Saturday, 26 December 2009

No Room at the Inn

The few pieces of clothing
hastily retrieved in the heat of the fire
are barely enough to shield his children from the cold.
Possessions burnt down to ashes,
dreams blown up in smoke,
now nursing memories in the chilly December wind.

The well-worn teddy bear
hastily retrieved in the heat of the moment
is the only one she can confide in.
Communication broken down in anger,
parents caught up in fights,
now walking aimlessly on a lonely December street.

The few pieces of cardboard
hastily retrieved in the heat of the day
provide them little comfort against the concrete walkway.
Heads laid down on rags,
bodies curled up in the cold,
now counting sheep on a dark December night.

Yet not far away,
in holly-decked halls
people chat,
people laugh,
people kiss,
’tis the season to be jolly;
under bright lights
champagne is popped,
glasses are clinked,
music is played,
’tis the night before Christmas.

What of the man and his family?
What of the girl and her teddy bear?
What of the vagabond and his friends?
There is no room for them at the inn.
No room.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

O Happy Day!


One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is to attend a service in a Black Gospel church and be swept away by the fantastic singing and spirit. I still want to do that someday, but even if I had to die now I’d be content, for I just attended the Soweto Gospel Choir performance at the Esplanade. What a wonderful two hours it was!

The attractive and colourful costumes (where can we buy those?), the energetic movements and drumbeats (where do they get all that energy from?), the soulful voices and tight harmonies, all made for a most delightful concert. The singers definitely deserved the standing ovation at the end.

Included in the evening’s repertoire were some of the best arrangements I've ever heard of familiar favourites like ‘O Happy Day’, ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ (yes, there was a much-appreciated segment of Christmas carols in celebration of the season), as well as the indispensable classic ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ and a very uplifting rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ that could move one to tears.

The only time the performance was slightly marred was when the audience clapped along during ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. I always think the audience should clap along only when asked to by the performers, or at least when the performers themselves are clapping, and refrain from doing so otherwise. But thank goodness it wasn’t that bad—the amplified voices and drumbeats were strong enough to be heard over the audience’s handclaps.

O what a happy evening! And what an inspiration the Choir was, just in time to usher in the celebration of Christmas! Now if only we could have more uplifting choirs like them in our churches...

Sunday, 20 December 2009


I just knew it would happen! The UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen has failed to produce any legally binding agreement on carbon emission cuts.

So what's new?  This is so much a symptom of fallen human nature: every nation looking out for itself. But, as Pope Benedict XVI says in his message for World Day of Peace 2010, ‘concern for the environment calls for a broad global vision of the world; a responsible common effort to move beyond approaches based on selfish nationalistic interests towards a vision constantly open to the needs of all peoples’. If only world leaders would heed this call!

How hard can it be for people to be less myopic, to see beyond their own puny worlds and come together to work for the good of the whole world? How can we keep dreaming of a white Christmas and singing of a winter wonderland when the polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate?!

Good thing Christmas is so much more than snow and sleigh rides. Christmas gives us the reassurance that God has given us this beautiful world and that he cares enough about us to come into the world to save us. So we have a duty to look after this world! Even if world leaders are not ready to make bold moves yet, we can do what we can and play our part to be good stewards of creation. As the Pope continues: ‘Protecting the natural environment in order to build a world of peace is thus a duty incumbent upon each and all. It is an urgent challenge, one to be faced with renewed and concerted commitment; it is also a providential opportunity to hand down to coming generations the prospect of a better future for all. May this be clear to world leaders and to those at every level who are concerned for the future of humanity: the protection of creation and peacemaking are profoundly linked!’ We certainly need God's grace and help to achieve this.

     O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel!

Because there can be no true peace as long as this global warming crisis continues.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

What the World Needs Now

It's a crazy, crazy world—and it's getting crazier as the years go by.

If terrorists can ram planes into buildings and suicide bombers can set themselves off to kill thousands of innocent people, it must be a crazy world: life is no longer sacred.

If parents can kill or rape their own children and a famous golfer can be excused as being 'human' for sleeping around (kudos to Fiona Chan for her excellent commentary in The Straits Times today), it must be a crazy world: family relationships are no longer sacred.

If gays and lesbians can be consecrated as bishops and teachers can post pornography on their blogs, it must be a crazy world: values are no longer sacred.

If an entire nation can vote to ban the construction of minarets and companies can add harmful ingredients to infant formula milk, it must be a crazy world: social cohesion and responsibility are no longer sacred.

What the world needs now are love, peace, and joy—of the long-lasting variety that comes only from God. What the world needs now is to rediscover, reclaim, and relive Christmas—and all that it means and stands for. What the world desperately needs now is Immanuel, God with us.

     O come, O come, Immanuel,
     And ransom captive Israel
     That mourns in lonely exile here
     Until the Son of God appear.
     Rejoice, rejoice! Immanuel
     Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

When Hope Shall Sing of Triumph

There's been a lot of talk about hope and optimism these days. There is Hopenhagen, the movement that empowers global citizens to engage in the UN Climate Change Conference. Global warming is fast becoming a worldwide crisis, and millions of people all over the planet are hoping that the conference will produce concrete actions to tackle the problem head-on. There is hope yet that world leaders will come to their senses and rally to save this ailing world.

Then there is the Australian competition that has given the prize to 'One-ders' as the tag for the coming decade, because of its 'bright-eyed optimism'. Certainly this has been a tough decade to begin the millennium: terrorist attacks, wars, and the global financial crisis. There is hope yet that the coming decade (which actually begins in 2011, not 2010) will be a period of wonders rather than woes, especially with the comforting news in recent months that the world is beginning to pick itself up from the ashes of economic gloom.

I think all this talk of hope is very timely during this season of Advent in preparation for Christmas. The message of Christmas is, of course, a message of hope. Obama talked about the audacity of hope. I believe that what gives us that audacity is the unfailing, unconditional love of God: 'Hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.' (Romans 5:5) We dare to hope because we have come to know and experience the love of God.

So Christmas is all about hope, because the coming of Jesus reveals that God cares enough about us to come to us, to reach out to us, to become one of us. So as we go about decorating our homes, shopping for new clothes, and wrapping gifts for our loved ones, and in the midst of all our carolling and feasting and merrymaking, we should keep in mind this message of hope: there can always be a better tomorrow because God loves us and cares for us!

     O come, divine Messiah!
     The world in silence waits the day
     When hope shall sing of triumph
     And sadness flees away.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Obsession with Secondary Greatness

I think the difference between stature and status is similar to that between primary greatness and secondary greatness. Stephen R. Covey defines primary greatness as having to do with a person's character, contributions, talents, creativity, and discipline, whereas secondary greatness is about positions, titles, awards, wealth, fame, and rankings.

It seems to me that the pervasive Singaporean obsession is with secondary greatness. And, sadly, nowhere is this more evident than in the education system. True, there are schools that have excellent programmes in place to mould their students to achieve primary greatness, and there are many noble teachers who are doing a great job of nurturing their students in that direction. Yet isn't it also the case that character education is often relegated to a very minor position vis-à-vis academic subjects, and that schools often offer CCAs that can bring in the medals and awards rather than those that cater to students' interests? The list of examples could go on and on, but I guess my point is evident and I shouldn't have to put my head on the block to belabour it.

One can only hope that, as we move forward in this age of enlightenment, more educators will wise up to the need for a solid character education programme that permeates the entire curriculum ('ubiquitous', to use Covey's term). Many of the aspirations and ideals we hold as a society, such as being more gracious, are dependent on good character education. I daresay that, to a great extent, the future of our nation depends on it.

Monday, 30 November 2009

The Obsession with Status

Recently, during a speech by an NIE lecturer, I was introduced to the very enlightening distinction between status and staturestatus is one's position relative to others, whereas stature is the height (of learning, skill, accomplishment) that one is capable of achieving.

Obviously, we should all be aiming for stature—realizing our full potential and making the best of ourselves. However, the legendary obsession among Singaporeans, which is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it has almost become something to be celebrated, is to aim for status.

It doesn't take one very long to realize that this obsession goes far beyond neighbours (mostly mothers) comparing their children's grades. In reality, it pervades all levels of society. Just consider these examples from the education system:

  • youngsters refusing to share notes with their classmates out of fear that their classmates may outshine them;
  • parents and students planning their cocurricular involvement in order to maximize, not the intrinsic benefits gained from the programme, but LEAPS points scored;
  • school leaders working their teachers to the bone so that the school will attain awards (because, while the Ministry of Education's masterplan of awards is meant to reflect stature, the rigid Singaporean mind cannot help but see it as an indication of status).

To be sure, healthy competition isn't a bad thing—on the contrary, it often spurs people on to greater heights. But one must recognize the line beyond which competition becomes unhealthy. As a result of the national obsession with status, education risks being turned from the lighting of a fire (as Yeats so eloquently put it) to the burning of one's rivals. We need to stop before we all get reduced to ashes.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Closing of a Chapter

And so a school has moved out of its premises for the much-delayed PRIME. It was the closing of a chapter for the grand old dame, one could say, and about time, for the 24-year-old building has been ageing and protesting its continued use. A Mass was celebrated to mark the occasion, something truly appropriate for a mission school that, sadly, has been gradually forsaking some of its Catholic identity in recent years. (Think the absence of opening prayers at staff meetings and the Sec 4 graduation dinner held on a Sunday.)

Some wondered why there was no blessing during the Mass for the many teachers leaving the school. That would have been a magnanimous gesture indeed, but I suspect somewhat more magnanimous than people in authority are capable of, so of course I never expected anything like it to happen. Yet isn't it sad that an organization should fail to express any acknowledgment, to say nothing of gratitude, for the many years of contributions that its staff have put in, before they leave? We talk a lot about building a gracious society, and even make people pledge to do so, but how well will we succeed if those in positions of leadership don't set an example?

C'est la vie. There is no point fretting over such matters. One should only move on and be happy, after shaking off the dust on one's feet.

Saturday, 21 November 2009


When all is said and done, perhaps the only lasting joy of having been part of an organization is in the relationships that are formed, especially those that have endured the test of time and distance.

For me, that's almost 12 years of relationships built at St Nicholas, with colleagues and students. Some colleagues have become very good friends, and we have continued to keep in touch and meet up regularly even though some have moved on to other jobs over the years. Some other colleagues have, sadly, disappeared from the radar, while there are others I have never worked closely with. And then, of course, there are those who, to put it simply, are best kept out of sight and out of mind.

As for my students, gosh, if I count all those with whom I have had some form of contact over the years—those I taught, those in CCAs and other groups I was in charge of, those I accompanied on overseas trips—there are easily more than 1000 of them! As groups and as individuals, they are what has kept me going all these years—the very reason why I became a teacher in the first place. Sure, there has been a lot of sweat and tears (I don't think there was any blood!) and numerous heartaches, plus long lectures, stern reprimands, and brutal scoldings. But there have also been many moments of joy and fulfilment, witty jokes and funny incidents, which have made the experience worthwhile.

Some of my ex-students have got married, some are on their way to getting their PhDs, some have become teachers themselves—it is heartwarming to see how they have grown and matured over the years. Thanks to the wonders of social networking tools like Facebook and instant messaging, maintaining contact with everyone has been made very easy.

We can only hope that all these relationships that we have formed over the years will continue to enrich our lives somehow.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Precision, Perfection, Poise—and the price we pay

OK, about the Vienna Boys' Choir. I've never been a fan of pre-pubescent boys singing soprano parts, actually, but decided to treat my parents to a concert at the Esplanade, since my mum has always liked the Vienna Boys. I must say the evening's experience changed my opinion of them for the better.

What struck me from the start was how the choir was different from the picture we normally get of Singaporean choirs. Boys being boys, their sailor uniforms were slightly creased and crumpled here and there; they weren't all standing very neatly or facing the exact same direction most of the time; and even their harmony and rhythm could have been tighter at several points. In fact, I was wondering whether they would manage a Gold award if they had entered the Singapore Youth Festival central judging. Going by how strict Singaporean conductors can be, they'd probably earn themselves a sharp rebuke instead.

Yet the amazing thing was that the boys staged a superb and thoroughly enjoyable performance—and they were clearly enjoying themselves! They enunciated the words of the various languages in their repertoire almost effortlessly (the audience particularly appreciated the Mandarin numbers), and soloist Hibiki Sadamatsu's fine renditions easily stole the show. It was truly a pity that publicity for the concert was rather low-key, which probably accounted for why there wasn't a full house.

This concert has led me to think that we Singaporeans tend to be too uptight for our own good, demanding precision, perfection, and poise in whatever we do and allowing no room for mistakes. In the process, are we robbing ourselves and those around us of opportunities to find joy in what we're doing? Must everything be stipulated, scheduled, and synchronized like clockwork? Do we always need to put up a good show to impress others, or can we just be ourselves? How sure are we that others will think badly of us just because of a slight slip-up? Are we putting too much stress on ourselves?

Perhaps we should all learn a thing or two from the Vienna Boys' Choir and start enjoying what we're doing.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Maksimum Disappointment

So much for all that hype about the Prince of Piano and Master of Melody coming to town. I paid $130 for the 70-minute Maksim performance at the Esplanade Concert Hall when I would have enjoyed more one of his albums on my iPhone for free. Yes, it was an 'acoustic' performance—just the pure sound of the piano, one might say, sans all the techno backup. But that meant that whatever mistakes the maestro made could be heard all the more clearly. Plus, the much-anticipated Flight of the Bumble-Bee was conspicuously absent from the evening's repertoire.

What made things worse were the many unofficial photographers in the audience, blatantly snapping away throughout the evening despite the initial annoucement forbidding photography and the subsequent repeated reminders from the ushers to stop. I've been to the Esplanade for numerous performances but this is the first time I have seen so many people taking pictures—and they had started even before the concert began, taking shots of the Steinway & Sons concert grand on the otherwise bare stage. I don't know if it's because those people found the piano or the pianist stunning (I certainly didn't, in both cases), but don't people have any sense of decorum and self-control? Such occasions really make one ashamed to be a Singaporean.

I won't go so far as to say the evening was wasted. The concert was quite enjoyable, after all. But I definitely expected much more. The Vienna Boys' Choir came to town recently without much hype, the tickets were much cheaper, and their concert so much more enjoyable—but more on that another day.