the ass every day like they said I was going to be.) They were never shy about pointing out my faults to me, that I wasn't gentle, that I couldn't relate to people. (Yet they never took any concrete action to correct any of these faults. That was really frustrating.)

They weren't terribly great at building up a rapport with either myself or my sister. Maybe living with my grandma didn't help. But they were genuinely clueless. My father was a good man, decent, hardworking, always trying to do the right thing. But I had a distant relationship with him. He wanted to be a good person, but he was just bad at communicating with people.

My mother... you know what, I'm going to list down the dickheaded things she did when we were young.

After she gave birth to me, she had post-natal depression. I don't know for sure, but it definitely seemed like it. She got into a big argument with my grandmother and then she ran away from home. A few hours later, my father went out to get her back. But her relationship with my grandmother would be tarnished for a long time.

She liked to see herself as being pretty. Young mothers still hadn't lost their youthful looks. When I was five, that was when my childhood memories were wearing off. She cornered me in a room, and asked me who was more pretty, Miss World or me. I couldn't get away, so I said that it was her. But that was some weird shit. Eventually, after some thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that it was very weird. But five year old kids shouldn't have to figure it out on their own.

There was this time when we moved to a place with low rise condos. The children would be out there, playing in the courtyard, and there was this French boy 1 or 2 years older than me, who would beat me and twist my arms. Then I was a little surprised when she scolded me for playing with our next door neighbour, and said that I should have been playing with the French boy instead.

There was this other time before we moved into the low rise condo, when we were still staying in a HDB flat. We were waiting for the lift, we stayed 1 storey away from the lift. She was going to send me to school. Then she was missing. I didn't know where she had gone. I waited for a while, and after 5-10 minutes, I was about to panic and start crying. (I was 6 at that time). Then she walked out from behind a pillar, she was just playing a prank on me. I stopped crying instead. I wasn't even mad. I remember that my dominant thought was “my mother is an idiot”.

Neither of my parents spoke Mandarin. They were English educated, but they spoke dialects, and yet they failed to teach that to me. (And in a way it was also my fault for not paying close enough attention) but when I grew up, not knowing my dialect was an everlasting source of regret. But here's why the Speak Mandarin campaign was a failure: I was lousy at Chinese. I made some effort to be good enough to be able to get “A”s in the classes, but if you've been through the Singapore education system, you'd know that getting “A”s in Chinese doesn't mean anything in the way of proficiency. They weren't going out of their way to master Chinese along with me, they had Chinese tuition classes for me – the only subject where I ever had outside classes, and it was always our fault that we weren't good at Chinese.

My parents pushed me hard. At one point in my life, I had swimming classes, Chinese tuition, art classes and piano classes. There's nothing wrong with this, but it was stressful. You could say that I lack ambition in life because I was simply tired of all this. If you don't know how to manage your relationship with your kids when you're pushing them like this, you will run into problems.

Generally I was able to cope, although there was quite a bit of drama, especially when it came to practicing the piano. It was tiring being called a failure for not doing well in something you never wanted to do. These things took a toll on you - screwing up over and over, and then being told over and over that you were screwing up. Sometimes I wonder if my mother really loved me, or whether she loved that I had academic achievements that she could go tell all her friends about.

People who know me in life know that I have a thick skin. Many of you would probably be cringing at these stories. I only crumbled or wilted under this rarely. But it probably affected my ability to relate to other people. I don't think I really had the opportunity to have normal relationships with other people.

I think I was coping, but there were a lot of things that I couldn't talk to my parents about – unhappy relationships with the piano teacher, with a few of my friends. I wasn't a bullied kid, but there were one or two incidents where I was humiliated in public, and I wasn't able to discuss these things with them. There was a bit of lying here and there. I wasn't allowed to play computer games but I did it anyway, and I learnt to listen out for the car pulling up in the driveway so that I could shut the computer off before my mother came into the house and walked upstairs. That was just not a great kind of relationship. They never got to hear about my first crush. They never got to hear about my first romance.

My mother pushed me very hard until I was a teenager, and the year that I turned 13, she sensed that I was getting sick and tired of her, so there was a whole year of tekaning. And at the end of it, she saw that there was no effect, and so she gave up. Well she also got tired of me throwing chairs around in the house. After she gave up, everything became better, I enjoyed school more, and my grades went back up.

There were the endless nagging sessions. While this wasn't necessarily the same thing as rape, there was a marked reluctance to take no for an answer.

Still, I'd also be lying if I told you it was a terrible childhood. There were plenty of good times. It was just merely good when it could have been fantastic.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Peace, prosperity and economic progress

Peoples' memories are short. I'm barely old enough to remember a time, in the 1980s, when WW2 was still being talked about, when people still remember the horrors and the savagery. This memory faded in the 1990s when the 50th anniversaries were commemorated.

Maybe this illustrates why it's so difficult for people to accept the moral equations of climate change and the destruction of the natural habitat. It's bad enough that the evil that men do come about as a result of starvation, war and disease. It is much harder to accept the destruction that comes about as a result of peace and economic "progress".


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Phases of the English Premier League

Manchester City have a plan for global dominance.

I think we can put the English Premier League in distinct phases.

The first phase (1992 - 1997) was the era of Manchester United's rise to become a hegemon. They faced off the challenges of Liverpool, Leeds, Aston Villa, Blackburn and Newcastle to become, by some distance, the richest and most powerful club in England. This would be the last time the league would be genuinely competitive.

The second phase (1997 - 2004) was the era of Arsenal and Manchester United rivalry, where almost every year both clubs would finish in the top 2 spots. Towards the end of this era, Roman Abramovich would buy Chelsea and pump in loadsamoney.

The third phase (2004 - 2011) is the era of Chelsea - Manchester United rivalry. Arsenal would fade away and become a second rate power. Chelsea would win 3 titles in this period. Manchester United would recover and Alex Ferguson would build the last of his great teams and he would retire thereafter.

The next phase (2011 - 2016) is a period of transition, and the massive cash injection into Man City is beginning to have its intended effect. Man United is going downhill following the departure of Alex Ferguson. Man City wins the title twice, but Leicester, Man United and Chelsea win one apiece.

It remains to see if this current Pep Guardiola era will be a Manchester United style dynasty, or if, like Mourinho, he will burn out like he did at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. It remains to be seen if Chelsea's last 2 titles are a sign of a club that will continue to be great in the future.


Sunday, December 03, 2017

Myth of the mid table club

You had the myth of the well-run mid-table club. I don't know much about what the Football league before the Premier League came about.

How many clubs have never been relegated from the Premier League? They are the big clubs: Arsenal, Man Utd, Everton, Tottenham, Chelsea.

There are the clubs that have a proud tradition, but they've had to go down at some point: Manchester city, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Sunderland, Derby County, Leicester. Well, we should always mention Leicester's shock victory in 2016, but you had to have a season when all the big clubs were in transition for that to happen.

You had a club like Coventry City, and it seemed to be on a wonderful roll. They had 30 consecutive seasons in the top flight, they have ppl like Gordon Strachan, Mustapha Hadji and Gary McAllister playing for them. They even managed to win the FA Cup one season. Then they had one bad season, and suddenly they were relegated. And after they were relegated, they never managed to get back up.

Every now and then, there'll be a club that seems to buck this trend. They'll have a miracle worker who seems to do very well and carry the club up over and beyond what they're capable of. There was Wimbledon, and they were the crazy gang who came up from the non-League and managed top 10 finishes and FA cup semi-finals. They even had a half-decent team at one point, who, contrary to their reputations as being rough tacklers and long ball players, played their football on the ground. They had Neil Sullivan, Robbie Earle, Marcus Gayle, …. Then one day, they managed to land a manager who seemed completely in tune with who they were: Egil Olsen, the manager of another over-achieving Norwegian side around the turn of the century, who managed to beat Brazil. No dice.

There was West Ham, who once had one of the greatest bunch of youths that England had seen. They had Rio Ferdinand, Jermaine Defoe, Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick. But not long after they were relegated in really unfortunate circumstances: They probably set a record for the highest number of points achieved by a relegated side.

There was Leeds United, who seemed like they were doing the right thing in getting youngsters together, they seemed like they had a young and exciting side. They bought Rio Ferdinand over from West Ham, they had Nigel Martyn, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Michael Bridges, Oliver Dacourt, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer, David Batty.

There was a year when they were challenging for the title and after that, they got into the Champion's League and went all the way to the semi-finals. It seemed as though they managed to break into the ranks of the big clubs – not that they didn't have a great past, they were one of the best clubs between 1965 to 1975, and they won a title in 1992. There was even a time when their chairman, Peter Ridsdale seemed to be one of the best chairmen in England. It was as good as it got for that bunch. They had spent heavily and gambled everything on being able to make it to the champion's league every year. Then one day they didn't make it, and it turned out that many of their deals were highly leveraged. When they failed to pay back their debts, the club went into a death spiral and they were relegated the next season. They sold their best players and even got a good price for Rio Ferdinand. But for many of the rest, it was a fire sale.

As it turned out, many of those wonderful batch of players played their best football for Leeds, with the notable exception of Rio Ferdinand. Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were charged with beating the shit out of a South Asian guy, and maybe they never reached the heights their Leeds career suggested them capable of. For whatever reason, Michael Bridges, Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell and Seth Johnson had recurring injury problems that prevented them from excelling. And that is a shame because quite a few of them were English and they could have made the so-called England's “Golden Generation” of the mid-00s even more golden.

There were clubs that seemed to have hot streaks for a few seasons. Derby had a few good seasons, and then faltered and got relegated. Sunderland had a few top 10 finishes, and also suffered the same fate.

One of the most notable “success stories” was Bolton Wanderers. They had a manger, Sam Allardyce, who used a combination of analytics, and being able to get the best out of players who were talented but either past their best, or seemingly unable to unleash their best performances elsewhere. Thus, he managed to get Fernando Hierro, Youri Djorkaeff, and el Hadji Diouf to play their best for him.

Then one day, Newcastle came calling, and Allardyce, tempted by the prospect of managing a bigger club, took it, only to find himself getting sacked after less than a season. He acquired a reputation for boring and predictable football, and this dogged him throughout his subsequent career. He was told to leave Blackburn and West Ham because that reputation for boring football preceded him. But in both of those cases, those decision backfired on their clubs.

Bolton seemed to defy gravity for a while, and it acquired a reputation for being a very well-run small club. In truth, this was mainly down to Sam Allardyce and when he wasn't able to get more funds out of his chairman, he quit and moved to Newcastle.

Another “success story” was Wigan Athletic. They seemed to defy their small club status after breaking through to the Premier League, and occupying the top league for the first time in their history. They struggled with relegation every year, but incredibly managed to win the FA Cup (and get relegated in the same year). Maybe this was down to the two managers they had while in the premier league, Steve Bruce and Roberto Martinez.

Ditto for Swansea City, who had a string of good coaches in Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers. They employed Michael Laudrup and he won the League cup, but he turned out t to be not such a good coach and was sacked. Garry Monk seemed to be another great coach, but after one great season, he was also found to be out of his depth. The next two coaches – Guidolin and Bob Bradley turned out to be disasters and they would have been relegated if not for the appointment of Paul Clement, who saved them from relegation last season. They're no longer the miracle workers who end up in the top half of the table, and a lot of their best players got sold off to other clubs. At the moment, they're deep in relegation trouble, and they're probably in a position that reflects their true status – perpetual relegation fighters.

A word, then, for the overachievers in the current premier league. Bournemouth is a club that's already overachieved by being in the premier league – one of the few clubs that has a stadium of seating capacity less than 20000. They had a manager who excelled in the last 2 seasons, but time's catching up with them.

Southampton is a more interesting case. They've had a string of coaches who are pretty good, although they've not done much other than introduce many of those coaches to bigger clubs. Alan Pardew improved the team while they were in the lower leagues, but it wasn't good enough. Nigel Adkins brought Southampton to the Premier League but it wasn't good enough. Mauricio Pochettino was good enough but he got lured to Tottenham where he's done a great job so far of moulding one of the most promising and exciting new sides of the top 6. (Tottenham and Man City are the only 2 new additions to the elite in the last few years and Tottenham did it without spending a ridiculous amount of money). They got in Ronald Koeman and after having kept Southampton in the same position, he was lured over by Everton where he screwed up and got fired. Claude Puel also kept Southampton in the top 10 but he was also fired for still not being good enough. Southampton's hirings and firings look extremely harsh but they should be commended for so far being a mid-table side.

Then there's Leicester, who was a side which like Southampton spent the first decade of the century in the wilderness after being a constant fixture in the EPL during its first decade. People remembered them for their League cup wins under Martin O'Neill. They rose quickly through the tables under the new ownership, and after having spent much of the season at the bottom of the league, suddenly produced championship form during the last few weeks to secure a place in the next year's league. (Although there were a few hints of this early in the season when they thrashed Man U 5-3, still one of the most remarkable results). The coach who got them there, Nigel Pearson, was fired, some felt, harshly for his bizarre behavior (and he's been out of work mostly since) but he laid the groundwork for what came next, the most incredible season by anybody in the premier league – their title winning 2015-16 season, and basically this is the season that Newcastle should have had in 95-96, when they used a combination of a water-tight defence, devastating counter-attacking and most of their title rivals being in transition to win the title in the most improbable fashion.

But after that, they had a really wretched title defence, and inexplicably Claudio Ranieri, who very strangely never won a league title before anywhere in his career (even though he had a few second place finishes), ended up getting his side into a relegation scrap and fired in the next season. (interestingly, this was the second time a coach who won the title the previous season got fired the next season – previously Jose Mourinho who won the title with Chelsea, and who replaced him at Chelsea more than 10 years earlier, was the one who got fired for a bad title defence.

He was replaced by Nigel Pearson's assistant, Craig Shakespeare. Shakespeare guided Leicester to safety, and after another bad start to the season, it was Shakespeare's turn to get fired, and instead the job was offered to Claude Puel, himself the victim of a harsh firing from Southampton.

You could complain about the firings being excessively harsh, but you would not complain about the results from a club like Leicester. Perhaps they felt that it was best to bring in different coaches with different approaches. Of their title winning team, they lost Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante, but apparently they managed to retain just about all the other big names. Coincidentally, Leicester's title win was also similar to Chelsea's of 2017 in the sense that it was based on a system that other teams in the league found difficult to counter. Leicester had their counter-attack strategy that was executed to perfection. Chelsea had their 3-4-3 that funnily enough, only came about 5-10 games into the season, thereafter Chelsea climbed to the top of the table and stayed there.

And then there is Stoke, a team which for whatever reason never got relegated in the last 10 years. For their first few years, they were the archetype for a certain type of team: the disciplined, tight defence who played boring long ball, but were hard to beat and they got their results. Then Tony Pulis was replaced by Mark Hughes, who tried to introduce some flair into the team, and they still look like a mid-table side, although a few bad results will probably put their place in the premiership in danger.

Tony Pulis was later hired by Crystal Palace as a rescue expert, and he got them out of relegation trouble and after that left the club. Then he went to West Bromwich Albion, who also played football the Pulis way. But after a few bad results, he got fired.

The English Premier League used to have mid-table teams. Not anymore. Now there is only the elite – Man U, Man City and Chelsea, who are capable of winning titles, and Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal, who are not. Outside of this six, anybody can get relegated at any time. It used to be that Aston Villa, Newcastle and Everton were exempt from this, but Aston Villa just got relegated, Newcastle just got promoted from the League Championship, and Everton has had to fire Ronald Koeman for a string of bad results. If I'm not wrong, only the elite clubs plus Everton have never been relegated from the Premier League, and were there since the beginning.

Every club outside the elite has a rough idea of what it takes in order to survive, and possibly every club is equally capable of doing it. It used to be that only Bolton had cracked the code of what it meant to be an over-performer. Now people roughly agree on a few things:

1. When you are a top performer as a player or a coach and you emerge at a club outside of the big six, they might try to poach you. Because of that, overperforming does not last long. This is one good reason for trying to get an good older guy at the end of his career, because nobody would want to poach him.
2. Having a good analytics and sports science team is very helpful for you to achieve success.
3. Having an experienced hand as head coach is very important. Premier League clubs seldom give inexperienced coaches the time and space needed to learn on the job. One of the best ways is to take a club from the championship up to the premier league and make him stay there. That's how managers like David Moyes, Alan Pardew, Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce made their names. But now, they are part of a manager merry-go-round, and they're probably taking up places that might have gone to a younger English counterpart. Put it simply, it's not that easy for a younger Englishman to rise up to part of the elite.


Sunday, November 05, 2017

A New Building

I don't really have a lot of memories of the first few days in the new building. It was a grand structure. It was originally supposed to be Bishan Junior College. (Thank god it wasn't, because it would probably have met the same fate as 5 or 6 Junior Colleges getting closed down.) I think RI took the spot because they were getting chased out of Grange Road, or there wasn't any room for Grange Road to expand, I don't know.

It was a large building. Everything smelled fresh. I still remember when the running track always smelled of rubber. I did not participate in the move, something that I regretted forever. My mother booked a holiday without discussing it with me, and I was somewhere in South Korea when it was time for that great white contingent to march / take the MRT from Grange Road to Bishan. But ultimately, I found, it did not matter.

1990 was an unhappy year for me for many reasons that I won't elaborate at this point. But I knew that there was something in the air: some kind of change. People called it a New Decade. The 21st century was approaching. But it was an alignment of stars. Lee Kuan Yew was stepping down. RI was moving to Bishan, and experimenting with independence. The Cold War was ending. And we were moving into a new house. As per the title of that Burt Bacharach song, a house is not a home. What we had was a house, with concrete walls, workers doing random stuff here and there, patching things up. What we had was a house, and we were going to turn that house of ours into a real home.

I remember even walking through the drains around the running track when they were new. Empty fields where the soil has yet to settled, that have since been turned into huge gardens. Even a foot print or two being left on top of the ceiling.

We knew we were some kinds of pioneers, and that we would leave some kind of a mark on this new chapter in the history of the school. Perhaps this was illusory, and perhaps nobody really cared when we graduated.

But new lives, and new universes were beginning to flower. New sensations were being awakened in all the souls who passed through there. New questions were asked. New frames of references were pondered over. All that is awe inspiring. The principal called himself “headmaster”, in a throwback to Victorian days. Maybe that was toned down. But he had oratorical skills, and although I hardly listened to most of his speeches, I remember the part where he said that many of us had the seeds of greatness within us, and that individually, we were all forces to be reckoned with, and RI was also a place where this potential was let loose, and the combination could be an explosive one.

I think of all the things some people have done since leaving the RI of that period. We had somebody turning into one of Singapore's most prominent playwrights. We had somebody turning into one of the top artificial intelligence researchers. We had somebody founding a famous gaming company. Somebody reaching the top of Everest. Probably lots of stuff I don't even know about. We had people believing that they could do anything they wanted to do. Myself, I passed through life in a bit of a daze. I started on the wrong foot, but by the end of it, I felt that I, too was capable of quite a few things. It felt like the doorway to the rest of my life.

When I first entered that school, it felt like something – if not awesome, then pretty intimidating. It was an atmosphere of fear and dread, and I didn't feel like I could step out of line. Maybe RI could do that to you. Something was always going to give. Raffles Institution is a place that moulds you into a certain character. But sieteocho never allows anybody to mould him into anything. So what eventually transpired was some kind of a compromise.

There was a hint of the British public school system about that place. In case you didn't get the message that it was an establishment place, it's called “INSTITUTION”. Not institute, institution. Characters were moulded. Whatever people wanted society to be, you made people in RI into a certain type of character, and then you held them up as examples to the rest of society. So you had a lot of the “good old boy” and the “good old chap” and the British bulldog spirit and the “Raffles Spirit”. It wasn't a bad moral example by any means, but I sure as hell wasn't going to follow it to a T.

I knew there was the RI that showed its face to the world, and there was the real RI, and there was also the RI that I remembered. All of these three version are different, and I can only talk about the one that I encountered. I'm wondering if those days seemed great to me because I was young and seeing things for the first time, or whether they were really great. Make no mistake, a lot of it was dreary and boring. Because I didn't really fit the mould, I wasn't the centre of attention. Because I neither excelled or fell behind, I wasn't paid much attention to. RI did all sorts of things we thought were vain and silly, and only looking back, I might understand that they had an image to upkeep, and that was how society really worked. But I still think that those things are vain and silly.

It's a privilege to be able to say that you were one of the people who moved the school. At that time it was the second move in less than 20 years, but there may never be another move as long as I live. You could contrast this situation with anybody else. Anybody who's lived in an aging housing estate – and RI is not too far away from Toa Payoh – would know that a lot of schools either get closed down or moved a lot. MacRitchie Primary School is gone, Braddell Secondary School, Westlate Primary and Westlake Secondary were folded into Guangyang. Everybody gets the opportunity to live a rich and fulfilling life (obviously rich here means rich in experience not money) but not everybody gets the super smart classmates, the better facilities, and perhaps quite significantly, not everybody, when asked “where did you go to school”, will be able to point to something that is eternal and still exists. Not every famous school remains famous forever. The natural thing is that the fortunes of schools will ebb and flow. But some schools have an alumnus so powerful that they'll be propped up, no matter what. So yes, my memories of the school are personal, and there's a part that has everything to do with the road that I travelled myself. But there's this other part that somebody else will help prop up, no matter what. That other part will be tethered to this crazy mystique that certain groups of people will work hard to cultivate and foster, no matter what.

A new building, and a doorway to the rest of my life. It seemed intimidating to me at first, and by the time, I graduated, I seemed to have done well enough to keep pace with the crowd. I don't think I excelled, but I didn't do too badly either. During those years, my first crush, my first full length play, an above average record in mathematics competitions, my first cassette collection, my first forays into philosophy, my first rope crawl, my first pull up, my first time behind a wok, my first hike of more than 15 km.

Those were glorious days. My mind was being opened and stretched. Yet somehow, looking back, I wondered if I still had underachieved. Back then, because there was so much I hadn't yet learnt, there were so many questions I never asked because I didn't know to ask them. That's why sometimes, I might meet an old friend from back then, and just pepper him with questions. He might do something unexpected from what I remember from our old days and I'll be wondering if I had missed something because I wasn't looking closely enough. Perhaps in part because I was sleepwalking through those days, in many ways I was learning a lot about the meaning of life, and in many ways, there are lots of clues that I missed out on. That's the argument for putting smart kids together - because the smart kid will learn more and learn more quickly, and if you're not smart, you're going to be taking the place of somebody who will learn better than you. Then again, there are counter arguments to this, and other than the obvious social justice argument, there is: are the ones with the best PSLE scores necessarily the ones who learn the most from their peers? Many people look back upon their lives, and a lot of them are like "if I only knew back then what I know now". But then again, what if I were to travel back in time to those school days and listen in on all the conversations that people had with each other, and find out that I'm none the wiser?

Like the famous Roy Batty once said, “all these things will fade in time like tears in the rain.” Those were some of my most vivid experiences – not to say that I didn't have some of them later on in life. But maybe things are always different when you see them for the first time. Maybe that's why some people struggle with midlife – because your supply of “first time”s are coming to an end, and your memory of those “first time”s are fading fast. And maybe that's also why I might have to write this essay today, because there will come a time when I won't be able to do that anymore.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Lee Kuan Yew's Not Good 1980s

The 80s were not a great period for Lee Kuan Yew. Most of his mistakes were made during the 80s.

1. Closure of Nantah. Nobody could have predicted that today, 35 years down the road, China would be poised for world domination. But cutting off that channel to Chinese culture, to our fellow SE Asian Chinese, to the mainland is just plain stupid. Pissing off a significant proportion of the Singaporean Chinese is just plain stupid.
2. Speak Mandarin campaign. OK, this was in 1979. This may have been in anticipation of the rise of China. (Which made it curious that Nantah was closed around the same time, and most likely this was more political than for Singapore's good.) This cut off some of our ties from the past, and I'm still pretty pissed off about it up til today.
3. Special Assistance Plan. This was a push to get people who excelled in both Chinese and English to succeed in the school system. Well and good. But how come there wasn't an equivalent scheme for the Malays and Indians? Yes, you had advanced Malay, advanced Tamil. That was it.
4. Dealing with Devan Nair. Devan Nair should never have taken the presidency, because that opened the door for JBJ to enter parliament. But once he was in the Istana, they should have tried to ease him out in a better way than trying to drug him and discredit him as an alcoholic was simply buffoonish.
5. Elected presidency. Making the presidency an elected one has repercussions that extend all the way until today.
6. Operation Spectrum. 'nuff said.
7. Asset enhancement. This opened the door to the property price bubble that carries on until today.
8. Designating his son an eventual successor. Lee Hsien Loong is not a terrible prime minister, but there may have been better candidates, although we'd never know. Sometimes I think about what it might have been like if it were George Yeo or Tharman Shanmugaratnam being the PM instead of him. Then again, I'd take him over Teo Chee Hean anytime.
9. Productivity movement. It wasn't successful. Possibly because we didn't push on technology hard enough. Possibly because we weren't allowing people from outside of the system to succeed.
10. Graduate mother's scheme. This may have started the reintroduction of the class system into Singapore.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write very well and are really incisive. Can you write about what happened to George Yeo and Tharman?

7:05 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

I don't have a very good idea about what happened about George Yeo. I'm observing from far away. In Aljunied, there was a big gamble, and it failed. In 2011, it was clear to everybody that - because of what previously happened to Eunos and Cheng San - Aljunied was the GRC where the PAP's hold on power was its weakest. The PAP had 2 options. One of them was to just give it up, and put in relatively junior people. The other was to shore up the defence and put all your good guys into Aljunied. Looking back, they put all their good guys into Aljunied. George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hwa, Ong Ye Kung and Zainal Abidin Rashid. And it was a gamble that they lost badly, and they lost 3 ministers and 1 speaker.

Then on nomination day, Low Thia Khiang took the bold but risky move of moving from Hougang to Aljunied. To see why it was risky, think about what would have happened if they lost Aljunied. Then Yaw Shin Leong would have been the only opposition MP in Singapore. And we know what happened to him afterwards. The WP might have been forced to fire him and probably Png Eng Huat would still have won but it'd have been pretty weird.

Maybe George Yeo was put in that position because he's the guy that everybody likes but not necessarily the one you want in your cabinet? It's funny that he's an old friend of Teo Chee Hean, because I can't think of anybody else in the cabinet who's less like him.

Regarding Tharman Shanmugaratnam, I'll just repeat what the PAP said: he was not the cabinet's favourite candidate. Lee Kuan Yew was instrumental in planning for the future prime ministers. Perhaps that was in line with his philosophy of keeping his family in the center of political power in Singapore. For whatever reason, Lee Hsien Loong is less keen on that. The real story of Oxleygate is that the Lee dynasty is over, and that's a little eerie because the predictable politics of Singapore is over.

There are 3 things that count against Tharman: first, he is Indian. Second, his politics don't gel well with the rest of the cabinet, and third, he's not that much younger than Lee Hsien Loong.

2:34 AM