Saturday, December 27, 2014

The End of Power in Singapore

PM Lee made headlines recently by declaring that ""The next GE is going to be a deadly serious fight" and that "It will be about whether we continue to have a First World Government". He was wrong, according to the theory of Moises Naim, Venezuelan politician-turned scholar and globalisation commentator that my Stanford class met recently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Instead, Moises would probably tell PM, "welcome to the problems of First World Government."

In his book The End of Power, Moises Naim explains his observation that power is decaying worldwide, and discusses the implications in government, the media and various other industries. Even in a world where the rich are getting richer, he is quick to point out that it is difficult to translate that wealth into power and influence.

In the realm of politics, he makes several observations of American and global politics, which will certainly ring a bell for anyone who has been following the political scene in Singapore. In the section on The Dangers of Decay, he describes some of these problems.

With power decaying, it is becoming more difficult to govern decisively and effectively. At the same time, the proliferation of knowledge, opinions and critics has raised expectations and resulted in frustrations. We need to be careful of "terrible simplifiers". A certain CPF zealot comes to mind, and we should be wary of this in any upcoming debates or elections.

Does anyone actually believe the opposition can take over the government? Of course not. What is more likely to happen is that we may end up in a situation call "vetocracy", which makes the government even less effective. This has happened even in the USA, where there are to well-established parties. Welcome to First World Government.

Most foreign observers would say that Singapore is blessed with an effective, if authoritative government. So should we be hoping for a system with greater checks and balances? The answer is some, but not too much. We are trying to hit the sweet spot on an inverted U-curve, without falling off the slope on either side. But we we were forced to choose between two extremes, we might as ourselves is it better the devil we know, or the devil we don't?

The situation in Europe today provides a foretaste of what could happen if we hit the extreme of power decay, and whether the process can be reversed in times of extreme need. The answer, unfortunately, is no. The next time we have an Asian crisis, will our government be strong enough to get us out of it?

The challenge for the Singaporean citizen today is a difficult one. How can we ensure we have a government that has sufficient oversight and meets our raised expectations, without simultaneously hampering it? How can we reap the benefits of a First World Economy without succumbing to the problems of First World Government?

I've highlighted certain portions of the book that struck a chord with me reflecting on the situation Singapore is facing. Of course, you shouldn't take my views as the gospel truth. Buy his book and read it yourself!

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be

Monday, December 22, 2014

Why Singaporeans Migrate to Vancouver

After a week taking in the tourist sights in Vancouver, the highlight of this trip has been conversations we had with an older Singaporean couple that kindly took us around for a day. They left very successful careers in Singapore to bring up their children here, and it was very interesting to view the culture and people of Vancouver through their eyes and accumulated experience.

There's an extra Christmas feel with the freezing temperatures and colourful lights all over Vancouver

The lasting impression I've formed of the people here is how friendly, polite, and helpful they are. In the elevators people say hello and strike up conversations; in Singapore they might close the door on you to avoid sharing the lift. On the roads, drivers cheerfully give way, which is extremely rare among big cities; in Singapore (and probably New York, London, San Francisco) you might get honked by cars behind if you are too kind.

We were told that if you ask for directions, the person won't just provide directions, they will offer to bring you there. And if you need to make a phone call, just ask any passer-by if you can borrow their mobile phone. We couldn't quite bring ourselves to borrow a mobile phone, but service staff were always happy to call a cab for us, and people definitely went the extra mile for directions.

Our friends told us how liberating it was to escape the rat race and 5C's of Singapore society. In Vancouver, status is not judged by the size of your house or car, and there is much less pressure to have any status at all. We could see first-hand how much they enjoyed living a no-frills life and driving a nondescript car. And they were so generous with their time, spending almost a day taking us around (in fact, this generous spirit was shared by all the other families we met). They had achieved wealth and "success" I could never dream of in Singapore, but they were happier here.

There is a much stronger social safety net, with assured quality healthcare for all residents, not just citizens. And when I asked how all this is funded, and if the system was going bankrupt like social security in the USA, the surprising remark was that in Vancouver the wealthy saw their wealth as a privilege and were very happy to pay their taxes, rather than evade or minimize them. They saw it as their duty to help support the less fortunate.

People in Vancouver are much less inclined to count pennies. At restaurants, it's common for them to give a complimentary dish on the house. When we asked for fresh milk for our kids, this was provided FOC. And we were told (though we did't try) that you could ask the sushi restaurant to swap toro for squid and they would do it without raising the price. It's nice to be in a place where making the customer happy is the priority, rather than maximising the profit on every transaction.

All kinds of delicious and affordable food (For most people, Vancouver is expensive, but of course Singapore is more expensive)

With such a welcoming culture, and rated as one of the best cities in the world to live in, it is no wonder that Vancouver has one of the highest rates of immigration in Canada. So I was curious how they prevent their culture from being diluted. Our friends shared a word of advice they were given by a local when they first arrived: "We welcome you to Vancouver. Leave your bad habits behind, and bring your good ones to make this place better." They happily left the kiasu and kiasi habits behind, and feel that Singaporeans do have good things to share too such as our tight-knit families and values.

Of course, Vancouver is not all paradise on earth. The cool weather is nice, but it has rained constantly every day since we got here. After the first 4 days, we just wanted to stay in the hotel. Wet + cold weather is no fun, and all the top family attractions are outdoors. There is a darker side to a very liberal and welcoming society too, and that is the embrace of all kinds of alternative lifestyles. One example of this is the drug culture, and everyone we met was quick to point out the skid row on East Hastings, not far from our hotel. The speed limit there is 30km/h, because may addicts shoot up and run across the road without looking. Homeless people were everywhere. These are the types of influences that would make a parent hesitate to bring their kids to a city like this. And this is one area that Singapore is still one of the best in the world.

The dark side of Vancouver

It's tempting  to run away from Singapore to find a place that seems better. What I have really been pondering since that conversation, is what would it take for Singapore become more like Vancouver? We can't do anything about our hot weather, unfortunately. In most other areas, we are very blessed, such as having a clean and safe city. But can we do anything about our society and culture, to make it more pleasant? Do we just need to treat each other better?

My personal view is that as a society, our busy-ness has made us as individuals too self absorbed. We are too caught up in our own lives to get involved with the people around us. Two generations ago, our ancestors lived in villages and walked anytime into each other's homes. Today we don't know our own neighbors, and have no time to care about strangers. As a nation, we are no longer fighting for survival, maybe we need to consider carefully if everything that keeps us busy is really necessary.

Can we be less busy, and spend more time looking out for others too? Can we learn the good habits of others, and discard some of our own?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Announcing CarIQ
CarIQ is the all-in-one solution for buyers of used cars in Singapore. Whether you are looking for an almost-new BMW, a value-for-money Mercedes or the most budget Toyota or Hyundai, CarIQ tools will help you manage the car search and find the best bang for the buck.

Find the Best Cars!
CarIQ builds on the popular Car-culator app to figure out the complicated depreciation and paper value calculations to help you quickly determine the annual cost of that car you are eying. This is key to figuring out which car is the best deal, and which car you can really afford (more on this here).

With Just a Copy and Paste
Previous versions of the Car-culator app required you to key in the OMV, COE, etc. This is essential data, but it was tedious to key it in yourself. Now you can just copy and paste a URL from either OneShift or SGCarMart, the two top online listings of used cars.

Add it to Your List
What do you do when you find a promising car? Print it out? Bookmark it? Now you can just add it to the CarIQ shortlist for easy side-by-side comparison! And you can add cars from both OneShift and SGCarMart to the same list. Planning which dealers to visit first? At a glance the shortlist can tell you which cars are close to each other.

Take It With You
And you can easily access your shortlist of cars on the go from any mobile browser. In fact, the app works the same whether on laptop or the phone.

Here's How It Works

Step 1: Copy and Paste the URL from a car listing. Click Import Data.

Step 2: Car information is automatically captured from the listing. You may wish to edit the Purchase Date, Expected Dereg Date and the Car Condition. Click Submit.

Alternatively, if you are entering the data manually for a quick calculation, you only need to fill in the fields in black.

Step 3: CarIQ will work out the rebates and road tax, and give you the annual cost of owning this car until your expected deregistration date.

Step 4: Add it to your list for convenient comparisons. Pictured below, a comparison of several BMW 318i with differing annual costs.

Happy shopping!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

When Children Ask Why

This article first appeared in the September edition of Mother and Baby.

At three, the “what” questions started. “What is this called? What does this do?” he would ask, pointing to some obscure part of an electrical appliance, like the piece that holds in place the blades of a standing fan.

The dreaded “why” questions started a few months later. Suddenly, my usual fallback of “I don’t know” was met with the retort “Why don’t you know?” and “Why don’t you ask your phone?”

It is very tempting as parents to brush off our children when they are asking difficult or time-consuming questions. We live in a world where our children compete with work, phone, email, Facebook, television, and numerous other people and devices for our limited time and attention. No wonder we dread answering the “why” questions, which are not just factual in nature, but require the investment of a great deal of time. And you don’t know if the child can really understand it anyway.

In How Will You Measure Your Life (available as a book, HBR article, TedX video), terminally-ill Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen points out that most people do not consummate a marriage or start a business with the intention of divorce or bankruptcy, yet many end in that. He attributes this to our tendency to focus on short-term benefits at the expense of long term ones. Spending time with our families, he explains, is a long-term investment that you may not see returns on for years. So it is much more satisfying to focus on immediate gratification, like completing the project at work, or reaching that new level in Candy Crush. However, if we don’t invest sufficient time in our families, we will fail them. For me, part of this investment in my children is answering their questions.

A recent discussion with other fathers in my bible study group gave me a deeper appreciation of the value of “why”. As we discussed the challenges of disciplining our children, we all agreed that it was easy to punish the symptoms of bad behaviour. The real challenge was changing the child’s heart, and this requires conversations about “why” they should behave in certain ways.

The hardest question arose when Ethan and I went walking around MacRitchie Reservoir. During that trip, we watched a 20-kg monitor lizard feasting on a nest of someone else’s eggs from less than 5m away, and Ethan was almost attacked by a monkey. But the thing that stuck in his young mind was the big slab of concrete that we chanced upon on top of a hill– a memorial to Lim Bo Seng, whom I simplified for him as the war hero.

“Daddy, why did the Japanese kill the war hero?” This became Ethan’s favourite question, and he asked it repeatedly for the next month. I never found a good answer, but I kept trying, because this was important to me, and I wanted him to understand.

"Why did he fight the Japanese?" How do you explain concepts of invasion, patriotism and heroism to a four-year-old? I asked him what he would do if bad people came to take away our home. "Lock the door," he said But what if they break down the door—would you run away? He nodded. It seemed the obvious choice. Would you let them live in our home, then your mother and sister would have nowhere to live? He thought about it. “Why did the Japanese want to take Singapore?”

One day he will have to serve National Service, and I want him to understand why long before that. So how do you explain to a four-year-old what another world could be like, a world where we do not have a country to call our own home. A world where we wonder not what to eat, but whether we will eat; where school is a privilege and not a chore. These are the difficult questions; questions so far beyond the experience of their young minds, and yet this our chance to prepare them.

Right and wrong. Religion. Patriotism. The best way to impart our beliefs and values to our children is to answer their questions now, because one day they will go elsewhere for answers.

One afternoon I was researching a post I was writing for my blog, and Ethan was back again with his favourite question. Mummy took pity on me and called him over. “What’s your question?” she asked him. I pricked up my ears in interest. How was she going to answer this one?

“We don’t know why they killed him. God told us to love other people, not kill them. But the Japanese were disobedient,” she explained to him. Ethan was satisfied. Mummy knows everything; he hasn’t asked the question since.

A moment later, he was back at my side. “What are you reading, Daddy?” “I’m reading about two men who exploded a bomb in Singapore and killed some people,” I replied, but I knew what was coming next.

“Why did they do that?”

Friday, June 20, 2014

Car-culator v2.0 for Web and Mobile: Annual Cost of a Car for the Budget-Conscious Buyer

Understanding car costs in Singapore can be horribly complicated. You compare two different types of cars with the same list price, but the OMV, COE and insurance costs are worlds apart. Which car is actually more expensive to own for X number of years, until you sell or scrap it?

A year ago, I wrote Car-culator v1.0 as an Android App to help buyers quickly identify the cars that offered the best value for money. Since then, users of the app have climbed steadily, and I also received many requests from iPhone users.

So I am happy to announce the development of Car-culator v2.0 which has been rebuilt in PHP, and can be accessed from any PC or mobile device.

This app is still under development. It can already do more than the Android App, and there are many more features I intend to include. However, due to my other commitments, this will take some time. So I have started this page for users to report bugs and suggest features.

Basically, you fill in the details and it will tell you how much the car would cost you on an annual basis, factoring in the PARF and COE rebate when you decide to sell/scrap it, as well as the road tax. It is most useful if you plan to use the car till the end of its life, because it does not factor in resale value above the PARF/COE rebate if you sell it mid-way.

The calculations are based on the LTA Tax Structure, updated in Feb 2013. It is currently undergoing beta testing. More details on how to use the app can be found here.

Comments/Feedback/Suggestions are welcome! I may not reply immediately because I am in the process of relocating.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Image, Identity and Talking Cock in the SAF

I overheard some young officers expressing their frustration at how older officers mangle the English language by their insistence on misusing words, or making up their own words. "Why do they keep using words like delayering or invidious or spiral", the youngsters lamented. I experienced such a strong sense of deja vu, to my early years in the SAF, and I thought, I've been there. My own personal list of pet peeves includes words like revert, agnostic, irregardless and operationalise. I felt so strongly about it that I actually wrote an essay on this, almost a decade ago. (Well, we were all forced to write essays anyway, so I figured I might as well write something I felt passionate about. This also explains the formal language used.) And I figured this is the best way to share it with them, and others.


In everyday discussions of Singapore’s national identity, the topic of Singlish always comes up. This is not surprising since we have evolved a rich local lingo that combines the common English language with the colourful vocabulary and grammar constructs of our diverse Asian cultural heritage. The result is a linguistic potpourri that is often more emotive and concise than any of its derivatives. As Singaporeans, we are proud of our Singlish. And as soldiers, we should be proud of the shared years of national service, that have spawned so many Singlish’s colloquialisms. A cursory glance through The Coxford Singlish Dictionary reveals just how many common terms and phrases have their popular roots in the Army – phrases such as own time own target, arrow or wayang – and this is further evidence of the indelible mark national service has left on the national psyche.

This essay sets out to make several observations about the usage of words and phrases specific to the SAF, termed here as Military Lingo (Lingo). The first is to highlight the centrality of Lingo in defining the military identity, and how it reflects on the image of the SAF. The second is to deconstruct the roots of Lingo and discuss the specific situations where it is helpful to the task at hand, and other occasions where it may detract from mission success. The purpose of this essay is not to criticize the use of Lingo, but to analyse how it can be used to best effect.


The Importance of Military Lingo to Image and Identity

Language is a powerful part of culture, and can quickly polarise people by defining group identities. Even within Singapore, our Lingo extends beyond words that have entered common parlance. The Army has evolved a huge vocabulary of its own, many of which would not be understood by the general populace, especially the fairer sex. We have all experienced those group discussions suddenly transformed into recollections of national service. As the menfolk fervently reminisce, a bond grows among them borne of shared experience, even though they may not have gone through NS together. Meanwhile, the ladies adopt the eyes-glazed expression that can only be interpreted as sheer boredom and a frustrated reprimand afterward. They are left out. When a strong shared identity exists, its members become part of the in-group, while the others form the out-group, pushed to the periphery. And this phenomenon is even worse in situations involving other nationalities.

The United States of America has the most multi-racial society in the world. Over the last century, immigrants have swarmed there from all over the globe to make a better life for themselves. They have adopted the English language, baseball and beer; many come with the desire to assimilate and be accepted into society. The huddled masses from countries such as Vietnam, China, Ireland and South America all arrived to scrape a living, climbing up the social and corporate ladders, and have become successfully integrated into American culture. Yet there is one ethnic group that has inhabited the continent longer than almost any other, and still maintains a distinct divide from the mainstream: the African Americans. Unlike even the Chinese and Irish, who started below them on the social ladder, the African Americans have been unable or unwilling to integrate into society. Sociologists attribute this to their Black Pride movement, which promotes the preservation of nigger styles of speech, dressing, music and general outlook on life. This distinct identity has hurt the group as a whole, keeping them apart from other Americans, and handicapping their chances for social advancement. In the same way, insensitive use of Singlish or Lingo with other nationalities builds barriers, and can only make it more difficult to achieve objectives in the international arena.

Identity is built on a common language and culture; the in-group is strengthened in its cohesion and common purpose, but the out-group becomes alienated, uncomfortable and uncooperative. It is important to be aware of this double-edged sword, in order to fully utilize its sharp edge without stabbing ourselves. If we hope to work with others, we must be careful not to alienate them; we must be even more careful not to alienate ourselves.

Linguistic choice is also an important part of Image and professionalism. There is a common saying that first impressions count, and we are often fixated on ensuring the perfection of appearance: starched and ironed uniforms, shiny boots and an erect posture. Yet in the course of interaction, the way a soldier carries himself, the words he chooses, the formality and poise of his delivery are just as important as his physical appearance. Whether it be a junior officer trying to impress his senior commander, or any soldier on a humanitarian mission featured by the international media, language matters to Image.

There is no best language for all occasions. Just as the vision of IKC2 is to the deliver the right information to the right people at the right time in the right form, a successful communicator should adjust the material and delivery to suit his audience. Imagine trying to discuss the macroeconomic benefits of the GST increase using Queen’s English with a hokkien peng. Similarly, it may not be appropriate to engage foreign counterparts in Singlish, and even when dealing with fellow countrymen we should avoid the overuse of some types of Lingo.


Types of Lingo

During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong devised an ingenious method of torture. The victim was tied to a chair and placed some distance under a cistern, or water pipe. A slow and steady stream or water droplets was directed to land on the victims head. What may have seemed like an occasional irritation soon grew into an unbearable commotion, as the number of droplets ran into the ten thousands, each one landing like a thunderclap upon the hapless prisoner below. It was credited with breaking men; or driving them mad.

Like the water droplets, verbal tics can also become an unbearable irritation, especially during presentation. These are words that add no meaning, but serve to fill in the silence when silence would actually be preferable. The occasional “err” or “ok” may seem innocuous at first, but as they repeatedly punctuate each sentence, they begin to distract the listeners from the message being conveyed. In the military, these verbal tics have taken on more sophisticated forms than mere “err” or “ok”. How many times have you had a conversation or listened to a presentation that was persistently interrupted by the speaker’s favorite catchphrase such as so-called, per se, squared away or side of the house. Precisely because these words do not fit into standard speech patterns, and are often used in an ungrammatical context, they can be particularly jarring on the ears. But there is another class of verbal tics that is even more prevalent, although much less noticeable.

Words that bear the badge of cowardice are those that smack of deferential, non-threatening tonality. In our Asian culture, we often choose the passive over the active voice, the indirect over the direct and above all we avoid being too assertive. But in our military, the over-use of such cowardly words gives the impression of lack of confidence or conviction, both of which are undesirable for our image. Like the first set of verbal tics, these words add no information to the communication, they only serve to soften the impact of what is spoken. We often here people say “I was just wondering …”, “I think …” or “actually, …”. Just implies the insignificance or the low cost of a request. I think implies that I don’t know, or I’m not sure. And actually is a defensive word, implying that the preceding statement is just a little off the mark, but without constituting a direct challenge. In most cases, these words are unnecessary and are filtered out by our subconscious. Of course, there are also times to use such words, but care should be taken not to make a habit out of them. Listen carefully, and you will hear them everywhere.

Another common source of Lingo are words that are stolen lock, stock and barrel from the English language. The problem is that these often cheem words are then used not as a gun, but merely as a club to bludgeon some seeming sophistication into prose or speech. And because they sound good, they have proliferated within the organization, as their meaning becomes increasingly distorted and misunderstood. Some commonly misused words are irregardless, which is a non-existent word sometimes used in place of “regardless” and revert, which means to return to a previous condition. We have also developed some peculiar indigenous grammar constructs such as double confirm, or chop stamp plus guarantee. The danger of such words and phrases is that they will lead to confusion and contempt when used with people outside the military, who are familiar with the proper meaning. Because they are actual English words, they would be seen as poor English rather than Singlish. And even within the military, the meanings often have to be inferred as there is no official definition.

A final useful type of Lingo that adds further colour to our vocabulary are militarized modifiers. Words such as obstacalise or operationalise do not exist in any standard English dictionary, yet they have clear meanings and contribute to the efficiency of communication. It is much more elegant to state the need to “operationalise IKC2” than to “make operational IKC2”. While they may cause outsiders to raise an eyebrow, there is much less danger of misunderstanding, as compared to those taken lock, stock and barrel.

In most cases, we just need to be mindful of our audience, to decide whether we can use Lingo, Singlish, or stick to plain English. The level of formality in speaking should also be adjusted to the occasion as well, as this reflects on our professionalism. Hence it is important to be able to distinguish ourselves which words fall into which category, and use them only in the appropriate context.


Effective Communication to Enhance Image and Identity

If the SAF were a closed organization with little external interaction, there would be less concern over the use of Lingo. After all, the creation of a common lingo lubricates social interactions and working relationships, by reminding individuals meeting for the first time that they have a shared culture, heritage and identity. Conversely, the employment of Lingo in interactions with external organizations achieves the opposite effect; it highlights cultural differences and confounds communication, leading to frustration and a lack of common understanding. In the new paradigm of SAF operations, the ability to collaborate with external agencies is more important than ever, and the overuse of Lingo will build walls before we can build bridges.

One motivation for writing this essay is a memory I hold from NDP, watching some of our officers negotiate the terms of sponsorship with the partners of a big multinational corporation. His presentation, often punctuated by his choice verbal tic, “so-called”, sounded more like he was briefing recruits. Each tic made me shudder as I wondered then what image of the Army did these civilians hold in their minds, and just how wide is the divide between SAF culture and the rest of Singapore? What does this bode for civil-military relations and a question that is perhaps closer to our hearts: what are the implications for our future second careers, when we need to integrate back into the private sector and the larger society?

In the new paradigm, the SAF has to deal with a much wider range of external interactions. In Operations Other Than War (OOTW), we work with Inter-Governmental Organisations (IGOs) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), in addition to coalition forces and foreign militaries. Cooperation is needed with local organizations and civilians, many of whom would still be suffering the aftermath of some natural disaster or civil war. In such circumstances it is difficult to expect everyone to be patient and understanding if initial efforts at communication fall through, and every effort should be made to get it right the first time. We also have to carry out CMR, and deal with local and international media. Any soldier could conceivably become the next face of the SAF, and how they speak and carry themselves is perhaps more important than how they dress, or even the actual work that they do. Hence Image and Identity, as well as all the attendant trappings of language and culture, are intricately tied to our choice of words.



Singlish and Lingo are marvellous languages, and when used correctly they can build instant rapport and shared identity between two people meeting for the first time. However, when used in the wrong context, they reflect poorly on the speaker’s professionalism and can be a hindrance to communication and relationship building, especially in an international context. This essay sets out to highlight the importance of language and communication to the SAF’s image and identity. While there is no single right choice of linguistics, a good communicator must be sensitive and versatile to adapt his style to that of the audience. By doing so, he will be able to portay the best image of himself and the organization, and also build on the shared sense of identity with those within the SAF, while not alienating those without.


1., The Coxford Singlish Dictionary, Singapore: Angsana Books (2002).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In Memory of the Heroes of MH370

With the latest Inmarsat calculations, we finally have some closure to the location of MH370, and the MAS has declared that “we have to assume beyond reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived”. The question that remains, though, is how the plane found its way to the Southern Indian Ocean. And we will probably not know for sure, unless we can find the black box before it stops pinging.

While my wife and others helped search for the plane in satellite photos, I preferred to focus my mind on what could have happened to the plane, based on all the available evidence (see image below). This is the theory I first posted on Quora two weeks ago, and since them some of my guesses have been confirmed by the latest satellite findings. So I've decided to share it further.
MH 370 was hijacked (possibly by at least one its pilots). This is strongly suggested by the change in course and the disabling of communications systems. It is also a fact there were Iranians on board with false passports, and merely Interpol's analysis that they were there by coincidence. And let's not forget the possibility of self-radicalised terrorists which are almost impossible to detect. Many others have also concluded hijack, so I won't waste time elaborating further. Let's go beyond that. 
The crew or passengers realised something was amiss and fought back, similar to United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. In this case however, once the struggle concluded, there was no one left on board who could fly the plane. During the struggle, the plane had shifted course due south, but its flight stabilised on autopilot. With no one to alter the course, it continued over the ocean (away from radars and cellphone reception) until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea. 
If the hijack was successful, the hijackers would have used it immediately for other ends (possibly a 9/11 scenario) while the world was still confused. The window of opportunity has passed now. But why no terrorist group has claimed responsibility, since it is still a partially successful hijack? Perhaps this was just one part of a larger plan, and rather than alerting the world to their identity, they are going to lay low until there is a chance to try again.
I didn't bother sharing this earlier because apart from being an intellectual puzzle, I didn't see how it could help in the search for the plane. But then I thought, perhaps it does serve a purpose. I do believe this is a plausible theory and until proven otherwise, I would like to think of the passengers of MH370 as heroes rather than victims. I'm sure their families would too.

The USS Somerset was named in honour of the heroes of United Flight 93 which crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania on 9/11. Much better heroes to name a ship after, than KRI Usman Harun. Source: Wikipedia

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Dad Attitude

This essay first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Mother & Baby.

As the husband of a stay-at-home-mum, it is tempting to think that since she is 100% there for the kids, I should be 100% focused on putting food on the table. It is especially tempting because fathering is not something that comes naturally to me, unlike my wife whose lifelong ambition was to be a mother. But I am glad I did not succumb to that temptation, because my children need their father as well as their mother; and I might have missed out on some things I wouldn’t give up for the world now.

I’m told that girls will grow up looking for a man like their own father, for better or worse. I hope I have set the better example. I’m also told that if boys don’t get enough attention from their fathers, they are more likely to find affection in other men. But beyond theories about their long-term psychological well-being, I believe I have a part to play in providing them with a balanced childhood.

The role of a father and mother doesn’t have to fall into gender stereotypes. My wife and I are very different, and between us, we both try to provide a healthy range of experiences for our kids. For example, my wife hates heat, humidity and sweat. So it falls to me to introduce our children to the great outdoors. This could be as simple as bring them outside to the playground in the afternoon. Or to the botanical gardens to go cycling or walking.

One of the projects I am working on is to bring my son camping. The first day I bought the tent, I showed him how to assemble it. A couple weeks later, he was able to put all the tent poles together and thread them through the fabric, I only needed to help him erect the structure. That night, we slept together in the living room, and he was very excited to have Daddy as a tent mate. I was not so excited because he snores like thunder; the things we do as parents!

A few weeks later I asked him if he wanted to go camping again. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Daddy, the last time was not really camping. Outside the tent was the condo. For real camping the tent is on the grass. Then we bring in our pillows and blankies.” I guess he has formed a mostly accurate picture from whatever books or shows he has seen . I warned him that there would be mosquitos in the grass, to which he answered “we can close up the tent”. And when I told him it would be hot because there is no air con, he reassured me that it would be windy and when we got really tired we would sleep. I think he is ready for the real thing!

It’s also fun teaching them about insects. One afternoon they came home from my parents’ house proudly brandishing a plastic box containing a three-inch long grasshopper. We didn’t need their magnifying glass to examine all the parts of the giant anatomy, and at the end of the day we solemnly released it together. Another time, he got a caterpillar that came as a “free gift” with Mummy’s vegetables, just as I had many years before. And when a lizard found its way into one of their toy boxes, we caught it and had fun discussing the organs visible through its translucent skin.

I love rough-housing and tumbling with my kids. It always amuses our friends when my daughter comes up to me, stands with her head between her feet and says loudly “some-salt!” It is her invitation for me to tip her over in a somersault, but she hasn’t quite learned yet that it is better on a soft surface, and to make sure the coast is clear ahead. That is Daddy’s job.

Being a father is a lot more than doing my share of diaper duty. It includes the pain of disciplining, grabbing any opportunity to teach a valuable lesson on values, and lots of fun. And it’s all worthwhile when I get home from work and my daughter runs across the living room towards me, eyes bright, then stops midway and start twirling around in happiness until she loses her balance and topples over. My son … isn’t quite so expressive of his affections, but I know he loves me too.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Psychology and Philosophy of Parenting - Book Review of All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

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Not Your Usual Parenting Book

I knew I had to read this book because the title is exactly how I describe parenting to my friends - my kids bring me a lot of happiness, but not a lot of fun. I don't say this out of resentment, just acceptance - fun to me is snowboarding or getting drunk with friends; I love playing with my kids but it's just not the same. And in five words, the title captures this very well.

And unlike other parenting books I've read, this one is not by a pediatrician, a pastor or a nanny. It doesn't tell you how to be a better parent. Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York magazine. She is first a writer, and she writes well. The book is an expertly woven tapestry of snapshots into the family lives of her interviewees, cross-referenced with meticulous research from psychology, sociology and other related disciplines, put together in a very readable way.

She is also a parent, and her son is just slightly older than mine. This is a book on the effects of children on their parents. Depending on what stage you are at, it can tell you what to expect, or why you feel certain types of stress and how you can start to deal with them, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Who Should Read This?

Parents of all ages, because this book will give you greater insights into why you are struggling to adjust to parenting, and you will know you are not alone. You may even start to find some answers.

Expecting couples, because now that there is no turning back, at least you can start to be mentally prepared.

And of course, those in a relationship who want to convince their significant others never to have kids.


What's In It?

Although she sequences her book chronologically according to stages of family life — from autonomy to adolescence — there are three key themes that run through the whole book: three recent developments that have made modern parenting rather different from past experience.

The first is choice - the choice of when each child should come, and how large each family should be. In the past, having children was viewed as a family obligation or an economic necessity, but today the couples who choose to have children see them as a product of marriage, “approach child-rearing with the same bold sense of independence and individuality that they would any other ambitious life project, spacing children apart according to their own needs and raising them according to their individual child-rearing philosophies”. And on top of having choices, suddenly "we've been told it's our right (obligation, in fact) to try to fulfill them." Talk about pressure.

The second development is the increasing complications of work. Modern technology has allowed most people to be on call for work long after they reach home. There has also been a major trend toward working mothers. This means that at home in the evenings, both parents will be juggling their kids and their email.

But the biggest change is the "wholesale transformation of the child's role, both in the home and in society." Up till very recently (Senior sees WWII as the turning point), children had to work. School was a luxury for most. In the last few decades, "children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses." Or in the words of sociologist Viviana Zelizer, the modern child is "economically worthless but emotionally priceless".

Every so often, conversations with other parents will turn to wondering how our grandparents could raise 5 to 9 kids, whereas we struggle with just 1 or 2. These three observations, which are developed in great detail, help explain why.

Some Thoughts

Although the book is written in the American context, it definitely rings a chord in Asia as well. In the latter parts of the book, there are discussions on overscheduled kids and Tiger moms, juggling extra curricular activies, extra classes and becoming extra artistic. On top of the traditional obsession with sports and the outdoors, the Americans now find themselves under pressure from Asian immigrants to level up on their academics as well.

And although this book is written by a woman, and definitely sympathises with women on an issue that could be quite divisive between the genders, I found that she also represented the fathers and the dilemmas they faced very fairly as well.

One thing I definitely enjoyed, nerd that I am, is the extensive research. 25% of the book is made up of the notes and index! And among some of the books cited most are some of my personal favourite psychologists, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Flow and Daniel Kahneman of Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is very interesting how she has interpreted their theories, and others, in the context of parenting.

One theme I would have been interested to have seen developed more was why people choose to have kids, at all. But that would probably have been an even bigger undertaking.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, especially to those three groups of people I listed above.


Quotable Quotes

The book is also filled with very clever phrases, some her own and some cited from others. Here are a few of my favourites:

“parents are no happier than non parents, and in certain cases considerably less happy”

"Children strain our everyday lives, in other words, but also deepen them."

"Many women can't tell whether they're supposed to be grateful for the help that they're getting or enraged by the help they're failing to receive"

"But we can never choose or change our children. They are the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Parents, Lest We Forget


After many rounds of whack-a-mole (he has the hammer, I'm the mole), and poring over his atlas teaching him how to locate Singapore, and explaining all manner of pictures from bullfighting to Mauris to whether coyotes are dogs and whether they would eat dogs ... I'm tired. Let's not forget, I was awakened this morning at 5am by someone poking me in the eye and requesting a sip of water.

I take a cushion from the couch to lay it on the floor as a pillow and he protests. Instead, he takes all the cushions and lays them down side by side to form two short beds; when he realises it's not long enough for both of us, he decides to give them all to me. And as I lie down on the makeshift bed he has made, he snuggles up next to me.

"Daddy, why did the Japanese kill the war hero?"

It's his favourite, question, and he has been asking this repeatedly for the last month, ever since we chanced upon the Lim Bo Seng memorial while hiking around Macritchie. I haven't found a good answer yet, but I keep trying, because these things are important to me, and I want him to understand. And even more so on Total Defence Day - the day Singapore was surrendered to the Japanese.

What I remember from that walk in the park is the huge-ass monitor lizard we watched gobbling up someone else's nest of eggs. The only thing my son remembers ...

... is the memorial to Lim Bo Seng who I simplified as "the war hero"
Photo Credit: All About Lim Bo Seng

"Why did he fight the Japanese?" How do you explain concepts of invasion, patriotism and heroism to a 4-year old? I asked him what he would do if bad guys came to take away our home. "Lock the door", he says. But what if they break down the door, would you run away? He nods, it seems the obvious choice. Would you let them take away our home, then your mother and sister have nowhere to live? He is thinking about it.

How do you explain to a four-year old what another world could be like, a world where we do not have a country to call our own home. A world where we wonder not what to eat, but whether we will eat; where school is a privilege and not a chore; where we might be freezing to death in a refugee camp; rather than complaining it is too hot to go out. Most of all, instead of resenting foreign talents, we could be the foreigners in another land, where they couldn't care less what talents we have. The challenge for parents of our generation will be helping our children value what they have, when they have so so much. And when such a world seems so distant, even to us.

I am not sure when my son will begin to grasp the concept of defending and dying for his country. Not at four perhaps, but hopefully by the time he is 19. I wonder how many of our young men today have seriously considered this. I remember back in school, every once in a while some survey would go around with the question of what you would do in a war, and I would always reply that I would stay and fight and defend this land. Looking at all the complaining on the Internet these days, I sometimes wonder if I am in the minority.

So the Total Defence Commemoration at the War Memorial Park was especially meaningful to me. As SAF servicemen and the public gathered to remember our forefathers who died during World War 2, the next generation of young soldiers were presented with their weapons.

The Chief of Defence Force and the youngest recruit represented the armed forces in paying our respects to the deceased. All present observed a minute of silence in their memory. The bugle call roused us from the silence, and it was poignant to remember the origins of this military tradition.

Photo Credit: PM Lee's Facebook

In his short address, the Commanding Officer reminded his recruits that we can never take our sovereignty and security for granted, and recent events have certainly reminded us that without a strong SAF, we wouldn't even dare to "shriek like a chicken" as some foreign politicians have described it. And woe to anyone who forgets that this chicken carries an even bigger stick, because of each and every Singaporean man who stand ready with his rifle, tank, plane and ship.*

And of course, without further ado, the recruits were given their rifles.

Photo Credit: cyberPioneer

They then then formed a linked chain, connected to the Singapore flag, pledging their commitment to use the weapons to defend our nation. This was my favourite moment, as their promise reverberated off Raffles City, and echoed back to them.

Photo Credit: cyberPioneer

It was a short and simple ceremony, but it reminded us of one simple thing. This is why we must be able to defend ourselves. Lest we forget; lest we take our peace and security for granted; lest we erect another memorial. And this is how we each play a part; accepting our weapons, defending our land.

Next year, I will bring my son. He must understand.


*As a Signal Officer, I am must note that the tanks, planes and ships on their own are nothing without the radio and computer networks to connect them, to work as a team.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Healing: A Pastors Reflections

This book is a balanced and comprehensive treatment on the subject of physical healing written from a Biblical perspective. It seeks to answer some of the most important questions asked by Christians such as the following:
  • Does God heal directly (without means) today?
  • Is sin always the cause of sickness?
  • Is it true that if a sick person has faith, he or she will be healed?
  • Is healing provided for in the atonement?
  • Is it God’s will to heal everybody?
  • What is the relationship between Faith and God’s Sovereignty?
  • Is it true that if unbelievers see healing miracles, they will believe in Jesus?
  • What’s wrong with the prosperity gospel?
It is the prayer and hope of the writer that this book will help the reader gain a better understanding of the subject of physical healing.

About the Author
Rev. Dr. Wan Chee Wan is passionate about God's Word and God's Mission.

He has been serving as a pastor in Singapore for more than thirty years. He is the founding pastor of Community for Christ Church. His greatest joy is to expound the Word of God and to challenge the hearers to put God's Word into practise. He has visited and taught in India, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

Education: Diploma in Theology (Discipleship Training Centre, Singapore, 1981), Master in Divinity (Trinity Theological College, Singapore, 1985), Doctor of Minister in Global Ministries (School of Intercultural Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, USA, 2004).

This is not a book review. The author is my father and I am helping him put information about the book online where it can be found by people searching for such information. The book is currently available as a Kindle book. A limited number of private print copies are also available and you may contact me if you are interested. If anyone would like to review the book, please let me know so I can link to you as well.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Admissions Essay That Got Me Into UPenn

You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217.

            Yet another one of my most memorable experiences from secondary school is an incident which my secondary three class have fondly come to term “The Cockroach Bottle”. It all began with a biology experiment involving the dissection of cockroaches. We “oohhed” and “aaahed” as Miss Phuan deftly clipped back the cockroaches’ wings with drawing pins, calmly exposing the mysteries of its insides. We applauded loudly as she named even the most minute parts of its anatomy. But she was most disappointed when we all coyly declined her offer to decapitate the next specimen. As a result, we had a number of the pests left over, which my friends Jarrod and Jacques collected and stowed away in a jam jar.
            I next saw the bottle several days later. Inside, the cockroaches had breathed their last, but their final slumber was cruelly disturbed when Jarrod began to shake the bottle. He shook it very, very hard. Several days, and many hard shakes later, the bottle had already passed through the hands of every member of the class. Inside, a soggy white paste, not unlike mayonnaise, was splattered around the sides of the glass, and it was still possible to recognise a head, and several pairs of extremities. It was indeed a most ghastly sight, and not a few remarks were made about the appropriateness of using a jam jar.
            One week later, Jacques decided to open the jar. In ten seconds flat, the class was empty. Like the survivors of a war, we gathered along the corridor outside, still reeling from this massive assault on our olfactory organs. Even at the end of lunch, when Miss Phuan came for her biology lesson, we were all still hanging around the corridor, and absolutely refused to return. With ingenuity which would have done credit to any scientist in a crisis, she decided to move that lesson outdoors. However, I hardly heard a word she said that day. For me, the true lesson in biology had already been firmly imprinted in my memory – I had seen first hand the rate of diffusion of molecules in the air, and the speed was incredible. I had also learned that though it takes the molecule of an unpleasant odour an infinitesimally small amount of time to fill a classroom, it takes at least a week for these same particles to exit through the open window. Fortunately for us, that was the last lesson in our classroom for the day, and our teachers were not forced to make any more unscheduled changes to the timetable. But for the next few days, the air was filled with a surprisingly strong smell of cologne.
On hindsight, it was really fortunate that Jacques had had the presence of mind to close the bottle before he joined in the general retreat. Had he dropped the bottle, the consequences would have been unthinkable. Whatever the case, this little seemingly insignificant event has left an indelible mark in my mind. It showed me the lighter side to science; more importantly, it showed me that one should think before one opens a bottle full of decomposed cockroaches.

- 217 -