Do you think it’s too ambitious for one to want to make a difference to Singapore’s cultural scene?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Do you think it’s too ambitious for one to want to make a difference to Singapore’s cultural scene? I dream of passing on traditional culture & language to our future generation, and make people fall in love with what I love too. I’m super passionate about this culture and language and I want to make changes to the way the Singapore cultivates this culture in our children.

I always tell people this but they think I’m joking, or like they just think I’m overly ambitious. But I always thought it’s good to have a goal and aim for it. Can you be very honest with me: am I really being too far-fetched and ambitious? Is this silly?

I don’t think it’s silly at all. In fact, I think it’s very commendable especially since many people nowadays only care about making money and nothing else. You are a rare gem and one whom I’m happy to support! :D

I used to know a guy by the name of Peter Wee (https://www.peranakan.org.sg/2018/08/keeping-our-culture-alive-tribute-to-baba-peter-wee/) who did something very similar to what you hope to do. He passed away in 2018 sadly. I would have loved to introduce you to him. He was very passionate about preserving Peranakan culture that he essentially dedicated his life to it. Not only did he run an antique shop selling Peranakan antiques, but he established a reputation in Singapore as an expert on Peranakan culture. So when Mediacorp made TV shows (like “The Little Nonya”) or documentaries related to the Peranakans, they would always consult him. He’ll be there on set, or even loaning/selling Peranakan artefacts.

I got to know him because a friend wanted to interview him, and I tagged along. Thereafter, I visited him regularly just to hear him share stories about Peranakan culture. It was really cool. I even helped him to make reproductions of the Peranakan translation of the Bible before he donated the original to the Singapore Museum (I forgot which one).

Anyway, the point here is: YES YOU CAN, AND YES YOU SHOULD! For a start, you should think about what kinds of simple programmes you can develop for kids/adults. National Library Board will be more than happy to let you run your programmes too. Then you slowly build your network of connections. Reach out to other artists, interests them to make stories about it, etc., so that there will be greater interest. Once you’ve established yourself with the programmes, you can pitch it to Mediacorp/CNA or even Netflix and let them work with you to make a documentary.

It’s very possible! Don’t wait until you graduate. Start researching and reading up how to do all these now. :D

Why are Singaporean students so silent in the classroom? And what can we do about it?

One of the amazing things about being both a teacher and a student for almost two years is that it has given me a privileged perspective to understand why students behave the way they do in class.

This became very apparent to me when I discuss issues with my teaching colleagues: when we’re so busy teaching or preparing for class, it’s so easy to forget how a student would perceive the things we do or say, or the reasons for certain behaviours.

One unique insight I gained from this privileged position of being simultaneously teacher-and-student, is the underlying cultural motivations for why students hold back from fully engaging in class. They do this by either remaining silent, not participating in any activity, or if they do, they would moderate and reduce the quality of their work/performance.

This presents a great challenge, at least here in Singapore, to efforts in engaging students in the classroom, or even in any attempts at successful student-teacher partnerships (a kind of pedagogical approach where students are not regarded merely as consumers of a lesson, but as co-creators who partake in the design and even teaching of the lesson itself).

Unlike the successful experiences reported by many teachers in the West, students here in Singapore appear to be quieter, and less participative. Many typically describe local students as passive or even conformist. But these do not get to the heart of why students behave this way.

Looking back at my own student experience, and from speaking personally to my students, I have come to realise that much of the lack of participation stem from issues surrounding the notion of “face” or pride/reputation. Singaporean students generally do not participate in class discussions or engage in teacher-student partnerships for the following reasons:

(1) Students are afraid that speaking up or volunteering might cause embarrassment to their peers, thereby making them “lose face.” Volunteering for something, or speaking out (especially if one speaks well) can make one appear outstanding. But at the same time, it creates a stark contrast with other students, thereby making them look bad by comparison. Those who volunteer or participate are usually labelled by their peers as “market spoilers” (i.e. those who raise the bar) or “extras.”

(2) Students are also afraid that speaking up or volunteering with the teacher may cause their peers to resent them, thereby leading to negative social consequences outside of class. It’s one thing to embarrass one’s peers by volunteering or participating in class. But it is another issue altogether if one does so repeatedly. Not only is the student repeatedly causing one’s peers to “lose face,” but the student is seen as someone who has raised the bar so much, that that student is showing off his/her abilities. This leads to a lot of resentment from one’s peers. Such students tend to receive harsh labels like “show off” or “smart aleck,” and be treated badly by their peers outside of class.

(3) Yet another motivation for silence or not volunteering is the fear that once one has done so, one has revealed one’s “true abilities” to one’s peers. It is worth noting that the phrase, “true abilities,” was mentioned multiple times by a few of my students when they explained reasons for disliking participation in class/online forum.

The fear of revealing one’s true abilities can come in two forms: (a) One is worse than one’s peers, in which case, revealing one’s ability causes one to immediately “lose face” and to embarrass one’s self in front of others. A more severe form being that one is afraid to discover that one is bad as a consequence of speaking out or volunteering, thereby “losing face” just by attempting.

(b) One is better than one’s peers, in which case, one now has to grapple with the stress of maintaining one’s reputation of having such a high ability, and not lose out to others (which would be highly embarrassing). This is driven largely by a desire for self-preservation. By not revealing one’s high ability, one does not draw attention from potential enemies, and can continue leisurely learning at one’s own pace without having to compete with someone else and risk losing.

These are the three key motivations for students remaining silent and not participating in class or for any extra activities organised by the teacher, including student-teacher partnerships.

Of course, a silent classroom is never tolerated, and there will always be moments where students are made to speak up or present. Here, the same motivations are manifested differently, and this is something we need to be aware of, especially when we involve students to present in front of class, or in any efforts at student-teacher partnerships.

As the lack of participation is motivated by issues of “face,” forced participation similarly compels students to reduce the quality of their work (or at least their outward performance) when they are required to present to the rest of the class. Again, this is to avoid embarrassing one’s peers, or to avoid being labeled as a show off and sanctioned by one’s peers, and also to avoid revealing one’s true abilities (especially if one has higher abilities). The way students do this is that they will use the first forced participant as the benchmark and mimic the quality of the materials and level of showmanship.

Of course, there will be students who are ignorant or do not abide by these rules at all. One good thing about this is that in doing so, hey help to reveal the dynamics of the benchmarking efforts that the others had been doing. Throughout my years as a student, whenever someone outperforms beyond the tacit benchmark, I often hear others complaining along the lines of: “If I knew he/she was going to present like this, I would have done more.” Such admissions of “would have done more,” are admissions of how one had scaled back in one’s work, indicative of a deliberate lowering of quality.

Clearly, for there to be any successful and unmoderated participation, especially with regards to student-teacher partnerships, more must be done in order to overcome such barriers. The teacher cannot just rely on the usual enthusiastic students who volunteer. There are students who are enthusiastic but have no regard for issues of “face,” and there are also enthusiastic students who are inhibited by their worries of “face.”

One thing I’ve learnt from my own discussions with students is that the teacher is an important facilitator in this regard, one who has the power to shape an environment: from a hostile and competitive environment to one that is friendly and relaxed.

The more friendly, uncompetitive, and relaxed the class environment is, the less worried students are about losing “face” or embarrassing themselves (and others) in class. Of course, the teacher does not have complete control over the classroom atmosphere. The presence of intimidating or highly competitive students can still cause other students to worry.

Since becoming aware of these motivations, I have made extra efforts in ensuring that the environment is as friendly and relaxed as possible, so that students are least worried about “face” and embarrassment in a classroom setting. One thing I’ve done and found much success with is introducing the element of role playing in class. When students are given roles to perform, they are given the opportunity to step out of who they are, to become someone else for a moment. That someone else (the assigned role) is then allowed to make embarrassing mistakes and even to embarrass others (involved in the role play), without consequence to one’s own personality and identity or social sanction. Role playing liberates students from concerns about “face” and allows them to engage each other in an uninhibited manner.

More importantly, role playing is a form of play, an uncompetitive play that by itself makes the environment less competitive and hostile, thereby creating a fun and relaxed environment in which students can engage, participate, and forge bonds with each other and with the teacher. This encourages students to take on an increased role in their involvement in class, and encourages them to take on an increased stake in their own learning in the classroom.

Delicious and Creamy Yoghurt that’s Made in Singapore!

The Wife and I are great fans of yoghurt.

Whether it’s yoghurt in a tub, or fro-yo in a cup, we simply can’t resist.

We’re trying to eat yoghurt regularly for health reasons at the moment.

But here’s a problem: we realised a lot of the big yoghurt brands sold in supermarkets are full of sugar – lots and lots of unnecessary sugar. That’s not healthy at all!

The only sugar-free yoghurt we found in supermarkets was Greek yoghurt (not to be confused with Greek-styled yoghurt). But Greek yoghurt is quite an acquired taste. Both The Wife and I find it difficult to consume it on its own. It’s incredibly sour, and the only way is to add other ingredients such as honey, muesli, etc.

Imagine just how pleasantly surprised I was to learn that <strong>someone’s making creamy, sugar-free yoghurt in Singapore!</strong>

The folks from Alvas Dairy Pte. Ltd., contacted me last week after reading my blog. They have been producing natural set yoghurt for almost 10 years.

It’s called: Alvas Yoghurt.

I was intrigued. I’ve not heard or seen this Alvas Yoghurt before. How is it that I’ve not seen it in supermarkets?

They went on to explain that their product is made “without preservatives, flavorings, sugar and we produce it everyday,” right here in Singapore!

Upon seeing that, I lit up with great excitement. I didn’t know we had a company freshly making yoghurt here in Singapore.

Best of all, this is a sugar-free yoghurt! A healthier option, for sure. But would it taste better than Greek yoghurt?

I accepted the free sample, a 500ml tub. (Disclaimer: I only received one 500ml tub, and nothing else – there is no commission or monetary compensation for this review.)

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Alvas Yoghurt (500ml tub)

At first sight, I must say that the packaging isn’t very attractive nor is it very appealing (it even has grammatical errors on it at the back).

If I saw this on supermarket shelves, I wouldn’t give it a second look. Perhaps this is why I never noticed the Alvas brand in supermarkets at all.

Looks aside, the more important question is: how does it taste?

First, it is incredibly thick and creamy. It’s thicker and creamier than Greek yoghurt and several other brands of yoghurt I’ve tried.

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Look how thick and creamy it is!

Secondly, as a natural yoghurt, it was a little tart and sour, but thankfully not as sour as Greek yoghurt. After the first bite, the sourness faded away and I was able to taste the yoghurt’s natural sweetness.

The more I ate, the more my eyes opened with amazement: This is incredible yoghurt!

Creamy, thick, and tasty! These are the qualities that made me love it.

Knowing that it’s sugar-free, and that it has no preservatives or flavourings, simply blows my mind.

How is it possible that I get to enjoy something so guilty yet healthy? Wow… For once I get to eat my cake (or in this case, yoghurt) and have it too.

Some reviewers online mentioned that the secret to such guilty, yet healthy pleasures, has to do with the use of milk solids in the yoghurt. Sure, there is fat in the milk solids, but there’s much less fat (and sugar) compared to what many other brands of yoghurt are using.

It was such a joy eating this. I loved it so much, I finished the 500ml tub in 3 days!

I must admit that I had initially pre-judged the yoghurt based on its unappealing packaging. I didn’t have high hopes or expectations for it. (If there’s one thing that needs to be improved, it certainly is the packaging design.) But my negative perception of it disappeared upon tasting it.

The Wife loved it too. Her view counts a lot here because she has a sweet tooth, an inclination for sweetened yoghurts, and a disdain for sour yoghurts. This means that people seeking healthier yoghurt options would not have a hard time switching over to a sugar-free yoghurt like this.

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If you have a sweet tooth, a healthier alternative is to add real honey to Alvas Yoghurt. This way, you can take advantage of the health benefits of honey and yoghurt at the same time. Look how incredibly delicious this looks!

I learnt that Alvas Yoghurt is currently only sold at all Sheng Siong supermarkets and at many small provision shops.

The 200ml cups can be found at all Sheng Siong supermarkets at the amazingly low price of SGD$1.20!

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Don’t let the boring packaging fool you. Inside each cup is incredibly creamy and delicious yoghurt made fresh here in Singapore!

At this time of writing, the 500ml tubs cost SGD$2.80, while the 1L tubs cost SGD$5.40. This is still much cheaper than the other major brands which costs at least SGD$7 for 1kg of yoghurt (still less than 1L). But not all Sheng Siong supermarkets keep stock of these tubs.

The experience with Alvas Yoghurt has been so great, and it is so healthy and affordable, that The Wife and I decided that we will switch to Alvas Yoghurt for our daily yoghurt consumption.

Here’s a photo of my fridge:

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I bought two new tubs yesterday!

I mentioned before that I love to support local businesses. Here is one local business whose products bring me so much joy, that it is my pleasure to support them with my wallet and my stomach!

A Worrying Trend Arising Among Religions in Singapore

Allow me to share something that has been bothering me for some time now.

If you’ve been visiting Christian or Buddhist bookshops here in Singapore, and if you’ve been paying attention, you’d notice that over the past few years, there’s been a drop in the selection of intellectual books and a sharp rise in devotional materials.

Here are two examples:

Novena Church (currently closed for renovation) has a bookshop, which for many years, used to sell a wide variety of books. Years ago, they used to have a good mix. You could find intellectual books dealing with the doctrines of the faith or ethical issues. And that was balanced with a variety of devotional books and devotional items (statues, prayer beads, etc.).

However, as the years went by, the selection of intellectual books dwindled until there was not a single book on doctrine or ethics at all. In the two years before the Church closed for renovation, the bookshop sold nothing but devotional materials.

This trend is present in many other Christian bookshops.

But this trend isn’t just confined to Christianity. Buddhism seems to have the same problem too.

Years ago, there used to be a huge Buddhist bookshop housed in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown. It was so huge that it occupied an entire floor. I loved to visit that bookshop because of the incredible selection of Buddhist philosophical books. They had a wide variety – and a good balance – of intellectual and devotional materials.

That bookshop, however, closed down, and a small souvenir shop was opened at a corner of the temple selling nothing but devotional books and items (prayer beads, etc.).

I asked a very intellectual Buddhist friend if he noticed a similar pattern in other Buddhist bookshops. He agreed and commented that many Buddhist circles were intensifying their devotional practices, paying little or no attention to the intellectual aspects.

This too is the trend in many Christian circles too.

The demise of intellectual books in religious bookshops has been a worrying indicator for me. The demand for intellectual reading material has dried up, while the appetite for devotional materials has increased sharply in recent years.

And this is a problem not confined to a single religion.

Let me state this to be clear: I am not against devotional practices.

Devotional practices are important in the context of religion. I believe that there must be a healthy balance of both the devotional and the intellectual aspects of religion. Devotional practices help to cultivate the heart, just as how the intellectual aspects help to cultivate the mind.

What bothers me is the sharp drop of religious intellectualism here in Singapore while religious devotion is increasing at a rapid rate.

Of course, I know some atheists and secular humanists might be laughing. Religious intellectualism sounds like a paradox. How can you be intellectual if you are religious?

To some degree, one can be intellectual and religious. At least to be able to justify, with reason, certain tenets of one’s religious beliefs, or of one’s ethical principles.

The slow death of intellectualism, which I’m seeing in Buddhism and Christianity here in Singapore is a worrying trend. Buddhism and Christianity are two of the biggest religions here in Singapore. That this is a trend affecting at least two big religions is disturbing for it points to greater problems slowly simmering in society.

Karl Marx wrote that religion is an “opiate of the masses,” in the sense that people flock to it seeking relief because they are in great pain. The spike in devotion and piety is a symptom of societal stresses. People are alienated from themselves and their work. One of the many outlets from the misery of such a fast-paced, high-stress society and the existential agonies is religious devotion, where they find spiritual and emotional relief. An oasis of calm and peace in a world of madness.

Marx isn’t saying that religious devotion is bad. Religious devotion brings relief from a life of constant pain and agony. That more and more people are flocking to it is a sign that the stresses of modern life is taking a huge toll on people, more than what they are able to bear.

Will we soon be reaching a critical point of high stress in our society that Singapore society breaks down?

That is one of my worries.

To reiterate my point: devotion is useful in cultivating a good heart. What bothers me is the death of intellectualism the rise of devotionalism, and its consequences on society.

Many do not have a good understanding of their own religious beliefs, teachings, or ethical positions. For example, there are many out there who are so fired up about their relationship with God, or with their rituals, but they know nothing about their religion’s teachings or scriptures.

Those who do have some knowledge of these issues, however, do not really know the justifications or rationale behind them.

With good intentions, and with a zeal cultivated by devotion and piety, we are witnessing a decline of religion.

Religion has turned into a soccer match. People take sides depending on their own initial biases. Sometimes the fights occur within one’s own religion.

What I am seeing in real life and on social media are people parroting material they’ve read without really thinking whether what they say is true or problematic.

Worse still, in the name of defending one’s religion (or one’s position on a religious matter), people are parroting terribly irrational answers, the kind of answers that deride the opponent (“Oooo… BURN!”), stirring up their team mates to cheer for them, like a striker scoring a goal.

This can and does lead to extremism.

But I’m not just talking about religious extremism in the kind of fundamentalism of ideas (that happens too). Rather, I’m concerned about extremism involving devotional practices, and its consequences.

Fuelled by religious zeal, one can get too carried away with certain practices or ideas about practices, taking them to an extreme level with dire consequences on others.

Yes, sinners should atone, but to what extent? Of causing bodily harm to themselves? Should we begin forcing certain sinners to atone publicly in certain ways? Yes, modesty is important to the cultivation of virtue and holiness, but to what extent? Of covering up from head to toe? Of imposing the covering up onto everyone else?

The danger begins when people uncritically attach values or high lofty ideals onto specific actions or items, judging those who do not practice those actions or carry those items as having rejected those set of values.

The danger begins when people uncritically think that they have achieved the spiritual goal by doing a certain set of actions, or carrying certain items, thinking that they have no further need to cultivate themselves (they have attained the religious ideal, what more is there to do?), and thus behave in a self-righteous manner.

The danger begins when people in their good intentions and zeal begin to impose – quite uncritically – certain norms onto others (and their community) without realising the consequences of their actions.

The REAL danger is when no one is willing to listen to any opposing voices that find it necessary to examine and critique what’s being done in the midst of all that religious zeal.

The path of dialogue and communication closed, there will only be greater misunderstanding and lack of trust among different parties. Society will thus become increasingly polarised and fragmented.

With the slow death of intellectualism, comes a decline in critical voices and critical examination. Religious circles thus become echo chambers, breeding extremism fuelled only by religious zeal and good intentions.

As the famous saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Some Comments on the 2015 Singapore General Elections

Well, the Singapore election results are out. To the (silent) majority who voted for the ruling party, there is a sigh of relief that its business as usual. To the minority who voted for the opposition, there is grave disappointment and even shock at the results.

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The PAP won 83 of the 89 contested seats.

Now that the results are out, I’d like to share my thoughts and comments about the elections and where we might be heading towards. What I say may probably be very unpopular both to supporters of the ruling party and supporters of the opposition. I do hope that this post may provide some food for thought as we recover from the election fever, and return to the mundane routine of our daily lives.

First a disclaimer: I am not pro-PAP (People’s Action Party) neither am I a pro-opposition supporter. Both sides are not ideal neither do I like both sides. My principle for this election has been to vote for the one least capable of damaging the country both in the short term and in the long term. It’s difficult to gauge who’s better from just 10 days of campaigning. But it is very easy to determine who’s the worst, who’s the most incompetent, or the most stupid person/team. Whoever promised to be the least damaging for the country got my vote.

One of the most disturbing comments coming out from opposition candidates in response to the election results was that they were surprised by their poor performance in this elections. Many thought that they’d perform better than the last election, and were thus taken aback by the sharp drop in votes. All that rhetoric about being one with the people and understanding their needs is complete utter rubbish. I think it’s safe to say that this came from all opposition candidates who didn’t belong to the Workers’ Party (WP).

Now, this is disturbing to me because it signals their lack of understanding of the ground. If they are to represent the people of their constituency, they must know the needs and thoughts of their people. Many opposition candidates seemed quite content with receiving feedback from social media, rallies, and the people they met while campaigning – as if these sources of information were sufficient for understanding the sentiments on the ground.

WP and PAP, on the other hand, knew very well that they couldn’t trust the rally attendance or social media as reliable sources of on-the-ground information, which was why Mr. Low Thia Kiang and his team weren’t surprised at all with the drastic “swing” in their election results.

The other opposition candidates thought they knew the ground, and thus they were very surprised. Clearly, they were out of touch, surrounded comfortably with people of similar views. They only had a perceived understanding of the needs and concerns of the people. In the end, they lacked the wisdom to discern and listen to the needs of the people. I certainly wouldn’t want them to represent me in Parliament, would you?

Now, what isn’t helpful to the opposition and their supporters is the narrative they constructed last night: the myth of the silent majority and the surprising national swing in favour of the ruling party. (The other myth is the myth of a large group of new citizens, which I’ll treat in a future post)

Once again, this has revealed just how blind these candidates have been to what’s really going on. The Straits Times, for all its flaws and sins as a mouthpiece of the ruling party, has actually done a somewhat decent job (not great, but can do) in pointing out the daily bread and butter concerns of the majority.

Take for example, the issue of many business owners having difficulty expanding or maintaining their operations due to stricter policies on foreign labour. With the exception of the WP, every other opposition party had been quite happy to shoot down foreigners and foreign labour. This does not bode well for many business owners. Of course, this is one of many other examples. The concerns of the “silent” majority are expressed often on the news, but they weren’t picked up by these opposition candidates at all. Instead, they’ve picked up the supposed problems expressed so often and so loudly on social media, as if everything on the Internet is true (or it may be true, but just blown out of proportion).

Furthermore, it is interesting how many of these opposition candidates seem rather oblivious to the strong pro-PAP sentiments arising from the death of Lee Kuan Yew and the SG50 celebrations. They were so strongly expressed both offline and online. Clearly, an election soon after SG50 celebrations was an attempt by the ruling party to ride this wave. How could anyone miss this? How could these candidates – who desire to represent their constituencies – be completely oblivious to it, and show surprise at the results? What cave have they been hiding in to not be aware of this?

On these two points alone, the opposition parties (excluding the WP) have demonstrated utter ignorance and lack of wisdom to be even barely decent candidates. They have no excuse for being surprised.

Nonetheless, this election has helped to differentiate who are the credible and potentially credible opposition parties for the next round of election. The Workers’ Party is clearly the most credible and reputable party. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), having reformed itself, showed much potential for being another credible party in the future. These two parties are worth watching out for in the next election.

The other opposition parties have made a fool of themselves in so many ways in just 10 days (some began displaying utter stupidity weeks in advance). They’re definitely not worth anyone’s time or money, even if they come back promising reforms to their leadership and team. The other problem with many of these small parties is that they’re constantly splitting up due to minor differences. They do not know how to handle differences of opinion and they believe that they hold the truth, despite showing how misinformed they can be. This is dangerous on so many levels. The last thing we should confer to them is power of any kind.

Allow me to say a few words about the WP. I have to commend Mr. Low and his team. They knew in advance that they may experience a drop in election results. They knew they were up against the euphoria of SG50 celebrations and the pro-PAP sentiments arising from Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, and hence fielded their candidates very carefully with the priority of maintaining their stronghold.

But in addition to this, what led to WP’s drop was that they had set in the minds of everyone, too high an expectation of their performance in the past 4 years. In the 2011 General Election, they campaigned for a First-world Parliament, where policies would be debated and probed, as a way of checking the PAP. The expectations people had of them were too high, and many were disillusioned because WP did not meet those expectations.

Sure, WP was heavily bogged down by Town Council matters, and that might have prevented them from doing more in parliament. But perhaps, WP allowed themselves to become too distracted by town council issues because the PAP kept probing them about it. Many say that the PAP was playing dirty. But I wouldn’t fault the PAP for that. The problem lies with the way WP handled the issue. It’s suspicious that WP couldn’t produce a straightforward answer each time they were asked. They answered but skirted several issues while they were at it. Such an approach would raise eyebrows naturally, and hence the reason why this issue looks like a dead horse that’s been flogged for years now. Many supporters have become suspicious of the WP as a result of this.

To many who have held high expectations of WP’s First-world Parliament performance, one key area of disappointment was that they seemed to have failed to debate on many issues. Questions posed by the WP in parliament were more like clarification questions, rather than actual probing of policies.

Most disappointingly of all, was their star candidate, Mr. Chen Show Mao. With a Bachelor, Masters and Doctorate degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford, one would have expected him to be an eloquent and sharp speaker in Parliament, with the keen ability to detect problems in proposed policies by the PAP. He showed himself a great speaker during the 2011 campaigns. But for reasons beyond my comprehension, his performance in Parliament – his speeches and questions, as well as his replies to questions – were far below expectation. I am not sure if he is silenced by the party, but there is a great disparity in the ability he showed at campaigns and in Parliament. What’s going on?

So, yes, there is much soul searching and improvement that the WP needs to do to regain the trust and confidence. If anything, I think the lesson here is that they shouldn’t have set for themselves too high an expectation beyond what they could deliver. It is for this reason that they have to suffer the consequence of losing a single-member constituency, and a drop in votes.

What about the ruling party, the PAP? A great deal of digital ink has been spilled over the stupidity and arrogance of many of their candidates. There are many candidates who are clearly out of touch with the ground and speak as if they have been sitting in an ivory tower for a very long time. I wished they were voted out. There are some who are competent, but make matters worse for everyone whenever they open their mouths. They should have learnt from the previous election to speak less else they’d appear stupid before the masses. Some have learnt their lesson this time round; others didn’t and continued to make a fool of themselves.

Yet, for all the failings of the PAP in their campaigning, I must salute them for having done a much better job this year. There is a marked improvement in the way they presented themselves.

In particular, PM Lee Hsien Loong has certainly done a fantastic job making himself well-loved by many on the Internet over these past years. His winning point is that he has shown himself to be very human, a joyful, lovable person with many geeky interests that the people share in common with – a stark contrast to the strict and authoritarian person his father was.

He was his own personal brand, and one that accompanied all the constituencies this election. To the eyes of many, PM Lee has certainly helped to soften the image of the ruling party. It wasn’t just a vote for the tough, cold, arrogant, uncaring and authoritarian party, it was also a vote for a lovable and jovial geeky mathematician who would lead his people to greater prosperity and peace. This was the power of his personal brand during the campaign. In the past 10 days, you’d see his happy smiling face everywhere you went. As the results of this election has shown, PM Lee’s personal branding has definitely balanced out some of the negative feelings towards the party. I must give credit to the public relations person who helped to craft this image.

The timing of this election has been most peculiar. Why now rather than next year? Some have joked that it had to do with the Hungry Ghost Festival, and that PM Lee was hoping to seek the blessings of the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew to assist. It is a funny thought.

Yet, the narrative of the PAP’s victory speeches seems to be preparing us for something more drastic.

Sure, the term “mandate of the people” is a term thrown around in elections, but it is over-used this time round (though not as much as the word, “humble”, which was used so frequently it became meaningless).

Given the impending possibility of yet another economic/financial crisis thanks to mess in the US, EU, and China, this mandate of the people is especially important. If Singapore is going to brace itself for the impending economic/financial doom and gloom that is to come, drastic measures need to be taken, measures that will definitely prove to be very unpopular to many. I suspect the phrase, “bitter medicine” will be thrown about a lot in the coming months.

Since the people have given the PAP their mandate, they cannot complain about what’s going to happen in the next five years (to borrow a phrase from the bitter losing candidate, Mr. Kenneth Jeyaretnam). It is perhaps useful that DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam received a slightly stronger mandate from the people (whether the PAP put in effort to produce his own personal brand I’m not sure, but his awesomeness shone through and he won the favour of many).

Having received such a strong mandate, he will probably be the spokesperson, planner and implementer of the upcoming unpopular changes in policy to brace the nation for impending economic/financial doom.

Perhaps many voters have sensed the impending crisis and are willing to place their trust in a party that has a record of keeping stable in times of economic turbulence, hence the great swing towards the PAP. I’m not sure.

But whatever it is, the people have issued a strong mandate. And if indeed the PAP is going to implement drastic measures to prepare for the impending global economic crisis, we shall see in the months to come.

So, brace yourself! The ride is going to get rough.

Sincere Optics: Opticians You Can Trust (And I Most Certainly Did!)

Two months ago, I finally went to the optician to make a new pair of glasses.

My old pair was due for a change for some time. But I’ve been quite reluctant to change it because of the cost and the effort of having to find a good optician. I made my old pair about 6 years ago, but the optician closed down his shop a few years back.

And so, I’ve been tolerating blurry vision for some time. I had to squint just to see the text clearly from a distance.

The last straw came when, about 2-3 months back, I accidentally flagged the wrong bus. I mistook bus 98 for bus 30. It was so embarrassing, especially when I was the only person at the bus stop. I waved and bowed apologetically to the bus driver who kept staring at me. How on earth did I mistake bus 98 for bus 30 remains a mystery to me. But the fact that my blurry vision led me to see the wrong numbers was a sign that it’s finally time to change my glasses. No more delays!

Also, as a philosopher, I really should take better care of my eyes, especially since I read a lot. I know of two philosophers who have strained their eyes so much that they suffered from detached retinas. Yes, that’s right. The wiring, which connects their eyeballs to their brains, had been under so much strain that it broke and detached itself from the eyeball! Eeew… I squirm every time I think about it.

Indeed, no more delays.

Part of the reason for my reluctance to change the old spectacles was that I couldn’t find a good optician. I’ve heard of some horror stories of friends who paid a lot only to get a pair that was so uncomfortable to wear, that they gave up and returned to their old pair. A big waste of money.

Moreover, it really doesn’t help that these days, I find it difficult to find an optician who’s sincerely motivated to help, or one with a decent set of technical knowledge. I’ve been to several shops but many are just bad or meh.

To my annoyance, those who appear passionate/enthusiastic about helping often gave me the vibes that they are more passionate about making a quick buck from you. I don’t trust them or their recommendations. And then there are those who lack the passion to help because they hate their jobs. I’d rather avoid paying for their service because they won’t be motivated to go the extra mile to help in case anything goes wrong.

It’s been such a turnoff, and so, for some time, I’ve had much difficulties finding a shop I could trust.

In the end, I decided to try my friends’ shop (they’re a couple). I knew that they’re involved in their family’s optical shop, but I usually try to separate friends from business because it can make the friendship rather complicated. But due to the urgent need for a new pair, I figured it might be worthwhile to give it a shot. And so I did!

(At this point, I should state that this blog post is done out of my own free will, written because I was genuinely very impressed by the service and experience I had while I was there. I think good businesses should be praised and promoted. It’s hard to find good service these days.)

Their shop is called “Sincere Optics,” and it is located on the 3rd floor of Beauty World Shopping Centre (144 Upper Bukit Timah Road), a very quaint and sleepy shopping centre that still retains its original 70s look and feel. Initially, I thought that no one comes to this shopping centre because it looks so old and run down. But I was wrong. On weekends, it’s filled with lots of people, especially parents who drop their kids off for tuition or dance classes, as they sit outside to read the newspapers.

Sincere Optics is a family business that has been around for about three generations. In fact, they’ve been around for so long, that they continue to serve loyal customers and their families, up to three generations! Talk about personalised service! Imagine that! Up to three generations have come and gone to their shop for spectacles and contact lenses. Wow!

As this business is their life, the people running the place are very friendly, passionate, and sincere in what they do. They have their family reputation and brand to uphold, but above and beyond that, they take pride in their family tradition, and hold true to their values, especially that of being sincere (hence the name of their shop).

The impression I got is that they’ve developed quite a friendship with their customers. Not only do they remember the names of their regular customers, but they also remember the prescription of their disposable contact lenses as well. It takes a lot of care, concern and effort to be able to remember these things very well.

Looking back at my experience with them, this is a truly wonderful service which you don’t get with modern “corporate” businesses. They’re usually so cold and impersonal. This, however, was a truly personalised service made a lot better with the extra care and concern that they have.

These were all that I witnessed when I first walked in to visit their shop. I haven’t even been served by them yet!

When my friends, Hanes and Melissa, were done serving their customers, they came to me. Though we are friends, they nonetheless delivered a very professional service. You could see the teamwork in their family operation. After using the machine to check my eye, they handed me over to their colleague, a long-time family friend and staff, who then tested my eyesight. He was fast yet very meticulous. Within minutes, they’ve determined the new power of my eyes. Turns out the power remained the same, but my astigmatism doubled.

Then came the fun part of choosing a new frame. This time, I was open to the idea of change. After all, I had been wearing this old frame design for 10 years. As I mentioned earlier, I wore the previous pair for 6 years. Before that, I had another pair of the same design for 4 years. I was supposed to wear it for much longer, but I lost that pair while I was out at sea. It was my first time seeing huge waves at the beach in Australia, and so I wanted to see the waves up close in person. My friends advised me to remove my glasses before going into the sea, but I stubbornly refuse. My desire was fulfilled when I got hit in the face by a huge wave, only to discover that my glasses had fallen out, never to be found again. Oops!

So I picked out a new design and paid for the glasses. In less than a week, I got a call that my new glasses was ready. I was excited and rushed down to their shop to collect. I’ve wore this pair for two months, and I can definitely say that it has given me absolutely no problems at all.

Here’s my new glasses and my new look:

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New glasses!

Looks good?

And here I am with the lovely couple who helped made this possible:

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The wonderful couple – Melissa and Hanes of Sincere Optics – who made this possible.

Anyway, if you are looking for opticians whom you can really trust, I strongly recommend them. It’s their life and their life’s work. These are people, craftsmen and craftswomen, who take their work seriously, and are truly passionate and sincere in what they do – qualities I find lacking in many optical shops today.

It’s been such a great experience. I am sure to come back here again, and even bring my future children here to make their specs, thus following other loyal customers who have been here faithfully for generations.

Here’s their address if you wish to visit them:

Sincere Optics
144 Upper Bukit Timah Road
Beauty World Centre
#03-20
Singapore 588177 [click here to view map]
Tel: +65 6468 1618

Waking Up After September Ends

“Wake me up when September ends…”

Well, ok, it’s October now. Gosh… I actually can’t believe I haven’t been blogging for slightly more than two months. It felt like eternity.

I’ve been so ridiculously crazy over the past two months. Somehow, when the semester began, I found myself flooded with a never-ending stream of activity. It was exhausting and stressful, but it was amazing.

The past 2 months have so far, been the greatest high points of my life and career here in NTU.

I never would have imagined so many amazing events to have happened in two months, but it did! And now that the high tide of activity has subsided, I can breathe a little easy now, recollect, and can’t help but feel like the past two months were nothing but the most amazing beautiful dream that I’ve had.

So, what did I do?

I spent the entire month of August writing a paper for an academic journal. It’s my first paper for an academic journal. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s not the previous post (if you’re wondering, the previous one had too many problems and too little textual material available to make a solid case; I had to write a different paper). In many ways, it was reminiscent of my undergraduate days. In some ways, it was nostalgic.

Anyway, the editor got back to me. The reviewers’ comments were: It was very very interesting. They loved it! But, major revisions required. Oh dear…

In addition, I participated in a small workshop that involved several directors of research centres around the world (including the UN), discussing issues about East-West boundaries, and problems in science and policy making. It was inspiring to sit in a room filled with one of the most brilliant minds in the world. I want to be like them! They spoke elegantly, conducted themselves in the most gentlemanly manner, and most of all, they were full of brilliant ideas and insights.

Those were the mast amazing 3 days of my life. I grew a lot and I came out a changed person.

Not too long after that, in September, I had to fly to China alone, on my own, for the very first time in my life. I made two trips, each trip lasting a week. If you did not know, I’m involved in the production of a massively open online course (MOOC) in Confucian Philosophy. A MOOC is an online course complete with video lessons, online readings, and online quizzes and assignments, which can earn you a lovely certificate by the administering university.

I won’t be the one conducting the lessons in front of the camera. Rather, I’m the one who does all the behind-the-scenes stuff, such as going to China to get government clearance to film lessons in historical sites in China, among many other matters.

Anyway, the birthday of Confucius was coming up, and we wanted to film the Grand Ritual to Confucius at the Confucius Temple in his hometown in Qufu. But that’s not the only thing we wanted to film. There’s a lot more, but I won’t spoil it for you – at least not now. Anyway, all these things required administrative clearance from the Chinese authorities. It was a learning experience, as China has a very different work culture.

But perhaps the greatest eye opener and learning experience was to experience Confucianism as it was lived and practiced by the people of Qufu. Perhaps, it’s because Qufu is the hometown of Confucius that Confucianism is strongly practised till this day (I can’t make the claim for all of China since I’ve only been to this small town). Imagine this: everywhere you go, you are met with the most sincere, authentic, and friendly people ever. Doesn’t matter where I go (and no, it wasn’t special treatment because I was a foreigner, they all thought I was a local – they were very surprised when I told them I was from Singapore). Human affection and close relationships are the number one priority. Everything that is done is done for the sake of deepening the friendship. Even if you are doing business or working, the close friendship is of utmost importance.

It is no wonder the first line in the Analects is so strongly featured in Qufu:

有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?

For a friend to come [visit you] from afar, is this not a great joy?

Analects 1.1

I guess you could say I returned from China a convert, a strong fervent believer of the teachings of Confucius.

It was so refreshing to meet sincere people interested more in friendships than in being able to suck something out from you. It’s a tragedy because nowadays in Singapore, there are just far too many pretentious people who lie that they’re interested in being friends, but actually want to gain something from the friendship. (Seriously, I’m ok if you just say point blank that you want something from me – I don’t like this kind of hypocritical bullshit where you can’t voice your true intentions, but have to keep going around in circles.)

That was a wonderful experience.

Anyway, the second week, my professor and the filming crew came down to China, and it was, for me, a really stressful week as I encountered administrative hiccups here and there. The Chinese authorities do not operate as efficiently as the Singapore civil service. So I had to run around China, making phone calls to various offices just to find alternative solutions or to fix the problem. It was the most stressful week. On the bright side, I was able to pamper myself with delicious foods while I was there, so I was quite happy.

I just came back from China last week, and spent the past couple of days recuperating from the two months of madness. I think I’m now properly rested, which means I should be able to work very efficiently and I can return to blogging regularly. Yay!

So stay tuned for more!

Lunch with Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan

Wow… This has got to be one of the most exciting events before the year ends! A few days ago, I received a comment on my blog by Dr. Balakrishnan, saying how he enjoyed reading my blog and would like to have lunch with me. (Dear Dr. Balakrishnan, if you’re reading this, hello!) For those who don’t know who he is, Dr. Balakrishnan is the current minister of Environment and Water Resources.

Wow… A minister enjoys reading my blog! What a surprise and an honour!

For the days leading up to our lunch, I’ve been wondering why he’d like to have lunch with me. In fact, I was very curious as to how he found my blog. Was it because of my blog entries about the rising cost of living, or about the cost of housing? The Girlfriend joked that he probably found my blog while searching how to use Whatsapp for Mac (it’s the most popular post I have – it generates at least 500 hits a day!)

Well, surprise surprise! He did discover my blog searching for instructions on how to use Whatsapp for Mac! WOW! So cool!

Anyway, he invited me to invite a few friends so that we could have a nice chit chat session, and so I did. We had lunch at a Penang eatery along Thomson Road. For someone who never had the opportunity to meet a minister before, it was quite an experience (and somewhat intimidating one too!) seeing body guards. There was an advance party of security men who came to scout and check the area, and later, there were body guards escorting the minister into the cafe.

My friends and I were excited and nervous at the same time. I mean, it’s a minister! What do you say to a minister? And how should one behave?

Well, surprisingly, Dr. Balakrishnan was very friendly and approachable! In fact, he was quite down to earth too!

Usually, the media portrays ministers as people who are so high-up, that we forget that they are ordinary human beings just like us. But during that lunch meeting, I was very impressed.

Sitting before me was someone as ordinary and as human as we are, sharing similar interests and likes. Here was someone who was as passionate about technology, food, and chinese culture as I am. Here was someone who was curious to learn how to make Whatsapp work on his computer just like the many technophiles around me. Here was someone who loved both Singapore and Malaysian food that he would talk just as passionately about food just like many Singaporeans here. Haha… I told him that I looooved Malaysian Char Kway Teow (it’s very different from the Singapore one), and immediately he replied, “I think it’s the lard that makes it so tasty!” A few minutes before he came, another friend said the exact same thing! He also shared with us his food trips to Malaysia. So cool!

What I loved the most was just how genuine and sincere he was with us. We were very amazed with his sharings about his own personal life and especially about his family.

The one story that left the deepest impression for myself and my friends was his sharing of the time when he first held his first-born child in his hands. Wow… You could sense just how emotional he was as he recounted the experience and the thoughts and feelings that went through his mind during that event. He shared how during that one moment, he suddenly understood the love that his parents had for him, he suddenly understood what parental love was – it was a love that would often be unreciprocated and yet, you’d still want to continue giving your love to your child no matter what. He shared with us how as a parent holding his baby child for the first time, he realised just how vulnerable and dependent the child was on him, and how he had to do whatever was possible to ensure that she would grow up well. He experienced parental love for the first time and that was a great learning experience for him.

Just hearing him share his experience made me feel like wanting to have a child as soon as possible. Wow… I’d like to experience what he experienced.

As it turns out, the lunch was really a lunch with no political agenda. My friends and I have been speculating if he had something in mind (after all, why would politicians ask people to have lunch out of the blue?), but it turned out to be nothing more than a friendly chat over a meal, just as how friends would sit around a table to eat. I did ask him why he wanted to have lunch with me, as I was very very curious. He replied that this was something he likes to do. He finds a Singaporean online who’s interesting, and he extends an invitation to have a meal with him because he just likes meeting interesting people. Pretty cool. I know most people reading this might be skeptical (afterall, these are words coming from a politician), but rest assured, all of my friends and I agreed that he was very genuine and sincere about this.

Anyway, we did chat about issues on life, relationships, and philosophy – especially since my friends and I are philosophy students. It was interesting as he did bring up some interesting philosophical issues for us to consider in the area of politics. (I’ll discuss them in another blog post)

I think it was really great of him to engage us philosophers intellectually on such issues. In fact, I like how he has such great respect for philosophy. It’s rare because we philosophers often encounter people who think lowly of philosophy only because they think it’s impractical (can’t make money) and/or pointless. It’s very interesting how he framed policy-making problems as philosophical problems. For example, one of the problems governments face is the issue of trying to balance justice with equality. E.g. an equal distribution may not necessarily be a just distribution because some need more than others, and on the other hand, a just distribution is often regarded as unfair since not everyone is treated equally (e.g. why should married couples get more subsidies than singles – why can’t everyone be treated the same way?).

It is a difficult balance and it does seem that both values are contrary to each other, and regardless of which way governments decide to emphasize, there will always be complaints of unfairness. I think that was eye-opening!

Anyway, I guess it’s inevitable that when having lunch with a politician, the issue of politics will be discussed.

I will say that after our lunch together, I have a profound respect for Dr. Balakrishnan because he’s the first PAP (Peoples’ Action Party) person who articulated why the government does what they do, in a very convincing and thorough manner.

It’s sad, but the media and many PAP politicians do a bad job in communicating the rationale for their policies. It’s either too simplified that it sounds ridiculous, or the person speaking assumes that we’re on the same channel (and see the world the same way as him/her) and makes too many assertions that many of us consider questionable.

I’ll be honest and say that while I don’t agree with some of the things said, I am nonetheless glad to at least have the opportunity to hear the justifications for many of the things the government does. When you read the gross over-simplifications in the news, you sometimes wonder if the country is run by rational people. But after our lunch discussion, I am glad to know that a lot of thought has indeed been put into their policy-making decisions. Of course, there is always room to debate the policies, but given the way they have framed the problems, the solutions they have conceived do indeed appear to be the necessary solutions.

The real question then is, has the PAP government framed the problems rightly? Should many of these national issues be framed in light of economics? Of course, I don’t know enough nor have I thought enough about these matters as of this moment. But I think these are indeed worth discussing.

Dr. Balakrishnan mentioned that one of the failings of the PAP was that they’ve been really bad at communicating policies. Seeing how the picture provided by him is more rational and worlds apart from the picture presented by the media, I wonder if the people who communicate these policies to the news ought to be shot for grossly oversimplifying things. (Personally, I think I can do a much better job than them if this was indeed the case) Of course, skeptics will question how is it possible that state-run media can do such a bad job. I don’t know.

Nonetheless, this is exactly what we need in our public discourse – a thorough discussion of why policies are what they are, with all the fine details included, making no assumptions that we necessarily see things from the same point of view. I do think that if ministers (and the media) make it a point to thoroughly discuss the fine details and all just like what Dr. Balakrishnan did at lunch, we can begin to have fruitful debates about our public policy. We may not necessarily agree, but at the very least, we can start to see why such a decision or proposal could even be rational at all. Too many issues are presented in a simplistic manner (in the news) that it seems more like badly-made decisions rather than well-thought decisions.

Once we begin to see that the other guy is rational (and not a moron), we begin to respect the other, and we can proceed with fruitful dialogue. I think this is what we urgently need in Singapore today, especially in the wake of increasing polarisation among PAP and opposition supporters.

When we begin to fight for our political parties like soccer teams, we cease to be rational, and democracy becomes no more than just a tyranny of the loudest – whoever shouts the loudest wins. This kind of democracy is not productive nor is it truly life-giving.

Anyway, I am glad that we had this lunch. We had good food and good food for thought. Thank you Dr. Balakrishnan! You’re amazing! My friends and I would love to have lunch with you again.

Reflections Along the Singapore-Malaysia Railway Tracks

The railway tracks functions very well as a metaphor for a person’s life.

 

Sometimes, we have to walk the journey alone. But that’s ok because we’re surrounded by the beautiful blue sky.

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But sometimes, the journey of life can be very scary – gloomy, even. At times, we have no choice but to walk through these moments of darkness – alone.

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There are times where the darkness of the moment overwhelms us. Sometimes, we can’t help but feel severely burdened by the pain of walking alone.

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Some unfortunately lose their soles because of this.

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Jean-Paul Sartre said that, “Hell is other people.” But when we suffer from such dark moments of loneliness, we become our own hell. There’s no one to get in our way. There’s no one to annoy us. And yet, we feel so trapped, so imprisoned. It is as if our whole wings have been clipped, and our feet chained to the ground. In moments like these, we begin to crave for freedom like never before.

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But what kind of freedom do we really need? Is it the freedom to go off the tracks? Or is it the freedom to touch the sky?

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The darkness can be confusing. We know we want freedom, and yet we often don’t understand what it is that we truly need. And so, off we go chasing after a freedom which may not necessarily be the answer to our darkness.

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But what does it profit a man to gain the world, but to lose his sole?

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The greatest freedom comes when we begin to open our eyes to realise the many people – friends and strangers who are not yet friends – who are and have been walking along-side with us in such moments of darkness.

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In such moments, the darkness doesn’t seem so dark anymore. When we begin to accept their friendship and help, the journey becomes more pleasant. The journey will still be rocky, but at the very least, we’re surrounded by fellow companions who are on the same journey. Soon enough, with their help, we find ourselves reaching the end of the tunnel, back out into the light.

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Successfully perservering through such moments is like crossing over a bridge. It can be scary, but we can rest assured by the fact that we have friends waiting for us at the other end of the bridge.

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At every moment of our lives, there is always at least one friend who accompanies us on our journey – whether we realise it or not.

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As we continue walking on this journey of life, we’ll eventually meet the love of our life.

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And at that beautiful moment of marriage, two tracks converge into one. But marriage isn’t just a merger of two lives. It brings together many many more! Friends and family from both tracks begin to walk along with us on that single track, chatting with us, annoying us, cheering us, working with us.

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I think it’s important for us to always remember that the journey of life is always rocky. The ground is never gentle and smooth.

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But no matter what, there’s always a beautiful blue sky covering us, watching over us. It’s a beauty that’s always there, but we rarely notice it. The secret of life is to always take a step back from the mad frenzy of life, look up, and contemplate the sky’s subtle beauty.

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Modernity

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It’s amazing how much Singapore has developed over the years.

2011, and all around are tall skyscrapers and beautiful city lights – the hallmarks of modernity and its success.

Yet, what never ceases to amaze me was that all these changes, all these re-developments, only occured since the 1970s. It was only in the 1980s that re-development went into full throttle, changing every single thing on this island.

It’s amazing how the powers behind its development have made it what it is today – in so short a span of time.

Such is modernity.