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.