Goodbye to eventful 2011, hello 2012

We bid goodbye to 2011.

2011 has been an eventful year. It was a bad year for despots. The world saw the deaths of the Al Qaeda terror network leader Osama Bin Laden, Libya’s long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi and North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. It also saw many other strongmen dethroned. The Arab Spring that began in December 2010 saw a succession of powerful rulers deposed, such as Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Gaddafi. Arab Spring is not over yet. Bahrain may have quelled street protests for the moment, but protests and violence continue in Yemen and Syria, threatening to blow over anytime. Hosni Mubarak is facing trial for killing protesters, which carries the death penalty. I visited Kuwait in March and sensed unhappiness on the ground too, though it was not in danger of boiling over.

The democratic world too experienced change of governments due to the Euro crisis. Powerful and long standing heads of government were forced to step down or were voted out. The now infamous PIGS countries, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain had new Prime Ministers and new teams in 2011.

The world saw the Occupy Wall Street movement in protest against excessive greed and social inequality. It was a leaderless movement that spread quickly across the world, fuelled by the perceived failures of the financial and market systems. It showed the anger of the people at the injustice, as well as the power for the masses to be mobilised through easy and rapid transmission of information.

The world had no shortage of disasters. The floods in Queensland, Pakistan and Thailand; the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Japan and other major earthquakes in Japan, New Zealand and Turkey; major storms in USA and the Philippines; famine in Somalia; major volcano erruptions in Iceland, Chile and Indonesia; and man-made disasters such as train disaster in China and plane crashes in various places. We had random killing incidents such as that in Norway, Italy, Belgium, Mexico and USA and suicide bombings in Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Back home, we had for the first time held two major elections in a year in a country where many adults had never voted before due to walkovers. All seats but the Tanjong Pagar GRC  were contested in GE2011, which resulted in the largest number of opposition MPs in parliament since independence. In the presidential election, the first since 1991, the supposedly sure-bet and preferred candidate of the PAP, former Deputy PM Dr Tony Tan won by a razor thin margin. The GE and PE outcomes were something highly unimaginable a year ago. 

The world appears to be on course for change. The merriam-webster definition of “Change” states:

… 1 b : to make radically different : transform; c : to give a different position, course, or direction to, …

2 a : to replace with another; b : to make a shift from one to another : switch

In some instances, like in some of the Arab countries and for the ‘PIGS’ countries, changes have happened rather dramatically. Governments were replaced. For some other countries, the change process was more gradual and has just begun. A new course of direction has started, the effects of which may be realised later. Transformation is a process that will take time.

In Singapore, the change has not been very dramatic compared to some other countries. 60.1% share of the popular vote for the ruling party is still considered a landslide victory by the yardsticks of other democracies. In Singapore, it represents the beginning of a transformation. We had set many records in 2011: the first GRC won by an opposition, the highest vote share for the opposition and the largest number of contested seats since independence, the first Malay opposition MP, and the first president elected with less than majority of the votes. These, as well as the stepping down of our founding Prime Minister and the second Prime Minister from the cabinet represent our transition to a new political order.

We see online media more active than ever before. Videos, photos, information snippets, vocal opinion pieces are quickly transmitted to thousands. Such rapid information dissemination is beginning to influence the mainstream media. What used to be just arguments limited to coffeeshops and private chatter have now found channels to spread rapidly, at times forcing politicians and governments to respond.

Whenever there is change, there is the opportunity to redefine norms. Change can lead to a better world; it can also lead to a more dangerous world. With change, the old and familiar are displaced. The new will take time to settle in. There will be challenges from various forces to set the new norms. We are all players in the changes happening around us. We have the responsibilities to help set about changes to reach to a better destination.

2011 has been an eventful year for me too. I found courage to step into the hitherto unknown to me world of politics. I have made many new friends. I have experienced many offering their time and resources to help with little for them to gain personally. I am enormously grateful to those who have helped me in my journey. I entered this new world because I feel change happening around us. The politics of accepting that government-knows-best is changing. Alternative voices will challenge the government, whether in parliament or in the social media. We all play a role to help define what Singapore will be like as it goes through its change process.

2011 can be said to be a year of change, for Singapore and for the world. These changes mark the beginning. 2012 will be a continuation of these changes. 2012 will likely to be just as eventful for the world, if not more. We may not know what new events will come, but we should have confidence in ourselves to overcome them. 

I wish everyone happiness, peace and strength as we journey through 2012.

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Educating our youths to develop empathy, appreciation and resilience

 The letter in Dec 26, 2011’s TODAY paper, “Disparity in tertiary education facilities” by JC student Kwek Jian Qiang caught my attention.

It was written with a good command of the English language. I assume Kwek is a bright student. What alarms me is his assumption that the best facilities must be reserved for the brightest students. He compared the facilities of ITE College East with that of Anderson JC and Victoria JC. Yes, I agree ITE College East has excellent facilities, better than in most schools and colleges. I have been to Victoria JC many times and I think the facilities are fine enough to educate our brightest students. It may not have the sleek floors, a swimming pool nor a stadium fit for the Youth Olympics, but I do not think the lack of these outward facilities will impede education for our best students.

There is a wrong assumption we must have the best outward facilities for the best education to take place. Education is much more than just physical infrastructure. The quality of teachers, the culture of the school, the learning programmes, the interaction amongst students, the CCA programmes and many other softer aspects are immensely more important than physical facilities.

I had the opportunity to visit and live amongst rural schools in Indonesia, Cambodia, China and Bhutan. Once you have seen these facilities, you will appreciate the resources we have in all our schools, including each of our so-called neighbourhood schools. I am not asking that we should accept the physical conditions of schools in developing countries for Singapore. I am concerned that our youths have grown so accustomed to being so well-endowed that they look with envy if another institution has better physical resources than they do. They forget to appreciate that we do have good enough resources to meet our education needs. In fact, I often see waste of resources when we over-equip our institutions and leave equipment underutilised. I do not think we suffer a big lack of physical resources in JCs or polytechnics to fulfil schooling objectives.

Kwek’s letter may reflect a deeper sentiment that lies in our society. He was brave to express it, and he could be expressing what some amongst his peers might be thinking. This alarms me. The sentiment is that the best and brightest people deserve better stuff that the weaker ones. He ended his letter by stating that “Our brightest students, who will become Singapore’s future leaders, should get the best facilities in order to excel and grow. We should reward according to merit.”

We are often told that our society is based on meritocracy. Is that the type of meritocracy we have educated our next generation to know of? There is a sense of jealousy that the weak students in ITE get plush facilities which should be instead given to those who had done well academically. When these bright students graduate into the working world, they could well end up as our future government, corporate, business and political leaders. With such a mindset, we could then get a lot of resources pumped in to reward these leaders, who are already endowed with much, and in the process alienate the weaker ones in society. This will lead to further cracks in our society, something which we have already seen happening.

I fear we have ingrained this attitude in our future generation since young. Our education system endorses it. I am against the gifted education programme. I am not against exposing bright students to more learning opportunities and challenges. What I am against is congregating them together. It sends the message that they are the elite and must have the best. Over the years, we have increasing expanded the number of examination points where we sieve out academically better students and pull the distance apart between good students and weaker ones. The aim is to push students according to their academic abilities. The effect is that it segregates students. The good schools progressively get better students and less reputed schools get the weaker students. The better students congregate amongst themselves, not mixing with weaker one. This lessens the opportunity for people of different social backgrounds and abilities to mix together and better understand one another. Hence, students believe that under our meritocratic system, they are the best and deserve the best; we should not waste good resources on weaker students.

We may think that the gifted education programme selection and streaming exercises will help maximise learning for students. Indeed, having such a competitive education system has raised our ranking in international benchmark examinations. I believe though there is more to education than achieving stellar grades. We have begun to lose the ability for people of different backgrounds to mix together. We seem to have lost that empathy for the weak amongst us. Those who ‘have’ may feel they well deserve to be where they are and that those who ‘have-not’ are failures in life.

Another danger I see is that we may have cultivated our next generation to be over reliant on the physical. We need things to be up neatly for us, with top facilities before we can do anything. We have lost the ability to improvise and overcome shortages in resources. In the past, when Singapore had little, our founding fathers struggled to make do with whatever resources were available and achieved much. Not all education institutions will have equal physical resources, but I do not think that should stop one from learning and achieving. It will be useful for schools to get students involved in community projects in developing countries to get them to appreciate what they have here. Parents too, can play a part. In our family travels, where feasible, we can sometimes plan visits to local communities for our children to experience local living conditions.

My post is not to condemn Kwek for his letter. I see it as a brave attempt by a young man to ask for better resources for JCs and polytechnics. I am concerned about an attitude trend in society which seems to be highlighted by his letter. Today, we speak of character and values-based education. I see Kwek’s letter as a signal that we need to work harder on this aspect to cultivate empathy, appreciation and resilience in our youths.

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Post article note: Several years ago, I was invited to attend an EXCO meeting of ITE alumni over a business proposal. I recall that in the meeting was a polytechnic lecturer and many entrepreneurs. One was a successful entrepreneur of a big paper company whose products are widely used in the region. My dad used to teach students in the monolingual and 8-year Primary programme many years back. One of his students now owns an oil supply business. One of the key technology staff in my former IT business graduated from a vocational institution. Some of them are late developers in life; some learn better in other ways; some are great doers. We need to change our mindset of meritocracy and of the worth of individuals.