Category Archives: General Rubbish

The Dainese Racing Pelle Estivo, a perforated leather riding jacket.

Bald girls, newer media, and motorcycle maintenance

Beginning this month, and hopefully on a weekly basis henceforth, I’ll be posting some thoughts on stuff that’s happening in my life or in my head. This blog site is eight years old this year, and has been sorely disused ever since Facebook decided to take over the world.

Apart from the usual fiery letter to the press about the education system or some part of society that has broken down (eg. public transport, COE system etc), I have been spending too much time micro-blogging or re-posting stuff on Facebook. At the same time, my writing skills are getting rusty again. The site design just got a brand new refresh with WordPress 3.6 so I thought this is a good time to blog properly again.

So here goes (please comment if you have time to keep me going :) Continue reading

Saucony Kinvara 3b

Dispelling myths in dieting

Saucony Kinvara 3b

Nothing beats a good run if you want to burn calories.

In recent months, as I continued on my healthy diet and losing some more weight (I’ve lost 9-10kg in the past six months, depending on which hour of the day I weigh in), I’ve observed more friends switching to a healthy diet too. That’s encouraging and also indicative of how we are more conscious of our health issues in our 30s.

Or maybe because I’ve scared too many people with my constant Facebook updates on diet and exercise.

There are some common issues though, which I hope to provide my own perspective. Continue reading

The root issues of our education system

Hard truths screenshot

This post has been edited and published in Today, 26 Mar 2013, under the headline “Hard truths of our education system”. Screenshot above.

Recently, a young mother asked me how one should prepare their children for the tough problem sums found in primary school mathematics.

Her father, a successful businessman, chimed in: “Why do parents have to go for classes to learn how to teach their children? That’s the teacher’s job! The job of parents is to go out and earn money to feed the family!”

The Education Minister recently expounded on the myriad of issues surrounding education during the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament. He mentioned a need to go back to basics, and it couldn’t be truer.

However, going back to basics requires an honest assessment of what’s truly broken, instead of asking parents to manage their expectations and to strive for school-work-life balance.

The situation isn’t as complex as the Ministry believes, because the many issues raised all lead back to a few root causes that are not being given enough emphasis by policymakers.

Roles need to be clear

Let’s ignore the unreasonable demands from “kiasu” parents and be explicitly clear about the roles we play : Parents are not teachers. Teachers are not supermen. Tutors are meant to help weak students, not raise the benchmark of top students to silly levels.

While parents should be considered “partners in education”, it is alarming when the time students spend in school is deemed insufficient for them to master the curriculum, hence the need for parents and tuition teachers to be constantly coaching them late into the night.

If you ask why everyone has to play an educator’s role today, it’s really because of the unrealistic curriculum.

Teach less, learn less, grow more.

The primary school curriculum is a topic that the Education Ministry has yet to publicly acknowledge as a a critical problem, despite much public outcry for reform. While the Ministry wants to encourage creativity, it is impossible when children are drowned with a huge range of topics.

The question educators need to ask themselves is – “How much does a child really need to learn to be a well-rounded individual?”

The Minister recently said that parents should not compare our curriculum today with that of the past. So how is it that we had less topics to study in the 1980s and 1990s, and that had no adverse effect on our lives today? Many of us have adapted to today’s technologies and business landscape without a hiccup.

Meanwhile, I see today’s kids lacking sleep because they simply cannot catch up with the sheer volume of things they have to remember. They learn more, but remember little.

Teachers keep saying “teach less, learn more” and some end up leaving the bulk of the teaching to parents and tutors. Perhaps let’s change it to “teach less, learn less, grow more”.

Also, if we truly believe in meritocracy, then any hardworking child armed with an MOE-approved textbook should be able to excel at the school exam without needing tuition or a stack of assessments books with questions of exceptional difficulty.

Celebrate achievements, not diminish them

While we need to reduce the sheer volume of tested topics, we also need to stop barking up the wrong trees in the same spirit of meritocracy.

The recent move to stop publishing the names of PSLE top scorers may do more harm than good in the long run.

Whether education is a “marathon” or a “sprint”, we should celebrate those who are able to excel, without letting schools obsess with the school ranking exercise.

Ask yourself, which athlete pushes himself to the maximum only to have his achievements disappear in a sea of political correctness? Who wants to take the marathon seriously then?

We desperately need to give more breathing space to the average student, but we should not diminish the achievements of the truly gifted or those who have overcome the odds to do their best.

Let’s speak English well. Please.

MPs recently debated about the falling popularity of literature, but nobody ever mentioned that students may actually fear the subject because of their poor grasp of the English language.

Yes, our top students do well in global tests and in Ivy League universities, but let’s also recognize that the average standard of English communication in Singapore leaves much to be desired.

Many young graduates are unable to switch out of Singlish into proper English at will, and good grammar is often lacking at the workplace.

The root causes are the continued emphasis on bilingualism and the poor understanding of how to teach English in our schools. For English exams, the key tenets of fluency, brevity and impact have been replaced by flowery words and much hubris. Children memorize colorful phrases to insert into every possible sentence.

The result is that many citizens don’t speak English or their mother tongue well, and that is a national tragedy.

If we are serious about improving the education system, then let’s not shy away from tackling the hard truths of our situation today.

Why the PAP got Hammered in Punggol East

The news is out – Workers’ Party won over 54% of the votes in Punggol East while the PAP only garnered about 43%. It was not unexpected though, because some key trends were glaringly clear throughout the short hustings period. You’ll read plenty of analyses in the media this coming week, but I thought I’d get ahead of the pack first.

(I won’t even bother to write about Reform Party or Singapore Democratic Alliance because all they did was to waste their own elections deposits and everyone’s time with their poorly thought-out campaigns and rhetoric.)

In highly connected Singapore, elections are now run on social media. The rallies’ real impact was created when shared virally. And Dr Koh’s “Everyone has a car” quote may have been out of context but damaged his campaign more than anything else IMO.

The influence of traditional media was minimal unless they are fully online like Today, which did an excellent job of tweeting updates and doing follow up reports.

What the PAP needs is a truly strong communications expert who is able to strategize every bit of their PR. It can’t be an old media “expert” but someone who knows how to wield and shape online sentiment. Right now, it’s pretty obvious that person has not been hired yet. I remember before GE2011, the PAP brushed off online comments as “Internet chatter” and I wrote that they’ll regret that.

PAP folks post a lot on Facebook but never respond to any comments. So they shouldn’t even bother because they’re treating FB like it’s a print newspaper.

The big guns no longer have any major impact on the vote. Everyone from the PM to Kee Chiew came down to Punggol, and the more they said, the angrier the people got (at least online). The population of Punggol is younger than most mature estates, and the young people are fed up with all the wrong policies of the past 15 years. The residents are also immune to all the Gahmen announcements on transport, Baby Bonus and housing fixes being trotted out in the space of one week. Too much and too late.

The PAP has long prided itself on incorruptibility and integrity. Then their rising star Michael Palmer messed himself and his party in the worst possible way. You can wear white clothes, but you need to practice what you preach. That is why the PAP’s old mantra of being clean has lost much of its power over the people.

Li Lian represented the common Singaporean facing all the daily bread and butter issues. Dr Koh represented yet another rich guy the PAP wanted to parachute into the Cabinet. Seriously, who do you think the people want to vote for? Sob stories of a poor childhood do nothing if you have two cars.

There is still much resentment on the ground after GE2011 – a general sense that nothing has really improved today. Wages have lagged behind costs. Frequent breakdowns of the MRT remind people of forced overcrowding and poor transport management. Sky high COEs remind people of inflation. The education system reminds parents that children are unnecessarily stressed. Is this the country that the PAP has built where only the rich can be happy?

In the space of a by-election, it was impossible to deal with all those major issues, though some attempts were made. Even with the pay cut, our PAP ministers are still earning a lot (and we don’t know the extent of their performance bonuses). The issues we face are not the same issues they face.

That’s why whether it is a by-election or general election, it’s about connecting with the voter lah. So simple, yet so difficult when you don’t have to take the train to work.

WordPress Jetpack Gallery Test

Testing the new Jetpack gallery feature in WordPress. I’m amazed how well it lays out the pix. Sorry if you’re sick of my Ducati Monster :)

Riding The Monster

I didn't realize how similar the curves of Gardens by The Bay were to those on the Monster.

I didn’t realize how similar the curves of Gardens by The Bay were to those on the Monster until I parked the bike and looked through the lens. This is a truly fortunate combo of the right dawn lighting, street lighting and juxtaposition. Christmas Eve 2012.

The Ducati Monster 1100 Evo is my first Class 2 bike and it was a shocker to ride during my first 24 hours with it. The engine vibrated terribly, you can’t go slow in the carpark (or actually below 40kmh) without clutching in halfway, and the engine is always complaining if you don’t rev enough. And if you aren’t careful, you’re breaking the speed limit…by a lot.

But what a pleasure it is!

Having only ridden bikes like the SAF hybrid street-scramblers (about 185cc, from Honda and Yamaha), learner bikes in Bukit Batok Driving Center (Honda 125s, 400s and 600s) and my Kawasaki Ninja 250R, I did not know a modern motorcycle could be as rough as a Monster. The Japanese bikes were really easy to handle with smooth engines and clutch controls, while the Monster is the complete opposite.

Its torque-y engine lurches forward, always eager to get off the stop line. You can hear every mechanical whirr and click when the wind isn’t rushing through your helmet. The engine gets hot enough to sear your thighs red though the jeans if you decide to do multiple short trips (I have a photo to prove it). The tiny tank only holds enough fuel for 140km before the fuel reserve light comes on, so frequent trips to the petrol station is mandatory.

However, once you get used to those quirks, man, you learn to love this Italian stallion (no, no, not Stallone) and its unique character – arrogant, impetuous and always challenging you to take a firm rein or just buzz off.

If you’re going to own a high capacity bike, why not own one with character? I’ve always loved the Italian approach to art and science, driven forward by ego and passion and a deep understanding of aesthetics. That’s pretty much like my own personality, as my friends would readily tell you. So a Ducati is a natural fit.

I was considering the Ducati Streetfighter 848 at first, but the Monster’s classic design language spoke directly to me while I could never love the aggressive lines of the Streetfighter as much. As well as the lower seat height :) The Streetfighter probably has more in common with modern anime-inspired Japanese bikes like the Kawasaki Z1000, the latter of which was one of my earlier candidates for the Class 2 bike but it was just too bulky with that gigantic inline-4 engine.

Monster at Upper Peirce

Upper Peirce Reservoir is one of my favorite locations for any bike photo shoot. But be careful of the monkeys who always look for a chance to grab your gear and run away gleefully.

The current Monster design is superior to the original 1993 forebear, with a much more muscular trellis frame, stouter tank and a well balanced mix of smooth curves and twisted metal innards out in full view. Even though the Triumph Street or Speed Triple is arguably a more well-rounded machine for city use, (the triple engine is much smoother to ride at all gears, as I’ve experienced with the Triumph Daytona 675) there is no contest in the looks department.

The Monster engine may vibrate incessantly but once you hit the sweet spot at each picky gear, it’s really enjoyable. The exhaust sound is a sweet mix of bassy low notes and happy mid-tone barks and I think the matte aluminium stock pipes look superior to any third-party alternatives. I removed the odd-looking flyscreen and now there’s nothing to obstruct my view as I soak up the beautiful sunsets or empty morning roads. It responds nimbly due to its compact shape (a neighbour thought it was a 400cc bike, and really, it is just a little bigger than a Super 4), and the bike just commands so much presence whether moving or stationary.

I don’t know if this same affliction hits other Ducati owners, but I now have a weakness for Ducati apparel even though they are quite pricey (A Puma-Ducati tee is usually about $50, and it’s hard to find good discounts even with free shipping from the online apparel store). To make you feel even more special, Ducati sends you a membership card all the way from Italy embossed with your bike’s frame number. You can’t do much with the card but it’s the thought that counts and most companies don’t do this sort of consumer marketing anymore.

With the crazy COE prices for cars (S$81.8K for 1600cc and below as I write this!), Japanese bikes getting more expensive now due to the high yen, and European bikes coming down in price due to the weak euro, I suspect there are going to be more Ducatis, Triumphs, MV Agustas and other continental bikes on our roads in the next few years.

But I could be wrong – there’s still a strong stigma against bike ownership in Singapore thanks to the reckless riders on the roads, as well as inconsiderate drivers. To make things harder for bike class upgrades, the Traffic Police tests are getting harder to pass with more stringent testers. My Class 2A and Class 2 tests were no walks in the park. Taking a minimum of over three years to get a Class 2 licence (400cc and above) is very long, but then again, I do understand the rationale behind this restriction. I don’t think I could have respected or handled the power of a Class 2 bike during my early biking days in the army.

One just wonders how long people will tolerate the high car prices before considering going the patience-draining motorbike licence route.

Off topic: I’ve always wondered about the high population of Honda Super 4 owners in SG – don’t they ever think of upgrading to a nicer looking bike if they could afford it? The Super 4 is the equivalent of my Corolla Altis – a nice bike for daily commuting, but nothing more. I was dead set against owning a Super 4 during my year of Class 2A ownership because it’s enough to be an everyday Altis owner :)

In recent weeks, I’ve been scouting Singapore for the right backgrounds to take portraits of the Monster, and here’s a small gallery with more to come:

Found this beautiful backdrop on Christmas Day morning at Punggol Way. The footpath is much narrower than it looks.

Found this beautiful backdrop on Christmas Day morning at Punggol Way. The footpath is much narrower than it looks.

Another shot at Punggol Way.

Another shot at Punggol Way.

Monster At Gardens 2

This was taken at Gardens by the Bay itself.

Changi Coastal Road at dawn.

Changi Coastal Road, along the pathway at the carpark, at dawn.

Monster at Changi 01

I installed these drop-dead gorgeous Rizoma Circuit 851 mirrors but removed them soon after because the mirror is so small you really can’t see much of what’s behind you. Sigh, it would have been the perfect naked bike mirror.

Monster at Changi 03

Changi Coastal Road, as the sun rose. Most of my shots are taken in the early hours because the family is sleeping then, and so is the rest of Singapore. This way one can ride the Monster the way it’s meant to be ridden – without stopping :)

 

Public transport and the lack of discourse

A scene from the Bishan MRT platform during the train system breakdown on 15th Dec. Photo from AFP

I just spent two weeks in Hong Kong and Penang, and it was during this time that two things happened in the Singapore public transport system – Comfort DelGro changed its fare taxi structure and SMRT suffered two consecutive days of train breakdowns on its Circle and N-S lines. Both things sparked off citizen fury on different levels, and what is remarkable is how little the Govt. has stepped in to moderate public sentiment, as well as its own image after the recent poor showing at the General Elections.

Transport is always a hot potato in Singapore for several reasons, and these are not being tackled correctly by the people in charge.

It highlights widening class differences

With today’s stratospheric COE prices, only the well-off can afford to buy a new car. I bought my Toyota Altis nearly 3 years ago at SGD49K brand new when the COE was at its all time low of a few thousand dollars, and now the current model is priced at over SGD100K. Thus it is no surprise that the cheap car brands in SG have died off or declined rapidly, leaving top car sales to the premium brands like Audi and BMW.

Most CEOs and ministers in Singapore do not take public transport, and if you drive all the time, you would not know the level of unhappiness on the ground when it comes to overcrowded trains (at all times, not just peak hours) and always-late public buses. Sure, a minister can give public transport a spin for several weeks to do his research, but surely he wouldn’t take it all the time.

The resentment that people would have towards Transport Ministry policymakers, cab company and SMRT CEOs, would probably include anger at the lack of empathy due to the different lifestyles involved.

It is all too easy for people to frame this as a contest of wills between the Haves and Have-Nots. Why would the Haves really bother about the transport woes of the Have-Nots?

Of course, there are a lot of well-paid people who do take the MRT daily, especially those working in the Raffles Place area where it’s not whether you can afford the season parking, it’s whether you can actually get a season parking lot.

FYI, for various reasons, I take the train, bus, car and motorcycle on different days of the week so I experience all the issues involved in any mode of transport. I hate taking public buses though, because the wait can really kill you.

It is not world-class, at least in the eyes of the locals

If you travel overseas quite a bit, you’d really appreciate the range of public transport choices there are here in Singapore. If you don’t, you’d always be unhappy with the situation.

In Penang, we struggled to find cabs to flag down, and when we did, we still had to haggle over pricing (which I would always lose if there are no cabs in the vicinity to provide competition). The bus stops were a sad sight, often with no signage about which buses actually stopped there. And if you go to Jakarta, you can’t simply escape the traffic jam by running to the subway – because there isn’t one.

On the other end of the spectrum is Hong Kong, where there is true competition in the transport industry. Taking taxis in HK has always been a fuss-free affair for me, and the MTR subway always impresses with its ability to transport millions of people with more efficiency than our MRT even though the HK system is older (and more grimy looking).

Singapore’s public transport is somewhat near HK’s level but the problem is that there is no perceived competition in Singapore (hey look, the national taxi association is encouraging the other companies to increase their fares like Comfort), there are confusing taxi surcharges all around, our public buses are notorious for being slow to arrive, and our MRT system is simply overloaded most of the time due to the population squeeze.

To the average Singaporean, it doesn’t matter whether it is CityCab/Comfort or SMRT that you’re dealing with. It all seems like the same entity and you always feel that you have no say over their levels of service standards. And if you don’t own a car or bike, you can’t actually boycott the main public transport providers.

When people write in to the media complaining about the lack of rationale or logic over public transport price hikes, the transport companies are either silent or give some template answer that doesn’t answer anything. That’s not good PR, that’s terrible PR. If you need to raise taxi fares due to rising costs, put forth your data – Singaporeans are largely educated and can analyse the data for themselves. At its most basic, good PR is simply communicating to people what you want to say and making sure people get your message with no distortion or misunderstanding. If it is rising COEs that is adding to the cost of taxi operations, then go fix that bit with LTA, not pass the cost to consumers.

It is a critical barometer of public sentiment

Due to poor management of the COE system by LTA in the past decade, the car population here rose rapidly, straining the road network and increasing the number of traffic jams. Add to that the influx of foreigners into Singapore which helped to put a strain on the public transport system.

Unlike other political issues which people may forget about (eg. ministerial pay, which we have still yet to hear anything about six months after the elections), public transport hits you like a sledgehammer every morning if you are part of the commuting crowd trying not to smell the other guy’s armpit in the train.

Yet oddly, on many instances when we face public transport issues, the authorities hardly  manage public sentiment on the issue with any finesse.

When Comfort raised its fares, this was the Govt’s response as reported by Today newspaper:

While he was “sympathetic” to concerns of both commuters and cabbies, Mr Cedric Foo, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for transport, noted that the taxi sector has been deregulated and market conditions would decide fares.

To observers, if one is “sympathetic”, one would use this to generate political goodwill rather than just let the taxi companies have their way (which still baffles the average person, including me) with no semblance of further action or thought on the matter.

So much damage has been done to SMRT, Comfort DelGro and the LTA’s image in the past two weeks, it is a no-brainer that the politicians should use this opportunity to repair public sentiment, and that PR experts should enter the fray to show them how proper damage control is done. It was only with the recent SMRT breakdowns that the Transport Minister finally stepped in to give his public comments, but what about the earlier taxi fare hikes?

The bottomline is this – if you don’t manage the issue of public transport carefully in Singapore, be it the actual infrastructure or the communications surrounding it, you will end up being on the receiving end of societal class divisions and anger at the lack of public engagement. There has been a consistent lack of discourse by the stakeholders in the transport industry, and they’ve allowed the media (traditional and social) to have a field day with their shortcomings.

In the meantime, I will go for a spin on my motorbike.

 

Ian’s Opinionated Guide To Buying Gadgets and Other Stuff

This is it – my guide to buying (nearly) anything that you, my faithful reader, will probably find as interesting because we share the same brain wavelengths. The burning hallmark of every journalist is that he thinks his opinion is pretty important, whether it is true or not. Four years after leaving journalism, my ego still eggs me to tell people what they shouldn’t buy. I’ll be continuously adding fresh stuff after this line. Hopefully I won’t give up after a few entries. The whole idea is to provide simple answers to interesting purchases. Click on to follow me.

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