Making Light of Things

February 2011 Archives


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

It was a long time ago when Dad went out of a job and stayed home. I can’t remember how long the period was, but like for any job seeker, it must have been hard. During that time he took on the role of homemaker and lunch took on a decidedly Teochew slant. Not that I minded, of course. I could live on salted eggs and porridge for a pretty long time.

It was also the best times I had with Daddy. I remember how he’d take me out after school and we’d go to Marina Bay with nothing but a spool of string wound around a soda can. We’d rummage through rubbish bins looking for a couple of usable sticks, plastic bags and old newspapers. Once the materials were gathered it took Dad only a few minutes before we had a working kite.

And we would escape gravity for an afternoon.

Daddy flying a kite

You’d be surprised at how much I learned. We’d walk past shops selling expensive kites, quietly laughing that our handmade concoction saved us quite a bit of cash. I learned that like the flying of a kite, most things in life revolve around knowing when to exert a little pull and when to let go. You’ll be surprised - letting go of the string is how you right a wayward kite.

It’s counter-intuitive, yet not.

When Mum retired a couple of months ago we were a little worried that she’d be unable to slow the frenetic pace of life she had been so used to. Then Dad took her kite-flying. Now my kids Anne and Caleb tag along. I’m so glad that they can share this wonderful side to my father. Were it not for his short unemployment, I would not have had that chance.

Anne and her grandfather flying a kite


Looking back at the last decade, God has been wondrously kind. Work-wise it has never been about choosing jobs so much as it was subscribing to causes which resonated.

It’s been a little more than 2 months at the new gig at the National Population and Talent Division and it’s been an eye-opener to say the least. Moving out of education was a difficult choice to make - I will always have a very special place for education in my heart. There are few things more important than making sure our children are equipped to deal with the pragmatic, ideological and ethical challenges of the extremely fast-changing landscape before them. My time at the Ministry of Education was an absolute blast, and subsequently my stint at Temasek Polytechnic gave me the ground-level view of how national education policy met with the sheer vigour and force of youth.

Moving on to the slightly more macro topic of national policy struck a chord deeply because it felt like a necessary step to answer the questions of my generation; we who were born into a Singapore that already existed. The ones responsible for chapter two, so to speak. The questions and challenges that hit home for me, regardless of the day job are the most basic, but I believe I’m not alone.

Who are we, and who do we want to be?

It sounds like an extension of the teenage quest for self-identity, but isn’t that where Singapore is as a country? Isn’t that the second chapter? Whether we turn out to be cynical xenophobes, global nomads, helpful neighbours or a force for good in the world depends on what we choose to do with our inherited citizenship. It’s time we took ownership and worked collaboratively to create an environment worth protecting; one that we can hand over to our children, and proud to have been faithful stewards of.

I’m blessed that this is the day job.


…pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion…

So goes the Singapore Pledge which many of us have recited in school for years. And it seems that at almost every National Day, we are reminded of how we stand at the knife’s edge, and the racial riots of our parents’ generation would immediately come back if we weren’t careful. We’d all roll our eyeballs; here he goes with the scare-monger tactics again. We think of all the friends we have who are not of the same race and conclude that it isn’t an issue; we are past that.

While playing basketball last Thursday I got a rude shock as to how racial lines are always in play.

The court where I play is home to ballers of many nationalities. The older Singaporean uncles play on Tuesday nights, the young mainland Chinese men, the Filipina professionals, Malaysians and even a Russian center. That night, and it happens quite frequently, they all show up to ball.

No one can dispute the different styles of play: Filipinas have quick hands and have a tendency to reach in for the steal. The Chinese adopt a physical, bruising style of play under the rim. The game, while global, is different in different parts of the world.

So on Thursday all these various styles are smashed together within the confines of a basketball court, and things get testy as the physical nature of the game takes its toll on the players. And immediately, the first accusation that is lobbed divides us along racial lines.

“You Singaporeans don’t know the rules of basketball”, when a foul is disputed.

“You Philippine people always slap wrists”.

“Chinese players always play so rough”.

The game turns into a battle as stereotypes fuel an inexplicable festering that dispenses with any semblance of sportsmanship. You could see it in their eyes - literally filled with hate, and basketball becomes a game of finding an excuse to injure the other party. A few of us intervene before things get out of hand, and cooler heads prevail.

I do not know if we will ever reach a stage where race is a transparent attribute that no longer factors in our judgement. Martin Luther King’s ideal of judging a man by the content of his character rather than the colour of his skin might be something that requires a steadfast, constant striving towards, rather than a state we attain and after which we can rest.

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