#97 we are paperwork away from our dreams

Becoming an adult in Singapore seems to be about learning how to navigate through paperwork. Lots of paperwork for the process of buying a flat and lots of paperwork for the processes at the workplace. Sometimes clear steps are provided but timeline is not given. Sometimes I don’t know where to begin and increasingly I realise that people also don’t know where to begin. All that they know and are willing to offer is that it does not begin with them. So they direct you to someone else based on the SOP that they have in mind. The someone else then directs you to another person based on a different SOP. This is especially so when you are trying to do something for the first time and it is kind of unprecedented or unusual. You walk around, with papers in hand, hoping to get some people’s signatures on the forms. Even though that person could be sitting across you, you are separated from his/ her signature by a maze of bureacracy.

It’s frustrating because it seems so pointless. It’s frustrating because sometimes it feels like I am doing more work at letting people know that I am doing work than actually doing work. It’s frustrating because people aren’t thinking or helping; they are just following SOPs.

The deep-seated cultural problem with this country is we are too worried about the papers. Are the papers in order? And at the end of the day, if all the paperwork is in place, things are good. But what if things aren’t followed through? But what if best workers aren’t robots that simply follow the rules and orders? What if these people require some inspiration, some motivation and some direction to take ownership of their work? Do you prefer a submissive, rule-abiding workforce or a daring, thinking workforce? The latter seems to be the relevant one in the generation of Artificial Intelligence. But culturally, it seems like the former is prefered. Insubordination is also a word that is used to instill fear and respect for positions. Breaking the barrier can’t be done without pushing through piles of paperwork and layers of bureaucracy. Honestly, how many good ideas and dreams are shattered in the midst of the paperwork?


#96 a head full of knowledge

Everyone is unique and they have their own personalities, likes and dislikes. What exactly does standardised exam measure? How well you remember things? How well you think or answer the way it is taught? Or how well you manage your time diligently and exercise self discipline?

Sometimes I look at the supposedly successful products of the education system and I wonder if these students are actually future-ready. Is it more important to be diligent or to be creative? Is it more important to toe the lines or challenge the “social norms”? Is the concept of “productivity” as important as the concept of “entrepreneurial dare”? The truth is we know students, who will be entering the workforce in the near future, need to be more than just productive cogs in a machine. They need to have critical thinking and they need to imagine what is not yet possible. Even though we know that, we are still looking at them as numbers. Even value added is measured in terms of their grades. Does it mean that teachers are only adding value to the students by improving their grades?

Some things need to change. We should think less in terms of productivity and how to improve productivity. That is because no matter how fast a person can work, we cannot be faster and more accurate than Artificial Intelligence. We should think more in terms of how many new things have been invented, how many good ideas have been converted into actions and how many “status quos” have been challenged and changed. That is actual progress for the economy and the society. Schools can perhaps start by thinking about students differently.

Just some food for thoughts on Labour Day. A cartoon speaks a thousand words.

#95 敬业乐业

^This Chinese phrase refers to a work ethic when you respect your work and you enjoy your work.

Recently, I was at a Chinese restaurant with M’s family and we were served by an old Chinese lady. Unlike other waitresses we frequently encounter in Chinese restaurants, she was friendly, warm and chatty. She told us about how to cook duck’s neck in a friendly manner and she even checked in on us whether we were enjoying the food. We left the restaurant as happy customers and I would go back to the restaurant just to see her again.

Lately, I have been trying to grapple with the meaning of my work. I had tried to be positive but sometimes with the kind of things going on (blame game, gossip and mutual suspicion), it’s hard to stay positive. It’s harder to enjoy my work. What should I say to myself to make myself see the meaning of my work?

I always tell the students how a hardworking and determined attitude will bring them to places and allow them to overcome the challenges that life will throw at them. But right now, I don’t see the determination in myself. I used to be quite stubborn and relentless at getting quality work done. But right now I feel like I am a very different person. I find that I simply don’t really care and I just want to be done with it. Right now I feel like I have become the kind of person that I despise – negative, angsty and calculative. I used to value human relations so much and I used to do things as a matter of principle – out of loyalty and kindness. But right now I don’t value the people around me. Colleagues are basically just people whom I work with and the only thing we share is work. I don’t know them and I am not interested to get to know them. I am afraid that this version of me at work is going to erode my personality and change me into a person that I don’t like. How can I stop this from happening?

Respect your profession. Love what you are doing. Am I still able to do that? Or is it just an ideal? Am I able to convince myself in spite of the things and people around me?

faces and places (Jan – Mar ’18)

The first three months of 2018 was full of firsts. There are many things that Mervin and I need to navigate through together as a couple and I hope that with enough kindness, understanding and love, we can get through the life challenges together. I look forward to us growing as a couple.:)


Mervin and I went to Jay Chou’s concert courtesy of my dad’s free tickets. Even though we were seated quite far from the stage, it was quite a good experience. I think Jay Chou is quite an amazing artist as his new songs are still so popular even though he has been around for quite some time. I grew up with his songs and I can still remember how I emo-ed to his songs, such as 枫 and 搁浅. It’s also the first time Mervin watched a concert in Singapore and I think he had a great time too. 你的眼睛再说我愿意. 🙂


One Saturday evening, Mervin and I went to attend his university friend’s wedding. Quite a number of his school mates are teachers so we ended up comparing and talking about our students. That also reminds me that I am right not to date within the same profession if not conversations get rather repetitive. However, his university friend and his wife were colleagues in the ministry of defence. I guess different strokes work for different people as long as we are happy with who we end up with. Mingquan, the valedictorian of our PGDE batch, was at the same table as us and it was nice to catch up with him too.


One Sunday morning, Mervin and I joined the Nature Society of Singapore for a birdwatching session at Kranji Marsh. I enjoy birdwatching quite a lot, it forces you to stop and look at your surroundings and it always amazes me how so much beauty goes unnoticed everyday when we are rushing from one place to another. With the help from the experienced guides, we spotted many species of birds including a sea eagle, a rare black-capped kingfisher, a purple heron using a pair of binoculars. These guides actually recognise the cries of different types of birds. Birds care about the seasons and the weather and yet all we humans seem to notice are the constructs that we build for ourselves.

After the session with the birdwatching group, we took a walk around Sungei Buloh. Both of us haven’t been here for a very long time and we were surprised by how much has changed. Now there are fancy boardwalks and lookout points in the park.


We spent our first Valentine day together in February. How I wish this love-drunk period can last forever. 🙂 Mervin planned a little surprise for me on the weekend before Vday. He first brought me to a spa couple retreat in Orchard and we enjoyed a jacuzzi followed by a massage. We had a staycation at Quincy Hotel which was an amazing place because food and drinks in that hotel are free for hotel guests. We had a glass of long island each to end the great day. On the next day after check out, we went to Plaza Singapura for an art jamming session. Here’s a happy picture of us with our artworks.


After spending our first Vday together as a couple, Mervin and I also spent our first CNY together. I was rather stressed about the schedule for the first three days of CNY (occupational hazard) but Mervin was just happy and excited that we are spending CNY together. In the end, it turned out alright but in the years to come, it has to be even more streamlined. Here’s a picture of us with his family on the first day of CNY.


Mervin also attended my grandma’s birthday dinner at Tunglok. The food was okay but the birthday celebration that the staff has prepared for my grandma was quite fancy. They played the happy birthday song and took out the 寿桃 that is plated next to a very intricately designed ginger. Here’s a picture of us with my extended family.


One Sunday, Mervin and I went for my cousin’s housewarming party at her new BTO. It is always interesting to see how different people have different ways of imagining and designing their own space. After the housewarming party, we went with my parents to support Singapore Slingers at the ASEAN Basketball League match. Here’s a happy picture of us with the Merlion mascot.


The week before the March holidays was insanely busy. Everyday was packed with events, duties and obligations and at times, I had to literally run from one place to another. On the last day of the term, we had an urban farming workshop organised for the Science teachers by Carbon Inq. It was interesting to learn how to leverage on organic farming to teach science and to ignite passion for science during the Applied Learning Programme (ALP) classes. We went home with a pot full of seeds and stems (from stem-cutting). It is always nice to have events like this for us to interact with one another in a more informal setting.


Due to some unexpected circumstances, we had to change our original travel plans during the March holidays but it was good fun to travel with Mervin and explore different parts of the world. We did a 2D1N trip to Bintan where we just chilled, swam, lazed on the beach and did some aqua-zumba. That was followed by a 3D2N trip to Cameron Highlands and Ipoh with a tour company Comelah. Our tour group consisted of us, a pair of Chinese ladies and a family of 4. Sadly, Cameron Highlands was underwhelming to me. There were way too many tourists and everything felt very manicured and commercialised. In particular, the narrow roads to the Boh tea plantation were way too busy. Nonetheless, it was fun to pick strawberries, drink tea by the tea valley and eat hot pot at night. Here is a happy picture of us at the Cameron Valley.


#94 sisphysus and his rock

Lately I have been thinking about this Greek mythology that S told me many years ago back when we were university students. Sisphysus was a notorious king and he was punished by the Greek Gods to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill but only to watch it fall downwards again.

Sometimes I think we are somehow like Sisphysus. We are striving and we know we have to strive and work hard. But at the end of the day, when we finally get the work done and reach the summit, we don’t stay there long enough to bask in the glory. Somehow things just can easily undo themselves or we simply have to keep striving towards another goal because life goes on. And we continue the fate of striving, for the sake of striving and for the sake of improving our lives. And the cycle repeats itself.

For this first term, I think I have been working quite hard to meet both learning and non-learning targets and to juggle the many hats and responsibilities of a full-fledged teacher in Singapore. I don’t know what I get at the end or what I get out of it. All I know is I can’t stop and the cycle has to continue.

Recently, I feel that work has been changing me. Or to put it another way, the work personality has been eroding my own personality. Increasingly, I catch myself thinking about visibility of actions (whether what I do is seen by others) and how to make actions more purposeful in my personal life. I don’t like this. I miss the person who values friendships and who does things because of how much they matter and not how much they can be seen. I feel like I am less genuine and less sincere. And that bothers me.

How do you keep pushing the boulder without allowing the process to change who you are?

#93 hiccups

I have officially worked for a year in this school. There are many new experiences, some good and some really bad. But most of them are somewhere in the middle – they can be better but they are not the worst. I see a lot of room for improvement in many ways but I am glad that I have survived. Yes, there have been unhappiness, worry and some bouts of overwork but it is not enough to break me.

Maybe this profession also offers some respite from the real world because we work by timetable and schedule. We sort of know what will happen every week in our classes ag least and we plan the lessons for the week and weeks ahead. Life takes on a rhythm.

But the reality is life is full of accidents and little incidents that can just suddenly snowball and take over your life. The car crash, the diagnosis or even the breakup that can change a person’s life so quickly and dramatically. On hindsight, we are pretty fortunate every day to worry about the details of living. We are shielded from the inevitabilities of life by the mundane, predictable details of life. When you zoom out on things, being able to complain and worry about things is actually a privilege by itself.

How beautifully fragile we are that so many things can take but a moment to alter who we are forever?

#92 I don’t agree with you

Back in the UK when I first got to know Y in 2015, we did not agree on many things. Our conversation sometimes started like this: I expressed my opinion or came up with an argument about something and Y began her sentence with “I don’t agree with you…” We did not agree on many things, from trivial things such as whether the couple outside Waitrose were madly in love or on the verge of breaking up to more serious topics about China-Hong Kong relations. I remember just last year, we debated about the use of exclamation marks in text messages. I felt that multiple exclamation marks help me to express my feelings while Y felt that the use of more than one exclamation mark in a sentence is excessive. To me, it is quite amazing how we could disagree on so many things and yet stay as very close friends. In fact, the more disagreements we have, the closer we become. I value people who dare to say that I am wrong. How do you agree to disagree in practice? We had several not-so-good attempts at agreeing to disagree but after numerous tries, this is what I learnt about the art of agree to disagree:

1. Have the conversation in person.

Although it may be tempting to resolve the conflicts over Whatsapp (especially if the differing opinions started from there), it is always better to have any intense conversation in person. That is because it is easier to focus on the issues when you speak in person. In addition, sometimes the tone of the messages may lead to more misunderstandings.

2. Choose the correct setting.

It is important to choose the right setting with sufficient privacy. The place has to be quiet and relatively free of distractions. Sometimes when there are other people around, the ego of winning the argument may get in the way.

3. Listen respectfully.

Give each other the chance to express their thoughts and feelings without interrupting. Listen and try to see things from their point of view. Resist any temptation to interrupt.

4. Use ‘I’ language.

I feel that when friends disagree on something, it also gives them a chance to learn about each other. The best way to enable such learning is to use ‘I’ language. Examples include: “For me, I feel that…”, “when you do this, you make me feel that…” or “I may be wrong but I feel that…”

5. Ask questions to clarify.

Different people, who grew up in different environments, may have different beliefs and opinions. Sometimes both parties can be right. But winning the argument is not important in my opinion. What is more valuable is this learning opportunity to learn more about how other people see the same issues.

6. Conclude with an emphasis on the relationship.

Regardless of the topic of contention, I feel it helps to end the conversation with humility and gratitude. Usually, I will say something like, “Thank you for saying that to me, I didn’t think of it that way previously. In future, I will take note of that.”