Sunday Times column – Kids and smartphone usage

Here’s my second parenting column for the Sunday Times, this time on managing smartphone usage with the kids.

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Sunday Times column – Telling Tales At Dinner Time

The Straits Times recently invited me to contribute columns on parenting to their Sunday Times newspaper. So here’s my first piece, of which I originally titled “Telling Tales At Dinner Time” but a copy editor thought otherwise. In any case, it’s pleasant to see my byline again after so many years after I left journalism.

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What are we doing to our children?

I recently attended a talk by a top secondary school about the Direct School Admission (DSA) program, as well as its Integrated Program.

I was bored to death, because the speaker was just intent on telling parents how much they intended to fill every waking second of a student’s time with endless enrichment programs, team-building exercises and more homework.

We want every child to be a leader! Said the speaker. Such enthusiasm and hope, yet I had such cynicism simmering inside of me.

Erm, where is their time to play, hang out and meet people of the opposite sex? I thought, and later whispered to my wife.

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A letter to Singapore parents

Dear fellow Singapore Parents,

When I was in Basic Military Training (BMT) in 1995, I saw a sight that burned into my mind till today. It happened during the weekend when parents could come visit their poor, suffering boys after the first two weeks of BMT training.

I was waiting for my mum to turn up when I saw this scene – one of the recruits was sitting upright on a bench, closing his eyes and looking very pleased. His mother was sitting next to him, and was carefully using a cotton bud to dig his left ear for him. There must have been a lot of ear wax to excavate, because both of them did not pay attention to the rest of the world.

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Thoughts on 2012

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

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

1. Photography is now in the pocket

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Xbox Rawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Goblins

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

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

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

3. Fought the education system 

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

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

Crippling learning with unrealistic standards

It’s a strong foundation that counts

Is the Education Ministry really listening to parents’ feedback?

Why would people want to have kids in Singapore?

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

It is not me who is kan cheong

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

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

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

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

4. My Monster.

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

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

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

5. People moving on.

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

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

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

6. Passing another violin exam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not me who is “kan cheong”

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

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

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

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

Getting to the root of kiasuism

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

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

Continue reading “Getting to the root of kiasuism”

Why would people want to have kids in Singapore?

This posting was published in Today newspaper 14 Aug 2012 under the headline “For babies, redefine happiness”.

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

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Is the Education Ministry really listening to parents’ feedback?

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

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

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

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

Herein lies the contradiction that frustrates parents to no end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a strong foundation that counts

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

Dear Voices Editor,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ian Tan Yong Hoe