Sunday, January 27, 2013

Note to Self: School Days

I've always been amazed at the things some parents will do when it comes to school. It's kind of amusing from the outside looking in. But now that my eldest is in nursery, suddenly those days don't seem so far off, and I wonder if I will be overtaken by the madness too. So while I still have the perspective of being a product of the school system, rather than taking my first steps as a producer for the system, I thought I would pen down some advice to myself for the future, when I might be less circumspect.

Disclaimer/Disclosure: The opinions stated here are entirely my own subjective viewpoint and conclusions, having gone through NYPS, ACS, NJC, university in the US and work in the civil service. I welcome differing views.

1) Grades are a poor predictor of future earnings

Looking at my ex-classmates 10 years on from school, the best students are definitely not earning the most. (Actually, what we should really be most concerned with is who is the most successful. But success, like happiness, is hard to define or measure, I think most people would see earnings as a key factor.) What does seem to work? People with rich Dads became rich - yes it's true, but you can't change your Dad. Perhaps more useful, people with better interpersonal skills, especially leadership, did better. So rather than sweating over the grades, developing a holistic person is really much more important. I feel I owe a lot to the Scouts for teaching me more life skills, and I think the choice of ECAs is at least as important as the choice of subjects.

The other thing I remember very clearly from my Psychology 101 class is that after some years have passed, the amount an A student and a B student remember from a class is the same. So I've always believed in spending my time learning more things, rather than getting perfect grades.

2) Better a small fish in a big pond (The advantage of branded schools)

First impressions matter, and one of the first impressions people form is which school you come from. And the strongest identity most people seem to have is their secondary school. Obviously it's not foolproof; the top student of a bottom school is probably more capable than the bottom student of a top school, but may create a less favourable first impression because you usually tell people your school, not your grades.

Another advantage of a good school is the networks you form, as well as to provide a more challenging environment.

3) Better a big fish in a small pond (Better opportunities in lesser schools)

I also experienced the flip side of the above statement when I chose to go to an average school like NJC instead of RJC. If I had gone to RJC, I would have been average. In NJC, being one of the better students afforded me many opportunities for more exposure, to represent the school in various ways. (Something I never had in sec sch.) It also meant I could focus on my ECAs and still get by in terms of grades for most of the two years.

Some people think you should put your child into the best school possible so they will be among peers who can challenge them. My personal experience is that you have to find the right balance because if you are in over your head, you will languish happily at the bottom. So it is more motivating to be in a school where you stand a fighting chance to be among the top.

Lastly, going to a less elite school will probably expose you to a more representative cross-section of society, which will give a more healthy perspective on society.

4) Learn (Chinese) language when young, or not at all

The best time to learn language is when you are young. Once you have it, you've got it. And if you don't get it early (and have no talent for languages), no matter how hard you struggle later in life, you never will.

In fact, if you don't get it early, don't even bother. Yes, China may be the next superpower, but there is no point wasting your child's life learning Chinese if he just can't get it. English is the international language of business and diplomacy and that won't change overnight. His time would be much better and happier spent adding to something he is good at. Up to the O Levels, I would easily spend half my total study time for each exam on Chinese. This could well be the reason I did much better in A Levels and in university, after I had dropped this deadweight requirement.

My lifelong challenge with LKY's Chinese policy ...

5) Learning how to learn

The key skill I want to teach my kids, is how to teach themselves. To be able to pick up a textbook, read it, and understand it.

I went through most of the schooling system reading/hearing stuff and hoping it stuck in my brain. This didn't work very well for me because I have a short attention span. I think a lot of my classmates learned things by rote; this didn't work for me either because I have a memory like a sieve. So my children are already genetically disadvantaged. Most people reading this can probably relate.

The breakthrough came in Sec 3 when my mother sent me to a tuition teacher to salvage my Math. All he did was sit me down and read the textbook with me, and from then on I realised that it really was possible to just learn from a book. Since then, I applied the same principles to sciences, econs and even humanities with a lot more success. I hope to teach my children this much earlier.

6) Let Go

When all is said and done, I must also remember that I can guide my kids up to a point, and then have to let them make their own decisions. So there is no point planning my kids' lives out in such great detail; just give them a good foundation and set them free.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What does a credible opposition look like?

As the race heats up for Punggol, and we are possibly halfway to the next GE, I thought it would be interesting to dig up an old post from an old blog, this one written just before the last GE. The argument is always being made that we need to have more credible opposition in government. The question that is always on my mind is, What are the KPI's of a credible opposition? When we look back after 5 years, how do we know whether having more opposition helped us?

So let's imagine what will happen if the opposition manage to win Aljunied and a few of the SMCs. That might possibly give them up to 10% of parliament, which I suppose is a decent number to promote debate. So we should expect a lot more public airing of the issues under deliberation over the next five years. 
The question is whether a public airing of these issues will actually lead to better decisions. Perhaps it will lead to more populist outcomes, but are these necessarily better? And we can expect the blogs and forums to have lots of fun chewing on the debate. 
Fast forward a few years to the next election. If Singapore has done even better than over the past five, the opposition in parliament will probably claim credit for the advances. Meanwhile, the PAP will probably attribute it to their effectiveness in spite of the opposition, or they might say that this goes to show their policy-making has always been sound. Of course, people will fight to claim credit over the successful ones, but that is not always easy to measure in the space of five years.
But what if things go downhill? The PAP will surely then blame the opposition in parliament for slowing down the decision-making process, or making it a popularity contest. The opposition will probably cite this as evidence that PAP isn't as good as it was made out to be anyway. Still, it would seem to me that if a lot of opposition gets in, the PAP would have a slight incentive to make these next five years not quite as good as the last.
The bottom line is that five years later, it will be very difficult to tell if having more opposition in parliament helped us. So what then, do we kick them out of parliament or give them an even larger share so that they can try again? What are our KPIs to know if having more opposition helped? Will having more debate in parliament actually improve the decisions, or will it just provide fodder for armchair critics?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Musings on Reading

I've gone through several cycles of reading in my life. I remember back in primary school, when I would borrow a book at recess, finish it during lessons, then borrow another book to bring home at lunch. I would read at meals, in the bus/car, while walking along the road ... everything my parents warned me not to do, but somehow survived.

Then there was secondary school, when my life was taken over by computer games like Dune 2. And with a spanking new top-of-the-line 14.4kbps modem, I was sucked into the world of Doom ][ and online gaming. I didn't read much more than the year's recommended book list.

There was a revival in my last year at university, when I completed by engineering degree and in my folly decided to do a masters in the humanities. I had no idea that professors could be so sadistic as to make you read an entire book on constructivist theory and expect you to discuss it, all within a week. (And that is just a day in the life of one class.) 

I read a lot that year, then locked all the books away.

Working life crowded out any desire to read. What little time I had left was much better spent having adventures or hanging out with friends. Books could wait, so they always did.

But over time, I realised that the knowledge I had gained from the books often proved useful either at work, or in other various pursuits I was involved in. Whether it was designing a database, writing a research essay (without doing real research), or even arguing why it was important to pursue continuing education opportunities, I would find ideas I had read in the past coming to mind when I needed them. And a simple Google search would usually fill in the gaps in my memory.

I'd also discovered that being smart doesn't get you very far if you don't have facts or knowledge to back you up. The strongest argument can be overturned by introducing a new piece of information. So the best way to prepare myself for the world was to have a good breadth of knowledge.

And so I started reading again.

I also learned to read a bit smarter. Timothy Ferriss advised in The Four Hour Work Week to stop reading the newspaper. It's a waste of time - if there is something important people will tell you. I fully agree with that. Newspapers just contain snippets of information and useless data. If you want something thoughtful, at least read a magazine, which tries to string together the facts for you along with some useful analysis. But the best things are books. Just imagine how much effort it takes someone to write a book, compared with a news article, a blog post or a facebook status. Clever people put months or years of thought into presenting their knowledge to you on a platter, all you need to do is turn the pages. 

Another trick I learned is when to read. My reading habit had plummeted because there always seemed to be something more urgent/fun than sitting down with a book (which could always wait). So I switched to audiobooks, which I would listen to when running or behind the wheel. I find it's a much better way to utilise exercise or travel time that would otherwise be spent idly listening to music. I also do a bit of reading on the Kindle, just before bed when the lights are out and my mind is winding down. That's what works for me, the key is to figure what works for you.

Well, that's my philosophy on reading and learning. And now just for fun, here are the best of the books I enjoyed in 2012, which I think everyone should read. (Yes, even single people can read books on marriage.) I'm not going to write any reviews, but I will sort of ranked them based loosely on the criteria of providing useful knowledge as well as enjoyable to read.

And most importantly, recommendations of good books for 2013 are welcome! (Some of the books below were kindly recommended by friends about this time last year.)
  1. Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman
  2. How Will You Measure Your Life? - Clayton M. Christensen
  3. The Meaning of Marriage - Timothy Keller
  4. In The Plex - Steven Levy
  5. The Company (A Novel of the CIA) - Robert Littell
  6. Real Marriage - Mark and Grace Driscoll
  7. Made to Stick - Chip and Dan Heath
  8. Confront and Conceal - David E. Sanger
  9. Inside Apple - Adam Lashinsky
  10. Ghost in the Wires - Kevin Mitnick
  11. Grace-Based Parenting - Tim Kimmel

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

An Exceptional NSF

When people ask me why I joined the Army, one of the big reasons was the chance to make a positive difference in someone's life. But I think I get more than I give - it has given me the chance to meet some wonderful people, who have really amazed me with their dedication and commitment, as well as the attitude with which they overcome the obstacles of life.

This is the brief account of someone who touched me deeply, ever since I met him about 2 years ago.  His name is Corporal First Class Yuta Nakamura, and he has given up his Singapore citizenship to return to Japan.
I first met Nakamura when we were rehearsing for the Chief of Army COC parade. We struck up a conversation and he told me how he had not wanted to do national service, but government policy would not allow him to renounce his citizenship until he turned 21. When he turned 21, and wanted to return to Japan to begin his university studies, we would not let him leave until he completed his NS. So he had to wait an additional year to start school. Someone else in his position might have been very resentful, and yet he showed no negative emotion as he shared his predicament. This was what struck me.

The second time we spoke was after an AHM training at West Coast Park. I was chatting with the competitive runners and Nakamura was among them. He told me how he had recently developed the interest in running, and how he intended to continue after he ORDed. “When I go back to Japan,” he explained, “people will not take the SAF seriously if I am unfit.” Again, he said this in the same matter of fact tone, like he was telling me the time or the weather. But his simple words spoke volumes about his deep feelings towards Singapore and the SAF. He saw himself as an ambassador of the SAF to his own people!

Our third and final conversation was after completing the half marathon, as we were all resting in the park. Nakamura came over to inform me that he was about to ORD, and to bid me farewell. I was sad to see him go, but I knew that a part of him would always remain with Singapore, with the Battalion.

Nakamura showed me that it is possible to be positive, even when spending a precious two years of his life among strangers in a foreign land. It was more difficult for him than most of us, but he made the best of his situation and left a positive and lasting impact on those around him. He showed me what it means to love Singapore, even though it is not his own country, and to take pride in being a part of the SAF. And he showed me how to demonstrate this pride in the SAF, even when he is out of uniform, and out of Singapore. I took great inspiration from his words, and I hope they will be encouraging to all of you too.
After seeing many of the petitions being sent to our MPs and Ministers by people trying to evade national service, I can only admire all the more the stoic resolve with which Nakamura has embraced a difficult situation, and I certainly hope he has gained an invaluable and irreplaceable experience from his time in NS. What you get out of an experience depends on what you put in, and I believe Nakamura put his heart and soul in.