[Review] Marsiling’s Automated Tray Return System

First published on The Blogfather’s Facebook Page here.

Marsiling: this seemingly innocuous estate has seen a bit of drama over the last year, firstly when it quite inexplicably lost its representative Member of Parliament to an unfortunate incident many of us now refer to under our breath with a disgruntled, forceful spray of spittle as the Reserved Presidential Election.

It looks like some of the people managing Marsiling want to keep the momentum going, this time with an absolutely brilliant idea that will surely thrust the constituency into the forefront of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative, complete with green and pink robots sprouting multiple arms out the sides of their bodies.


I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the only two-month-old Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre, and to observe for myself how the much-lauded Automated Tray Return System worked.

It didn’t.

No trays. Just everything else.

It isn’t technically broken or anything. As far as I can see, the tray return belts were running, there were cleaners manically sorting and cleaning utensils inside, but having sat there for the entire duration of one Sunday night dinner plus about 15 minutes of idling, no one actually used it to return any trays.

Right next to the tray chomper, they do have “manual” utensil return station. But the whole set-up is just kind of intimidating to the casual user, to be honest.

One wonders why… until one actually buys food from the stalls. Most of them don’t provide trays. And the patrons of those that do, don’t use them, preferring to hand-carry their purchases bowl by hot soupy bowl to their tables.

See any trays? :/

Meanwhile, the tables remain haunted by the remnants of its previous occupants, while the cleaners worked more swiftly than usual to try to keep the otherwise new food court pristine.

The cleaners do try their best when the diners don’t seem to even want to try.

Oh dear. What could have possibly gone wrong? Why is this new, innovative technological approach actually making things worse? And are they really going to implement this incredibly idiotic idea into 23 other hawker centres? Will somebody please stop these NEAncompoops?

In order to demonstrate just how badly this scheme has so utterly backfired on itself three times over, allow me to respond to some fantastic quotes from another CNA article that covers the tray return system specifically.

“With the ATRS, cleaners will be able to focus on cleaning tables instead of having to clear the plates of cutlery left behind.”
Two hawker centres start automated tray return, to charge deposits for trays [29 Jan 2018, Channel NewsAsia]

In fact, the complete opposite has happened. Cleaners are working double-time to clear the cutlery off tables because there are no trays for them to pile the cutlery on and remove in a single motion. and then they clean the tables. And given the circumstances, I really give all my respect tot he cleaners for maintaining the food centre’s sanity despite this. I would add that if not for Marsiling being so ulu in the first place, they would have easily been overwhelmed by the work they had to do to keep the place clean.

“Changing the behaviour and mindset of the public will take time and it will take patience.”
– Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources and Senior Minister of State for Health

Actually, it took absolutely no time at all to change the behaviour and mindset of the public. Thanks to the complete lack of forward thinking in implementing the idea, we all hate it so much that no one is coughing up the deposit for the trays, resulting in patrons not even using them any more. People are even revolting against the idea, returning only the trays but leaving the crockery behind; the news picked up on this just 2 days after Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of oh-you-know launched the thing.

Even worse, there are people who actually want to clear their table themselves and return their trays and crockery, but the System has made it so inconvenient to do so that the considerate ones would rather not come back a second time, even though the food there is really not half bad. And anyone who has encountered elderly people feeling completely and utterly lost in front of ATMs can just imagine how they would feel when facing these tray-eating behemoths, and for what? 50 cents?

Wah. So advanced until people don’t use.

Hawkers aren’t buying into it, either; I mentioned that most of them had given up providing the trays already since their customers weren’t taking them. They could use the extra countertop space anyway. But the idea of charging a tray deposit makes even less sense; despite having an easier time with washing up (which they have to pay more for as well), these stallholders already have to contend with a drop in business on top of higher cost of operations. Who has the time to manage a separate stash of deposit money that isn’t even theirs?

“We need to sustain this and of course, continue to encourage the community to support this.”
– Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of This Is Just Too Long To Type Already

I actually have no problem with the technology itself. I imagine people might have fun watching 2 hawker stalls swallowing copious numbers of trays and crockery. But why do our stat boards believe our people have to be managed with money all the time? Timbre+ did okay with a similar system; their deposited is included into your dine-in meal cost by default, and failure to returns is as good as forfeiting your deposit – h/t Shawn Toh). The food they sell there is so overpriced anyway you barely feel it. Besides, people expect a private enterprise to use money as their language for control. Why does our public sector keep thinking the same language applies to their work?

Dear, dear National Environment Agency (NEA). The solution is incredibly simple, and you even get to keep your dirty-dish swallowing machines (even keep installing new ones) and still contribute productively to the country’s Smart Nation drive. Simply forego the bloody 50-cent/$1 deposit, tape up the coin return component, put the non-automated tray return stations back next to all the pillars keeping the food centre roof up, SUSTAIN your education of the public on the virtues of habitual table clearing, and of course, continue to encourage the community to support THAT.

And please don’t take too long, because Marsiling is making you look really bad right now. And I really don’t feel like visiting Bukit Merah Central either.

I didn’t eat this.

Dear Madam President

If someone living in Yishun Ave 4 could just help me show this to the lady with the jumbo flat and 3 reserved parking lots, if you manage to bump into her despite her small army of police escorts and bodyguards:

Dear Madam President,

Despite what people say, I do believe, especially right now, the Singapore Presidency truly should be the highest office in the land, but hor…

It isn’t for safeguarding the national reserves, that’s pretty much out of your hands.

It’s not for the President’s Challenge, you just have to show up.

And it’s not for being the Chief Scout of the Singapore Scouts Association, although my son very much appreciates your patronage to his CCA.

I believe you’re holding the most important state position right now because (and you have made quite a strong emphasis on this as well) you want to unite the people, especially now that it seems most of the other statesmen currently serving in parliament can’t be bothered to any more… well, not after we’ve seen how they got you where you are now anyway.

Of all your predecessors, I can only think of one that really tried, but then he took the safeguarding the national reserves part of his job scope a little too seriously, and, uh, not sure if this is the right term to use, but can we say “constructive dismissal”?

Uniting the people isn’t going to be as easy as saying “Come lah, together-gether we do” in our four official languages, you know. We’re really severely fractured here. I personally have had my heart torn to shreds over national issues so many times in recent years, not only watching racial tensions magnify, but getting embroiled in some of these incidents myself (and my heart truly, sincerely goes out to you for now getting caught in the middle of one of the biggest ones we are witnessing in recent years).

I have friends that I’ve both made and lost, discriminating against other friends based on race, language and religion, status, nationality and what I’ve personally found to be ugliest of all, gender: seemingly normal people tear into the lives of consciously non-normal people through complaints, petitions, protests and counter-protests for and against legislation, human rights and children’s books of all things: a mission of hate conducted by an army of self-righteous against a people who just want to be left alone to live and love without fear.

Right now, most of all, probably through no fault of yours (though I know a couple of people who’d beg to differ), a ruling elite that has demonstrated that an overwhelming population of both supporters and opposers who have told them since last year that what they’re trying to do was a terrible idea, the voices of the very people they serve, does not matter.

You want to unite this 40km by 20km hot mess of hate, ignorance, cynicism and disappointment? I want to believe you can, ma’am, I really sincerely do, but I’ve got to be honest with you, I really don’t know you can. Your being president alone is causing such a rift among the people you have sworn to serve, and I foresee your decision to remain in your flat in Yishun is going to complicate the lift-sharing arrangements in your block quite a bit. In fact, I realise now why we never really saw the guy you replaced come out all that often the entire time he held office.

I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m sorry you got put into this predicament; despite the strong front you’ve put up in the last few days, I cannot imagine how you must be feeling watching this humongous backlash hit you. And short of telling you the only people you can probably take reference to in order to unite your people (never mind the state at this point) are either the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, I don’t have any good solution to offer you.

I do have some solace to offer you, though. I know a small bunch of people, myself included, that have grown so disenfranchised with how the country is being run right now that we’ve decided to help some of the people on our own. Because of our education system, I know people helping other parents with homeschooling. Because of our national manpower management, I know people who care for abused foreign workers. Because of our transport system, I know people who are helping others figure out how to cycle to work instead. And because that one guy who we actually liked, who actually listened to us, who we thought was just starting to make a difference in how this country was supporting families, now has to take over your previous job, I know people, me included, who are quietly helping our communities on our own, in our own terms, because we don’t think we can depend so much on those people you’re working with any more.

We haven’t got much faith left, ma’am. Not a lot of hope, either. Now that you’re in your new job, if you could restore just some of that (I’m managing my expectations), I think we’d really, truly be grateful to you. But if you can’t, ma’am, it’s okay. You were given a big hot inhuman mess to sort out to begin with already, and we, your people, also need to manage our expectations.

If you need to talk, ma’am, I’m always on Facebook. And if you’re up for some kopi siew dai (you know, because that thing we’re suddenly on about diabetes), I live near Yishun, too. I can always cycle over (I have to scrap my car soon).

Sincerely (I mean it, no joke),

Winston Tay

One of Those Days

Ever have one of those days when things get so overwhelming you try to grab hold of something just to stay afloat but everything you touch just repels you with annoyance and disgust, and you realise you’re just going to have to deal with drowning on your own?

Or one of those days when everything you try to do just goes wrong and when everything you try to say just sounds wrong and everything you think just seems wrong and everything you are is just wrong and people actually agree?

How about one of those days when you know just like every new day that the next day is going to start, but you really don’t feel like being around when it does?

How do you pick yourself up from that kind of day?

I’ll tell you what I tried. I go with the family to watch an animated movie my wife decided to buy tickets for before my day inexplicably rolled into a shitstorm, but it turns out to be about a corporate baby who was having a terrible day at work, so that didn’t do me much good. (The movie isn’t bad though, you should catch it with your kids.)

I try to eat, because I haven’t had dinner anyway, but movie theatre fast food doesn’t exactly look like the caring, kind best friend that’s going to tell you, “It’s okay, Winston. Just put me in your mouth and chew and everything will be fine, I promise.” My chicken bites were too salty and my hot dog looked like my… day.

We go grocery shopping, and I think, hey, retail therapy, right? But then my wife asks me to pick out some grapes and I go to the chilled fruits aisle and see two boxes of those fantastic Californian moondrop grapes and I pick them up and they’re wrinkly and leaky at the bottom because they’ve been left on the shelf about 3 days too long and I almost start to cry.

I tell the wife I need to take a walk after we get home from dinner, just to clear my head. She suggests bringing the kids’ bubble blowers. So I do, but it gets depressing because the bubbles would burst. And I stop blowing because I feel like I’ve been breathing life into them just to see them die.

I decide to just take that walk then, but then it starts to rain, and much as I would have liked the soft rain caressing my face, masking the tears in my eyes as I walk slowly through the night in comforting cold solitude, my son just recovered from a fever and my daughter is still nursing a cough and the last thing my wife needs is another big baby falling sick on her and then a bad 2 weeks at work won’t be the only thing I need to worry about.

So I go to my car, open the windows, whip out my phone, open my WordPress app and I write this.

Halfway through, the rain stops. I step out of the car, because it’s getting damn hot.

And, hoping I’d at least feel slightly better,  I finish the post with this before I hit “Publish”:

Just like every new day,  tomorrow is going to start, and I have no choice but to be around when it does.

… And then the WordPress app fails to upload the post and I have to log in via my web browser and copy-paste everything and re-paragraph the whole thing.

Nope, didn’t feel better. Guess it’s just one of those days.

Coffee, Tea or MOE (or Oops, I Overdid It Again)


So I was asked to a teatime dialogue session by the Ministry of Education’s newly formed Engagement and Research Division. I thought it was because I called their minister a knob, and it didn’t help that when I was the first to arrive at the cafe we were supposed to meet, I was led to a table for four. And when the other invited guest (yes, just the one other), I wondered is she called the minister a knob as well.

As it turned out, the Divisional Director preferred to keep things “cozy”. Shortly after she and another colleague sat down and we made introductions, they opened the discussion for their guests to talk,  without setting an agenda. So, me being me, I just let it rip… for 1½ hours.

(Of course I wasn’t the only one talking the whole time, but I don’t quite have their permission to put their bits in, so I’m going to just put mine ad verbatim… more or less.)

“Okay, so. I see three issues with the MOE.

You have this huge archaic machine of an education system running on a 50-year-old ideology that draws further and further away from today’s reality as every year passes. But you can’t make radical shifts and do something like eliminate the PSLE altogether because then you’d void your secondary and tertiary level streaming processes it would cause the rest of your academic levels to come crashing down. Our government is way more measured with how it institutes change, and I can appreciate that. It doesn’t help that you have an education minister who’s been undermining your efforts with how he’s been presenting himself in the public eye. You probably can’t do anything about him either.

“But your biggest problem is parents.

“One question has been bugging me ever since my son got inducted into academic life (mind you, his experience with primary school stress took effect as early as preschool level). My own primary school education 30 years ago was never this hard and stressful, and now I’m flipping through my son’s Primary 2 Maths textbook and finding he has calculus in his syllabus. I opted out of A-Maths at A-Levels just to avoid doing calculus! How did the bar get raised beyond the appropriateness of our children’s age and learning capabilities?

“Your problem is the parents who have confused wanting the best for their child with wanting their child to be the best. Back in the 80s I was sent to tuition classes because I was falling behind. Then parents started treating tuition into a level-up solution, where kids go to keep a step ahead of their school syllabus, and our schools find themselves having to adjust to the raised bar to keep up with the kids. Then comparing PSLE T-scores became a trend, and the pride of the top-scoring parents draws the envy of the nearly top-scoring, and the insecurities of the not top-scoring end up getting everyone joining the T-score race, and that’s how our tuition industry exploded.

“We turned into a world-class education system because of neurotic parents. And because they’ve been speaking the loudest whether through words or actions, you’ve had to adjust your own policies and syllabus over time to keep up with their demands.

“May I say the idea to switch from T-score to banding isn’t working, because it’s still a points-based system that parents can make their kids chase after; in other words, your neurotic parents are still at it, and all you did was simplify the race for them.

“I want to suggest you try a more skills-based or values-based banding system, like banding based on creativity, logic and reasoning, hands-on work, leadership, followership, empathy and compassion, determination and hard work, and so on. Something that will tell parents that no matter what level, their child is worth something to society, to their family and friends, to themselves.

“No, it’s not the Direct Schools Admission exercise (DSA). You’ve set the DSA to apply only to a minority of the primary school cohort, and even then the idea, however well-intentioned, is being gamed by the neurotic parents. I have a neighbour that’s been putting her Primary 1 kids through table tennis lessons in a bid to qualify for DSA. We hear from her maid that they’re horrible at table tennis.

“Look, If you can iron out the kinks in your DSA programme, then what I’m suggesting is expand it and apply it as a standard streaming scheme across the board. Keep the PSLE if you really need to supplement the process  with an ‘objective, tangible’ evaluation system. Offering a much broader scope of choices gets parents who still want to game the system to reduce their emphasis on grades and start looking at their child’s development a lot more holistically.

“But more importantly, I think it’s high time MOE starts engaging with these neurotic parents. Up until now, the public doesn’t hear from you guys enough. For me to know you were actually actively trying to solve these issues we’ve been raising and diligently plugging holes in your archaic machine took me a lot of discussion, debate and digging with other people, sometimes from other industries, but up until this tea session, not from you guys. In fact, when I first saw the name ‘Communications and Engagement Group’ in your email signature, I thought to myself, ‘Where have you guys been this whole time?’

“I think last year’s news about the teen suicides actually helped you guys in that it made these parents do a lot of soul-searching. But you do need to follow through on pushing this message across. As an education ministry, you need to tell people that our children’s education is by no means the sole responsibility if the academic institution, and that the things our children need to learn that schools cannot teach, have to be taught by us parents at home.

“If you want to really hear what the ground is saying, you might want to tag along when your colleagues at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) do their engagements, because a substantial portion of the issues raised are about education, but even their Ministers there tell us they can’t speak for MOE, so much of those questions get very limited responses, if at all. I know we all could really use your presence at their dialogue sessions. Just please don’t send your own Minister to these engagements, at least not until he learns some empathy.

“And I don’t know if you realise it, but you already have a ready platform for engaging parents: parent support groups. Nearly every primary school has its own PSG, each housing a pool of up to a few hundred parent volunteers. No, you don’t go through the PSGs to get to the neurotic parents. The PSGs are the neurotic parents. Why do you think they join the PSG in the first place? They get to keep tabs on their kids in school, get an intimate look into what their kids’schools are doing, and form a larger network of like-minded neurotic parents to supplement their class WhatsApp group chats so they can all collectively freak out over last week’s homework due tomorrow together.

“Think about it. Nearly 200 primary schools with PSGs that hold annual thank-you dinners for their volunteers in assembly halls attended by 100-200 parents, and your top-tier influencers for the rest of their parental cohort. A captive audience of the exact psychological profile you’re looking to engage.

“You don’t really need to worry about the rest of us. Less neurotic parents know well enough to care for their kids and not depend on the education system to serve out what its not equipped to, so you won’t hear very much from us other than what the neurotic ones are making us freak out over. If you can use that same sphere of influence PSG parents have will naturally trickle down to the rest of us, and through engaging them, you can shift the mindset into one that allows you to adjust your policies more peaceably.

“MOE really needs to communicate; instead of unwittingly stopping discussions short with a blanket statement like ‘We know what’s happening and we’re dealing with it’, tell us exactly what you’re doing and what problems you’re facing. Some of us might actually understand you, and a few might even have workable suggestions you could use. And at any rate, we’d much prefer to hear from the heart of your organisation—you—than its head.

“After all this, I guess the only bugbear I have left is your boss. I originally came in to this session with the mind to say he’s just wrong for the role, but I think it would be much more constructive to ask that he improve his own understanding of how parents and children across the spectrum approach education, and not just assume everyone can ‘chiong’ their way through life, or that cleaners aren’t okay. From interacting with some of his Cabinet peers, I know better than to hold him as an example of who are running our country. But the public is not as discerning.

“I’m really glad you’ve taken the time to listen to me, and I’m really, really glad for  your Division’s existence. Let me know if you need any more from me, I’d be happy to get a cup of tea with you again. I’ll leave you guys to your work now; you have a lot of catching up to do.”

That’s Not How You Make a Better World, Kid

Seen this one before? The comic strip about two mothers telling their respective children the value of a good education through two different types of messaging went viral on 9GAG back in February last year—exactly one year ago, in fact. And I’m going to say straight out, I really didn’t agree with this back then. I said as much when I first saw it on a friend’s Facebook feed.

Now, this friend recently reposted the comic strip, intending to use it as an example of “reframing” the way parents can communicate an idea to turn a negative message into a positive message. Please allow me to add a further frame to the story:

And who taught you to talk about people from across the road?
And who taught you to use people you don’t even know as an example for your children?

Then last Friday, one of our Ministers for Education decided to share the comic strip again because “it struck a chord with him”.

And of course, The Blogfather had to take issue with it again.

And of course I screencapped this right after posting because this kind of thing has a tendency of disappearing.
And of course I screencapped this right after posting because this kind of thing has a tendency of disappearing.

Actually, if there’s just one thing that would have made the original strip work, it would be to inject some proper empathy into the situation. It’s obvious Mrs Pointy-Fingers doesn’t have any, but you’d also be mistaken if you think the other mum was exercising any, because if she was, she’d much more likely be going up to the street cleaner himself to ask if there was anything she could do for him.

Many of us are fortunate to be in a position of privilege—mothers, mentors, and ministers included. And many times we speak from that position without first considering of the plights of those not in our position. Fortunately, I’ve met a couple of people in authority that are so conscious of this that they tend to make their decisions very carefully, sometimes at the cost of being criticised by the ground for being too slow to react to the times.

Minister Ng, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. I’m not going to contradict myself by judging him based on his (not-very-long) history. But for urging students to “chiong” in a sweeping motherhood statement just as this year began, without stopping to understand the many different problems these kids face that are keeping them from doing so, and now this insufficiently considered Facebook post drudged up from an already debated, quite divisive comic strip, I don’t know that I can trust this man with our nation’s education.

Proper empathy ensures we help people the way they need to be helped—by listening to them first. And much as we would like to think we are blessed with a world-class education system, that personal, one-on-one level of empathy—which is what I feel to be essential to “making a better world” for him, her, they, us—isn’t something we can adequately learn from “studying well” in school; we learn it from our parents first and foremost, from society in general, from our own experiences of moral good at every point of our lives.

Last year’s spate of teen suicide stories have already spurred a group of well-meaning parents to convince us not to depend on “studying well” for the sake of our children’s sanity (and even then I don’t particularly agree with how they’re doing it). “Reframing” that discourse this way, as motivational or magnanimous it sounds, isn’t going to help de-pressurise the system for our kids.

We’ve been conditioned to encourage good intentions. These days, I don’t know if we’re defaulting to that encouragement even when the morality of those good intentions are brought to question. Regardless, may I please request we think before we teach.

The Big PSLE Freakout

This is beginning to be as sensitive as talking about religion. And it’s getting worse and worse every year.

Then there are all these positive initiatives getting people to share stories and PSLE T-scores in the name of telling Nintendo DS-denying parents grades don’t matter (she’s since learned an important lesson: be careful what you say in front of a journalist).

First: I love that this is happening, I think it’s important that it’s happening, but I’m sorry this is happening.

Second: please, please stop for a minute. We’re making things worse. All these hundred stories from a hundred voices about defining and achieving success a hundred ways, all these I-did-well-despite-my-studies-so-can-your-child-now-let’s-group-hug hullabaloo, all this is as useful to our PSLE-worshipping parents as telling a person with depression to try some exercise (and in case you think that’s okay, it’s not).

This is how the Democrats lost the US Presidential Election. It’s how parents unwittingly lose their connections with our children. It’s how we lose people to suicide.

We don’t help anyone by talking about what you’ve done, how I can do what you do, how it’s the right way; I’m not you, so stop making yourself look so obnoxious, because you’re starting to sound like the person whose mindset you’re trying to change. As parents who have gone through our children’s first years deciphering their cries and behaviour in a bid to lock in their mealtime/potty-time/bedtime routines, one would think we’d understand that it doesn’t really help when we tell our kids, “Look at the boy at the next table, so well-behaved”, or even, “Look at me, why can’t you be like me?” (To be honest, the Wife and I haven’t gotten that right either.) But what does help is when we listen and observe our own child, then learn how best to do life together.

So listen.

The KiasuParents gang—the parents that really need the help, us, me—have the impression, probably from going through it ourselves some 25-30 years ago, that the PSLE T-score is the first major measure of academic efficiency across the education eco-system—students, parents, educators right up to the Ministry itself—and to us, it’s been so deeply entrenched in the system that up until 2014 an Education Minister has said it won’t be abolished (even though MOE will be replacing the T-score with a new banding scheme in 2021, a potential whole new can of worms on its own).

We hear murmurs about how teachers are still ranked against each other using the class T-score aggregate as a key performance indicator, or how schools still have to depend on T-score aggregates to report faculty performance (every school a good school but how good still has to be measured by the overseeing authority). After primary school, secondary schools, even DSA schools, use T-score cut-off points to filter their student applications. T-scores still play a part in assessment of bursary and study grant disbursements. And T-scores are used to sort incoming secondary school students into Express, Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams—the streams aren’t just a matter of academic division to allow tailored teaching, learning and resource allocation based on academic ability, but inadvertently a division of social classes as well… and that’s how teens lose their childhood so quickly.

For as long as the PSLE has been implemented into our system, this T-score has remained in our minds as the most tangible of performance indicators that the system can use, and can’t easily be let go as much as everyone wants it eliminated.

It’s far from the full story with our education system, though, as the teachers, principals, administrators nd policymakers working in the system will read this and start tearing their hair out saying “You’ve got it all wrong, you ninnies!” In fact, the MOE has been trying to de-emphasise PSLE with specialised schoolsApplied Learning and Learning for Life programmes, elective modules, how secondary school allocations are also based on portfolio presentations and interviews, how bursaries are also evaluated based on student conduct (which presents its own problems). Educator/school performance evaluations conducted by the ministry vary from school to school, but at its fairest, they’re based on sophisticated formulas of Bell curve positioning, teaching efficacy, CCA performance, student background mix, student well-being, leadership quality, financial planning ability, overall health of the student body… T-score aggregation, if it’s even used, is just one fish in a much larger school. These solutions are far from perfect, of course (for example, the DSA programme can be gamed to get academically sound kids through to their parents’ preferred schools, and denying places to kids who actually deserve it), but the much bigger problem the ministry has is finding a way to communicate this to the parental masses without us glazing over and falling asleep in class.

Then last Thursday, a thread started by a rather good-looking dude who reminds me of John Molina if he got a PhD is making it look like PSLE T-scores do determine career tracks for a lot of us.

Now, if you’re from the #gradesdontmatter side, you’ll see that all that T-score-and-occupation talk doesn’t matter because people are content enough with their own lives to not bother about the correlation (or lack thereof). But the people who do scrutinise grades, the same people that the contentment message should really be hitting, will be looking at all your grades, and judging all of you, because there is a pattern that can be drawn from the comments—and you probably can see it as well—that the higher the commenter’s T-score, the higher the commenter’s career is flying. You can even see the “streaming”: the under-200 level, between 200 and 250, and the over 250s.

Call it generalising, but consider those who aren’t sharing their T-scores and occupations because of Dr. Khairudin’s thread. On the one hand, the ones who’ve actually scored high and are doing phenomenally at their careers will feel they’d just be seen as humblebragging. There’s also the inadequate ones; all this sharing is also creating pockets of insecurity among the people who are just looking on and not sharing: “I scored the same/higher, why haven’t I done as well?” I felt the same way looking at the comments section, and as encouraging as I see the number of comments and shares on Dr. Khairudin’s post, I got the feeling quite a bit more are reacting the same way I did. And I don’t even remember my own PSLE T-score (and I can’t find my primary school report book).

Look. I know you guys mean well. But like I told another advocate group before (and I do hope the group took that to heart at that inaugural dialogue session last Saturday), we should take some time to refine what message we want to send out to those we want to engage with before embarking on storytelling campaigns such as these, because the stories that are being told right now, while commendable, aren’t necessarily the kinds of stories that are all that useful for your intended audience. And please don’t use the traction gained in your efforts, the amount of likes, comments and shares as a gauge on how successful you believe your endeavours to be. It’s confirmation bias, and that’s dangerous in our climate of skeptics.

If you want to change mindsets, understand all this first before you try and bulldoze your opinion into us, because none of this is actually assuring anyone that grades don’t matter,  other than those that already know that grades don’t matter. You’re just making those that don’t subscribe to this belief not want to listen, much less talk to you.

Listen first to those you seek to help, then help them. And if you listen well enough, it might actually dawn on you that this discussion shouldn’t even be about education. #plottwist #jengjengjeeennng


Ten Years of Us: A Love Letter

Dear Mother of Xander,

10 years ago today, two individuals signed a contract that would bind two sole proprietorships into a partnership that both parties vowed would last the lifetime of either party, whichever sooner (although that last clause was verbally agreed upon).

You would always say that this was a “no refund, no return, no exchange” transaction. That remains the strongest verbal commitment to our union that you have ever given me, and I have never taken your words for granted.

Things moved rather quickly thereafter. We managed to procure a nice place to set ourselves up in (we got a HDB flat), hosted a few networking sessions to establish ourselves in the market (house parties), and a year later, we even organised a company Dinner & Dance (traditional wedding dinner). One of our angel investors (my mum) said it was quite fashionable to be some months into one’s pregnancy whilst hosting one’s wedding dinner. To date, I remain unsure if she was stating an observation or trying to reassure herself.

Five months after the dinner, I managed to pass my driving test… just in time to fulfill a promise I made to be the one to drive you to the hospital when you went into labour. You looked nervous in the car; I didn’t blame you. It was our first baby, and my second time behind the wheel after I got my licence.

Our firstborn’s first year threatened to be our marriage’s last, as we struggled to juggle parenthood—ours and our parents’—our work, and ourselves. We fought a lot, sometimes quietly because Xan was sleeping, sometimes failing to be quiet because we’re just not that kind of a couple.

Then came a point when we realised the books we read, the shows we watched, the advice we were given, the things we bought from Mothercare, won’t be nearly as adequate in teaching us to parent as what we would learn from just doing it to our kid, for our kid, with our kid. Things started getting better. We started getting better.

2¾ years ago, we kind of sealed our fate as a couple of parents that will hardly ever have any time alone to ourselves for at least the next 16-21 years. My biggest relief with our second child is that she came with a rather useful foundational instruction manual: our experience with our first child has provided us with the wisdom and patience to not scream at each other… as often.

Today, our boy is going through the rigours of the Singapore education system, and we’re learning to adapt with him. Meanwhile, our daughter is going through her terrible twos, and we’re learning to take photos of her quickly and deftly enough that the pictures don’t look too blurry. We may never be alone from these two whippersnappers in the foreseeable future, but we’re together, and that’s everything to me.

I’ve never thought of myself as a good dad. Everything I do as a father—right down to writing about parenting here in this blog—I feel is simply my responsibility as a father to do. But since you and I got together all those years ago (13 years ago, as it were), I’ve always wanted to be a good husband for you, to be a good person for you, because whether we were going to have kids or not, I’ve always just wanted to be with you, and I wanted you to want to be with me.

I still do.

Love, Winston

Coping, with Success

I think we all live through this phase in our lives believing that we are invincible, that we can do anything we set our minds to, that we can get anywhere we want. And up until I was 35, I wanted to be successful, too. Or at least, I was taught to want it.

I’ve talked about how my mother wanted me to become a doctor to complete the set of children with noble professions that she always wished for, and how my dad, when he had lost hope in me doing well for my O-Levels, sat me down to plan my future career cooking Indonesian cuisine.

Somewhere in the middle of that, though, I wanted to be a musician. I picked up the electric guitar at 13, managed to work myself up to a level where I could impress girls, and then when I turned 20, I took night classes for a music technology diploma at some obscure, now-defunct private school. Then

I wanted to become a lawyer. I never graduated from that diploma course. When I was younger I was told by my mum that I could bloody argue my way out of anything, so since I can’t become a doctor, why not do law? I took up a position in the Supreme Court as a transcriber, then nine months into the job, I got hired by a dotcom run by lawyers (one of whom was my eldest sister), writing and editing content for their legal portal for two years, then

I wanted to become a marketer. At the peak of the company’s most intense internal conflicts, I quit to enrol into Polytechnic and did a full-time mass communications course as a mature candidate using the CPF money I amassed from work. I managed to graduate almost respectably (in my second year I managed to cause some administrative trouble by petitioning for the removal of a lecturer). I joined my second sister’s furniture company as a marketing executive, and as I got comfortable,

I wanted to try everything. For the next five years, I jumped from department to department doing just that… and I burned out. At 32, I quit, partly because spending 3 weeks out of every month in India while my son pass all his developmental milestones at home really really sucked, and our try because I was quite at a loss as to what I wanted.

I wanted to go back to school, to try and earn a psychology degree. But I needed money for that, so I went back to work with my eldest sister at her boutique law firm (litigation and divorce specialists), and lasted all of two years, gobsmacked at how people can still call their lawsuits “civil” after seeing how they conduct themselves in court, and drained by watching seemingly successful people completely and utterly fail to love their spouses and children. Then

I wanted to be a writer—any kind of writer. I tried to pursue writing and failed catastrophically, then went into copywriting and just couldn’t fit in, and then tried PR and became even more miserable.

These days, I’m not sure if the job I’m in now (I’ve still got my writer hang-ups; I’m working for a publishing house) is the job. For that matter, I’m not even sure my boss at my current workplace even likes me.

Then there’s this website, this persona, these stories you’ve been reading that I wrote. Now don’t get me wrong; as far as I know, everything I write here is genuine experience, genuine opinion, genuine me. That said, people think I’m this stand-up family man that takes no bullshit, that no one dares cross because I’m a parent blogger that talks back. They don’t see the breakdowns I have when an argument with the Wife goes too far, the unbridled outbursts when I found two-week-old untouched worksheets my Primary Two boy “forgot” to do, the chair I broke one time during a particularly bad fight at home that nearly injured my 2-year-old daughter. People don’t talk about their failures here. And people don’t hear these stories enough when we really need to.

I’m not a success story. Nor do I want to be deemed one.

Success is such a subjective, short-term notion. People will define success in their own terms: whether it be successfully establishing their own businesses, successfully acquiring their dream jobs, successfully living a sedentary beach bum lifestyle, successfully getting out of bed in the morning to live another day, or successfully learning that success doesn’t matter. Heck, I can fail everything and say I successfully learned from my experience.

So instead of the 1% trying to tell the 99% that “I was just like you, and you can be like us!”, can we have the average Johan teach us how he manages instead? Because these days, we seem to have a serious problem knowing how to manage our own live and our children’s. And then when we think we’ve got more than the hang of it (success!), we try and help others, we somehow manage to miss the point entirely.

I’ve said before that when my son was born, I decided my life was no longer mine to live; my driving force as a father, and what I believe is the driving force behind every parent who cares, is for our children to cope, and hopefully to cope well, too. Successful parenting is coping well, day by day.

We get to an age where we realise life isn’t all about us, and then we worry about the generation that we’re bringing up to take over us, where they are heading, whether they’ll get there because of us, or in spite of us, and whether they’ll be doing the same with their kids when it’s their turn to realise life isn’t about them either.

When shit happens, we cope. We have to cope, or we die. I’d much rather people successfully live to see another day without buckling under all this damn self-inflicted pressure than cry in a corner of a swanky office they can’t afford because Adam Khoo once told their mother they could be somebody.

Please Stop Teaching Us How to Raise Successful Children

This is an appeal to any person, group or organisation that plans parenting talks, seminars, workshops, forums and conferences.

Since I’ve started blogging as a parent, I’ve received invitations to attend (and a couple of times, sit in the panel of) quite a few of these parenting events. It wasn’t until recently that the messages some of these events organisers are using to market their events started to concern me.

Back in 2012, I attended a half-day seminar called “Raising a Successful Child”. The content served isn’t nearly as overbearing as their promotional copy makes them out to be. In fact, one talk I attended actually used case studies of so-called “successful children”—medal-winning athletes and academic geniuses suffering from anxiety and depression—as a warning to parents not to push their children too hard.

I was glad when I came out of that talk, because I was expecting a lecture on how to over-parent. That same talk I attended, I saw parents walking out in disappointment that the seminar didn’t actually provide a concrete method for raising a successful child—well, not one that they thought would work, anyway.

I’m a  copywriter, too, so I understand the core function of such promotional copy is to generate sales. But seeing copy like this makes me wonder if such organisers are misrepresenting the content that their speakers are aiming to serve, or are they really trying to sell us something we really could do with a lot less of right now.

Case in point:


I write this in the hope that people who write these things can exercise some responsibility and think through their messaging not just for your paying customers, but for the benefit of our society-at-large that incidentally take in your messages without the intention or means to obtain tickets to your show.

As important as we think ensuring our children are able to strive for themselves is, we already live in a climate of fear, thinking that our children have to excel in our pressure-cooker academic environment in order to survive in life. I want to ask these parenting/education coaches and family-targeted MICE organisers, particularly the ones who tout such phrases as “raising a successful child”, “bring up a champion”, “your child can be better than everyone else”, to please not perpetuate that fear in us any more, because we really don’t know any better.

What we really need you to tell us are these:


Don’t teach us how to change our kids, teach us how to change ourselves. Don’t try and tell us what our kids need to excel. Tell us how to be present for our children, how to love them properly, how to raise our expectations of ourselves as parents instead managing our expectations of our children.

Don’t teach us how to parent; teach us how to be parents.

Life After Suicide: How to Live with a Permanently Broken Heart

He wore a sadness in his eyes throughout the forum, despite his candid smile, his laid back posture, and the punches of light humour when he exchanged banter with co-panelist Irene Ang (who was present as a survivor of three attempted suicides, something she has not shied away from talking about as a celebrity). I knew beforehand that the forum panel would also consist of the parent of a suicide victim, and while I knew that would make for one of the most interesting episodes of Talking Point I ever watched or participated in, I was not quite sure what to expect.

And when Steve Chia mentioned that the founder of youth outreach foundation Over the Rainbow had lost his only son to suicide seven years ago, Chow Yen-Lu corrected him, “Seven years and 3 days, actually. We’ve been observing his passing the last few days.” One could feel the weight of that knowledge bear down on the audience the rest of the night. While the ever-entertaining Irene Ang kept us light-hearted, and IMH’s Principal Clinical Psychologist Dr Ong Lue Ping’s offering of facts and figures would be greeted with nods and murmurs, each time Mr Chow spoke, the room would fall still and silent to listen intently to his slow, measured responses.

As the moderator opened the discussion to the floor, I raised my hand. Referring to the news report last Friday that mentioned what the mother of the P5 boy who committed suicide cried as she found him, I asked Mr Chow, “That statement resonated quite deeply among parents, but beyond the context of what was said, speaking from your own experience, how did you pick yourselves up from there?”

“We get asked that question a lot,” he said, leaning back and looking thoughtful. “It was difficult. But one of the first things that we did was not to blame ourselves or blame each other, number one. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here today, we would have gone down the other path.”

His calm demeanor belied a quiet pain as he replied me, and I started tearing as I listened.

He continued, “Number two, to accept what’s happened. Third, to find meaning in what’s happened, and to do something about it. So through this experience, we found first of all it’s a wake-up call for us. So we took this up as a cause. Our motto is we want to transform youth mental wellness for the 21st century. Actually, when we do this, we are also helping ourselves; We help ourselves to heal.”

From left: Andy Lee (Sengkang Babies), Chow Yen-Lu (Over the Rainbow), me (you know where) anad Meiling Wong-Chainani (Universal Scribbles) | Photo credit: Andy Lee

Since the above-mentioned news report came out last Friday, and word even spread around the world; there was even news commentary on the BBC World Service saying how common such suicides are in developed Asian countries such s Japan, South Korea, China and Singapore. And of course, there followed a flurry of discussion online: who is really to blame? What are the authorities doing about it? How can parents prevent this? There are even posters crafted by the Ministry of Education with multi-step-step processes outlining how to encourage our children and be present for them were spread around on Facebook, in the hopes that they be used as a guide on how to prevent suicide, even though they weren’t explicitly created for that purpose.

Over and beyond these, there are also the people who survive their loved ones’ deaths. We tend to treat this category of what I consider suicide survivors as well as mere side plots, used to help the story along from a human interest angle, and, as mentioned, sometimes as a potential target to blame. But these are the people with the experiences we really need to hear of, with the lessons that we really need to learn from.

It must have been difficult for Mr Chow and his wife the last seven years, and it will continue to be difficult. But they managed to break through the barriers of their own grief and despair, to reach out and help others as a means for themselves to heal, and to give us that much-needed insight from their own experience.

As the discussion was thrown to the floor for questions, the audience seemed to betray the mindset of our pressure-cooker society: that failure is not an option. But as progressive a nation as we have become in the last 50 years, our failure to accept failure also happens to be our biggest failure. And no, I’m not just talking about parents.

When I read what the mother said next to her son, my heart broke for her, I saw a woman trying to and failing to grapple with the last memory she has of being with her son, because whatever little reason she had left in the moment told her that was why her son took his life; she was crying out the words in overwhelming, debilitating regret. And she is now facing the rest of her life in self-persecution, having to try and hold together a permanently broken heart.

Yet here we are lambasting her for saying what she said, using her words to condemn an imperfect education system that we, too, had a hand in creating, and using her dead son as an example of “a tofu generation”. And we call ourselves a civilised society. I believe we were once better than this, and that we should have been better than this. But this week, we failed.

Now, how do we accept this failure, learn from it and move on with it instead of away from it? Therein lies the lesson that these suicide survivors teach us, and if we learn it well, it’s a lesson that we don’t just teach to our children in multi-step processes, we show them how we do it.