Which way is up?

A lot has been said in speculation over why <a href="">Minister Tan Chuan-Jin was nominated by PM Lee to take over the role of Speaker of the House</a>.
Well-liked by many, the general sentiment is that he has been a very down-to-earth minister, often seen with his constituents or hanging out with sportspeople representing our country in international competitions. This move came as a surprise to almost all of us, and quite a number of armchair pundits have mooted that it <a href="">amounted to a demotion</a>, and that he must have fallen out of favour at some point in time.
Some things have changed from the days where every Singaporean child had to grow up to be a doctor, lawyer, or architect (we all know the architect was a reluctant compromise for our parents). The education system offers many more pathways than before, but change that needs to happen within us has clearly not taken place.
We are obsessed with status ladders and assume that climbing it is the universal purpose of life. We don't understand why DPM Tharman isn't the next Prime Minister and conjure conjectures of conspiracy theories. It could very well be that he doesn't want the job and reckons he serves better in his more specialised role.
We've applied the same lens to Minister Tan. It's amazing how we try to figure out where the rungs on our imaginary ladder are. People have pulled out the salary scale to compare if the Speaker of the House makes as much as a full cabinet minister in a bid to determine if this move was lateral or downward.
This is something I too grapple with in my own life. Am I moving up? Am I stagnating? Where is my career headed? Faith, who has spent the last few years of her life as a homemaker has it even tougher because the ladder as we know it doesn't exist in her world. Well-meaning friends and relatives often coax her to go back to work because corporate work gives one a "sense of value".
How sad our lives must be, that we are so easily taken in by this race that causes us to perpetually feel inadequate, to continually assess our own worth against that of others, and to push others down in order that we may hold our own heads high. We place these cares of the world on our shoulders, and a lot of it ultimately amounts to nothing. The admiration (or jealously, really) of our peers means nothing at the end of the day when we dial it in and meet God.
I'm still learning how to step back from this all-consuming tunnel vision and allow God to show me a glimpse of the larger picture. His plans for us often seems counter-intuitive, and His paths aren't the ones we would choose. I'm discovering that He is more interested in what we are than where we are, and to take the time to reflect on how I can spend the little time I have left to serve something more tangible and lasting than the satiation of my own ego.
Chuan-Jin's move might not make sense to us if we only look at it as "up, good, down, bad". But I believe this is a man who will serve with his utmost wherever he is. I thank God for the person that God has made him, and pray that we all will find the path that leads to eternal value.


The Golden Age of the Internet

The internet is always changing, its complexion the nexus of technological leaps and cultural fickleness, each affecting each other in an endless spiral. Arguments could be made about whether the spiral has generally led upward or downward.
It's been twenty-something years since I first connected my external USR 28.8 to my computer's LPT port and scoured for numbers of neighbourhood bulletin boards. The internet of today is such a different place, and I can't help but reflect nostalgically on the past, what was beautiful about those times, and perhaps how we can recreate that magic for this new generation of digital natives.
The late 1990's to early 2000's was perhaps my favourite era of the internet. In terms of tech markers, we saw the arrival of the 33.6 and subsequently 56k modems; IRC was at its height; and Napster was the staple of all college networks.
Culturally, it was a vastly different place from the internet of today. For starters, it was a much smaller place. Large IRC networks like DalNet and EfNet brought together tens of thousands of users on really busy days, but smaller networks we frequented like GalaxyNet numbered in the thousands. You mostly stuck to the same few channels, much like how the characters in Friends would gather at Central Perk all the time.
The bandwidth speeds at that time were conducive to text-only interfaces and afforded the occasional image file. This meant people went by their chosen internet nicknames and not graphical avatars. Everyone started out anonymous, and it was only after many deep conversations where you'd learn the other person's name, where they were from, or even their gender. I can't even begin to tell you how liberating that was for a scrawny dark-skinned introvert like me.
The more I think about it, the more I am led to believe that what was special about that era of the internet was that it was populated by introverts. We invented blogging because we wanted a way to speak to the world without having to make eye contact with others. We had so much pent up inside of ourselves, and the ecstasy of finding others who underwent the same journey we did and understood was indescribable.
We understood how fragile all this was; how quickly it could be lost. Even when we organised the next inevitable step of actually meeting up with each other we did it so cautiously. We pondered over and over whether meeting face to face would change the relationships we had. If others would judge us by our outward appearance or social standing, or if our views would be discounted because they found out how young we really were.
Enter the internet of today, a confluence of broadband speeds, ubiquitous high-quality video cameras, and the possibility of fame made sustainable by online advertising. Enter the extroverts. Enter selfies – a million of them a day. Enter personal video channels where everybody can be their own talkshow host. Enter heavily photoshopped avatars.
We all love what continuous innovation in technology brings us. That <a href="">Mandy Harvey could overcome her hearing disability to put on a stirring audition at America's Got Talent</a> is the tip of the iceberg of new possibilities we have today that weren't there yesterday. We celebrate when anyone overcomes personal disabilities and gains acceptance.
The internet of today is a vastly more crowded space, and it often seems only those who are savvy self-promoters stand a chance of being found and appreciated. The bright lights and glitzy glamour is attractive to many, but the introverts have all but slinked away. In all the noise, we wonder if it's worth speaking up to be heard. It has become that much harder to find each other.
I am thankful for the people I've met in my early years, and if you've been here reading I hope you know how much you mean to me. But I'm constantly thinking of how we can make this internet a more inclusive place with halls filled with bright lights, and also more intimate spaces where whispers can be heard. I'd like us to regain that sense of reverence and awe, to relearn how fragile great communities really are: how beautiful and precious each individual, and how we cannot go about our blustering ways expecting everyone to grow thicker skin.
I miss you and the times we could share the real things that matter. I miss the times we sat down and thought carefully about how we could make everything better for everyone.


Family at Work

It wasn't without trepidation as I looked again at the email asking if I could host a small group of techies at Google. It was a good mutually beneficial arrangement: I'd be able to reach and preach to these tech professionals on pragmatic tips to keep themselves safe from the latest (and evergreen) online scams; and they'd get to have their meeting at our pretty nifty office.
The trepidation came from the fact that the only date that seemed to fit everyone elses' schedule was on Faith's birthday. A quick passing consult seemed to me like she was ok with me having to work an event on her birthday, but my spider-sense couldn't help tingling.
On the day of the event itself, I felt terrible about spending the evening of my wife's birthday at work. It's not that she made a big deal about it or anything – it just felt like a misstep on my part.
As I rushed about to ensure that the logistics were all in order, I told the facilities folks who were helping me out that it was my wife's birthday and how it nagged me a little that I had an event to take care of.
It didn't take more than 20 seconds for them to pull together a <a href="">small bunch of beautiful purple roses</a>. They were meant for an earlier welfare initiative of theirs but they were so quick to come to my rescue. I gratefully accepted this lifeline.
When the event was over and I got home late in the night, I brought the bunch of roses into the room. Lit only by the light of her mobile phone, I saw Faith smile as she saw the flowers in my hand.
There was a nanosecond of a dilemma, but soon as she pulled the earphones out I told her how the Google gang pulled this together. There was an initial puzzled look on her face. I can only imagine the conflict of emotions, but my wife accepted my apology, and then said that it was nice that the fabled hospitality of the Google facilities team extended even to her on her birthday.
I'm thankful to have married a wife who forgives my mistakes, and on this occasion, very grateful to the team at work for caring far above and beyond the demands of their job.
This is what it feels like to be part of the Google family. Really, really awesome.


You Don't Demand Heart

I am no longer a public servant and it has been more than two years since I left the service, but I have always considered building the nation a duty I carry whether or not I am on payroll. I hope you’ll pardon me when I lapse between identifying myself as part of the service, and also part of the people whom they serve.

When I read that several Members of Parliament lamented that the Public Service has “lost its heart” and called for the service to show greater empathy when dealing with the needy, I felt the sting of those words like a slap across the face.

Not many people know what it is actually like to be on the frontlines of the public service. I am proud of the tradition we have: that we do not tolerate corruption and work hard to maintain the highest standards of integrity. We are by no measure infallible, but every breach is met with a burning fury and steely determination not to let mistakes repeat themselves.

We fall short of perfection, but it is a standard to which we believe the Singapore people deserve. It has also become the standard the Singapore people demand.

Every year the Auditor-General combs through how Ministries and Statutory Boards conduct their business and publishes a list of what it believes are infringements. This is a healthy process that keeps our public agencies accountable to the people, and provides a level of transparency rarely seen in governments around the world. Public servants put their feet to the fire, and are called to answer these lapses in processes. The alternative media has made it an annual event to jump into the fray to stoke the flames.

We’re fine with that. We’ve worked on making our processes more iron-clad. Nowhere in Singapore will you find it harder to host a lunch for stakeholders or even buy a pencil. Any public servant will tell you that we’ve had to spend our own money at work because the by-the-book processes would have taken too long and cost too much pain.

I cannot even imagine how much these stringent measures cost the nation; the most expensive of which are the many public servants who have left the service because it was getting too difficult to serve.

You cannot demand pinpoint precision from the public service and not expect the creation of automatons. Mr Louis Ng brings out the example of how the computer-generated letter was heartless – and he is correct – but would he support a judgement call made by a junior officer if and when it is scrutinised by the armchair critics? Would our MPs be there for the public servant who exercised their knowledge to say, buy good quality bicycles at a reasonable price, when there is public outcry from the non-cycling community about those decisions?

I do not disagree that our public service needs more heart and more empathy, but I’m calling it out that we all do. It’s easy to stand in a hall and berate the service, and constantly demand excellence like it were a naturally-occuring state of things, but we need a different approach.
We need to empower the public service, and it sometimes means not sweating the small stuff. If we want officers to show heart and empathy it means giving them the power to make judgement calls, and not kill every mistake, especially those that have no ill-intent. We need to stand up for them and defend them in public and in private, and acknowledge that the quality of public services we enjoy in Singapore is commendable.

The relationship between the public service and the people needs to change from a master-slave relationship for us to progress beyond precision in process. For any relationship to flourish, finger-pointing needs to stop.


Keeping Gambling Out of Our Homes

<a href="" title="20090206-4"><img src="" width="500" height="333" alt="20090206-4" class="img-center" /></a>
The building of two integrated resorts in Singapore was a major turning point in our nation's history. It was the decision made after a long and hard debate that divided many in Parliament, and even drew agonised tears from some members when it was announced that we would go ahead with it. It was a direction that was very reluctantly chosen, and under great pressure given the economic situation at that time.
Yesterday, the <a href="">Government exempted two organisations from the online gambling ban</a>. There was no significant debate, no tears, and from my layman's point of view, little reluctance.
One of the questions I get quite often when I run workshops for educators on keeping students safe online is: "What is the greatest threat to our kids?". There isn't one single "threat", I'd explain, but the massive shift from desktop to mobiles has changed the game entirely.
Where once parents would place the family desktop in the living room so that all surfing could be supervised, children now grab mobile devices and take off to their own private corners. It has made supervision that much harder.
That is what happened today with gambling. Yes there are Singapore Pools' stalls that dot every neighbourhood street corner, but the effort of actually walking there and queuing up was a natural barrier for the less habitual gambler. Now that these barriers are taken away, these stalls have made their way into our homes and our bedrooms.
You won't find Singaporeans proud of our perpetually long lines for Toto tickets. In fact, many of us sigh under our breaths when our loved ones make the trip to donate the little they have towards this senseless pastime. It is a real battle in many households. So real that the government set up the <a href="">National Council for Problem Gambling</a>. I'm disappointed to not have heard from the council.
I wrote some years back about <a href="">the search for Singapore's semangat</a>. Some principles we hold make us who we are in the world. A staunch stand against vice has historically been Singapore's calling card. We've always acknowledged our frailties and worked hard to keep ourselves free from them. These exemptions, when passed with little or weak justifications, make a mockery of our principles and damage our identity.
So far, the only reasons for the online gambling exemptions that I've managed to glean from the news are
<ol><li>it is hard to completely eradicate remote gambling</li>
<li>Banning it drives users underground, making us a target for crime syndicates</li></ol>
We need to weigh those reasons against the social cost. Right now we are emotionally drawn to the social cost because it is borne by families, perhaps our own or belonging to people we know and love. We need more information on how much damage these crime syndicates do to us. 120 people arrested in the past year and a half doesn't quite tip the scales.
<em>This is also <a href="">posted on Medium</a>.</em>


Count on Me, Singapore

<img alt="National Day Rally 2016" src="" width="500" height="333" class="img-center" />
We all held our collective breaths when we heard that PM Lee had fainted delivering the National Day Rally speech. There was this odd mix of silence as the future suddenly became so much more uncertain, amidst the cacophony of social media gone crazy as everyone scoured every avenue to find out what happened, and whether he was ok.
We never got to see whether PM Lee fainted, but the video of the moments just before circulated minutes after we received news. The image of PM Lee holding tight to the rostrum – shaking – and then leaning to one side drove Faith and me to tears. How heavy the burden this one man bore.
If Singapore were a family, and former PM Lee Kuan Yew our founding father, PM Lee finds his place as our eldest brother. He was always known to be a little stiff, but in recent years he revealed a much more human side through <a href="">his photography on Instagram</a>, always signed off &#8220;Photo by me&#8221;.
That his body fell short of the mammoth task of delivering the National Day Rally speech &mdash; essentially the summary of the past year and the vision for the country&#8217;s future, with segments in 3 languages no less &mdash; felt like an emotional blow we really were&#8217;t ready for. We had only just lost Lee Kuan Yew. I wasn&#8217;t sure we built up the emotional reserves for another.
What happened last night was a necessary reminder for us to remember our individual mortality. Nation-building is a responsibility of every citizen. The song &#8220;Count on me, Singapore&#8221; takes on new meaning. You and I are Singapore, and we need to be committed to build each other up even if we come from different races, different religions, or hold different political views. We build each other up that we may prosper as a nation to leave a legacy for future generations.



We managed to sneak in a quiet dinner, before coming home to what was now THREE sick kids (up from one in the morning).
Happy anniversary, sweetest wife. There's no one I'd rather have on the team. For better, for worse, till death.


Our Work and Our Worth

Faith's no-pay leave is coming to an end, and there's been some pressure from people close to us to have her go back to her job. It's been a roller-coaster ride of emotions for her as she struggles with what her self-identity is, and how self-worth is affected by what society, close friends and family think.
Many of us harbour a bias that the spouse that works for money is the main contributor to the family. We use words like &#8220;breadwinner&#8221; to bestow some level of honour, while &#8220;homemaker&#8221; is viewed in a humbler, even derogatory light.
I&#8217;ve experienced what Faith&#8217;s work day is like. There are thousands of moving parts, many of which society would classify as &#8220;menial&#8221;. When you consciously unpack each task, you&#8217;ll realise how much they demand of you – to be meticulously detailed (&#8220;Mummy, where&#8217;s the Chinese homework book I left on the table?&#8221;); constantly aware (&#8220;We need to inform the bus driver that Caleb isn&#8217;t takin the bus next Tuesday because&#8230;&#8221;); and most of all, emotionally draining (&#8220;Kids, I need you to focus on the task at hand right now even though you&#8217;re tired from a day at school&#8221;). And how much wisdom it requires to know when to help, and when to let the kids try and possibly fail, which also means building them up through the tears and emotion that come after.
The purpose of a family is in the growth of its members for service unto God and fellow man. We can romanticise the role of the breadwinner all we want, but at the end of the month, we take home our pay to see the basic needs of our family and hopefully afford a few creature comforts. It is in that light I see my job as a means of supporting our central duty of developing each member in our family.
Faith mans the frontline everyday. I&#8217;m privileged to get a slice of the action by her side. We make command decisions together – the best ones are made in united prayer.
So it might mean that I help out with the kids at night whenever I can. It gives Faith a chance to decompress from the gruelling work of carrying the three little munchkins emotionally; and to rest her feet from buzzing back and forth schools, activity centres and home.
There is a beautiful partnership when I choose to serve my wife. I look at her sleeping, tired out, and it gives me great joy to tend to her needs and buy her a little time of her own. She is the jewel of my house, and the work of her hands weaves divine glory in the lives of our children, and its grace reflects unto me.


Blessed is the one

<blockquote><p>Blessed is the one who does not … sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the way of the Lord, and who meditates on His law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yield its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers."</p>
The full verse in <a href="">Psalm 1</a> actually addresses three groups of people. Blessed is the one who does not:
<ul><li>walk in step with the wicked, or</li>
<li>stand in the way that sinners take, or</li>
<li>sit in the company of mockers</li></ul>
When studying this portion of scripture in my youth, we often paid more attention not to fall into the first two groups. It seemed easier then, to be part of a group of people doing wicked or sinful things, than to be in a group of mockers. We'd imagine how a group of mockers would congregate in the market square, loudly putting down others as they walked past. Others who were different: foreigners, poor people…people who didn't fit into what the mainstream crowd deemed acceptable.
Mass mockery just didn't seem that prevalent back then.
How things have changed.
The democratization of media (a smartypants way of saying everyone can now communicate with everybody else) in the last two decades has made mocking others a global pastime. Social media is rife with "social commentary", all egging us on to agree with them on how stupid or incompetent someone else must be, how unfashionably clothed, or how morally suspect.
These posts – and I'm guilty of having written quite a number of them myself – often start off in earnest as a response to do something to address an ongoing social issue. At best, they are attempts to raise awareness, at worst, they are an exercise in ego-boosting. Look, how smart I am! How eloquent! They fall between these two ends of the spectrum, carrying their respective amounts of mockery.
In the many years I've been involved in blogging, I've always held to the belief that the democratization of media is good. People should be able to express their ideas, and an open exchange of ideas inherently has some self-moderating properties. But now I find myself exhausted from the amount of talk out there. The volume and intensity of discourse in current affairs far outweighs the expertise of the participants. And sadly, real commitment to issues hasn't risen much.
Real commitment. The sort that brings one to spend years trying to cobble a solution. We've all read blogs, tweets and status updates on how the poor are treated, how the disadvantaged in society need help, but we don't see a corresponding rise in people dedicating their lives towards eradicating the problem, or tending to those they profess to be outraged on behalf of.
<blockquote>Blessed is the man who does not sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the way of the Lord, and who meditates on His law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yield its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.</blockquote>
Don't be the loud cawing online crowd. Don't be the silent majority. Be the silent minority. The ones who meditate day and night on what is right before God. The ones who work ceaselessly behind the scenes, that the work of their hands might prosper those whom they mean to help.



<a href="" title="Marina Bay iLight"><img src="" width="375" height="500" alt="Marina Bay iLight" class="img-center"></a>I took a walk with Faith down the Marina Bay area a few days ago, and the place was packed with activity as part of the <a href="">i light Marina Bay</a> festival. All the installations were set up and eager student inventors waited for sunset to show the crowd the fruits of their labour, that the audience may be awed at their creativity and ingenuity. A short distance away, a group of fitness enthusiasts followed the lead of a yoga instructor, contorting their bodies as far as their tendons would allow. Our senses were tantalised by wafts of roast meats that emanated from the young chefs searing expensive wagyu at the temporary <a href="">Pasarbella</a> setup.
It was hard not to marvel at the smorgasbord laid out in the middle of the business district on a weekday night, but an odd sense of melancholy came over me.
Everything just felt so…cosmopolitan, so dynamic, so vibrant, manufactured, foreign, so…blah. We're often reminded that Singapore needs to adapt to the winds of change, and I appreciate that we've been able to do that better than most, but I miss who we were before all this.
I miss the masak-masak and the visits to Emporium; I miss <a href="">football at the void deck</a>, or how neighbours used to be. Even now my childhood habitat of Rochor Centre is about to be demolished. I feel like I've had my roots erased, and all I have left are vague memories and a bunch of photographs.
Maybe every generation goes through this sense of loss; but can we survive seeing all our memories dissolve into nothingness at such unprecendented speed?