Wednesday, December 19, 2007

God rest ye merry

"What would you like for Christmas?" husband kept going.

"Actually, some rest will be nice," was my sincere reply.

Apart from a 'Winter Warmer Fair' at school (because this was held in late November) and a 'Secrets Room' (where children get to 'shop' for presents for their parents to surprise them at Christmas), an Advent Service and end-of-term concert to attend at school, I also decided that I cannot just buy gifts for the teachers.

So it would have to be something we make. Dug out an old shortbread recipe. Not sure now if it works. So, researched and decided to change the weights of ingredients.

The modified recipe worked alright. What about the container? Took some card paper, marked out the corners and thought I would cut and staple those back like I used to do when I was nine. But son took a look at it and came up with another idea.

Instead of cutting and stapling we merely folded the corners into 45-degree angles and stapled.

Then the shortbread went into some foil and into the box. On the box was a sticker with the ingredients: organic flour, organic butter, organic sugar and 'lots of gratitude for making learning fun'. This was then placed in one of our own little gift wrapper bags. Add a tag. Voila!

O! Son made some origami (frog, ladybird, flower) for some of the teachers.

It was nice that at least a couple of teachers took the trouble to let me know that they appreciated something home-made. Fact is I wanted to give something money can't buy. So to put 'lots of gratitude ...' in I had no choice but to make something.

The only problem was I started so late and could only made two batches every day. Next year, I must start earlier.

The shop was also busy -- I am not complaining -- and I was constantly filling orders and taking these to the sub-Post Office. And of course the sub-Post Office was a bit busy.

"Goodwill to all men"? Some people seem to have the least goodwill at this time of year, which is very sad indeed. So it is good to see that the owner of my friendly neighbourhood sub-post office is unflappable. We are queueing out of the door but he still gives full attention to every one who comes through. There is no rushing him.

Never mind. My shop has more or less closed for Christmas as orders are not likely to get to the customers in time for Christmas.

So on to preparing for guests, and food, and refurbishing the website.

God rest ye merry ...? Yes, I would very much like to rest me merry.

God rest ye merry, too!

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Saturday, December 15, 2007


At my son's end-of-term Headmaster's Assembly, I was pleasantly surprised by being presented with this lovely bouquet for the work I've been doing for the Parents' group (it's known as 'Friends' of the school).

I don't think other chairpersons were given bouquets on resigning. So I feel very privileged.

Wanted to share this with readers.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Sweet, sweet hubby

Husband works in IT. Spends 10-hour days sorting out IT issues.

We decided that we needed to bring his Mum into the 21st century and bought her a computer so that she could be introduced to the cyber-world.

Last Saturday Husband spent all Saturday configuring her new computer.

Sunday he spent the afternoon trying to sort out the computer for another older lady from church. She has dial-up.

This morning he brought home her computer, hooked it up to broadband at home, sorted her problems and took it back to her.

I think he is so generous to be giving his time like that.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Big Shop, Little Shop 2

I filled in all the details for the little shop to get a repeat prescription for my husband, and then realized that he had exhausted his number of repeats and needed to see the GP for a review.

I duly made an appointment for him, having had to hang on the phone for 10 minutes or so waiting for the automated system to get to the end of the day for his appointment.

After his appointment, I trotted off to the chemist. They didn't have enough of medicine X so I arranged to collect two days later.

When I did the chemist was on the phone but came off the phone to tell me that the GP had prescribed husband the wrong medication, so the prescription has to go back to the GP.

"But he runs of out of his medication tomorrow."

"Don't worry," he assured me. The chemist had in fact phoned the GP to notify her that she had made a mistake, a serious mistake. He had filled the prescription with the correct medication as directed by the GP on the phone, but the prescription itself needed to be sent back to the surgery for correction, or something like that.

The names of the drugs were very similar. "If your husband had taken this, he would have died."

I thought that was a bit over-dramatic, but he IS trying to win my business.

"Had you gone to B--ts, they would have given it to you and he'd be in trouble."

I said, "I don't think so as they have his records there and so must check to make sure."

It must have been the end of a very long day for the doctor. She must have clicked on a drug in a (so-called user-friendly) drop-down menu and 'missed', or mis-read, who knows? The drug she prescribed is apparently for people with a very rare nasty genetic disease and so the chemist was surprised to come across it. The other drugs on the prescription indicate he had another disease. Besides, the chemist's wife is on the same medication as my husband. In fact they have the same consultant. We had talked about this earlier.

So we were very grateful that this mistake was caught in time.

Little shops do provide a different kind of service. When will the business school gurus begin to preach 'bigger is not necessarily better'? I wonder.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A bit of a brag

A result from the BBC Strictly Come Dancing Series, a lesson on ethical thinking -- here is my recent contribution to Ethical Pulse, online publication of Ethical Junction:

Strictly Comes Ethical Thinking ... and Action


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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Big Shop, Little Shop

My husband requires repeat prescriptions. He had signed up with a large chain of chemists (and a bit) to organize collecting and filling these prescriptions.

But they somehow always seem to manage to lose his prescription in between the piles of prescriptions they have, not have the medicines he needs, and almost always there is a long queue waiting to be served and waiting to pay.

A couple of weeks ago we had a leaflet from our local independent chemist. They are a few doors from the sub-post office I use. They have now also introduced a collection service.

As I needed a prescription filled for myself I went to them to say we would like them to do my husband's precription.

They are so incredily friendly as small shops (and other owner-businesses) are capable of being. I've used their services before and have never been disappointed although the shop itself looked terribly dated and I could see that the packs of disposable nappies they were selling looked, hmm, dusty.

Basically they are a chemist more than a shop. They serve the many old and frail in the area who do not have the energy or wish to get to the larger town centre where unruly teenagers push and shove and illegal sellers of illegal DVDs hassle them at every five metres or so.

They have had the shop refitted recently and now it is bright and cheerful with the same friendly service. The chemist part is still why people come to them.

I think the future of small shops lie in that personal service they are able to provide.

Big chains make enormous profits on sheer economies of scale. They are also staffed (usually) by employers on minimum wage. But businesses run by owners and others with a share in the profits (as co-operatives are run) tend to provide the best shopping experience.

My own business plans are to grow big in the area of being small. Does that make any sense at all?

Probably not. My vision is to expand the business in such a way that small-players could provide the same friendly efficient service that my customers have come to expect. And why shouldn't they?

I'll have to keep thinking about this one.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

25 hours a day again and 'carbon-trading'

It must be my favourite day of the year. Better even than Christmas. Yes, the clocks moved 'back' last Saturday and we got that extra hour of sleep.

An extra hour of sleep? Not quite.

Sunday was also the day before the start of a new term. So we tried very much to get our son back on schedule. As such, rather than the usual lie-in, he was woken up ... quite early, shall we say.

I was also on 'meet-and-greet' duty at church which meant that we had to be there earlier.

Husband is now talking about getting that eco-friendly hybrid car again. We have been a one-car family for such a long time. But recently with my new duties at church it appears sensible to have another car sometimes.

We have now ordered a new car with such low CO2 emissions that the tax is only £35 a year. I won't get it till at least February.

I've never been comfortable driving husband's gas-guzzler. It comes in useful when we need to make certain kinds of journeys. I do not feel guilty about him owning one, as most of the time it is sitting in the drive doing zero miles. He simply pays a hefty road tax.

With this new car he's thinking of buying (hope he's not going to change his mind again), our combined CO2 emissions would come in one or two grammes above his current gas-guzzler.

On top of that our combined road tax will be LESS than what he is currently paying.

More importantly, we will get more boot space for all the airport runs that we seem to be doing (I AM a foreigner, after all, with loads of relatives outside the country).


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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sea or Air?

In a previous blog I talked about sea freight.

My supplier in Canada (or a former staff member) did not like the idea of sea freight. She thinks ships dump too much rubbish into the sea.

This goes against our normal perception of sea freight being more eco-friendly than air freight. So I was, to a certain extent, surprised by this article in The Independent. On the other hand, having had this conversation with this person so jealous of keeping the water around her piece of coastline clean, I was not.

Hmm, another ethical dilemma then.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007


I've just pressed the "Send" button on the email to my parents/teachers committee telling them that I am stepping down as Chairman as of January 2008. And you know something? I feel very good about it.

I've been talking about stepping down for some time. Every time I broached the subject they ignore me -- in a kindly sort of way. But after last week, I think it will be best for me and the committee if someone is 'forced' to take over.

I am still recovering physically from last week's busy schedule, but feeling better every day, and am looking forward to half-term fortnight next week, although the first week is more or less booked up!

And of course a mother does not actually get a 'holiday', does she?

We need a butler.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Last week was a tough week.

One of the mothers who is such a rock when it comes to organizing PTA events like Quiz Night was suddenly taken ill, very ill. So I had to make alternative arrangements.

The lady who was supposed to arrange food notified me of the new prices and I nearly choked. I had to make alternative arrangements.

Fortunately the school cook stepped in and catered for us at very reasonable prices.

Last Wednesday was very long as we had a parents' evening at school and we were able to see what son has been doing in class. He was very keen to show us his books. I was a bit perturbed that he had been doing little more than adding three digit numbers together. He was complaining that this was far too easy. He wanted something more challenging.

Friday and we were told to collect our boys at 4pm instead of 5pm after their trip to the theatre. But this class returned very late and so the whole bunch of parents were standing around, getting impatient.

When the hall was free for me to start setting up, the parents were still loitering with intent. I had a bright idea: why not ask them to come help me move the tables into the hall?

Some of these parents did. Others refused to help. O well, maybe standing there would make the boys return faster, I don't know.

But I was feeling very depressed about this.

Here I am organizing events to raise funds for the school so that the sons of these parents could benefit from new equipment. We just gave the school £16000+ to build a new playground and are giving them even more money to decorate the playground.

Not only is the response so very dismal from parents in my son's Form in terms of attending events, some of them are even quite negative.

So I felt very, very hurt when after I've asked -- nicely -- please if only each person would move a table into the hall I won't have to carry all the 15 tables in by myself, some parents refused to help.

I am too tired now to write any more.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

We've got hankies! And table napkins

The slow boat from Canada docked a short time ago and the hankies and face cloth and tea towels arrived this afternoon! Yay!

Some of the items now come with even less packaging. Yay, Yay!

We now also have the once discontinued Radical Primitives Box of Eight back in stock.

Forgot to mention we now also have Fairtrade organic cotton table napkins in four beautiful, beautiful colours.

These are now being sold at an introductory price here.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Not-so-green TV cook

This is another gripe about Nigella's cookery programme.

She seems to love putting food into plast-c bags to marinate when using reusable bowls and other receptacles would do.

And disposable aluminium trays.

And what's the point of transferring cooked food into brown cardboard boxes when reusable pla-tic boxes could be used?

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Hole-in-one ... shoe

This happened a few weeks ago but I never got round to blog this.

I discovered a hole in a shoe. It's not really a shoe, but a 'mule', I suppose you could call it that.

It's Marks/Sparks Footglove.

I showed my son the shoe, "Guess how long Mum has had this pair of shoes."

"Hmm. Seven years?"

"No, had these much longer than you've been around."

"Longer than you've been married?"


"Ten years?"

"At least."

More like eleven, I think.

I remember using those when I was doing my PhD fieldwork in a city "up north". I remember my 90-something neighbour (then only 80-something) saying how comfortable she found those shoes. She had a similar pair in black. Mine were an adventurous beige.

I remember spilling tea on my nearly-new mules and tried very hard to rid them of the stains. No luck.

Ah, well. No one's going to notice.

These shoes/mules/whatever stayed with me, tramped all over Singapore and the UK, put away in the winter and brought out when the weather warmed up. Thought there were about one and a half inch heels on those, they were the most comfortable shoes to run around town in.

Any way, it's history now. I put them in the bin. They were so worn, it couldn't even be given away. Somehow, in this throwaway age it seems so strange to have actually worn something to death.

Have I bought new ones to replace those?

Not ... yet.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Slow Boat from Canada

I've run out of some of my Hankettes supplies.

I placed my last order back in May. I know sometimes there was a lead time of a four to six weeks, so I always worked with plenty of time buffered in.

They didn't have the flannel to do the hankies. There was delay.

Then the machine needed repairs.

They bought a second machine to keep up with the orders.

Then finally I got the message that said the order was filled and it would be shipped.

When the order did not arrive in a few days I asked for when it was shipped.

Then I got a message that said it was shipped by a different method than they usually did.

I waited, and waited, and waited. When still no box arrived I emailed, "Where is my order?"

Then a message came to clarify that when they said "International" they meant "International via sea freight". Instead of the 10 to 16 days I expected -- which was instead of the normal three to five days -- it was now going to take four to six WEEKS!


I would have fallen off my chair, if not for the fact that I was standing.

The person who usually did the despatch was busy and someone else took the box to the post office and opted for the wrong service.

I felt a little queasy in the stomach. I cannot afford for the goods not to arrive. There are customers who want to buy hankies and they are not getting them. This is bad customer service.

On one hand I am really pleased for Hankettes that they are doing so well that orders are taking weeks instead of days to fill. That means, after pioneering a product for more than ten years, people are finally getting the idea about using reusable organic cotton hankies instead of single-use tissue paper usually made from virgin pulp.

On the other I feel terrible that I have to disappoint customers.

Ironically I had previously enquired about using sea freight instead of air freight thinking of the air miles. This would require more careful logistical planning, but if we could save on "hankie miles", then why not?

But I was told they preferred to send things out to me by air. It's like that with us smaller retailers. Unless we can fill a container load with goods, the suppliers, the forwarding agents and everyone else in between prefer to deal with air instead of sea cargo.

Looking on the bright side, this would give us a better idea of the implications of shipping rather than flying and we can add to our green credentials by opting for the former if we can work out the issues with payment (that's another story).

Still, we can only learn from our mistakes.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

New Age is Old Age

As the writer of Ecclesiates says, "There is nothing new under the sun."

Years ago as a full-time Christian worker with university students I had to read up on "New Age". I could not, for a long time, understand why it was called "New Age". What is so new about this "New Age", I kept asking myself. So much of it sounds like old hat to me.

Then it tweaked. I'd been living the New Age for as long as I could remember: New Age was "Old Age" as far as the oriental person is concerned.

"New Age" is new only to the person who has to learn a new non-western philosophy as the basis of his worldview. Having grown up Chinese, there was nothing very new in it for me. Sorted.

Second week back at school and I still find myself sewing name labels. It has not been easy trying to procure organic cotton trousers for my son. Finally they arrived this morning at seven-thirty on a Saturday morning. Typical.

Because son suffers from eczema, I didn't want his legs to be plastered in teflon-coated trousers all day long. He's been wearing shorts in junior school. Now that he's in "Middle School" (in his particular school naming convention) he wears long trousers.

I remember starting school and Mum had to organize a neighbour to sew the uniforms for me. One couldn't go to the shop to buy over-the-counter uniforms. So as we grew out of the uniforms, these were carefully stored away for the next sibling.

I was the youngest and with three sisters before the two brothers immediately older than me I suspect that all the uniforms were a bit worn. When it came my turn to start school, the baby of the family needed a new set of uniforms.

Let's just say it's no fun wearing those highly starched cotton uniforms. The inside seams were not neatened and the little loose threads that have been starched (the uniform could stand upright by itself) pricked.

Ironing these uniforms was hard work. That was my mother's task, and she hated ironing most amongst the myriad chores she did around the house.

She refused to use an ironing board (because she didn't know how) and did the ironing on the floor, on a stack of heavy-duty remnant bits of fabric and old towels and an old jute sack she had salvaged from somewhere years ago.

The iron was kept in an old biscuit tin and the cord was wound around it when not in use.

Because this ironing set-up was flat it was not easy ironing our pinafores which had three box pleats at the front and three at the back. The side that was ironed first would get creased up by the time you did the second.

Imagine what joy Mum felt when they introduced, yes, polyester uniforms. Or as we used to say "wash and wear" clothes.

No more ironing -- or much less, any way. Still these uniforms were not cheap.

I remember when I got to secondary school, the -- ahem! -- elite girls' school in Singapore, on the basis of a national examination, the cost of uniforms was a concern.

My mum took me to a shopping centre in High Street (I think it's Peninsular) or was it People's Park, to a shop called Yang Tze-Kiang. She bought me two sets of unforms. They were far too long and too broad for me.

So the hem was taken up and let down bit by bit over the years. By the end of my fourth year, there was a tiniest hem left on it. The cloth was worn very, very thin. Still I wore the same uniforms because we couldn't afford to buy new ones.

Between then and now, polyester uniforms have become the '"bog-standard", de rigeur. So it has been nearly impossible to find cotton uniforms, let alone organic cotton uniforms.

I think of the ironing that will need to be done. Will my son get a "red point" for wearing a crumpled shirt? It is difficult to keep these shirts in pristine condition.

We'll wait and see. If the school is picky about his not-so-white, not so crisp cotton shirt and punishes him for that, it is clearly discrimination against a child who has a skin sensitivity.

But, as I started to say: there is nothing new under the sun. What was a "godsend" to my mum in the guise of polyester uniform has outlived its usefulness. Now the cry is for chemical-free, pesticide-free and sweatshop-free uniforms that let our children's skins breathe properly again.

As for irons and such-like, has anyone seen that TV commercial where a toaster is being sold at £5.00?

That is less than the minimum wage! How could that be produced and shipped here and then shipped to the shops for under £5.00?

Someone somewhere is not getting a fair deal either in raw materials costs or in wages.

Think about that.

Also I am now left with a stack of polyester, Teflon-coated shorts and shirts. I tried giving them away, but nobody wanted them. As another mum helping to run the Uniform Shop noted, these things are so cheap people wouldn't buy them second-hand.

I'll take these to the school further down the road instead. Surely the school could sell these on for 50 pence each or something, or give them away to the pupils who need them most?? Why let them go into a landfill?

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

TV programme gave me pain in the neck

It came on after University Challenge, so we just sat there and watched.

It was a certain Nigella telling us how to cook 'express meals' after a long hard day at work.

I have seen a certain impressionist making fun of Nigella and this was the first time I've ever watch the real McCoy myself. And boy! Did it give me a pain in the neck.

The rate at which she -- how do you describe it? -- flick her hair (head?) back at the neck was so -- how does one describe it? -- annoying after the first few minutes.

She went on and on about her "busy work day".

And many hard-pushed stay-at-home mothers and working mothers who come home to work a second shift want to shout: HELLO! Why do you bother to work when you are married to a very rich man?

We don't grudge her marrying a very rich man. But the point is she COULD choose not to work at all. The fact that she does -- whatever 'work' she actually does -- means another person (probably a woman) who needs a job does not have one (or one that pays as well). I found the whole idea just a tat too patronizing.

Why does she not spend the time doing some 'good work' for the community without the TV cameras being there? Like spend time to help children in inner-city schools read, serve as a dinner lady, or sumfink like that? Be a female Jamie Oliver revolutionizing school dinners on the quiet?

But she has chosen to 'work', to maintain her financial independence, I suppose.

Sure, it is her right to work, but to make it look like, PRETEND, she's like most of the rest of female humanity (or "womanity"?), either having to struggle with bringing up children with totally inadequate support from an absent father, or who has to work to make the mortgage payments is, frankly, making capital (or worse, fun) of us. It's an insult, really.

She's being paid lots of money to show us what we should be doing -- be a bit like her.

But how many women you know are a bit like her: daughters of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and married to a multi-millionaire?

I understand the men love her.

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Friday, August 31, 2007

No more pla-tic bags?

Some of my customers ask: what do I do when I run out of pl--tic bags to line my bins?

I've not run out yet. Here's why: we host visitors and 'open houses' often. People come with their p-astic bags and leave them with us.

Sometimes I collect a whole load of these from the other community groups I work with because these are choking up their storage space.

If we are really stuck, really, really stuck, some old newspaper folded into a 'cone' makes a good bin liner.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Becoming More Like Mother

Because we don't collect pl-st-c carrier bags any more (except for the rare occasion when we get 'caught out') I now find myself keeping bags from loaves of bread, potatoes, etc for re-use. I'm afraid some of the organic staples we buy come in pl-st-c because the supermarkets want to make sure we pay the premium for them

Our meat and fish also come in pl--tic trays. Sometimes these are recyclable, sometimes not.

Whichever way, if they are left in the kitchen bin, the kitchen would start ponging very soon. So we put these out in the bin as soon as possible. But I also do not like the meat/fish juices to run into the bin as that means a long-term pong problem, or water wastage to clean the bins.

So the bread and potato pl--tic bags are kept for such occasions.

And I see pictures of my mum carefully washing out pla-t-c bags and hanging them up to dry.

I'm getting to be more like her every day!!

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Thursday, August 16, 2007


We recently came across a TV documentary in which a British-born Indian actor/comedian went on a long trip to India and Pakistan to find out something of his own roots.

It is quite funny viewing.

I could not understand why he was surprised by the man who was shouting at the foot of the apartment block he was staying at for people to bring their rubbish down to him.

This is the rag-and-b0ne man. In Singapore the 'garang-guni' was also a familiar sight when I was growing up.

Mum saved every bit of newspaper and tin, etc, and whatever she could not use, she would sell to the garang-guni man. He came round with his little hand-held weighing scale and would pronounce how much paper or tin would cost, etc. Sometimes old electrical objects like broken irons, clocks, etc, were also sold for a much higher, specific price.

When life was not so 'cheap' and we paid real prices for real goods, especially when there were no government subsidies keeping prices artificially high for some producers, we always recycled our belongings. That was the common 'end-of-life' policy.

It was only when mass-manufactured goods have become so cheap because there is now plenty of cheap labourers to exploit that the disposable lifestyle has emerged.

So, we must turn back the clock to get ethical and ecological again.

Then this comedian visited the wedding of a UK girl. Most of the guests have flown in from different parts of the UK. The setting was spectacular with hundreds of guests in their finery.

My thoughts were: what a selfish young lady! To make people fly out all that way to attend her wedding. Why not hold the wedding in the UK where most of her guests are from. Imagine the expenditure incurred.

It wouldn't be very expensive, said husband, as there is so much competition amongst airlines flying to India.

That may be true, but still, the carbon emissions are totally unnecessary.

I suppose it is typical of most young women getting married. It is going to be her day. She'd do what she wants -- what she's always wanted to do since age 10 -- and who cares about the incovenience of the guests?

Then I thought: To the groom, all the best for marrying a woman who cannot think above her own little wants.

But let him who is without sin cast the first stone ... not.

We too needed to do some flying for our wedding. It was a cross-cultural, cross-border, cross-time zone event. We had the choice of flying five guests from the UK to Singapore, or 300 the other way around.

The problem was slightly compounded by mum-in-law not being fit to fly. In the end, we had to forfeit the presence of my parents-in-law-to-be at the wedding. I flew home to make the final preparations and husband flew out with his brother (and small family) as the sole representatives from the UK family.

We then had another celebration back in the UK, combined with the 40th wedding anniversary of my parents-in-law, for me to meet the extended family.

With hindsight I could have made the wedding even more eco-friendly -- with the materials used, the types of gifts given, etc. (We did hire two people-carrier taxis instead of a fleet of limousines to ferry the wedding party around.)

But I didn't know then as much about conserving this earth as I do now. I trust that I'd be forgiven.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sorry Cotton Story

I know the story of cotton in and out -- or so I thought -- until I came across this site which gives some really dire information on cotton being grown in Uzbekistan.

Or check out the film here.

If buying cheap cotton clothes does not yet make you cringe, take a look at some of the information here and see what your reaction is.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Being on the outside

This time last week I was settling happily into the meeting room at The Warehouse, home to Friends of the Earth at Birmingham. I was meeting with a group of 'Sociologists Outside Academia'.

The train journey there was a bit fraught as the deluge we had on Friday meant trains had been cancelled and suspended and right up till late Friday I was uncertain whether I would actually get on the train.

As it turned out the train arrived early, having made an unscheduled stop at Coventry (picking up another one of our group), and it looked like an unbelievably good start.

Except that a couple of people had had their trains diverted from Basingstoke/Winchester area to (believe it or not) London. One was too frail to consider completing the journey via London and gave up. The other persevered and reached us at about 2pm! Another, a wheelchair user, planned to drive from Bristol but the roads were not very friendly and decided against making what could be a perilous journey.

So it was a small group that met but we had a good time thrashing out some issues that we face as highly-trained researchers in the social sciences but for whom reasons like poor health and domestic responsibilities had prevented us from filling a full-time academic position.

It was a really refreshing time for me. Not least of all people sometimes attribute the genesis of this group to my rant in the Association newsletter about being not so much ignored as being such an anomaly at an academic conference that senior academics ensconced in their institutions did not know how to respond to my answer, "I'm a mother."

Any way we chatted about the various strategies we needed to pursue to gain recognition, to gain a foothold in independent research, to encourage senior academics to mentor us, etc, etc. and planned to organize something at the next conference so that 'outsiders' like us could feel comfortable there.

Then I made my way back to the station in good time for my train.

Nearly three hours later I was home. My husband and son picked me up from the station and the best bit was: the house was clean!

Husband promised to tidy up the house and 'my boys' had obviously been working very hard at clearing the rubbish away. I could see the floor!!!

Son, who is still struggling with his writing, managed to write a good account of what he had done with Dad while Mum was away.

I think I should go away more often.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

CRB-checked, at last!

I don't remember how long I've been working with teenagers and children as part of my church ministry.

Since my husband acquired a chronic disease I've resigned from working with teenagers but continue my work with the children.

Well, I finally got my piece of paper -- the official approval from this UK government -- that says I have been cleared to work with children.


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Friday, July 20, 2007

Lawyers and professionals

For some reason my husband left the following article on the desk-top.

Why are lawyers miserable: want a list?

I read it and had a good chuckle.

I could identify with all that misery and money mentioned in the article.

No, I was never a lawyer. I was worse than a lawyer back in Singapore. I was a management consultant, and more specifically, a change management consultant.

While working with what was one of the top Accounting firms (we were an off-shoot of their 'Management Information Systems' off-shoot) it was not unusual to clock 80 hours a week. On days when a deadline loomed, we worked 'back-to-back' and managed to clock 100 hours.

We were fastidious about time-sheets and time-keeping. It was part of our 'company culture', so it has to be true. It meant working from 8.30am to a minute before 12 midnight (because the doors locked electronically at midnight), seven days a week.

We would take a booked taxi (waiting for us at the bottom of the office block) home, shower and sleep for few hours and were back at our desk at 8.30am sharp. Often lunch was taken at our desks. In desperation sometimes, we often sent out the tea-lady to buy food from the hawker centres.

The money was good. The money was very good. So very good that we had no time to spend it.

It became clear to me that this was not the way to live the rest of my life.

I shocked the establishment when I left without a job to go to. I had had enough. My father had died and my financial committments were significantly reduced.

That put my CMP (Country Managing Partner) in a sticky position. Normally staff leave for better jobs and opportunities and writing their 'exit emails' was easy. Siew-Peng? She's going to sit at home doing nothing.

Immediately there were fears that the other staff would become suspicious and wonder -- or be brave enough to now wonder aloud -- what went wrong? What is the real story behind her leaving?

Already there were clear feelings that the unearthly/ungodly hours we had been working were not sustainable. Our mental health and family life (if any) were suffering. My own gripe was that when I got back to work after cremating my father, I was put to work for such long hours instead of having someone else take my duties while I was still grieving.

At that point no one in the company had lost a father, and did not understand how I felt.

I was also on the wrong side of the political divide which meant that a promised promotion did not happen. So while I was made to design the architecture for a new computer-based training programme because I was "most experienced" at doing the job (and I was good, I know), I was also denied a promotion because I didn't party with the right people.

I had a series of 'exit interviews' (more than most other leavers) in which I told everyone what I felt was wrong with the company. Guess what? They listened. When I next went back to the office to visit some time after, lots of checks and balances had been put in place to ensure 'work-life balances'.

I don't know how long these lasted.

Still, it's good to know that my resignation left a positive impact on the working conditions of this particular company.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The rich gets richer, but ...

Do I want to make lots of money?


But only to give it away.

Lofty aim indeed. But a part of me aspires to be the Warren Buffett and Bill Gates of the organic industry so that I could do more for those who need more done for them.

This headline Buffett blasts system that lets him pay less tax than secretary really caught my eye. Since when has a rich man ever complained about not paying enough tax?

Imagine how different the story of Zacchaes in the Bible would read, "O Lord! These rich people are always demanding to see me to pay me more taxes. What do I do with them?"

But of course one could still always give over the untaxed money to a good cause. That way we know exactly where our money goes to and not leave it to fund a war, for example.

Is Mr Buffett barking up the wrong tree?

Back to Organic-Ally.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Don't waste my time!

I had an annoying experience this morning.

Lady from catalogue company phoned. I used to buy from this company when my son was little but have not bought from them for a long time.

So she phoned to ask for me. Yeah, that's me speaking.

"Could you please confirm your address and post code?"

"Why?" I asked.

"For security reasons we have to check you are the person we want to speak to to give you some information."

"What information?"

"For data protection reasons, we're not allowed to say unless we've checked your data."

"Well, perhaps I am not interested in that information then?"

"OK, thank you for your time."

What cheek? To ask for me by name and then to require me to give her personal information so that she could tell me some information I am probably not interested in -- using my time!

These checks are not fail-safe any way. Any one (say, a neighbour) could pick up the phone, profess to be so and so. And as they are at the address, could well know the address and post code. Then what? Call this a security check?

Buying online is convenient but so impersonal. The best bit of buying from this company is the friendly courier who delivers. He stops his car to chat with me when he sees me walking around the area and moans, "What have I done?"

It's not him, of course. My son has simply outgrown that company. Still we stop for a chat, and that is nice.

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Monday, June 25, 2007


I've never been a fan of biofuels.

On the surface it is a plausibly greener alternative to fossil fuel. Delve deeper and the same issues about food production being substituted (whether to produce cattle grazing grounds for the hamburger chains or the production of biofuels to run our cars) to the detriment of feeding the poor emerges, and the argument falls apart.

So this lot of articles from The Ecologist, together with the following articles from I-SIS, are worth noting:

Biofuels for Oil Addicts: Cure Worse than the Addiction

Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits

Biofuels Republic Brazil

The New Biofuel Republics

I was watching a TV programme (only because my business mentor mentioned it) where this chap is trying to win a 'tycoon' competition selling a bag to help people manage the plastic bags they carry (so that people would take them back to the supermarkets).

Shouldn't the solution be "not use plastic bags" rather than "buying another bag to store those plastic bags"?

Isn't this chap missing the point? Or am I?

Likewise with biofuels. Would it not be more logical to reduce the demand for fossil fuel rather than use them to produce a seemingly/allegedly 'greener' version with repercussions on the poorest people in the world?

Back to Organic-Ally.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Excess Package

The following article caught my attention. Looked down the list to find only the products of one company (Duchy Originals) are regularly found in our household.

While we did not buy the Duchy Easter Egg (we found the Divine Fairtrade mini-eggs very tasty and good value) and only bought one Easter Egg for the whole family, we do often buy Duchy sausages which come in waxed paper and just a small band of card round the sausages.

We are one of those families that shop with packaging in mind.

"It's OK for you," some would say, "if you could afford to buy Duchy." The truth is we save a lot of money simply by cutting out all crisps, fizzy pop, sweets and chocolates. Because what we eat tends to be more expensive, we eat less and appreciate it more.

The end-result: a healthier lifestyle.

Campaign breakthrough as food giants agree to cut packaging
By Martin Hickman, Consumer Affairs Correspondent
Published: 15 June 2007 Timesonline

Some of the world's most powerful food and drink manufacturers have pro-mised to reduce packaging on a large range of everyday products, including Oxo, Hovis and Coca-Cola.

In the biggest success so far for The Independent's Campaign Against Waste, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Mars and other multinational companies have committed to halt the relentless rise in packaging by next year and to reverse it by 2010. The backing of nine major grocery suppliers for the Courtauld Commitment, the Government's voluntary agreement on packaging, should mean saving thousands of tonnes of plastic and paper from landfill in the next three years.

Thirteen major retailers including Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Boots signed the commitment after a ministerial summit at the Courtauld Gallery in London in March 2005, followed a year later by agreement with Heinz, Northern Foods and Unilever. Today, those 16 signatories are joined by multinational manufacturers including the world's biggest food company, Nestlé, Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd, the British arm of the world's biggest soft drinks maker, the country's two biggest confectioners, Mars and Cadbury Schweppes, and Premier Foods whose brands range from Quorn to Mr Kipling.

The other four are the soft drinks company Britvic, the chilled food retailer Dairy Crest, the own-brand household products maker McBride, and Duchy Originals, the Prince of Wales's organic brand .

Duchy Originals was responsible for one of the most overpackaged Easter eggs in a survey by The Independent, which launched the Campaign Against Waste on 22 January. Since then, 169 MPs have signed a Commons motion backing our campaign, and demanded action from manufacturers and retailers.

Each year an estimated 6.3 million tonnes of packaging reaches British homes, costing the average family more than £400. By 2008, the Courtauld Commitment aims to "design out" the rise in packaging and, by 2010, to cut packaging by 340,000 tonnes, 5 per cent, though signatories have individual targets as high as 25 per cent.

The Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap) said the influx of manufacturers would ensure the 340,000-tonne target was reached "easier and quicker." Liz Goodwin, Wrap's chief executive, said: "These are the manufacturers that have the biggest brands that are sold in all kinds of places from the major retailers to the corner shops."

Asked what had motivated the companies, Dr Goodwin said: "I think they genuinely realise it's no longer acceptable to have so much packaging. Consumers don't want it and they are responding to public pressure. Environmental issues have never been higher on the agenda."
Companies will use a range of methods from "lightweighting" - slimming down materials such as bottles or cans - to "de-layering", removing unnecessary wrapping.

Cadbury Schweppes, whose brands range from Dairy Milk chocolate and Crème Eggs to the 7Up fizzy drink, has committed to using wholly recoverable or biodegradable packaging by 2010. "We have set a target of a 10 per cent total reduction in packaging and 25 per cent in seasonal gifting," said Alex Cole, corporate responsibility director.

Alastair Sykes, chairman and chief executive of Nestlé UK & Ireland, said: "This partnership will benefit the environment, reduce waste and improve efficiency, so it creates shared value for our business and the wider community."

Although many food companies have agreed to the Courtauld Commitment a few have not, such as Pepsico, the owner of Walkers and Tropicana, and the Associated British Foods, which owns British Sugar, Allied Bakeries (maker of Kingsmill and Sunblest breads) and Primark.
Wrap said it expects more companies to sign the commitment in the next few months. In the meantime, it is planning a campaign to highlight the 6.7 million tonnes of food thrown away every year.

Big business gets the message

Nine companies with a combined annual turnover of £9bn have taken the campaign onboard:

Drinks such as Tango, R Whites lemonade and Robinsons cordials, including FruitShoot. Bottles Pepsi in UK

Cadbury Schweppes
Cadbury chocolate as well as Butterkist, Maynards, Trebor and Trident. Soft drinks business include Snapple.

Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd
British arm of world's biggest fizzy drink company, making Coca-Cola, Fanta, Lilt, Powerade, Capri-Sun and Sprite.

Dairy Crest
Portfolio includes Cathedral City, Country Life, Clover, St Ivel, Utterly Butterly and Vitalite

Duchy Originals
The Prince of Wales's organic brand which markets premium biscuits, yoghurts, puddings, sweets and soups, among others.

Mars UK (formerly Masterfoods)
Major confectionery business responsible for Mars bars, Milky Way, Snickers, Twix as well as substantial pet food business, owning Whiskas and Pedigree

Makes own brand household and personal products for the likes of supermarkets including Asda

Nestlé UK
The world's biggest food multinational. Breakfast cereals Shredded Wheat, coffee brand Nescafe, KitKat and Smarties confectionery, Nesquik and Vittel and Perrier mineral waters.

Premier Foods
Food giant behind many traditional products, such as Ambrosia, Angel Delight, Bird's, Bisto, Branston, Crosse & Blackwell, Gale's Hovis, Mothers Pride, Mr Kipling, Oxo, Sarsons, and Sharwood's.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Rain and Tears

It's the not-so-very-nice hay fever season.

Thankfully I have yet to run out of hankies as I did last year.

Apart from a constantly blocked nose which then occasionally runs like a tap -- but the congestion does not clear up -- this year's effect was felt more in the (teary) eyes and (itching) throat.

Basically it's horrid.

Worse, son seems to have developed symptoms. He's only seven. A friend said we must move to Spain to get rid of the hay fever symptoms. Truth is, the plan is to spend more holiday time in Singapore. Not so much for the weather (hot, humid, hotter, more humid), but for culture.

My son needs to learn more about the culture that his mum grew up in, or at best, some of what she remembers of it. The current Singapore is so different from the one she left 16 years ago.

The past two weeks have been horrendously busy. Last week we had a briefing meeting for parents whose sons are going into 'Middle School'. It's a totally new world from Junior School and it will be quite something to see how our sons aged seven-plus cope with this more grown-up world.

On Friday, we had Sports Day. The boys toughed it out under the occasional showers. Then after the teachers' race, there was a cloud burst and we all got thoroughly soaked.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the PTA had two events to organize. I say two, but they sort of ran into each other. In fact they ran into each other a lot and then continued for a bit. The annual summer fair followed by the fun cricket came and went. I was much more disorganized than at previous Fairs. (Well, we've only just finished our 1970s party a month ago, followed by the half-term break, so there was really no time to do very much. Is my excuse.)

The weather did not help. Part of the problem was deciding whether to hold the event outdoors or in. The committee members were all checking the forecasts studiously. But we were looking at different forecasts.

While I relied on my internet and the symbols indicate that it was going to be wet, wet, wet, others looked at teletext -- which is impossible to get on my tv system so we never ever use it. They were convinced that after that one shower, it would brighten up after three o'clock.

In the end we pitched up outdoors, the heavens opened and twenty minutes to four, which was when the Fair was supposed to begin, and there was a mad rush to bring everything indoors. Thankfully I had insisted that the bottle tombola stayed indoors.

In the end the weather did brighten up. The children were able to use the bouncy castle. The pizza oven and barbecue army set up and there was an unending queue, which of course meant we ran out of food!

Last year there were 41 people booked into our 'fun cricket' event. How was I to know that catering for 150 this time would not be enough?

Any way we made do. And long after the event was supposed to end at 8pm, people were still around. Well, it's nice to see people enjoying themselves.

But it would so much nicer if more would have stayed to help tidy up.

Must not complain, the main events over, I can now relax a bit.

There is still the cookbook to get done before Speech Day, in three weeks' time!

Sleep has not been easy, too. Often I'm up at 3am with a bunged up nose and can not get back to sleep till just before the alarm goes at 6am.


Back to Organic-Ally.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Enough to make you shake

So scientists have established a link between exposure to pesticides and Parkinson's Disease. (See article here.)

Am I surprised?

I was reminded of this as I was painting a radiator cover for my son's room. The fumes from the paint was giving me a headache.

Why was I using this paint? My husband bought it, is my lame excuse. That is another story I shall not go into.

There are so many things we use these days which are purportedly for our good, to make our houses look and smell nice. But the cost to human health during its production process and its lifetime cannot be ascertained.

As I was painting the walls of my son's room -- this time with more eco-friendly paint -- I was reminded of the scene I witnessed in Guangzhou (China) in the mid-1980s when China was just opening up.

There in the middle of a very busy street I saw Chinese workers painting the railings by a kerb using some rags which they dipped into the paint with their bare hands.

I dread to think what the effect of that would be on these poor men. But I was just another 'comrade' to them. (Because I looked just like them and the social anthropologist in me meant I dressed like them, I was mistaken as a local. But that's another story.)

I write this as another story is emerging of the EU wanting to speed through the lifting of a ban to "allow the remains of pigs and chickens to be used as fodder".

Do these people have such short memories? Do they not remember BSE?

Enough to make one shudder.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Sceptical again

The organic movement is often hijacked by large corporations seeking to make profits from what is clearly a fast-growing sector.

I was appalled to read about factory-farmed milk being labelled as 'organic' in the US of A. See article here.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Becoming Mother

Mum used to have this habit of working on her sewing machine between all her essential chores (buying food from the fresh market, cooking lunch, serving lunch, cooking up the fatty leftovers from my father's market stall into lard -- very popular with the char kway teow sellers -- and going to the bank to bank his takings and getting his float ready for the following day) and cooking the evening meal.

When I say 'sewing' I don't mean anything fanciful. Mum used to cut up tiny bits of scrap cloth into rectangles. She would then match these up in size, roughly, and pile them up. Then she sat at her treadle sewing machine to sew these bits two by two together into a long, long line, not cutting the thread in between to save on thread.

If two bits did not fit together nicely after sewing, they were trimmed into a rectangle.

Now armed with larger rectangles, she again arranged these bits two by two together again into a neat pile. She would then sew another long line of rectangles together. This process was repeated ad infinitum until she has two large madly 'quilted' sheets together.

The two sheets were sewn together and voila! we had a new blanket with the perfect weight for hot and humid Singapore!

She had so many of these at one point they were taken to an old people's home where they were received with much gratitude.

O, I have digressed. I meant to say: At 5pm sharp, she tidied everything away to prepare the evening meal. The rice will be put on to cook at 5.30pm and dinner would be ready at about 6pm.

Recently I found myself doing virtually the same. Not with making lard from fatty leftovers, but working on chores, the websites, the accounts, the marketing, etc, getting orders ready for despatch, going to the bank to bank cheques, etc, picking son up from school.

He's allowed some time to 'chill' in front of the TV at some point. But by about 5.30pm, I down tools and concentrate on getting the evening meal -- which is the only meal the family has together on a week day.

Some time ago my brother (who works in the UK) visited and I had to take out my sewing box to repair something.

He laughed: "That's just like Mum!"

Yeah, a little metal biscuit box holding all sorts of bibs and bobs, scissors, etc, different coloured threads, buttons of all colours and sizes, for all the little sewing jobs.

Husband despairs sometimes seeing the things I hoard because I am sure these things could be reused. He has never experienced 'want' as I did, and finds it quite hard to understand.

The other fascinating phenomenon is our faces.

My eldest sister is beginning to look just like Mum. Second sister is looking more like Eldest Sister. Third Sister is looking -- hmm -- they always said my looks resembled Third Sister the most. Not any more. I'm more like Second Sister.

So, yes, in a few years' time, I will look just like Mum.

Becoming Mother. It happens to all of us.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

I don't need new blinds!

Nice lady phoned to check up on the state of our conservatory roof blinds.

We had these installed several years ago when the conservatory was added to give us extra room. This room, south-facing, has been great in being my 'drying room'.

I didn't have to wait for sunny days to hang out the washing in the garden or use the tumble dryer any more.

Whatever the weather, my clothes dry nicely -- if into a hard thing -- on the clothes-horse in the conservatory.

"What about the window blinds? We have new blinds on offer. We are having a special sale."

No, thanks. My curtains -- very expensive to make to order -- are doing its job very well.

"But there is a special sale on, up to 25% discount."

I understand, but what do I do with my perfectly good made-to-measure curtains?

I explained to her that it is not eco-friendly just to exchange these curtains for new blinds simply because there is a special offer on.

Why buy/use something new when the old ones are serving me very well.

"But there is a fantastic sale on!"

This young lady hasn't a clue. If people were to spend two to three thousand pounds (at a guess) for new blinds, then they are probably not going to quibble over 10% or 25% discount. So leave me alone.

My cloth curtains -- which had taken lot of pesticides to produce, I imagine -- are doing an OK job. Until this lot falls apart, we do not need new ones.


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Monday, May 14, 2007

Remembering Mother

Yesterday was Mother's Day in Singapore (and America and the rest of the world). UK's 'Mothering Sunday' follows the (Anglican) Church calendar and comes a few weeks before Easter.

Tomorrow would be eight years since my mother died.

I'd been married eight months. I had just completed a first draft of my PhD thesis, writing a chapter in two weeks, about nine hours every day, Monday to Friday.

I planned to visit her in Singapore in June, but when news came that she was unwell and had been in Intensive Care again, we decided that I'd fly back a month earlier.

While I was in Singapore she got well enough to leave the hospital, but only for a couple of days, if that.

I soon had to order a private ambulance to rush her back to the university hospital where all her records were. Dialing emergency service would mean her being taken to the nearest hospital on the wrong side of the island and that was no good to her.

I spent most days by her side, reading my drafts of conference papers, or notes that I had made from when I was able to sneak off to the university library when she was able to sleep.

She was in so much pain that the drugs had become useless. She kept asking her consultant to 'give me something so I could go'.

We planned and strategized what we needed to do when she left the hospital. We would need to move her to another sibling's abode, and hire a maid to look after her full-time. She would have needed to undergo 'water dialysis' to clear her kidneys.

Those of us children who are Christian were also concerned for her spiritual well-being. We shared our faith, read the Bible and prayed with her. But she was very fearful. Very fearful that the God we believe in would not forgive her for what she had done.

But what had she done that was so sinful that she thought an all-forgiving God would not forgive?

She had two back-street abortions. There was a famous Chinese dispenser of Chinese medicine (we tend to call such people 'quacks') to whom all women with unwanted pregnancies went to. He dispensed Chinese herbs for a small fee and the women were rid of their foetuses.

Just like that.

Anyway, after having four babies in little over four years, my mum was in no fit state either physically or mentally to have another baby. There were no family planning methods other than these Chinese herbs.

We talked and we talked whenever she had the energy to talk. Why, she asked, could she not just die when she was in so much pain?

I said, "God will not let you go until you have made peace with Him."

I left her unusually early one evening to meet with some friends for some dinner. Mum was in constant pain and could not rest for more than a few minutes at a time.

I was at the hospital early in the morning again, to help her eat, if necessary. I had the biggest surprise to find her fast asleep. I'd not seen her asleep so peacefully, so deeply, for a very long time.

I couldn't wake her for breakfast. So I left her and found my way to the university library to do some more reading to beef up my thesis.

I remember meeting an old friend and we chatted. She asked, "Why don't you come back to teach. Part-time tutors are paid $x an hour now."

She asked about my mum and I said she was fast asleep at the hospital.

Lunch-time, I headed back to the ward.

Eh? There was an empty space where her bed had stood.

O no! Had she gone into Intensive Care again?

I checked at the Nurse Station. The junior nurse informed a senior nurse that I was the daughter of the patient at bed so-and-so. The senior nurse quickly finished whatever she was doing and took me to a private room and sat down with me. I knew it was not good news.

"Your mum had a massive heart attack soon after you left. We did all we could, but we could not save her. Your brother and sister were here but they could not reach you. "

She told me where the body was lying further down the corridor. I walked gingerly towards the room, opened the door ever so slightly, peeked in to see that she was lying with a very peaceful look on her face, and shut the door.

"Don't you want to spend more time there?" asked the nurse.

"No. She's not in pain any more."

I managed to track down my sister and brother-in-law on the public phone (I didn't have a mobile phone) and we met up at the hospital cafe. It transpired that my brother-in-law had gone to the library, begged the staff there to try to locate me (there are at least five floors in the library). They kindly obliged but they failed to find me.

I had a bite to eat. Sister-in-law joined us and told me how she was there soon after it happened. The three doctors on duty tried to resuscitate her. After several minutes they emerged from behind the curtains, sweating profusely. But Mum was gone.

Then life became a complete whirl as we dispensed jobs to different siblings: organizing the casket and booking a funeral parlour, putting an announcement in the newspapers (I was charged with wording it), collecting the death certificate, deciding on what the funeral 'dress code' would be for the family (do we wear sack-cloth or not?), notifying all the important uncles and aunties, collecting younger children from school, etc, etc. Elder Brother had in fact already made a headstart.

Funerals have to take place very quickly due to the hot and humid weather in Singapore. Even though the body would be embalmed, there was always an urgency. We had to make the decision of whether my husband should fly in from London. We decided against it.

We were very busy for the next couple of days. There were literally hundreds of friends, colleagues and relatives at the wake for three nights. Even former neighbours and people she went on tour with came by after they saw the announcement in the papers. Attending funeral wakes is a social obligation that we learned to discharge from a very young age.

For me it was nice being able to meet up with cousins I had not seen for ages. Then there were concerns over whether feuding factions in the family would behave. (They did, out of respect for Mum).

For the sake of the non-Christian siblings in the family, we agreed to a funeral with Chinese religious rituals. Yet deep down in my heart I wish to believe that my mum did make peace with God before she died.

How else could I explain her having such a peaceful and deep sleep when I left her that morning when she could not doze for more than 20 minutes at any time during all the two weeks that I was by her side?

It does not matter now. The important thing is we each had our chance to do our best for the mother that we loved while she was alive.

I am very thankful that God had given me a mother who, despite her many shortcomings, gave me the wonderful support that she did throughout my life, and not least of all, teaching me that the practical ways in living a 'green' and eco-friendly lifestyle.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Enter Steve Biddulph

My husband alerted me to Steve Biddulph's response to the report that nursery places are being shunned by mothers.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Another letter in The Straits Times

Someone responded to my last letter in the press and my response was published on 5th May 2007.

Spread the 3R message - reduce, reuse, recycle

MR CHIA Hern Keng raised a very good question to my letter, 'Live without plastic bags? Here's how it can be done' (ST, April 28) about whether biodegradable bags are any better.

I, too, have my doubts. Older versions of degradable bags require light to degrade. So putting these in landfill is no good. Newer bags made from corn starch are touted as a greener alternative.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea, however, the biodegradable bag is 'better' than the conventional.

But I think it woeful that food that can be grown to feed the starving millions is used instead to feed our insatiable habits for convenience.

By the same token, I think it is undesirable that bio-fuels are promoted as the alternative to fossil fuels. It is not ethical that even more (subsistence farmers on little family plots) will starve as their lands are acquired by big corporations to grow food to turn into fuel.

Typically the cash the farmer get runs out quickly, they have nothing to feed themselves, one or more members of the family migrate to the city, often landing up in the sordid criminal margins of society there.

If we are happy that our desired lifestyle has those effects on other parts of humanity, then yes, choose bio-fuel.

The real alternative is 'drive less', or use more public transport, or cycle. Walk.

Using less is the 'reduce' part of the '3R' strategy.

I never suggested that 'thick plastic-padded envelopes, empty cereal boxes, plasticised juice cartons, plastic bags that come with loaves of bread, deliveries, junk mail, tissue-paper rolls' were 'free' in any way.

However, if they are already in existence then instead of throwing these away empty into landfill sites it is far better to 'reuse' them a second or even third time. My point was: There is no need to fret over not having plastic bags for our rubbish as we already have alternatives.

My late mother, like others in her generation who went through the Japanese Occupation and experienced deprivation, taught me how to reuse everything. (Yaat mutt yee yung in Cantonese.) She didn't throw away a single jute string, rubber band, newspaper, plastic bag, et cetera, that came into the flat.

She also taught me how to 'recycle'. We did not use the flush mechanism in our toilet as Mum kept bath water and washing machine water in buckets for flushing the toilet.

Even food was recycled. Leftovers were cooked up again, slightly differently and any real waste was put in a 'swill bin' to be collected by the swill collector.

I grew up rebelling against the clutter she was making in our small flat. Now I realise the wisdom of her ways.

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Dr Lee Siew Peng

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Who messed up my washing?

Or boys who know their recycling

As I wrote to my customers in our occasional newsletter:

"For the first time in a while I had a load of washing plastered in shredded paper. My son quickly owned up. Well, it was his seventh birthday and we had taken him and his best friend to a theme park. Every time they were given something to eat and drink they examined the containers to look for the 'recyclable' sign.

"They are studying recycling in their Science topic this term. These little boys can now tell me, 'It says PET and a number one, so it can be recycled.' Not bad. They kept collecting containers to take to the school for their sorting exercise. At some point, son decided to keep the 'recyclable' serviette that was wrapped round his ice-cream cone.

"It was my fault really for not checking those pockets."

The truth is I take for granted that only cloth hankies are used in this house that I've become quite lax (is that the right word) in checking pockets these days.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Live without plastic bags? Here's how it can be done

This is my letter published in the Singapore Straits Times Forum page on 28th April 2007.

'Rubbish chutes' are hollow columns in high-rise flats in Singapore. Each flat has a 'flap-door' in the kitchen wall through which rubbish is disposed. The rubbish falls through these columns/chutes into a bin at ground level and these bins are emptied (usually by foreign workers) every morning.

With the advent of plastic bags in the 1970s, Singaporeans have been asked to put their rubbish in plastic bags to reduce the amount of cleaning required in these chutes.

Live without plastic bags? Here's how it can be done

FROM some letters on the use of plastic bags, it appears that some Singaporeans think the world would end if they didn't get their 'free' plastic bags.

And we take our rubbish chutes for granted.

Here, in the United Kingdom, where we pay more than £2,000 (S$6,060) in annual council tax (for refuse disposal, etc), I have to sort rubbish into three different types (plastic/paper/metal/glass which can be recycled, organic rubbish which can be composted, and the rest which goes into landfill).

We also have to wheel the correct bins onto the boundary of the property the evening before 'bin day' once a week. Different bins are collected in different weeks. Wheel the wrong bin out on the wrong day or put the wrong rubbish in the wrong bin and it won't be emptied until the offending 'contamination' is removed, or suffer a fine.

What we need is a sea-change in our attitude towards plastic.

It is not difficult to fold up a plastic/cloth bag to leave in one's handbag. Or why not try alternatives like a string bag? Where we once used six to eight plastic bags for our weekly food shopping, we now put everything into four reusable, washable and biodegradable string bags.

When I plan to buy food home, I go with my tiffin carrier or other reusable containers - just like our parents used to do.

We must stop thinking in terms of the price of a plastic bag. Think instead of how much you value the earth that your children and grandchildren must live in. There is a cost to our profligate reliance on plastic usage. When our children have to pay for it in another way, is the plastic bag really that 'cheap'?

Rubbish chutes are not an inalienable right. I am sure we can come up with an alternative. Meanwhile, if we are concerned about dirty chutes, why not buy some biodegradable plastic bags?

If we look carefully there are all sorts of containers we can reuse for the chute: used, thick plastic-padded envelopes, empty cereal boxes, plasticised juice cartons (tear open the top and fill with rubbish, roll top back down and secure with rubber bands), plastic bags that come with loaves of bread, deliveries, junk mail, tissue-paper rolls, etc. If all else fails, use several layers of newspaper and secure with rubber bands.

We can live without plastic bags.

Dr Lee Siew Peng
Middlesex, UK

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

To stay or not to stay -- at home

It's the long-ish Easter break and of course there was no time to blog.

But I do know that lots of working mothers have taken advantage of the long Easter weekend to go away with the family. Those who have not been able to take time off, well, their children have been organized to go to Easter camps.

Me? I had son about, "Please may I play PSP?" every five minutes or so. He knows the answer is "no, unless ...." but he still tries.

Then I have orders to fill, new exciting products to be launched (hopefully), etc. But that is another story.

Recent news reports started me thinking -- again -- about the 'to stay or not to stay at home' question.

First, an economist EQ in Singapore tried to analyze the cost of mothers staying at home. I found most of his arguments as holey as fishnet tights. But they wouldn't publish my response to his "essay".

Then Leslie Bennetts in The Times noted that should a mother decide to stay at home and then face the misfortune of splitting up with her husband/partner, she would have lost out a lot, or the lot.

So basically what EQ in Singapore argued about the cost of staying at home actually only comes to bear in the situation of divorce as The Times writer pointed out.

Then we have to juxtapose these two points of view against another report: that children who have spent more than 35 hours a week in day nursery are more anti-social.

Or that 'sixty boys aged four were expelled — three times as many as in 2003-04' (read report here).

One wonders: how can an under-five learn bad and/or violent behaviour?

To me it is very simple, be firm with your children before they are three. Give them love, but teach them boundaries. When they feel secure in your love, you can punish and withdraw privileges in order to demarcate boundaries, and they will be fine.

When we can do this, or entrust others to do this, whether others are grandparents, au pairs or nursery workers, then children will thrive.

The problem is when grandparents dote on grandchildren and disregard your strict instructions to forbid certain types of behaviour.

Or au pairs are too frightened to stand firm on your instructions not to give way.

Or nursery staff find it easier to give in rather than insist on your child behaving in a certain manner.

The point is: why bother to have a child when he/she has to be 'farmed out' to 'professionals' for more than 35 hours a week Mondays to Fridays?

That is seven hours a week. If children of that age spend 12 hours or more asleep, take away travel times, etc, one has less than fours hours a day with one's child.

And most of this time will be harried, either getting them to eat, dress, undress, get into the car, get out of the car, get to sleep, wake up from sleep. The adult might convince himself/herself that this is 'quality time', but from the child's perspective 'home' is more like a B&B. He/She lives the real life in the nursery.

Therefore nursery is where these children must stake their claim, mark their territory, learn to be bossy -- which is not a bad thing in itself -- to the point of being anti-social, manipulating adults as well if necessary to ensure that they know who's the boss.

I have seen how children cannot be controlled by adults when they are three, and I suspect it would be difficult to control these children when they are five, seven and thirteen. I think the government is barking up the wrong tree by trying to get (single) mothers off benefits and back to work.

These are probably the very women who need to stay at home, learn a proper skill, or at least learn basic parenting skills, and educate themselves further so that they can be of help to their children when they get older.

There ought to be many more facilities where children can learn alongside their mothers. Children all over the world do that, on farms, in their cottage industries, etc. Sending children of such mothers to nursery will only exacerbate the insecurity that these children might feel.

Bad behaviour learned at a young age will disadvantage them at school. Exclusions, expulsions, lack of purpose will lead to poor qualifications and low job prospects. Some might to crime, yes, or remain in a 'cycle of poverty'.

I suspect the government has a hidden agenda here. It is no more politically correct say, give your babies up for adoption if they are 'illegitimate'. Short of removing such babies by force and giving them a chance to do better in a probably middle-class home, the government are urging mothers to leave their babies to middle-class professionals in the hope that this would make a positive influence on the child by the time they are three.

Unfortunately, babies are babies and they are not to be manipulated this way. They have a special need for and trust in mothers. Break this trust and you break something else in the meanwhile.

For me, the greater challenge is to make it easier for mothers to return to work when their children are older. Stay home when children are young, establish boundaries, build strong bonds, learn to trust each other, then when mother returns to meaningful work that enhances their living standards, children can feel the pride of having a mother who brings home enough/more money to make them live more/comfortable lives.

That is empowerment. It is empowerment that lifts women and their children out of the cycle of poverty.

It is not that leaving children in nurseries in itself is bad. I often say that had I known the difficulties that my child now faces as an only child looked after solely by his mother, then I would have paid for the privilege of letting him learn to interact with other children before he started pre-school.

As a social anthropologist who is often very sensitive to 'divides', I see the British government as tending to have 'one size fits all' policies because it is politically incorrect to do otherwise. (Compare this to the 'family planning' policies in Singapore where children born into familes of the 'wrong size' used to be discriminated against when it came to choice of primary school.) The result is the policy fits no one at all and does not achieve the purpose for which it was designed.

Yes, I do think they need more social anthropologists in government.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Blast from the past

Out of the blue a former classmate emailed to say my year group at secondary school has started an online group, please join. So I dutifully did.

First I read the posts and was tickled pink by several posts. Us 'old girls' have a great sense of humour indeed. Nostalgia struck as some of us recalled happy and less-than-happy events, but boy! it makes me feel old.

But the good thing about the year group is, of course, everyone knows exactly how old you are, and there is no need to pretend to be anything else.

It was the Singlish that surprised me. We were in the 'premier school' in Singapore. We were taught to speak 'proper'. And now this bunch of old girls -- 'housewives', teachers, doctors, accountants, etc. -- are speaking/writing a language that we were not allowed to speak.

I'm sure these old girls don't speak to their children and business associates like this either. How interesting is that?

So I have already been chastised for writing too 'proper'. Having lived outside Singapore since 1991, I only hear Singlish for the two weeks or so that I get to spend in Singapore every two years. Not enough, I'm afraid.

I am also further handicapped by not having learned to speak 'Hokkien', another Chinese language (but designated a 'dialect' by the Singapore authorities), on which grammar Singlish is supposedly based.

So I learn from my more learned friends.

What is this thing about growing older and feeling the urge to reconnect with our past, and taking the opportunity to rebel, do something we were not allowed to do when we were at school, etc?

All this makes me a bit homesick actually. People -- including husband -- sometimes forget that I remain a foreigner in this country ( I have the passport to prove it).

While I feel truly at home with my family in the physical home that we live, my inner-most, deepest, most profound feeling of home is when I touch down at Changi Airport. That is the gateway to my home, the place of my birth.

Or as the older Chinese would say, my xiang xia (Mandarin) or heong har (Cantonese).

Which reminds me how it only makes it more painful for those children of immigrant parents in UK who have never known another homeland and yet get asked so often by total strangers -- because of their colour of skin -- 'And where are you from?'.

My immigrant father always thought of that little village in China as his heong har, and for me, Singapore will always be my xiang xia, whether or not I am able to speak Singlish as Singlish should be spoken,

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Happy Mother's Day ... ?

Husband took us to a nice pub for lunch on the Saturday before Mother's Day. He knew we wouldn't be able to get a booking any where for Mother's Day itself. To be honest, I wouldn't like to be stuck at a restaurant on Mother's Day at all.

Old couple sat next to us. Old man dropped something under the table. Old wife went, 'O! I guess I would have to crawl underneath there to get it for you.'

I wondered if I should have offered to help, but had no idea what he was looking for. (It turned out to be something to do with his diabetes testing equipment, I think.)

Finally their family arrived. A daughter came in, 'Happy Mother's Day!' and she never seemed to make eye contact with her mum again. I thought that was a bit odd.

Daughter recounted how many awards a son had been given since the last time they spoke. A few of them then disappeared to order their food.

Meanwhile Mum was left with daughter's young daughter. And to my horror, Granny made grand-daughter take out a book in order to read aloud to Granny.

Much as my young son enjoys reading, we have a rule that no reading is allowed at the table.

A family meal is surely not a time to test how well young grand-daughter has learned to read.

Now, does that explain why after a loud but curt 'Happy Mother's Day!' there was no eye contact between mother and daughter?

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

China awakening

It was good news to wake up to on Monday morning: Today's presenter asked if China was really going green following Prime Minister Wen Jia Bao's pronouncements at the opening of the Chinese parliament. (I didn't actually hear that report as I then had to get on with getting a child off to school.)

Critics have often argued: why bother to do anything to 'save' the environment when China and USA do not come aboard? Well, here is a glimmer of hope that something is being done, or will be done, in China.

We now await the US to get out of their slumber.

The environment issue is a zero-sum game. Something has to give at some time. Resources are limited. It takes a brave politician to go against the tide to say "enough is enough". Sustainaable development requires us to stop plundering and poisoning the earth as we are doing now.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007


I recently wrote this in my occasional newsletter to Organic-Ally customers:

“I write this as my son is being taken to the cinema by another parent at school. Since he first went to the cinema as a three-year-old (as a birthday treat for a five-year-old friend) son has refused to return to the cinema because he finds the sound simply too loud.

He only agreed to go today because we sent him off with some cotton wool to stuff into his ears. I wonder if you, too, think that cinemas have become too loud for the good of young children (and even adults) these days.

I once researched 'noise tolerance and social classes' and learned that extended exposure to loud noise can lead to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). An audiologist I met in Australia said she would NEVER use a 'personal stereo' type of gadget.

Part of me also thinks that noise and violence go together. Excessive noise raises certain chemicals in our body which in turn raise our blood pressure, apparently. Tell me what you think.”

Some customers wrote back and here's a selection of their views (used with their permission):

I definitely think that cinemas are too loud. I can't go any more - I know I have a problem with noise because I have Lyme disease, but it is a not just people like me and your son who have problems I'm sure.

With best wishes

T. R.

I quite agree about cinema sound being too loud. I believe that if you are 'subjected' to sound loud enough to leave a ringing in your ears then damage which is irreversible has been done. This plays some part in the deterioration of hearing that seems to be accepted as we grow older.

The last cinema trip was particularly annoying as the volume was too loud for the speakers resulting in distortion and poor quality sound. It would have been a much better experience had the volume been a couple of notches lower but fashion seems to dictate increasing volumes.

Non mainstream venues may well be a better option for children (and adults). The Galeri in Caernarfon near my home has a special screening for parents and chidren on occasional afternoons. Another local theatre plays some mainstream and some obscure films with sound at a sensible level.

Maybe there is somewhere like that near you. I have always been grateful that my parents insisted on me keeping my personal stereo volume to a level where only I could hear it. I really appreciate having got to 30 with pretty good hearing and the ability to enjoy sounds at a sensible level!

Kind regards,


How wonderful to find someone else who finds the noise of the modern world just a bit too much. I love silence, or rather, quietness because silence is very rare. I work as a gardener as I often need to stop to get my breath after hauling logs, lopping branches or whatever (and to blow my nose on an Organic-Ally hankie! :) ).

I listen. I hear birds, wind, the sea (200 metres away), our hens, and my own breathing. I love it – the sounds of natural life, not the frenetic, over-loud, mind-numbing stuff that most people seem to need to get them through the day.

I love music. I play the harp and I enjoy listening to certain kinds of music sometimes. What I don't understand is the apparent need for constant electronic/machine noise that many people have. What is it? Fear of reality?

Lovely to hear from you.

Kind regards,

H. A-R

Thanks for your latest e-mail newsletter. I just wanted to get back to you and say yes - cinemas are very loud these days! I used to go to the cinema a lot more than I do now, but on the last few occasions I've been, I've almost jumped out of my seat when the adverts came on. Throughout the first few minutes of any showing, I'm almost wincing at the sound levels, but you slowly get used to it.

You're absolutely right though - I do think a noisy world is a more aggressive world. A bit more peace would do us all some good.

Best wishes,


Typically son would wait till a movie is out on DVD or is aired on TV before he watches the movie. He's very patient that way. Still he is able to tell us much about movies we have not seen just from listening to what his friends at school tell him.

Another problem I have is with ‘telephone noise’: noise from people shouting into their phones. Here’s a letter in The Times yesterday which made me chuckle:

I’m on the bus

I feel like starting to campaign for a "Turn Off Your Mobile Phone Today" Day.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Not so slow boat from China

Husband alerted me to this article by Michael Sheridan on Timesonline . It quantifies what we have known for a long time.

To China for the holy grail: a price of 99p

I particularly like the comment by Russell Brocklehurst which follows the article.

The point is: do we need to buy all those things that are being hawked at 'cheap' shops, websites and auction sites?

Who pays the price of the poor health which the young factory girls suffer in return for the pittance they are paid so that we can have our trinkets?

We must begin to retreat from living in this disposable world before these non-biodegradable 'disposables' bury us ... literally.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Olivers -- here's my twist

Oliver James calls for an effort to "raise the status of the parental role" because presently "being a stay-at-home mother has a lower one than that of streetsweeper".

OJ is right in that stay-at-home mothers (SAHMs) have a very low status and possibly even lower self-esteem. And, following from previous post, this is part of the reason middle-class familes are disintegrating. His 'affluenza virus' theory applies most to this class of people, I think.

Middle-class families are falling apart because the desire for material goods means that couples often lock themselves into a financial bind which requires both of them to work full-time. A stay-at-home parent (even part-time) is no more an option.

Or couples believe that they are so well-trained and well-educated that it will be a real pity should either leave their profession or career (but less so 'job') to concentrate on child-rearing.

So childcare is farmed out as much as is possible. Children grow up to become strangers to their parents. Time outside school is carefully scheduled with tennis, swimming, piano, violin, ballet, gymnastics, etc, etc. so that children are exhausted by the time exhausted parents get home.

Weekends are again rounds of frenetic activities with football, birthday parties, sleepovers, tennis, swimming, piano, violin, ad nauseum.

In a study I conducted in Singapore a few years ago, funded by the august British Academy, no less, I found many graduate mothers deciding that 'enough is enough'. They decided to be completely counter-cultural, go against the tide, give up their careers to focus on their children.

For most, if not all of them, this means having to accept a lower standard of living, but they found this all very worthwhile. The hardest bit of being a SAHM was in preventing their brains from turning into mush.

But being the intelligent women that these mothers are in the first place, many have found ways and means of getting around this problem.

So there are families, like ours, that do without two or three foreign holidays a year, without that second car, or the live-in nanny/au pair, and new clothes every season. (With less disposable income, we also do with less junk food, curiously enough.)

Careers have been put on hold because we know full well that children will not remain children forever. They grow up, become more and more independent, and then they fly the nest. But we take advantage of these formative years to mould their character.

Instead of saying "What a waste that we are not using our university education?" we say "Surely we can give our own flesh-and-blood a better education than other (probably much less well qualified) childcare providers."

Instead of looking at our "years of fallow" at home as years of waste, we take these as years spent on "investing" in the social and moral development of our offspring.

There is a danger, however, that if we extrapolated the argument that a parent (usually the mother) should provide full-time care, sooner or later the reasoning will come to a point: why bother to educate women at all?

Why bother to educate women indeed when they are merely to be bearers and carers of babies? So JO's assertion is in danger of being hijacked by some backward thinking males (or even females) that will remove the privileges of education that women in many cultures have so long taken for granted.

The argument is instead -- in my view -- to make re-entering the workforce easier for women who have had to take a break for childcare reasons. A nurse friend of ours worked one day a week at some point, and increased the number of days as her child grew older.

One day a week? Most employers won't allow this as this is too much of a hassle to organize. But when the women concerned are skilled professionals who need to keep at practising their skills or risk losing their license, or who need to practise to keep abreast with protocol, then working a day a week while her child/ren go to a day nursery is a profitable compromise.

So, equally, it will be disingenuous to assume that all forms of childcare outside the home is bad. In my particular situation, I wished that I had exposed my son to a little bit more of such care when he was younger. This is because as an only child he is deprived of the kind of exposure to social skills that children in care and children with siblings soon develop.

Feminism has indeed gone wrong to lead us to believe that women can only be as good as men if they behave as "men in skirts" (as JO calls them).

I say this from the unusual and perhaps unfortunate position as being considered in my time at university as being "too feminist to be a Brethren" by my mates in the Varsity Christian Fellowship and "too Christian to be feminist" by my colleagues at the Sociology Department.

The truth is I believe in the right of all women in reaching their fullest potential through education and work opportunities. I always spoke up for the 'rights of women' in the Christian church. At the same time I believe that women should also have the option to choose what she has been made to do better than men: in the nurture of very young children.

Am I perpetuating the myth that women should stay at home?

On the contrary.

When graduate (and often non-graduate) mothers in Singapore work, they leave their children to a paid foreign servant girl. What their sons and daughters see therefore is a woman being paid lowly wages to do what they consider 'lowly work'. They hold little respect for such women.

When I stay at home and talk to my son about science, space, algebra, philosophy, religion, music, art, the position of women in God's creation, the need to be charitable to those less fortunate, his own responsiblity as a grown-up, his citizenship both here on earth and in heaven, he is seeing how clever (or not) I am and I am shaping his view of the world and and especially his view of women in the world.

Feminists have proposed the use of new language (eg 'person' instead 'man', 'manunkind' instead of 'mankind', 'her-story' instead of 'history') to 'right the balance' in our man-centric language. They have forgotten that children grow up to speak their 'mother tongue', but only if mother is around to speak with them.

When I, as an educated mother, take the time to explain my interpretation of this (man-centric) language to my child, I have a better chance of helping him to use it in an unbiased way than the lowly-paid servant girl, nanny or au pair who does not speak English all that well.

I have a better chance than any au pair in convincing my son that women can be just as clever and strong as men, but in different ways. They may be a full-time mother, but it does not make them less equal than man.

So, yes, for my strain of feminism progress, I need women like myself who are happy to take on the mothering role willingly.

Then families will once again be able to 'do family' seven days a week, and not on weekends only. If sacrifices have to be made, children will learn that what is advertised on TV is not the ultimate solution to their growing-up pangs.

If a child (and especially a son) belongs so completely to the mother as Steve Biddulph asserts, then these first six years are when mothers need to bond with their sons.

After this, sons want to be 'just like Dad'. Women then can think about returning to work without feeling guilty. It comes back to the (bigger? more important?) question of what employers can do to ease such women back into work.

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