Friday, 31 May 2013

Why we chose NOT to have children - His story

If you haven't already read A's excellent take on why we chose not to have children, you might want to consider reading it first. Although we agree fully with each other's reasons and there is some overlap, our story is convergent in the sense that we actually started out with different reasons for not wanting to bear offspring. Perhaps the one thing we had in common from the start is that we both simply do not feel paternal or maternal instincts of any sort.

Just how much of our posts on this topic can be extrapolated to represent Singaporeans of our generation? We really don't know. Most people we have talked to either have not given much thought about it, or have some vague notion that they wish to be parents. However, there has been a conspicuous lack of action in this arena, among those in our social circles. Most of our friends in our late 20s are not even close to marriage, and among those who are, many are content to wait a few years to enjoy their 二人世界. Even for those who are leaning towards procreation, they give me a take-it-or-leave-it vibe - i.e. "career comes first, if we miss the boat in terms of optimal fertility window, so be it".

Anyway, enough about others. This blog is largely about our point of view. With that, I give you my excuses reasons for not wanting kids:

1. Our Education System.. and my Mother

It may be "world class" - 5th in the world according to Pearson - but I dislike our education system. I loathed my time as a student, I loathed the examinations.

Pretty much how I felt

Of course, I have to give most of the credit to my mum for instilling such disdain for my educational experience: 

Endless comparison with a cousin two years older than me who was doing pretty well herself. Endless well-meaning "advice" from that cousin's mother about what assessment books were good for me. Endless tuition sessions for Math, Chinese, even my pet subjects Science and English. To rub salt in the wound, some of my tutors could not even match my standards in the latter two subjects (through no fault of theirs. I was mildly precocious, and had read a ton of the most popular encyclopedias and Enid Blyton series of the early 1990s starting since I was four). 

Most cheem, I read maybe 30%

Classic Childcraft. I read half when I first got these, aged five

My favourite of the lot. I guess I preferred comics to encyclopedias.
Yes, I had all three sets.

It started in primary school, where I was doing pretty well. Well enough to be consistently second in the level. Second, due to my typical carelessness when it came to exams. I'd easily have topped the class if I were a little more meticulous, and that was what bugged my parents - particularly my mum - back in those days. It didn't matter that second place was good enough. Somehow, I didn't particularly care for grades, until a series of events transpired between my classmate who topped the level and me. I then decided of my own volition to reduce the number careless mistakes in the exams, and topped my school for PSLE. It was a measly 271. "Neighbourhood" school lah.

Before anyone accuses me of arrogance or boasting, I shall proudly declare that I had consistently failed the cut for the Gifted Education Programme. Once at P3, and the second attempt at P6. I am neither "gifted" nor brilliant. It just happened that I was fairly good at acing Primary and Secondary school curricula.

271 was good enough to trounce the over-achieving cousin, but somehow, it wasn't enough for Mum. The comparisons continued. I would have been contented to rest on my laurels and attempt to enjoy my educational journey. But that enjoyment was marred by my having to let my parents sign off on test results every now and then, and reminding me of how well ___ 姐姐 was doing when she was at my level. Poor results in Math would lead to discussions with my Math tutor(s), who would then inflict torture by way of Math assessment books. My dislike for math had started in primary school, and it sure didn't abate during my secondary school years. Ditto with Chinese, except that it was a lot worse, and a lot more money went down the drain as far as getting my grades up to scratch was concerned.
Not the exact ones I had, but they all sucked, without exception.
No offence to onSponge Books.

Parents, here's a quick tip for deterring your children from engaging in acts of sexual (or any other form of) deviance. EDUCATE them on it. Force them to watch lots of pornography/documentaries, then make them answer questions on the various forms of sex/taking drugs/gambling/drinking. Grade them, and chastise them endlessly if they get poor results. Should they be unusually talented, simply remind them that education has no application to real life.

Along came the 'O'-Levels, and this was a totally different beast compared to PSLE. I suppose being in an "elite" school didn't help me to enjoy the preparation process, though at least the positive peer pressure helped me to stay the course and motivate me to study for long hours after classes ended. I can still remember that it was during those dreary days in the school library, that I decided that there was no way in hell that I would put another human being through that.

I hated studying

While my Mum laid the foundations from an early age, the final straw was the 'O'-levels. I found the 'A'-levels even worse, the process far more painful, and my results somewhat more disappointing. But the metaphorical camel's back was already broken when I was 16, and I can't say that the educational torture of preparing for 'A'-levels coloured my perceptions any further.

Did you feel like this too?

If you are still reading at this point, I will sum up by reiterating that 'O'-Levels made me decide not to have kids, so as not to force innocents to go through the same torture. Integrated Programme would have done just that to me, but at 'A'-Levels instead. Even if A and I were to raise kids in a wholesome home environment where grades weren't worshipped, there's simply no escaping a stifling and onerous education system in Singapore. 

2. National Service

No further comments, at least while I remain in service...

3. Cost of living vs salary increases

Remember the older generation's stories about how cheap HDB flats were back in the good old days? Ever wonder what went wrong changed along the way?

Contrary to popular belief, HDB has always been operating on a "market subsidy". In the simplest terms which I can understand, this means that the sale price of flats from HDB includes the value of the land, on top of construction costs. While both construction and land costs tend to follow market trends, cost of land can be fully controlled by the authorities. It is the skyrocketing cost of land which has largely contributed to the increase in flat prices.

Today, the good Minister for National Development claims that HDB loses billions every year, despite resale flat prices increasing 342% from 1990-2009. Median household income only increased 111% over that same period. 

If you are sharp, you might have caught me out on my quoting of resale flat price increases despite HDB's losses, but there is relevance in this. Readers enlightened enough to even consider alternative media such as our humble blog might realise that flat prices set by HDB invariably chase resale prices due to the "market subsidy" approach. This creates a positive feedback loop: Resale prices rise, causing HDB to jack up their prices, causing resale prices to further increase, causing... You get the picture.
Strangely, HDB's market subsidy operates on this logic...

Looking ahead, if I go by my butt feel instead of doing calculations (remember, I hate Math, thanks to Mum), I'd guess that any offspring we have in Singapore would curse and swear at me for bringing them into this world after they take a look at their first paycheck, and the HDB prices of 2035.

Honestly, I feel that prices of everything else in Singapore pale in comparison to housing prices. Eating out can be expensive, but there's always the option of kopitiams or hawker centres. Yes, cars are ridiculously expensive and will continue to be in the foreseeable future. But public transport usually works and is fairly affordable. So let's take the cost of transport out of the equation. After all, cars really are a luxury item in Singapore. Don't let PAP's loser in the 2013 Punggol By-Election tell you otherwise.

How long do you think your kids would take to pay off their HDB loans? How long do you need to pay off your loan? Do you have the means to support them financially or are they on their own? Do you want to live with them late into their adult years? Do you have confidence that they will be self sufficient, let alone supporting you with an allowance?

4. A serious case of nothing to do here

This isn't a great reason, but it's my reason nonetheless. If I can't find anything to do in Singapore, I would not be so presumptuous to assume my offspring can find meaningful activities here. Especially in the future, considering how my favourite haunts such as the fish farms which used to operate in Tampines and Punggol are now gone. Not just the fish farms, but outdoorsy areas like Pulau Ubin and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Will a new MRT line cut a swathe through our only remaining primary rainforest? While the authorities claim to place nature preservation as a priority, the fact of the matter is that economic progress has always taken precedence over preserving nature.

What would I like to do, then?

  • Ride a bike on the road without a high risk of getting killed
  • Have much more places to ride bikes off the road, without sweating like a pig every time
  • Be able to visit a pristine beach without crossing international checkpoints
  • Be able to go scuba diving without crossing international checkpoints
  • Be able to go for a nice scenic drive on weekends, without crossing international checkpoints
  • Surfing (I've got to learn this), again, blah....
  • Decent sailing... 
That's how I  roll

I would not like to:
  • Sit in a jam at a border crossing
  • Choose between doing nothing meaningful, or enduring the above to do something meaningful
  • Have to rack my brains to plan my leave and stake so much (time, money, mental energy) preparing for trips further afield.
The picture must be pretty clear by now.

I am also interested in motorsports. It doesn't quite fit in the above categories, but the picture is clear - and grim. For those not exactly in the know, I was paying close to $4k per annum to insure my WRX STi under my father's name (that's >50 years old, 50% NCD). Add in road tax at $1.2k a year, and the future looked bleak indeed. So bleak that I reluctantly sold my ride after close to two years' ownership.
I still miss you...

For Australia where we are headed, I don't have exact figures, but I expect insurance plus their equivalent of road tax to cost under S$2k per year for a typical mid-range sports car.

Some might ask: How would the lack of anything on my list affect my offspring?

My answer: Apart from the father (me) being very cranky, what little I enjoyed in my childhood here has been practically wiped out. At best there's a bit of mountainbiking to be had at the few trails we have. I would not want to let my kid spend all his time on a smartphone or tablet the way many parents these days seem to have no problems allowing their kids to do.

5. Genetics - the big question mark

A has mentioned the possibility of having special needs offspring. Another big question mark is the quality of our genes. Defective genes can be quite a pain, as Angelina Jolie found out recently. She could be considered lucky, many others actually end up with various forms of cancer, and not all survive their disease.

While we have not (yet, hopefully never) heard of the dreaded C, we cannot assume that everything will be hunky dory. In any case, I have been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism since the start of 2013, and a family history of it among my paternal aunts. I might do another post to chronicle my journey with this ailment, but suffice to say that while my condition is under control, my immune system is still using my thyroid as a whipping boy, as indicated by the astonishing level of thyroid antibodies circulating through my system. 

Call it an excuse, but to me, it reeks of sheer irresponsibility to pass on such traits to my kids.

6. I'm "selfish"

Just like those who choose to have kids because they want to. At the end of the day, doesn't such a decision boil down to the basest level - what the individual wants? Nobody decides to have kids just because they know their kids WILL make a difference in the world. Nobody chooses not to have kids just because they care about the future of humankind.

But at the end of the day, I'm not the one giving birth, and thus I defer to the person in charge of that department - A. Thankfully we are quite evenly yoked in this aspect.

Would migration be the solution?

Given that we intend to migrate, wouldn't that ameliorate my first five reasons? Truth be told, things aren't that rosy in Australia, and I agree with everything A has mentioned in her side of the story, just that there's no point rehashing her content in my post.

Of course, if we ever change our minds, we'll be sure to inform you guys and gals!

- S

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Raffles Institution (RI) vs Hwa Chong Institution (HCI)

Recently, I was posed this question by a parent: Which school was better, Raffles Institution (RI) or Hwa Chong Institution (HCI)? After attending both schools' open houses last Saturday, her P6 son still could not decide (presumably, the boy's grades are good enough to go to either school). That got me thinking - how does one measure 2 'top' schools of comparable profile? 

                   Singaporeans love to compare.

Disclaimer: I am neither a teacher of HCI or RI. The parent in question is an acquaintance of mine and she was interested in my opinion, generally based on my experience as a teacher. She wanted to know which factors to consider before making a choice and because I was a teacher of neither school, she believed I could be neutral and objective.

First, let's take a look at what the schools have in common:

- Both offer the Integrated Program (IP), a 6-year programme without 'O' levels

- For the high school/secondary school section, both are all-boys only. The college sections are both co-ed.

- Both campuses have a boarding school

- Both are 'top' schools (or 'elite' schools, as some would like to label them) boasting long lists of prestigious award and scholarship holders

- Both have well-established academic, talent and leadership development programmes

- Both have a long history in Singapore (RI is 190 years old and Chinese High is 94 years old)

What are the differences in the 2 schools, then? I have identified a list of factors that parents and prospective students may want to take into account, and how RI and HCI match up.

A Table for Direct Comparison

Factor (in no particular order)

Raffles Institution

Hwa Chong Institution


School Fees 
(for Singapore citizens)

$300 per month

$250 per month for Sec 1 and 2, $300 per month from Sec 3 onwards


Cheaper! If you are a scholarship holder then this makes no difference.

Student- Teacher ratio




The smaller the ratio, the better.

No. of CCAs offered (College/Year 5 to 6)

27 sports, 42 clubs

27 Sports, 24 clubs


Greater variety of CCAs.

Language culture

Predominantly English speaking.

English with much more emphasis on bilingualism


It's always better to know more than 1 language.

Criteria for School Diploma

There are 3 levels of Diplomas awarded (Ordinary, Merit and Distinction).

Minimally, the Raffles Diploma recognizes participation and achievement across 5 domains – Cognitive, Character and Leadership, Community and Citizenship, Arts and Aesthetics, Sports and Health.

Based on Prelim Exam result, excellent conduct in JC1 and JC2 as well as one of the following:

Scholastic Achievement (eg rep country in academic contests at international level, taking H3 subjects, achievement in Olympiad etc)


Leadership and Services (eg rep country in Sports, CCA leaders, organizers of Service Learning etc)


RI’s structure for awarding diplomas is more differentiated and holistic. The HCI diploma places higher emphasis on academic achievement.

Internship / Attachment Opportunities / Sabbaticals

RI boasts 120 different courses as part of their Gap Semester programme (a 9-week period set aside for Yr 4 students to explore and create their own learning) including opportunities to go overseas for service learning and industrial attachments. Student-initiated programmes are also encouraged.

Plenty of platforms and opportunities provided by the school. HCI also offers a broad-based sabbatical programme (1 week per term for 3 terms a year from Sec 1 to 4) which works out to 12 weeks in total.


This is subjective. I personally feel that RI’s gap semester idea is revolutionary. You are basically choosing between variety (HCI) or depth (RI).

No. of President Scholars to date



RI, based on past track record


By car: Manageable, with some jams during morning peak
By public tpt: 
Relatively near Bishan and Marymount MRT stations. There are also 6 bus services to choose from.

By car: Very bad traffic every school morning, since it is located in the same area as many other schools.

By public tpt: presently not near any MRT. There are more than 10 bus services to HCI – but most buses will be stuck along very bad traffic during morning peak along with the cars.


HCI may be better in a few years time after Tan Kah Kee MRT station is completed – we will have to wait and see.

Information for all of the above data can be retrieved from the following websites:

Ok it does seem that based on the above factors alone, RI is a better bet. But hang on a minute...

Other Factors

To be fair, I have considered, but left out the following factors because there is no standard basis for comparison between the 2 schools:

- 'A' level results (As mentioned in one of my earlier posts, schools tend to disclose only favourable results to the public)
- Internal promotion criteria (as the 2 schools use different measures)

- Standard/Quality of teachers (how to measure?)

- Difficulty, reliability and validity of internal tests and results (no one knows for sure.. and any conclusions are based on anecdotal evidence)

- Rigour / success of programmes offered (Only existing staff and students will know)

- Number of school awards (because the schools may have applied for different awards to benchmark different aspects of their education. As of 2011, both have attained the prestigious Singapore Quality Award and therefore recognised as world class educational institutions)

Society's Expectations and Stereotypes

This is something that both HCI and RI students (and alumni) have in common - being labelled and stereotyped by others. Often, parents are thrilled with the prospects of having a 'prestigious' brand name associated with their child (eg 'My son is from RI!!') that they forget stereotypes and labels work both ways- it can hurt, too. Some students are embarrassed or afraid to admit they come from 'top' schools.  Genuine, anonymous sentiments can also be easily obtained from Facebook 'Confession' pages these days - evidently, students from top schools have been labelled as 'smart alec' , 'mugger', elite, snobbish, 'rich and pampered', nerds and even hooligans!

"The Albatross about my neck was hung"

Some of you may recall my earlier post responding to a HCI alumni who was miserable during her 2 years at HCI because she could not live up to the HCI stereotype of academic perfection. That, in my opinion, is an Albatross that every student from a 'good' school (not just HCI and RI) must wear - society's expectations. For reasons unknown (aside from a tinge of jealousy and envy, perhaps?), Singaporeans in general make 2 huge assumptions about students from good schools: 

(A) Those with good academic grades must have equally good moral values and behaviour. This is just absurd - IQMQ, EQ and AQ (referring to intelligence, moral, emotional and adversity quotient) are independent measures for every individual. When a student is admitted to a 'good' school, they are admitted largely based on academic merit which does not equate good values and cannot measure good character. Let me bring up Wee Shu Min and the elitism controversy again - clearly, IQ may not be proportionate to EQ or MQ.

(B) Those with good academic grades in Primary School will continue to excel in Secondary School and in life. This is also illogical. As the Chinese saying goes, 小时了了,大未必佳. As adolescents mature, their circumstances and outlook in life may change. Laying a good academic foundation gives a better chance of continued academic success but does not guarantee it. Examples of those who 'slip through the cracks' include students of 'top' schools getting retained in a level, being transferred to other schools or losing their scholarships. Because people are flawed, such unfortunate instances happen (and sometimes make the news) - even if the 'good' schools do not publicly disclose information of this nature.

Everyone is judged... whether they like it or not.

Having said that, don't expect society's expectations and stereotype labeling to change anytime soon - whether you are enrolled into HCI or RI (or other good schools). At some point in time, prospective students and existing students of good schools will need to re-look at their personal definitions of success and learn to cope with the stereotypes and labels that are part and parcel of life. To take the bitter with the better.

To sum up...

Should your child go to HCI or RI? I would say: do more research and make up your own mind. No one can decide for you / your child because of each child's unique circumstances. I'm merely presenting the case as fairly as I can - you be the judge.

IMHO it will do us well as a society to gradually move away from the fixation of 'top' school brands (just look at Finland - egalitarianism works well, too). To use the words of our Education Minister, every school is a good school, right?

- A

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Character Education: Nobody cares?

More than a week ago, I had posted an introduction to the series on Character Education that I had intended to blog about. The response to that introductory post was frankly, very disappointing... ( A comparison: my post on elitism drew more than 700 pageviews in a week, and the post responding to the HCI student hit 4k in 2 weeks. The CCE intro post has only 82 pageviews so far... you get the idea. Even the food review got a better response.) 

This made me wonder: Do people actually care about character education at all?

Two incidences this week have convinced me that despite being labelled as an 'emotionless' society - deep down, Singaporeans do care. First incident: the case of workplace bullying by the boss/manager of Encore eServices has drawn a lot of attention on mainstream and social media platforms. The message sent by the general public regarding this incident is clear - bullying, abuse of authority and physical assault is wrong, moral courage by the intern to stand up for injustice is right, and the wrongdoer should be punished according to the law. The second incident (video below) involved a random group of Singaporeans helping to push a car (parked in an inconsiderate manner along a single lane road) up the curb so that the traffic behind could move. Again, a large majority of Singaporeans praised the selflessness of those who helped and condemned the inconsiderate car owner.

Faith in helpful Singaporeans (partially) restored!

As it turns out, an 'emotionless' Singaporean society does have an inherent sense of 'right' and 'wrong' - even if we don't often show it. This leads me to the next question - could these 'correct' and 'good' moral values inculcated in Singaporeans be attributed to the compulsory Civics and Moral Education (aka CME) lessons that most of us went through as kids?

What do you think?

When I posed this question (informally) to a group of educators of varying ages and experience in schools, they roared in laughter. The unanimous answer from (a random bunch of) educators is clear - No, CME had nothing to do with this

LOL = Response received when I asked colleagues if CCE/CME was effective in schools.

What does CCE/CME/NE look like in schools now?

This part is going to sound quite familiar to Singaporeans born from the 1970s onwards - for those educated here anyway.

NE in Secondary Schools is mostly integrated into academic subjects such as social studies and history (of Singapore). All schools from Pri 1 to JC2 commemorate Racial Harmony Day and Total Defence Day and celebrate National Day with a school concert /school-based activities, all as part of NE.

CME is usually part of a 1 hour lesson (duration may vary for different schools) integrated weekly into a students' timetable. In primary schools, it is largely taught in mother tongue or part of mother tongue lessons. Some secondary schools incorporate this as part of class contact time or CCE period and/or part of mother tongue lessons. There is an unspoken 'syllabus' (remember the CCE toolkit?) and for 'sensitive' topics such as Sexuality Education, teachers are to teach/follow the given guidelines closely. There seems to be a formal textbook for CME in some primary schools. (Teachers these days sometimes use technology and videos to make the lesson more interactive/less boring.)

For obvious reasons, lessons are mostly classroom-based and are taught based on hypothetical situations. Example of CME lesson moral dilemma: 小明 noticed that his classmate was cheating in a test. Should he tell his father/mother/teacher etc and risk losing his friend? (Does this sound familiar?)

To recognize students of exemplary conduct and character, MOE introduced the Edusave Character Awards (ECHA) in 2012. And yes, some primary schools still do give out 'best conduct' awards and all schools are required to give students a 'conduct grading' in their report books.

Is this effective?

There is no tangible or accurate way to measure its effectiveness/success in schools. How does one measure good character?

Surveys don't work - students can always give 'morally correct' answers.

Teacher observations and conduct grading may not be accurate - we will always encounter 乖乖 well behaved  students who are actually terrorizing their parents at home (or so some parents like to tell me)

Scholarships, Character and conduct awards? - let's just say it's all well and good until a scholarship recipient gets caught in bad conduct. (Or when a teacher/prinicipal is quietly asked to leave the service for immoral conduct. Talk about embarrassing... )
How do we measure a person's moral character?

I can only gauge based on personal experience: after 'teaching' CCE/CME and observing how moral ed lessons are conducted across 3 different schools, I have deduced that most students view moral education lessons as a 'break' from academic lessons. Some treat it as an intellectual exercise. Some feel they are 'useless' and a waste of time. It is unlikely that these lessons taught from books will have any lasting impact - teaching values in a classroom is simply too 'top down' and 'theoretical'. Many teachers teach it because they 'have no choice' (remember, it is compulsory) and many more would rather use the time teaching academic content. So, are classroom CCE/CME lessons effective? As a current student/educator, I believe you are the best judge. (You should also check out what Wikipedia says of the effectiveness of values education in Singapore. It's rather amusing.)

How do other countries do it?

The Australian government funds their own Values Education publications and school forums of all levels of education. There are also Catholic and Christian schools worldwide. Most Islamic countries have Madrasahs which are schools anchored in Islamic values. In Thailand, most schools are anchored in Buddhist values. Aligning general values education with religious moral values seems pretty straightforward for countries with a religious majority.

Apparently, it is very difficult (maybe impossible?) to have truly effective moral ed lessons in a secular nation. Besides Singapore, Sweden is another example of a secular country where students criticize the country's formal values education curricula.

Then how?

In this day and age, character education in a secular context cannot be taught in classroom nor using textbooks / hypothetical situations any longer. We are just kidding ourselves. Gone are the days when parents and teachers were the primary sources of moral rights and wrongs. Our children and youth can now find solutions and advice to grey areas and complex moral issues using search engines and Yahoo answers. My role as an educator is to guide my students to make sense of the complexities of moral issues and help them find their own path, instead of prescribing a path. Finally, talk is cheap - unless parents and educators can walk the talk, we will never receive genuine respect from our youths.
Best Anti-Smoking Advert ever.
What are your thoughts on this? How is your personal experience with CME lessons as a student? Feel free to share!

- A