Making Light of Things

September 2008 Archives

PSFK Conference Asia 2008

I’ll be attending PSFK Conference Asia 2008 in October and the programme lineup is amazing. It looks to be the perfect mixture of creatives and techies.

I’m especially looking forward to meeting Charles Ogilvie, the designer of Virgin America’s inflight entertainment system. Virgin America wowed me with its new take on air travel, and a large part of that was because of the touch screen, always-on, Linux-based entertainment system.

SNL Spoof of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton

Amazing stuff you have to watch. Putting it up here because it’s been taken down at Youtube.

Bond Free

What I am about to write somewhat pertains to education, so the standard disclaimer applies: this is solely my view and not that of my employer’s, you know the drill.

The Singapore papers reported recently that Singaporean students were turning away from scholarships that came attached with conditions (in this case being in the employ of the sponsor for a specified number of years) and choosing instead scholarships that came without those conditions.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

In the Straits Times online forums, 2 responses were published:

  1. Mr Jason Chiam who wrote that “scholars have a moral obligation to the sponsoring organisation” and;
  2. Ms Corinne Hoo who feels disappointed that “today’s youth have little capacity for resilience and perseverance

In 2000 I enrolled in the University of Arizona. I did not apply for a scholarship of any kind, but they offered me a bond-free scholarship via an email. I replied to ask if there were any conditions attached, specifically a bond of employment. While the details were that I had to maintain certain grades in order to keep the scholarship money going for the whole duration of undergraduate study, there was no bond of any kind. They wrote back, saying they were giving me the scholarship because they believed I could contribute to society after graduation. Not American society. Humankind.

I flew back the moment my undergraduate studies were completed. I made a promise to a girl in Singapore and I did not want to keep her waiting. So I left America and the University of Arizona. I left the people who provided me the most fulfilling phase of my formal education. Even today my heart feels the weight of gratitude towards the university, the country of America and her people. Maybe that is the “moral obligation” Mr Jason Chiam speaks of. Maybe he would consider me an ingrate for returning so soon, but Arizona has never solicited a single cent from me, nor has she made me feel guilty for the unpaid debt.

I decided to pay it forward, hoping to apply myself in the improvement of my home country. As many of you know, I now work for the Ministry of Education, helping her communicate in the increasingly complex spectrum of online media parents and students use today. I have endeavoured to go the extra mile, often engaging in efforts to improve the online communications of the Singapore Government as a whole. This is me paying it forward. Not out of moral obligation or for a fixed term stipulated on a piece of paper. I am driven by the faith shown in me by an organisation and a people not at all related to me.

Jason and Corrine are probably right to point out that some scholars feel entitled to a free education free of responsibility and obligation. But we need to bear in mind that it is a cultural problem not solved by the chains of forced labour.

Scholarships and bonds (I’ll use the term to describe the conditional scholarships) are totally different in nature. The former is crafted with hope and in good faith, the latter carved in the hard letter of the law. The first is a gift, the second a contract.

That our students no longer feel beholden when presented a gift of good faith is a failure on our part. We have not taught them gratitude. We haven’t given them many opportunities to learn. Our purely pragmatic perspective of the world doesn’t allow us to give without expecting anything in return. Our bonds are carefully calculated and embedded with repayment clauses to reduce risk because we view these top students as human capital, not humans. After years of conditioning, many of our children have forgotten the beat of their own heart.

It is all business, and they take what they can.

Moral responsibility isn’t a bond. Perseverance isn’t gritting one’s teeth while in chains. The claustrophobia of being bound to words on a page, signed while barely adolescent, destroys the human spirit. The display of the intrinsic good, human to human, just as the folks of Arizona showed me, will live in me all my life.

That is my bond. And I serve it gladly.


Anne picked up Faith’s book on basic driving theory, thumbed through it and came to a page with a diagram of a car with its parts labelled.

“Designing the car,” she said.

I was flabbergasted that she used the word “designing”. This girl definitely knew which words warmed my heart.

“What does designing mean?” I asked. She had probably heard me use the phrase when telling Faith about the day job.

“Designing means making it work properly,” the little girl answered.

Super, jaw-dropping moment. My daughter knew more about design than many clients I’ve worked with and bosses I’ve worked for, whose design considerations didn’t go much further than their favourite colour.

I allowed myself to hope, forgetting that she’s all of three years old.

First Impressions Count

Faith, Seth, Anne and I decided to be tourists for a day and booked ourselves on the 10am Duck Tour out of Suntec City. We were the only Singaporeans on the amphibious tour. Halfway through the tour, Faith and I soon realised how important tour guides are in communicating Singapore to our visitors.

Duck Tours isn’t your stuffy bureaucratic tour company. It is evident that they set themselves out to be spontaneous and casual - sort of like Virgin America which I mentioned earlier. On their tickets, instead of the normal “Adult” and “Child” tickets, it says “Big Duck” and “Little Duck”. A nice touch, although I sometimes have trouble disassociating the word “duck” from a certain commonplace vulgarity. Yes, yes. Mind in the gutter, I know.

Anyway, back to our tour guide. She was, as expected, full of enthusiasm and like are tour guides are wont to do, filled every silent moment with conversation. Her gig isn’t rehearsed as some are, so it comes across as less mechanical. But here’s the thing: there’s a fine line between natural and awkward, as there is between mechanical and polished.

Her first major gaffe which really hit me upside the head was when she asked all of the visitors where they were from.

“Australia,” said the couple sitting 2 rows in front of us.

“Which part?” she asked.

“Adelaide!” they answered.

“Wow. Everytime I hear the word ‘Adelaide’, I hate it.”

My jaw dropped. It was a real life OMG moment. I couldn’t believe my ears. The silence seemed to last forever.

She then explained how her dad got a job in Adelaide last year, but ended up not signing the contract, so she was “stuck in Singapore”. Though less awkward than her first whammy, slapping the country you’re promoting isn’t exactly the way to go either.

As the tour went on, our guide displayed her tremendous mathematical acuity by boiling everything down into dollars and cents. Everything.

“Here’s the formula-one circuit. The lights cost Singapore 10.1 million dollars.”

“This is the Singapore flyer. For last year’s Valentine’s Day it cost couples a few thousand dollars to book the entire capsule to themselves. Some people may call it romantic, but I call it stupidity (emphasis hers, tonal). You may as well give me the money.”

“This is the grand old dame, Raffles Hotel. There are no normal rooms there, only Presidential suites. They run from $800 to $8000 per night. During the F1 race, it will be 3 times the amount. $27,000 per night. If you have money you can book the room. Give me a call and we can have tea together.”

“This will be Singapore’s first casino. It initially cost $2 billion to build, but now it costs $6 billion…”

Everything in dollars and cents. Faith and I, sitting on opposite sides of the Duck, had given up rolling our eyeballs at each other by then.

The obsession with cost is a distinctly Singaporean problem. Everytime we visit someone’s home, the question will be asked, “How much did it cost?” It is an extremely unbecoming question to most civilised human beings, but in Singapore, money is an identifier.

To the common man, the cost of the house, the car is a badge of our shared suffering. It’s not uncouth to us because the middle and lower class Singaporeans do not use it to distinguish themselves from the pack. After all, public housing in Singapore are all exactly 90m2 in area, are painted in whatever butt-ugly colour is cheapest at that point in time, and have a bomb shelter in the most inconvenient part of the house.

“How much did your house cost?”

“$400,000? Dammit man, life is hard, isn’t it?”

And such goes the Singapore refrain. Our glasses are always half-empty.

Internally, I think it’s time we stopped thinking of ourselves as victims. But externally, I think this is a tune we need not play for foreign ears.

« August 2008
Main Index
October 2008 »