Value of our Values?

A number of my friends had strong responses to Prof. Koh’s claim of Singapore being a “first-world country with third-world people”. It was also fairly interesting some responses online became one of blame, as opposed to constructive feedback. That has been a theme for a while in civic society, which supports Prof. Koh’s claim.

Many people have dissected Singaporean behaviour in their respective articles, so I shall not provide yet another treatise on the same thing. Instead, I would like to point towards a certain word, “value”. A measure of value towards something is important because it tells us how much we are willing to work for it. For instance, our valuation towards having a quality education is important, because it allows us, statistically, to open more doors for opportunities.

It is perhaps in asking how much we value our values that is important. For a start, values are supposed to be principles we hold dear to. Some of us could value righteousness very much, and hence defend our friends in times of trouble. Others may value intelligence very much, and would stop at nothing to advance their knowledge on any subject matter. We may need to revisit the kinds of values that we value and perhaps re-adjust some of these. Let me give a few examples.

The Kampung Spirit: Many Singaporeans liken the Singapore of old to having a strong “kampung spirit”. Some of us lament that this “kampung spirit” is slowly fading away for other forms of interaction. Some of these observations happen simply because of the changes to our lives. For instance, the food that we may have bought from a provision shop, coffeeshop owner or from a market may now be bought on an e-commerce or food delivery website. This means that what was supposedly a human interaction with a constant supplier has now changed to at best, a variable deliveryman. But not everything has changed like this. To restart the “kampung spirit”, we can look around us and identify the people who belong to our social fabric. We need not look that far to do that. These could be the bus drivers who drive the same bus routes, or the stalls that we often buy our dinner takeout from. Say hi to them, exchange greetings and understand one another. While these may not directly amount to much, the social bonds we form with people around us could prove to be a spark to recover the “kampung spirit” we cherish.

Consumerism and Convenience: We have become far more prosperous than ever before. We also have a society of convenience today. Food is never more than a few clicks away on a food delivery website. We can now shop so conveniently and many of us are affluent enough to buy a lot of what we want. However, when is our consumption considered too much? I think we overconsume, and partially due to the convenience to consume far more than what we really need. Sometimes, these arise from our own doing. We buy a piece of clothing that looks pretty at first glance, only to wear it once or twice throughout its life cycle. We go to restaurants and order the maximum amount of food (presumably to impress on people one’s affluence), only to realise that our appetites may not be that limitless. Rethinking about our consumption patterns is important if we value our planet. After all, insatiable consumer demand does encourage firms to continue production in a bit to satisfy consumer demand whilst pocketing profit. If we could all consume less, the world would perhaps see less demand for such manic consumption. Fewer resources would eventually be expended and our planet could be better-off. (I shall leave the discussions on environment and economic efficiency to separate musings should I have time.)

This is a short post, but not all is lost as what the dystopian view is. There are some individual habits we have that we can change to be less of a “third-world person” that appears to lack manner, graces or even human decency towards others. Such a short article would not do justice to the actual breadth of the topic, but I hope I have provided a small, individual perspective towards how we can inch towards a slightly better people.

Aiming towards a first world country and first world people!

Correlation Between Teaching and Joy

I miss school very much. At times, I wish I can just go back to school and simplify life to one dimension: work on graduation!

I have a soft spot for education partially because I have also been a tutor. In fact, besides writing, the only other job I have ever done part-time was being a tutor. I take my tuition stints as privileges, and always try to make lessons more fun than cram school.

As a tutor, I particularly enjoyed “stretch exercises”. In the old days before I picked up the “Try Harder” maxim, I was known as the tutor that individualised recipes for every student. Recipes included setting a Mathematics paper with no arithmetic problem in there to wean a student off a graphic calculator and attempting to design a game to “gamify” a Chemistry quiz. But perhaps one of the more fun recipes included trying to show arts students how to think quantitatively. Out came the utterly contrived examples that appeared on H2 Math papers, and in came some fairly realistic simulations, such as population chaos (logistics equation) and why Singapore Pools remains such a profitable enterprise with their astronomical house advantage.

Ever since my first full-time job, however, I have never felt the joy of working week in, week out just to spark joy for students, until recently where I had to dust my linear regression material just to try to teach high school statistics all over again.

Still the same old utterly terrible handwriting. Here I am trying to illustrate why interpolation can be unreliable in data sets where there may be reasons to believe the best fit is in fact not linear, but some other correlation. If our data isn’t evenly spread out, we do not have sufficient reason to believe that our regression should indeed be linear. The worksheet, however, was restrictive (perhaps benefitting the student) such that it requested for a linear regression check only. Mercy, or else you’ll almost have to apply linear law techniques to verify that the relationship isn’t something else such as a power law! (Separately I will probably also prepare some LINEST example just to illustrate other aspects of linear regression. Price to pay for missing my tutoring job. 🙂

Funny enough, when I was a student, I took some of these chapters for granted as being procedural; the H2 mathematics syllabus during my time made linear regression a procedural exercise anyway; have some x and y, linearise it, do a least-square regression, compute r^2, and then translate it back to determine what power law two variables seem to follow, and then perform an interpolation. I remembered just taking this chapter as “technique”, and now I had to show how “technique” isn’t so procedural in real-life.

I think my natural joyous reaction to being able to guide arises from the fact that I naturally tend to like to watch progress. That means, however, tutors often put students through hoops of questions to make them think and try harder. We will almost never answer, “What model should we use” with “use the y = mx + c model”. We almost always reply with a question, ” What models do you think could fit for this data set and why?” The resultant joy comes when the student feels a sense of accomplishment for successfully completing a problem without being fed the answer. The tutor also feels a sense of joy at having being a good navigator without giving away the plot.

Let me also take some time to indulge in an old saying that, the teacher has completed his or her objective when “the student beats the teacher”. There are reasons why this sparks joy. I shall approach this from the emotional angle first. The emotional angle is simple: satisfaction that a job was done so well that the teacher’s capabilities have all been passed down to the student. At this point, it makes sense to add a layer of depth to this argument; younger people, with their differences in experiences and skills, have a higher chance of synthesising new knowledge that the older people just cannot see or cannot imagine. In other words, this is joy from progress. Perhaps this is why my colleagues did not find me excessively fatigued after a cyber discovery camp with young, bubbly talents, but will find me fatigued whilst setting some “boring, administrative tasks”.

Perhaps it is only fair to take a more nuanced stance on teaching and joy. Teaching does not occur only in a formal context of master and apprentice, professor and student, or tutor and tutee. There are, in fact, many different avenues where informal instruction occur. These include mentorship of interns, coaching and many other methods. It may perhaps have been a bit of a stretch to claim I have never felt the joy when I was being a full-time tutor, in that case.

Perhaps, deep down, I simply enjoy the process of progress; progress sparks joy, and hence a positive correlation between the amount of teaching I can reasonably do (in whatever medium you can think of) and how much joy there is. And I still miss school!

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

“When Breath Becomes Air” was a breathtaking read. I thought I could finish a short book in one sitting, but I couldn’t help tearing as I read through the second half of it.

Why did I tear when reading the book? It forces one to think about life, and provides a good glimpse at how even doctors change their world views on life with new information such as a dire prediction.

Perhaps I have the serendipity of having some pockets of free time to mull over life, and the joy of reading. Not everyone I know in my circle of friends have such luck. Some reach home in the dead of night and plonk on the bed almost immediately after their shower. Others would be so stressed about the thought of more words that they resort to their daily lose of Netflix, Instagram and Youtube (multiple social media works like a drug cocktail — administer together to reduce resistance against every social media out of social toxicity).

I teared partially because of the story. On the surface, it would seem like a gloomy, depressing book. The protagonist died before finishing his book, succumbing to cancer. The battle looked to have gone on well with the first line of defence, only to rapidly descend into the abyss of hopelessness and eventual demise. Yet, the book also illuminates the power of the human will to persevere especially against the extreme odds. Even in apparent failure, one has to call the eventual publishing of this book a bright spark amidst an otherwise blighted story. One such quote that looks at the power of the human will can be summed up as follows:

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

I cannot help but think at my own life and wonder whether I am really living life to the fullest. On one hand, I do feel a little pang of guilt when reaching home to watch a comforting but ultimately useless chess video. Yet, I also question if the mindless hustle that seems to be a fad among people my generation today worthwhile. Some boredom to clear the mind is good. Hustle, purposefully done, is also good. While it looks like a salubrious to take the “middle ground” here and say, “Live life purposefully; do things you love to do, and make sure to take breaks,” it is nothing more than a motherhood statement that one can easily question, “So, what to do, in specifics?”

Perhaps it begs me to think about life and its priorities. Millenials tend to call this a “quarter-life” crisis. I don’t agree, and prefer to look at the ability to determine our own life trajectory a privilege; we may never know when our own bodies may rebel against us and rob us of our very own sovereignity over our dreams and aspirations.

And that is why we dream and aspire towards fullfiling them, instead of letting their flame be quashed with the wind.

Privilege of Power

Someday, the student will eventually surpass the master and the child will eventually outgrow the parents.

There are many times where we are put in situations of privilege. These can include positions of power and control, or positions of responsibility.

For all that leadership workshops market, there are really only a few principles that anyone in a position of privilege should abide by.

One, take care of those under your charge. Two, realise that those under your charge will eventually do better than you simply because they are more agile. Three, learn when to let go.

— utterly random, written in 5 minutes —

The “Gaijin”

Having been a visitor to Japan twice, I am still impressed by its breadth of tourist pickings and its hospitality. Just food alone, these range from the delectable yet simple delights of melons in Furano to the intricate kyo-kaiseki (Japanese traditional haute cuisine) in Kyoto.

I would be greeted with the impeccable hospitality of the Japanese each time I return. Food is a stress-free experience; almost no one seems to churn out a bad dish. Some even suspect my heavy biases towards Japanese culture and suspect I may be smitten with everything Japanese.

However, unlike my travels in Central Europe, I was not able to have deep enough conversations with the Japanese, unlike the Dutch (in particular). Some of them certainly know English, but towards foreigners, the Japanese put on a face of hospitality. It sometimes leaves me with a tinge of disappointment, especially in an environment of a high-context culture: their very accommodating nature makes it difficult to infer what they might be really thinking. According to a book about Japanese culture I read, there exists the “tatemae”, which is the external-facing self and “honne”, which is the internal-facing self. “Tatemae” is usually what we see: the formal, polite Japanese, whereas “honne” is unlikely to be seen unless we are close enough with them. Other cultures have variants of “honne” and “tatemae”, but these were not as pronounced as that of the Japanese.

Of late, I felt this sentiment of being a “gaijin” in some circles back in Singapore. To be fair, for the uninitiated, my manner of expression and choice of contexts to draw upon may make people me for being a Japanese (in the US), Vietnamese (in Chinatown), Malaysian (not so often, but noticeable enough) or even British (because of proper use of English on a networking platform — this has happened at least twice). Perhaps my curiosity of other cultures and willingness to engage in them make me sound, subconsciously, more “global” and hence less Singaporean, even if my instincts are certainly Singaporean.

However, I am beginning to learn that I don’t necessarily seem to resonate much with what we associate as “typically Singaporean”. I recently learnt that singing karoake was a favourite past-time in Singapore. I must be extremely late to the party. And Singaporeans love to travel for purposes of “breaking out of work cycles”, unlike my travel patterns, which one tour guide describes as “being European” and another person describes as “very interested in local culture”.

Perhaps it is my concept in what being a Singaporean means that gives rise my sense of feeling like a “gaijin” smack in my own land. To me, I stick to a rather pedantic definition of what an immigrant nation entails; being built out of people from foreign lands seeking a brighter future, Singaporeans will necessarily have origins from all around the world. This was featured quite heavily during our National Day Parade this year and I resonated well with that theme. However, a pedantic, time-invariant interpretation of this also suggests that I should, too, be open to future citizens who might share such a dream as well. But I sense, among my friends, a less than eager tune to adopt such an idea of nationality.

Going back to the term “gaijin”, its pedantic definition bodes no ill. A “gaijin” simply means “foreigner”. However, we start to pay attention to differences in a bid to differentiate between who belongs to a group, and who does not. These traits can be physical, such as skin colour, or behavioural, such as seeing who can speak a certain language a certain way (e.g., Singlish). But the concept of “gaijin” can extend beyond discriminating based on nationality. We can extrapolate this to discrimination based on attitudes towards certain events. For instance, people get aggressive when disputing about social issues, and start calling people out as bigoted or stupid.

In most matters I tend to take a slightly cooler, perhaps more analytical view. It endears well to people who want to try to break out of their comfort zone and I hope to be able to value-add to these people (partially why I write a scratchpad in the first place). However, since I appear to not pick sides on these matters, I would therefore not be included in either group and hence be seen as “gaijin” because of my lack of subscription to the various groups’ beliefs.

I am quite contented to be perceived at “gaijin” at times, though it is somewhat disappointing because being “gaijin” means it is often difficult to prod into the inner thoughts of people (cold hard analysis from the outside can only go so far) from a distance. It means that I don’t endear well particularly to most groups that have already banded because of various commonalities.

Sometimes, I am OK with such a status quo; I am free of shackles from my own groups to interact with others with the comfort of other parties that I have no vested interests. Certainly not that of an insurance agent, or that of a preacher that insists on the superiority of a certain religion, or way of life, or modality of thinking. Being “gaijin” has its advantages; “gaijin” have less restrictions on calling out sub-optimal behaviour and patterns. There is some value to be from the outside.

Emotionally, it is not entirely healthy to be a wanderer on the outside. It eventually makes one weary and miss home, a comfort zone, family and friends. Humans, being social creatures, want to feel included. I am no exception, and I hope not to be treated as “gaijin” wherever I go! However, I am also reluctant to give up my value-addedness of wanting to always look at issues from multiple angles instead of taking the pre-defined views a community subscribes to.

Perhaps mulling over this makes me feel even more lost (as this writing might suggest) than enlightened. When does one stop being perceived as “gaijin”, and start to be included into a community?

DreamCrush (not a game)

I used to have many friends who had strong ideals. Sometimes, we would not agree with each other as our opinions simply do not converge.

Of late, I’ve been sapped because, one by one, when conversing with my friends, they express the shadows of their former selves. The usual “narrative” goes like this (if you feel you have been quoted; rest assured you are not alone):

I’m tired of all these. I just want to settle down somewhere, hopefully with a nice girl, and maybe a few kids.

Anonymous friend

My first thought was to rebut, “But how about your dreams and your personal goals?” It usually descends into a series of rants about how life is not going so well. I am quite sympathetic because I sometimes feel lost too, and I myself can find it difficult to articulate the complexity of choices available to me. Another friend suggested the following:

Easier to be a student, where the goals are well-defined.

Another anonymous friend.

I remembered the incredible disbelief when I told students that they should enjoy their schooling life wherever possible. My rationale was quite simple: students do not need to fret about the complexity of choices as long as they can afford to get to school (Side-note: the reason why affordable education is extremely important for students). They know they must study, develop skills, but they don’t have real stakeholders to answer to except themselves. Moreover, by and large, the sandbox is larger; students are supposed to fail by design to learn while attempting to pursue stretch goals.

But whose life is that smooth sailing? I am confronted with a number of possibilities that can become crushing reality should I not look at them diligently enough. Many in my generation wonder what they will do 10 years from now. How about those that do not settle down? What if one settles down with an incorrect partner? The problem with this is that this cannot be treated as an academic exercise; one has to make certain decisions and stick to them. One can cop out of an important meeting, or an acquaintance’s awkward social gathering, but there is no evasion of choices that will directly affect one’s life.

And now I look at dreams, and on the other side of the same coin, regret. This ties in with the book I read about palliative care and meeting Death. When thinking about Death, one thinks about how one wants to live one’s life. Unfortunately for the Singaporean spirit in us, there is no ten-year series on this. Even if there was, the probability of fulfilling a certain life trajectory is close to zero; just don’t bother trying to live just like someone else.

We have to decide how we should live our lives. And for me, one key motivation is wanting to live life with as few regrets as possible. The corollary is quite straightforward; I must go fulfil my dreams. So what if they were written in primary school? The dreams may have changed, but the spirit of dreams did not change; we had dreams of becoming teachers, policemen and firemen because we wanted to be helpful, and do a profession that we can live up to our own consciences. I may not be any of these professions, but the spirit of said dreams live on.

There is a palpable fear, at times, that I’ll succumb, like my friends, to an unknown force that would swallow my dreams alive. But as of now… my willpower still holds out strong, and the try harder maxim still holds.

(For the unfortunate souls who had to endure karoake sessions with me, perhaps the post above is why I pick a certain song that goes… you shoot me down, but I won’t fall… I am titanium!)

Bad Food Habits: Killing Health in More Ways than One?

A friend recently opined that there was a case for a meat tax (particularly red) to help mitigate climate change. Taxes are imposed to discourage consumption, such as hefty taxes for smoking and alcohol consumption. If done right, taxes can be cost effective. This made me decide to go read more whether there could be a case for it.

There might be two good reasons to look at a meat tax. First, it costs the Earth far more to produce one unit of meat than the same unit of plant food. (All data used for the comparison is courtesy of the Guardian) Using freshwater consumption as an example, vegetables would require 322 litres/kg, fruit would require 962 litres/kg, whereas white meat like chicken require 4,325 litres/kg and at the extreme end, beef required more than 15,000 litres/kg! From a resource angle, it is more resource-efficient to produce vegetables than meat. This can be understood when one looks at energy efficiency. Animals are generally inefficient in terms of energy conversion. Because animals move, their respiration expends more energy, which makes them more inefficient. Cows are a particularly inefficient one.

There is a second reason why we may want to look into red meat taxes. Red meat is correlated with a variety of health problems. From a health policy angle, there is also a case to try to nudge people towards healthier options, such as substituting red meats for white meat equivalent, or cutting out on excess processed food in general.

The typical Asian diet differs somewhat from the Western diet vis a vis red meat consumption, so the “meat tax” argument might hit Asian countries less hard for equivalent amount of punitive measures. This made me read up about our hawker favourites, and think about our own dietary habits in Singapore. The signs are not encouraging. We have three problems going for us:

  • Frequent snacking and consumption of processed food items. These can include processed red meats (terrible) and snacks high in preservatives such as salt (terrible)
  • Eating hawker food and finishing up everything. Almost all the hawker favourites were high in sodium (terrible). Many of them also did not look like balanced diets, most of which were devoid of vegetables.
  • Binge-eating on special occasions. A typical Chinese multi-course meal would contain the following (rough order): appetisers, soup, chicken, prawn, pork, fish, vegetable, dessert. This is a carbohydrate and protein overload. Not good if one eats like this daily.

Coming back to a “red meat tax”, it may be sensible to view food consumption from a more holistic angle. Policy-makers can view taxation as a possible move from both an environmental and a health angle. But there are also critics that blunt taxation may simply be not enough; such a tax regime will require difficult conversations on exactly what to impose a tax on. For instance, since we can largely agree processed red meats are bad for health, how should we make the consumer pay for such a negative externality? Tax the product itself, or its constituents such as salt, or the red meat?

While we wait for policy-makers to iron out the complexities of such a tax regime, as individuals, we can try to signal some of these intents. One can see this in a rising trend of availability of tasty vegetarian food options. Individuals are not entirely powerless in solving both a sustainability and a health crisis.

Clearly the thought of a meat tax (and other associated taxes such as salt tax, sugar tax) is compelling. My lack of expertise in both environment and health policy makes it difficult to articulate if it will eventually work out, but I think we need to have this conversation for two important reasons: our Earth is increasingly become unsustainable as our dietary habits shift towards more meat consumption, and our own health is beginning to take a toll on us; it is good news when we read of increasing life expectancy, but terrible once this is accompanied with worsening health. I am not an expert in these fields, so I welcome comments from the experts on these topics.

P.S. (My personal take on food.) I am personally inspired by how the Japanese manage to merge both health and taste into a traditional eating style. One example where these principles are incorporated into Japanese cuisine is teishoku (quite appetising too, don’t you think?). Because of how well-portioned it is, one does not run as much risk of over-eating too! But is my thinking sound for the experts?


A few days ago, I mused on Facebook about TOUCH volunteering its people as part of our nation’s birthday.

Today is a video that I personally thought was very touching.

Never judge a person by external appearanceCredits: Bus Stop Films

Posted by TU EDM on Saturday, 3 August 2019

When we look at people with learning needs and disabilities, we are often shrouded by the word “disability” so much that we forget they have abilities after all.

In this video, what struck me personally was how James managed to diffuse the barriers that typically stood between interviewer and interviewee have an honest conversation beyond just transactional matters. A psychologist might have written, on his diagnosis, that this was an example of “underdeveloped social skills”, which clearly led to a far more positive outcome: the law firm has got itself someone with the correct convictions, whereas James did his job as “interviewer” very well as part of being in gainful employment.

The learning point is this: there are abilities in dis’abilities’, and at times, these unique abilities make them outshine neurotypicals at certain job tasks. We should think about integrating people and finding meaningful work that best suits our people, not try to shoehorn them into our definition of what defines a “typical” person.

As for TOUCH, that was why I was so touched when I saw their efforts on NDP day. They were so conscientious at making every single balloon and fulfilling every child’s request of taking pictures with the photoframes. They did that tirelessly, throughout the parade. It was symbolic and practical to give them a role during NDP to be “one people, one nation, one Singapore” in that regard, and we should strive to be inclusive. Everyone has abilities and can play a part in a larger ecosystem that needs people with different abilities and skillsets.

A Thought on Mortality

It is not every day that we think about mortality, even though it is perhaps one of few certainties in life.

Recently, I had the fortune of reading a book titled “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End“. Personally it left me with more questions than answers. For someone who is under 30 this year, it is quite difficult to think about topics revolving around death. What resonated with me very much, however, is the end-of-life stage, as one starts losing control over one’s abilities. Basic cognitive functions such as recall become difficult, as in Alzheimer’s. Basic motor skills also degenerate.

This also made me link to the fact that Singaporeans are generally living longer, but not aging healthily. It leaves food for thought on how one wants to ensure one is able to properly function for as long as possible, yet also leaves food for thought over a far more wicked problem: how do we view ourselves towards the ends of our lives? Surely we do not want to be a burden to the people around us when it is time to go. Surely we do not want to live our last moments in pain, neither do we want to live our lives with full knowledge of a noose that will eventually take us.

The thought of being stuck in a hospital bed, being anchored by tubes is not an exhilarating one. But such a thought provides me powerful motivation to keep healthy (to maintain performance), and to make sure my dreams become reality, someday.

Welcome to the Scratchpad!

Often we have thoughts that we may not be able to parse coherently at that point in time. Some of these are private, which I will clearly not make public musing about. However, there are a number of thoughts that we may all have come across at some point in our lives that someone else might have a clearer view of.

Hence, I decided to come up with a “scratchpad”. Unlike my other blog, which is usually reserved for more “technical” topics, the “scratchpad” takes on a significantly more casual tone to it.

I will muse about many different things, and there is no fixed topic to the scratchpad. If there was, would it be called a scratchpad, anyway?