Thoughts on 2012

Another year flies by and I thought I had better pen some thoughts down before I forget them.

An Instagram photo of the clouds over Bishan, 28 Dec 2012.
An Instagram photo of the clouds over Bishan, 28 Dec 2012.

1. Photography is now in the pocket

In the mid 2000s, I used to conduct a few photography workshops in partnerships with Canon. Back then, my mantra to the audience was to use as high a resolution a digital camera as you could afford, because you’d never know how big you need to print them or what kind of HD displays you would be using them in the future as photo frames. I scoffed at phone cameras because they were just so primitive then (they were horrid).

Today, that mantra has gone out of the window as the old adage of “having a camera with you at all times” is more important than the actual megapixel count. Smartphones can now do spot exposure, HDR processing to overcome high contrast scenes and have really good color reproduction. And the most amazing thing is that you can share them instantly on social media, rather than wait a few days to get 4R prints and then another few weeks to show them to your friends.

If I go out with the kids and forget to bring my Olympus Pen along (the full frame Canon 5D sees very little action today due to its enormous bulk), it’s still ok because a modern smartphone has a really really good image sensor. And I don’t print photos anymore, photos are now shared by default on Facebook and Instagram, and this blog no longer hosts photos like it used to.

Isabel in soft focus, Instagram style.
Isabel in soft focus, Instagram style.

Instagram has been a great tool that I have grown to appreciate. While some pros may decry the use of vintage filters, I love it because the same effects are much more difficult to achieve in Photoshop, and if you choose to take photos first and Instagram it later, you still retain the original image. And I’ve always been a fan of square 1:1 ratio images. In the past we used to fantasize about owning medium format cameras just to get that square look…today who cares?

I predict that compact cameras will become obsolete within the next five years, and dSLRs will once again become the domain of pros instead of consumers.

2. Xbox Rawks

The Xbox ambassadors and the rest of the usual gang of suspects at Dance Central Championships. You won't find another group of more energetic young folks elsewhere (excluding this botak lah)
The Xbox ambassadors and the rest of the usual gang of suspects at Dance Central Championships. You won’t find another group of more energetic young folks elsewhere (excluding this botak lah)

For the past year, I’ve been the business lead for the Xbox 360 in Singapore, the fifth guy in the job since the product was launched in Singapore during the early 2000s. While I have been driving the marcoms for Xbox and our other Microsoft retail products in the past five years, it’s a whole different ball game to be actually doing product management for such a complex product line.

And till today, I still have to tell people I don’t spend all my time playing games. It’s a continuously challenging business to manage, and while I can’t write much about all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, what we did publicly was truly fun and groundbreaking this year.

The explosive finale of the Dance Central Championships 2012 at Plaza Singapura.
The explosive finale of the Dance Central Championships 2012 at Plaza Singapura.

Dance Central Championships came about because we’ve always wanted to bring Xbox to the masses in a big non-traditional way. It blew our minds when over 1000 people signed up and the finale was simply electrifying as contestants did the most amazing moves on the stage. The finale coincided with the launch of Kinect Star Wars and it was a pleasure to work with the 501st Legion of Star Wars enthusiasts. Trust me, you don’t see such passion very often – these guys live and breathe the Force.

Halo 4 launch, 6 Nov at Funan. We've never packed the crowd in like this before.
Halo 4 launch, 6 Nov at Funan. We’ve never packed the crowd in like this before.

The Halo 4 launch was something of a full circle thingy. When I joined Microsoft in 2007, my second day of work was the Halo 3 launch at Suntec. While we had to scale this one down due to budget constraints, we organized a Royal Rumble-style Ultimate Deathmatch as our first tournament in many years and it was truly gratifying to see fans line up to see who would be the last one standing.

In my previous job as a journalist, I wrote many stories, but I could have never imagined writing a story like my past five years in Microsoft and being part of the amazing Xbox journey.

3. The Goblins

The Tan family, Xmas 2012
The Tan family, Xmas 2012

Isaac will be ten years old soon, and Isabel will be eight. Feels like yesterday that Goy and I were still pak-tor-ing (going out on dates). Sometimes I get a bit disoriented and forget that I’m a father to two kids. With them yakking and cracking jokes and arguing all the time, sometimes I feel more like their older brother. Especially since I don’t feel so grown up myself.

It’s really not easy to inculcate solid values and be a good role model to the kids, and often I fall short. But I’m glad the kids make it a fun journey…most of the time. And they are the main reason that I…

3. Fought the education system 

It started one day when Goy showed me this ACS Primary sample mathematics exam paper that was so ridiculously tough I lost my cool. I said, “That’s it, I’m writing a letter to the papers.”

One letter led to another, and before I knew it, I had sent and gotten six letters published, and other letter writers contributed their thoughts too. The letters are archived here in their original unedited form (the Today letters have since gone offline, such a pity)

Crippling learning with unrealistic standards

It’s a strong foundation that counts

Is the Education Ministry really listening to parents’ feedback?

Why would people want to have kids in Singapore?

Getting to the root of kiasuism (this was a guest column for Today’s National Day Rally edition)

It is not me who is kan cheong

Did the letters help the situation? I think it did, because since the first letter, education has become a bigger talking point in the public space. The Gahmen stopped publishing names of top PSLE scorers this year and while the problem lies more in the sheer unreasonable breadth of the primary school curriculum, at least they’re doing something.

The problem with the education system, I suspect, is that there are too many layers and differing approaches, and no single visionary who can articulate what kind of education system is good for our kids. To solve this problem at the root, we need leaders with actual field experience and I am awaiting the day when an acclaimed educator become the Education Minister.

I’m not saying that the current Minister Heng is doing a lousy job, it’s just that the PAP’s way of appointing ministers needs to take into account that a finance/army/civil service guy may not appreciate the nuances of education like an ex-teacher would. To change the world, we don’t need technocrats and administrators and policymakers. We need people who know what it takes and are willing to risk everything to improve our children’s lives.

I’m done with letter writing for now, because I was starting to sound like a broken record.

4. My Monster.

My Monster 1100 Evo at one of the old Seletar airbase buildings. Vintage filtered with the help of who else but Instagram.
My Monster 1100 Evo at one of the old Seletar airbase buildings. Vintage filtered with the help of who else but Instagram.

I first started riding army bikes in 1996, and enrolled in the civilian Class 2B course in 2007. Only in 2012 did I finally realize the long-time dream of owning a Class 2 (400cc and above) bike and after much consideration, I chose the Ducati Monster 1100 Evo and it is an exhilarating ride. I have written about it here.

Seriously, 16 years is a pretty long time to wait, but I guess I was too busy in between.

5. People moving on.

Several colleagues have left Microsoft and I am deeply grateful for all the things they have taught me and gone through with me. Great friends are hard to find in any workplace, and I’ve been blessed with knowing so many talented folks since I started working in 2001. All this sounds very clichéd, but our personality and attitudes to life are often shaped by the meaningful relationships we have and cherish.

And my ex-boss Ben Tan has so many classic lines that I remember by heart. Eg. “Don’t wrestle with pigs!” “Stack them high and watch them fly!” (referencing mass stacking at retail). “How do you get from good to great?”

An old SPH friend, Chee Kin, left us suddenly this year. He was a kind and funny mentor during my journalism internship years, and now I can’t crack anti-Sun Ho/China Wine jokes with him anymore. Quite a few friends have passed away (the first guy during Primary 5) and it is always a grim reminder that our days on earth are numbered and unknown to us. All the more reason to enjoy life for what it is and never regret the things we do. It’s either now or never, people!

6. Passing another violin exam

A shot of my violin and my teacher's violin.
A shot of my violin and my teacher’s violin.

To many kids, passing the ABRSM music exam is no big deal, since everyone is doing it (usually not by choice). To an adult like me, who has no natural innate gift in music, clearing my Grade 5 exam was a big accomplishment.

This was a frightening exam to go through, because I realized that I still could not get rid of the jitters and shakes whenever I played in front of a teacher or examiner. I concluded that I simply did not have stage performance confidence – an irony because I have no issues giving speeches in front of huge crowds. Goy helped me overcome this (mostly) by constantly practicing with me with the piano and I learnt how to minimize the tonality issues. I just managed to score a merit rating and it felt like a distinction already.

I continue to learn the violin because it’s too late to just stop now, when I’ve worked at this for over 11 years, and because every lesson is such a humbling experience for an arrogant nature like mine. Violin is truly a great antidote for the inertia that threatens to subsume me every day.

As usual, I don’t think too hard about the future and what I want to do in 2013. Everything happens according to God’s plan and all I ask for is to be happy in the things I do and achieve contentment at all times. I feel the edginess and impatience of the mid-life crisis (all the old AC boys are experiencing it) and we have to keep remembering to get together lest one of us disappear from sight without warning.

Pok's wedding in KL
Pok’s wedding in KL, probably the last time we will look relatively young. Age will hound us from here on.

And 2012 was great because the last of the dragonboat gang – Pok and Naveen – finally got married. Now they’ll understand what we married men have been talking about during our Adam Road suppers :)

It’s not me who is “kan cheong”

This post has been published as a letter in Today, 10 Oct, under the headline “To educate is not to hothouse“.

In May this year, I was so outraged by the steep difficulty in a primary school exam paper that my wife showed me, I wrote my first letter to Today about the unrealistic standards in our education system. It was followed by a flurry of letters by other parents, and by National Day, this had become a national conversation of sorts.

I was glad to know that I was not the only one who thought that the system has become distorted.

Continue reading It’s not me who is “kan cheong”

Getting to the root of kiasuism

This commentary was published in Today on 27th Aug as a parent’s reflection on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2012 National Day Rally the night before. I focused on the topics of education and the birth rate, which readers will know are my two pet topics on this blog and in real life. Contrary to popular belief, the family photo wasn’t a National Day thingy, but Chinese New Year from earlier this year :)

As a parent of two primary school children, I paid extra attention to the Prime Minister’s take on education and the birth rate. I was glad to see some glaring gaps finally plugged, or at least touched on.

Continue reading Getting to the root of kiasuism

Why would people want to have kids in Singapore?

This posting has been published in Today newspaper 14 Aug under the headline “For babies, redefine happiness”.

Back in the 2000s, each time my wife gave birth, my friends would joke “Hey the Baby Bonus worked!” We had a good laugh, because it was very clear to my social circle that the Government’s fertility policies had nothing to do with our decision to have children.

Continue reading Why would people want to have kids in Singapore?

Is the Education Ministry really listening to parents’ feedback?

Update 7 June: The Today newspaper has published this letter under the title “MOE has role in ‘arms race'”

I have sent this letter to the Today Voices page. I wrote it despite being tired out from a long day at work and also while teaching Isaac how to improve his English composition.

I refer to the story “A call to relearn how we teach our children” (Today, 5 June 2012) where Education Minister Heng Swee Keat offered his take on the primary school education today.

He said that parents should not compare the education methods of today with those of the past, since children will be growing up in a different world from today. Yet at the same time, he asked for parents to continue giving feedback to engage the educators.

Herein lies the contradiction that frustrates parents to no end.

It is clear that many parents have been giving repeated feedback that the education system has been overloading our children with a curriculum of unrealistic standards.

This has resulted in an “arms race” between tuition centers, school principals and assessment book authors to pose the most ludicrous types of test questions for our bewildered children. Their only goal  appears to be earning bragging rights about who can set the toughest standards.

Many well-educated parents struggle with long working hours in a society stressed by rising costs, yet are asked to learn new teaching methods for PSLE questions. It begs the question why we went to university in the first place if we now struggle to teach elementary mathematics.

Nevertheless, the Education Ministry keeps insisting that it is trying to do the right thing for our children and in the process ignores the very feedback it has requested. It has also not stepped in to moderate the educational “arms race” in any way.

The obvious beneficiaries of this whole situation are elitist tuition centers who now have the impunity to pick and choose only the brightest students, thus ensuring the “effectiveness” of their expensive classes. There was a recent newspaper ad taken out by a tuition center that boasted having taught 8 out of 17 of the top PSLE scorers.

The Minister also said that teachers are trying their best to prepare students for the unknowns in the future.

Let me pose this question – how do you prepare for the unknown? Do you know what you don’t know? Is it better then, to prepare students for the known, for the things that are within our control?

From what I have observed, the education system today does a dismal job of instilling the basics of good language and mathematics in our students. It prefers to rush them into using unnecessary, stilted vocabulary and mathematical modeling methods that they will never use in their secondary school days or adult life.

In a world where technology is changing the way we live faster than ever before, it is even more critical  for students to have a strong grasp of the fundamentals so they do not get lost in the deluge of information and ideas.

I would ask that the Education Ministry learn to take feedback in its stride, and not assure us with words we parents do not agree with.

It’s a strong foundation that counts

This letter is a follow up from my original letter “Standards are unrealistic” and a response to the Ministry of Education’s quotes in Today’s news story “Primary school maths: A vicious circle”. I have sent this to Today Voices editor, hopefully it gets published  and it has been published here.

Dear Voices Editor,

I refer to the story “Primary school maths: A vicious circle” (Today, 8 May). I thank the Today team for following up from my original letter and sharing a range of views on the issues in local education.

After my letter was published, it was shared widely on social media channels and I took some time to read through the numerous responses from other parents. What was disheartening to read was a common thread that our opinions would fall on deaf ears.

The Ministry’s responses ranged from (I paraphrase) “PSLE  mathematics has not gotten more difficult” to “subject syllabi is regularly based on widespread consultation”, driving home the point that Ministry may not have grasped our grievances and is all too quick to dismiss public feedback.

Now, it would be challenging for the layman to dispute the Ministry’s stand that mathematics standards have not changed over the years, given that we are not steeped in pedagogical methods. What we do see clearly is a gradual destabilization of the education system as it shifts responsibility for learning from schools to tuition centres. This opens up a massive divide between those who can afford tuition, and those who can’t.

Such a situation can’t possibly be meritocratic in any sense.

I do not disagree with providing a small proportion of challenging problems to help determine the cream of the crop. I have aced my studies, won a scholarship and taken on numerous challenges with the relentless drive to become the best in my cohort. I know what the MOE is driving at because I am a product of its system (and my mum’s constant nagging).

However, I do remember being drilled with a strong foundation in the basics in primary school. The glaring difference today is that so much emphasis is placed on learning how to answer the “tough” questions, the students end up with shaky basics in arithmetic, grammar or second language.

If you look at the English curriculum, students are encouraged to memorize and use flowery, pretentious sentences simply for the sake of doing so. As an ex-journalist with a decade of professional writing experience, this goes against every principle of concise communication skills. There is no point writing a dozen complex sentences when you can express the same idea with one simple phrase.

A local university professor remarked to me recently that the standards of his students’ communication skills have actually dropped over the years. How did that happen?

As a parent, I can only hope that the MOE is able to accept our honest feedback and be willing to take a good, hard look at the system. I do fear for our children as they get haplessly caught in this vicious circle that has no end in sight.

 

Ian Tan Yong Hoe

Crippling Learning With Unrealistic Standards

I was reading a past-year Primary Three mathematics exam paper this evening – with all its ridiculous problem sums – when I decided to write this long-overdue letter and send it to the newspaper forums in Singapore. I also posted it on my Facebook page. The Chinese translation comes courtesy of a good friend.

The Today newspaper published it here, and Lianhe Zaobao published it here. Thank you to the editors who deemed it fit to be published, and to the many parents and readers who shared it across social media. The Straits Times rejected the article as it wanted exclusivity on the piece and it found out Today had published it.

The primary school education system in Singapore has been the point of much debate among educators and parents for a long time now.

As a product of the system in the 1980s, and now a father of two children in Primary One and Three, I fear that the system has become one of irrelevant and unrealistic standards. And I come from the perspective of being someone who has excelled within the old system, yet have always questioned the relevancy of the content we were taught in real-world settings.

Sadly, the situation has only gotten worse.

Let’s take primary school mathematics as an example – why are students being asked to solve questions of higher level logic at such a young age? Does it make them more creative in problem-solving? Does it help them when they are faced with heuristic problems that even adults don’t have to deal with in the workplace? No, it only leads to more rote-learning of – ironically – heuristic methods. The vast selection of assessment books and tuition centers that teach heuristics is testimony to this claim.

Another observation is that school teachers sometimes do not have the opportunity to reinforce the basics of simple arithmetic, and are forced to make their students do sums that are more useful in weeding out mathematical geniuses than genuinely impart knowledge. Within the cramped periods of each school day, it is simply impossible for teachers to cover all the bases in today’s punishing curriculum.

It’s no longer a matter of excelling in class, but to simply pass Mathematics today, it is mandatory to have tuition to fill the gaps that school teachers sometimes struggle to fill. If so many students require tuition, then it means our education system has failed in its basic goal of imparting the correct skill sets.

My wife, a university honours graduate, gave up her job to coach the children at home, but is herself exasperated at the standards required of students today. I have yet to observe any beneficial efforts of pushing children so hard at the primary school level apart from high stress levels and sapping of intellectual curiosity.

Apart from removing the joy in learning, another side effect of today’s education system is that my children hardly have time to enjoy childhood. They have less time to play outdoors, to read their favorite books (which is a great way to improve one’s English), to explore new hobbies or simply to learn about the world around them. All because they have so much homework to do.

I could go on about the other subjects, but the scenarios are the same. The schools are not teaching less, nor are the students learning more.

Ian Tan Yong Hoe

*********

And here’s the Chinese translation as done by a great friend. This goes to Zaobao.

不切实际的教育标准:学习的绊脚石

长久以来,新加坡小学教育制度是导师和家长们热烈辩论的课题。

我出身于80年代的教育制度,现在已是两名就读小一和小三孩子的父亲,我担忧本地教育制度已是个不切实际并与现实脱节的制度。尽管在当年教育制度下考取好成绩,我当时已经质疑校园所吸收的知识在现实生活中能有多大用处。

遗憾的是,这种情况每况愈下。

就 拿小学数学作例子。为什么学生们必须在年幼时就学习解答更高年级的逻辑习题?这是否真能协助他们以创意思维克服人生障碍?让小学生面对这些成年人在工作 上都无需接触的启发式问题,是否真对学生们有帮助?矛盾的是,这只会导致小学生用死记硬背来学习启发式演算法。课外教材泛滥,补习中心如雨后春笋冒出,足 以证明这一点。

我观察到的另一点是,小学教师往往没有机会着重灌输数学演算法的基础知识,而被迫让学生解答高难度习题。与其传授实用知识,这些深奥习题更像是为选拔数学天才而设。在学习时间有限的学堂,期望教师们在教导现今艰难的课程时面面俱到,是不可能的任务。

今时今日,让小孩子补习,以补充学校教师有时无法或没有时间传授的知识是一个必要。家长这么做,不再是要孩子名列前茅,而只为了让他们能够数学及格,仅此而已。如果这么多学生需要补习,这意味我们的教育制度在传授正确技能这个基本目标方面,是失败了。

我太太是大学荣誉毕业生,为了在家督导孩子而放弃事业,对于小学生面对的严苛考测标准,她感到忧愤。在小学水平就要学生们面对严峻学习挑战,除了带来高度压力,削弱孩童学习好奇心之外,我至今仍然看不出有什么好处。

浇灭学习乐趣不说,现今教育制度的另一个副作用是我的孩子已没有时间好好享受童年。他们没有多余时间进行户外玩乐、或阅读心爱书籍(这是提升语文水平的好方法)、或尝试新嗜好、或只是单纯探索身边周遭的一景一物。这都归咎于他们有太多功课要完成。

对于数学以外的其它科目,情况也是大同小异。学校并没教得更少,学生同时也没学得更多。

陈永和

Isaac’s first real Gundam

IMG_2371

For the life of me, I don’t know why and how Bandai sells so many of the entry level “Super Deformed” Gundams. They are cheap (under S$20 in Singapore) but come in really low-grade plastics, the short limbs and body parts often come off easily after you assemble them and have very poor poseability (ie. articulation).

Having assembled a few of them with Isaac (who is eight this year), I gave up on the poor quality and presentation of the SD Gundams and told my son: “Let’s build a real Gundam.” I went shopping at Sunshine Plaza and got this HG model the RX-121-1 Gundam TR-1 Hazel Custom edition featuring oversized armor and really big kneecaps. At only S$23, it was great value and a big leap over the models he has built.

The project took us a few days, and the kid has really improved at cutting and cleaning up the plastic parts. I can’t imagine how I used to assemble model kits without a proper plastic cutter (I had only cheap scissors), but kids today are luckier I guess.

We didn’t bother to fully paint the kit with my airbrush, and it was a little disappointing to see that Bandai included normal sticky decals, not water-activated decals. I took a penknife and cut out the excess decal clear portions, and also used enamel paint to line the grooves for a more manga effect.

The downside with the HG series is that since the plastic parts are all pretty small, they risk getting broken off if you use too much force or drop the model on the floor. The Gundam’s antenna came off during the painting process, but I glued it back.

The upside is that if you take some care in assembly, and learn how to use paint to fill in the panel grooves, you’ll get a very good-looking toy that poses very well.

For Dads into toys (that’s like most of us), it’s a good idea to do some Gundam kits with your sons. It’s not only good for buddy time, but also builds observation skills and a better understanding of how things can come together for artistic effect. And of course, it builds plenty of patience! 

More pictures below:

IMG_2373

Continue reading Isaac’s first real Gundam