Monday, December 29, 2008

Waste, want, morals, greed

UK's holiday waste smashes all records

Too much packaging. Haven't we heard it before? These days I tend to walk away from stuff that I might buy, but don't, purely because there is too much unnecessary packaging. (Or if the packaging is not as eco-friendly as comparable products.)

Of course this has its roots in 'stuff' travelling very long distances to come to us. Toys, fruit, cake, etc. Where food is concerned we also have the problems with preservatives.

Take festival times. It used to be -- at least in my experience with Chinese New Year, Autumn Festival, etc -- that festive goods were made in our locality and we bought these as close as possible to the times we needed these items.

My father was a pork butcher, and two nights before Chinese New Year the wet market would open in the evening instead of the morning. There the housewives gathered to 'fight' over the freshest seafood, pork and vegetables they could get their hands on.

At home, in between homework and Extra-Curricular Activities, most of us would be busy helping mum, grandmother or an aunt making the festive goodies. We then took these round to the relatives close to us, and kept some for entertaining our own guests over the 15 days of Chinese New Year.

Nowadays everything comes in double-triple layers of packaging from some factory in some country that we know little of.

Then also we are now forced to buy some types of ordinary foods in such large quantities we don't have a chance of eating it up before they rot. It's all to do with profit margins, of course. (Meanwhile people across the world are starving because they don't have any.)

I must confess that as a result I sometimes would buy a small pack of assorted vegetables instead of buying them separately. I know they would go in the pot the very same day (or the next).

Bishops target Gordon Brown in damning attack on Labour

And a few bishops are taking some politicians to task. O no! The politicians are not taking this lying down.

The fact is the bubble was clear to see. OK, we didn't understand that the triple-A rating money products were not exactly triple-A because there was some collusion between the rating agency/agencies and the banks, etc. But the fact that people were borrowing far too much -- for their properties, for their cars, for their renovations, holidays, CLOTHES -- was clear.

Still no politician was keen to breathe a word about it. No, no, no, we must not 'talk down' the economy when the going is good. It would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. End-result: so many of us are now destroyed, either because we have lost jobs or our savings, or both. (The politicians, meanwhile, still hold on to their handsome pensions and huge expense accounts. Cool.)

Joblessness is so soul-destroying.

I come from a 'saving culture'. From early on in our lives we were taught to save. My parents opened a bank account for me when I was very young. It came with a Donald Duck saving bank. I put away whatever was left over of my meagre pocket money. Come Chinese New Year or birthdays, the ang pow/hongbao/red packet money went straight into the bank.

The Donald Duck was then taken to the bank and the cashier would count out all the money and tell me how much richer I was.

I could not find anything similar when I tried opening a child account for our son. Then there also strange rules about parents and grandparents not being able to give more than a certain amount of money to one's grand/child for tax purposes.

Instead I see my son's mates spending their parents' money buying useless cards from the Londis shop to exchange at school. A complete waste of money.

Any way, what has happened is very much the result of greed. There is nothing wrong with money or even having lots of money. The Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of this world have given generously. We know. Others have given equally generously but rather more quietly to charities.

But there are those who love money too much. After you've made your first million, how much more happiness can you buy with the next million that you make? And the next?

It's back to the LOVE OF MONEY being the root of all evil.

We still do not know how much Mr B Madoff made off. How much more money does he need, I asked. My husband suggested that it was not money that motivated him, it was the thrill of doing something so outrageous and getting away with it that provided the adrenalin.

Maybe. But in the end both ordinary people and those who love to have even more money became victims.

It has been said that the economy has had a positive impact on the environment. Not because people are starting to care more for the environment as such. But the necessary consequence of spending less is a greatly reduced carbon footprint.

People are switching to cooking more at home, taking fewer holidays, etc. All this will be good for our fragile earth, I think.

For a start, I hope there are far fewer devotees worshipping at the altar of nearly disposable fashion.

I've just made the pineapple filling for some tarts to put me in the Chinese New Year spirit.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008


We did something unusual this year. We took off to mum-in-law's the week before Christmas. It was a short, pleasant visit.

Amidst the doom and gloom I had to fight my own battles. On the Friday before Christmas my GP told me rather nonchalantly that I have arthritis.

Nothing much we could do, it seems. Physiotherapy was prescribed and if I am lucky (lucky??) I might be seen by a physio six weeks down the road and he/she might be able to prescribe exercises to prevent the arthritis from getting worse. Ouch!

Surely I am too young to get arthritis? GP said he's had arthritis since he was 32.

Was that supposed to cheer me up?

Apparently my kind of arthritis has to do with 'things' growing from my spine affecting the spinal cord. This was causing numbness in my fingers, leading to an x-ray which confirmed it.

Well, if my body can make boney material where there isn't supposed to be, does that mean that I am in no danger of suffering osteoporosis then?

Dunno. Actually I was so shocked by the diagnosis that I didn't get to ask many questions at the surgery. I found out more about my condition on the internet.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Educating girls

The news about the conviction of Shannon Matthews's mum -- although a foregone conclusion to many, it seemed -- left me quite sick in the stomach.

Actually I WAS sick in the stomach. Having gone to the hospital on Monday for an X-ray it appeared that I picked up a bug. I was sick Tuesday evening and could not hold my food down for the day.

Recovered sufficiently well on Wednesday I thought but there is still a constant discomfort in my stomach. There! Set the record straight.

I revisited this blog and was a bit amused to then find this report: 'Educate girls to stop population soaring' . Basically it tells us that "the longer girls stay at school, the fewer children they have" and reducing the population is critical to the sustainability of the earth.

And on Women's Hour this morning -- only because I was too ill to get to do what I normally do this time of day -- I learned that the cervical cancer rate is highest amongst women who come from the lower social classes and more deprived areas.

What can I say?

A few weeks ago I met a boy brought to our toddler group by his grandmother. I found myself describing this boy to my co-workers as "a boy who does not know how to play".

He went to the table with the Duplo pieces and started sweeping everything off the table until some mothers stopped him.

Then he saw the jigsaws. All he wanted to do was remove the pieces from the board and throw them on the floor.

I took a few pieces of Duplo and approached him, showing him how to play with them. His grandmother quickly told me, "He knows. He has those at home."

Later on I asked, "Has he got brothers and sisters?"

"Yes!" grandmother said, "Five," and then continued, "Five brothers and five sisters." In fact the mother has just had another baby.

We do not probe when they come to us. But they look like they have come from the Horn of Africa where there is still the practice of large families.

The poor boy ended being held on to by the grandmother for the rest of the session to keep him out of trouble. I said she must bring him back again so that he could learn to play. Unfortunately I've not seen them again.

Some people think that educating girls is a waste of money. I know many families who stinge and save to put their sons in private schools. The girls? Well, any state school would do. (Of course they do tell me that it is a good state school. But somehow not good enough for the brother/s.)

My late father used to say with great pride that he held no such prejudice and made sure we all had ample basic schooling. Thank God for that.

Others think that my doing a PhD was a waste as I am not using it for any financial gain.

I am blessed to have had a good education. Yet I believe that just because I am well educated it does not mean that I must make some grand sums of money from that fact.

Rather, having an education has given me the choice. I could have chosen to return to a lucrative career. It is a choice that this mother of eleven or the Sharon Matthews's of the world probably do not have.

Much (not all) of this world's ills could be alleviated if only women, and especially young women, could be empowered. And the best way to empower them -- whether or not they then choose to be full-time mothers or career women -- is to educate them so that they could have a choice.

If all else fails, their children could expect to have some better parenting input.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Climate change: yay or nay? (Part III)

This is to follow up an earlier post.

I had just been out to pick my son up. I was pleased to have had my hat on. I was 'freezen'. I prefer the word 'freezen' to 'frozen'. Don't ask me why.

There had also been occasions when I was standing on the school playground and hear other parents complain that the weather had been too hot. "Global warming", we all agreed, and then lament a few weeks later than summer had passed us by. "What summer?"

We blinked and the warm dry weather had gone. For the year, it seemed.

I also remember someone expressing her fear for little creatures disappearing because they will not be able to cope with the warmer weather. "Yes," I said, "that is probably the case. But nature always finds a way to adapt. Some parts of the UK, it seems are able to produce grapes. Some people are pleased."

I'm in a business which has a 'mission' to protect the environment. I cannot be certain if our CO2 emissions are to blame for global warming. But adopting a version of Pascal's wager, then it is safer to err on the side of caution.

I have, however, never been a fan of the concept of carbon-trading. I think it is merely a money-making idea that someone has come up with, and the powers-that-be said, "Hurray! We can now continue to pollute with a clear conscience."

But I believe that we must do our best to reduce the use of fossil fuels. It has nothing to do with global warming as such. Too many wars have been fought (and are being fought) over oil. We have become so dependent on oil, and I think if we wish our future generations to have a life as comfortable as ours, it is our duty to conserve the use of oil.

I believe that we must also conserve our forests. These have taken years and years to grow and play their part in absorbing the CO2 and providing biodiversity. To have ancient trees felled just so that we could have the convenience of blowing our noses onto pieces of virgin tree pulp? When there are alternatives why don't we try them?

Biodiversity is important. Organic agriculture (and horticulture) depends on the symbiosis of different species co-existing. Monocultures weaken the eco-system. Compare with a human grouping blessed only with one strength, eg. in having extremely good hearing. But what good is it to have good hearing if all the individuals in this group have no legs?

Eco-systems thrive when there is a sufficiently large basis for that difference and diversity.

And that is why even when wood/paper is said to come from 'sustainably managed sources' it is still best to curb our wanton usage that only feeds the logic for monocultures.

I believe we must reduce the use of pesticides. The costs to the earth, water and human beings is far too high. Our desire for cheap cotton and cheap food only feed the rich multi-national companies that churn out these chemicals which sometimes kill their own workers. Why go down this road when we know there is an alternative?

I guess when I distil my thoughts on this matter, it is better to err on the side of caution. So I reduce my flying and driving, turn off unnecessary lights, buy local as much as possible, etc. Even if/when global warming is found to be a sham, the other issues mentioned here concerning fossil fuels, pesticides, biodiversity, etc. still matter.

The good news is we can do something about these.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Small and Proud

OK, I must confess I am a Strictly Come Dancing fan. As I started this post I thought of Heather Small because I could hear her song, "What have you done today to make you feel proud?"

Or something like that.

Our freezer continues to be rather bare and we are wasting much less food than we used to.

Amongst other things I learned that though sliced bread is convenient a whole loaf of bread keeps better.

Like many people I know I am hopeless at slicing bread. It usually looks OK when I start at the top but 'it' usually disappears before the knife gets to the bottom of the loaf and I'd have a slice of bread with no crust on the bottom half. Not any good for toasting as it would burn.

It was interesting then to hear mum-in-law congratulate herself on being able to slice bread quite well when she was over to mind our child over a weekend. "Your bread knife is nice and heavy and it goes straight down."

Even mum-in-law who had difficulty slicing bread found it easy enough when using our bread knife. That gave me a lot of confidence.

Now we buy whole loaves, and with only one surface exposed after that first cut, our bread is lasting longer. There is less 'surface area' for mould to get going. And even if it does get mouldy, one could just slice off that offending bit. (Downside: no bread-and-butter pudding!)

Because I am slight of build I always opted for light tools. But it takes a heavy bread knife to help me do a good job of slicing bread. So what seems a logical choice/move does not always give the best result. Just listen to my son here.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Welcome to ice-free Chez SP

It was interesting to read Waste watchers: Save cash and the environment .

If there is one up-side to the 'credit crunch', recession, whatever you choose to call it, a wave of belt-tightening seems to be having a positive impact on the environment.

Our bills, like other households, have been going up and up. But there is nothing we could cut from our shopping. We buy roughly the same every week.

It reminds me of the 'epiphany' I had years ago. I made an undergraduate mission trip to Thailand. I was there for a month and packed everything into one bag.

Then I went to an undergraduate conference which lasted about five days. I still needed that same bag to carry the things I needed.

I chided myself for a few minutes for having packed too much for the conference. Then it dawned on me: Did I carry too much for my five-day conference, or was I travelling really light for the month that I was in Thailand?

The 'muchness' really came out the 'very little' in my Thailand trip.

So it was that we had to admit that it was not possible for us to 'cut back' any more because we have not been spending money on sweets, crisps, cakes, snacks, etc.

However, we are learning to be more creative with leftovers. Come Friday I 'run a little restaurant'. On the menu are ... and we have fun 'ordering' the leftovers from earlier in the week and pretending that we are eating out.

(My son has to have an early dinner before disappearing to Cubs, so this is great.)

Last week we had a most 'cathartic' experience. We defrosted the freezer.

It has been eleven years since the freezer was first switched on and it has never been defrosted.

Periodically a tiny gap of air (usually from flimsy plastic packaging) causes a build-up of ice. So the last two weeks had been re-discovering what we had been storing in there.

Leftovers we thought we would eat up, but had forgotten, bargains we thought we could make use of, but forgotten, bags of peas and sweetcorn bought by visitors for cooking their own meals which got left behind, and forgotten, one ice-cube of Dolmio sauce in a plastic bag (I used to freeze leftover sauce in an ice cube tray for when son needs a tiny portion of pasta, but now he eats a massive portion of pasta!).

It felt really good that we were getting rid of this 'stuff' that could remain for another eleven years. We put a bowl of steaming water in the freezer and shut the lid. Soon the ice sheets were falling away to whoops of joy from my husband.

Now we are starting afresh, with a freezer that is nearly empty. In fact it is so bare that we wonder if we really do need it.

We used to think buying in bulk and freezing the surplus is good budgeting. Part of me says I am not sure about this any more when we realize the energy that is being chewed up by the freezer and the current prices we are paying. Is it a false economy?

Perhaps when we can find a suitable fridge freezer it would be time to find a new home for the freezer (and the fridge). But then we worry about those rare occasions when we do not have enough room in the fridge for chilled foods when we have lots of guests and fear losing fridge space when we go fridge-freezer.

Hmm, how do we get around that?

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Charity and a culture of dependency

This is an edited version of my letter published in the Straits Times in Singapore:


Oct 22, 2008
Charity and a culture of dependency

IN READING what Mr Willie Cheng had to say about the non-profit sector, ('Good Principles', Oct 12), I was struck by the following point he made: 'Charities should seek extinction rather than growth. The mantra of business is growth.

'The opposite applies to non-profits. Non-profits are created to achieve societal change. Ultimate success occurs when the non-profit's mission is achieved and its existence is no longer needed.'

What a timely reminder amid the current context of big banks (formerly 'cooperative building societies') becoming 'super-banks', the dependence on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in disaster zones, and nearer home, the 'mega-churches'. I realised that NGOs, mothers (and fathers), teachers and missionaries have one aim in common: to work ourselves out of a job.

Last week, our eight-year-old (already responsible for keeping his own space tidy) offered to clean the dining area. Hurrah! I have one role less to play.

The first violin teacher of famed Israeli violinist Maxim Vengerov said that there was nothing else she could teach him after two years, and she sent him away to find another teacher. If teachers do not encourage their pupils to move beyond what they are able to teach, we stunt the pupils' growth.

Mega-churches? What's the point?

If a church has non-profit status, that is, it pays no taxes, then it too should heed what Mr Cheng has to say. They must achieve societal (or spiritual) change, and move on. If the church leaders are doing their job well, that is, working themselves out of a job, then there should be new cohorts of church members willing and raring to pioneer churches where the needs are greatest.

If they choose instead to run themselves as a business by using tithes to seek growth and profits, then they must cease to call themselves a church or a charity.

Be that as it may, all these groups would do well to 'seek extinction'. There is a term for the phenomenon of institutions which start ostensibly as 'helping hands' to those with specific needs, but then develop mechanisms that make the needy even deeper in need. It's called a 'culture of dependency'.

Dr Lee Siew Peng


The original link will be available for a few more days.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Climate change: yay or nay? (Part II)

OK, just inserting a link in a post does not constitute much of a blog. The truth is I need to think, cogitate, over this one.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Friday, October 10, 2008

Chinese DVD sellers/Illegal migration

We see them often in shopping areas, Chinese illegals hawking illegal DVDs. Here is a spine-chilling story of one of these who did not get away.

I am very disappointed that humanity could produce specimens that know only to exploit other human beings. When the scientists tell us that the natural world is always evolving to be better, I have my doubts.

Though we have made many advances in technology and medicine, our morality seems to be in constant decline.

From the Independent: This murder illuminates a darker truth

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A gracious Singaporean? (JBJ dies.)

Yesterday was a sad day for me. The leading opposition politician in Singapore Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam died suddenly from a heart attack. He was 82. I didn't think I would, but I did, shed tears.

My only significant encounter with JBJ was at Gleneagles Hospital when his late wife and my late mother were both patients there at the same time. He looked very tired but still acknowledged us when we realized who he was and kind of waved. (His wife died in 1980.)

I was an impressionable and impoverished undergraduate in 1981 when he won the by-election at Anson. That was indeed a politicial milestone.

There are several obituaries here:

Singapore opposition icon J.B. Jeyaretnam dies fighting (AFP)

Singapore opposition head Jeyaretnam dies (IHT)

Death of Singaporean maverick (FT)

And then there is the 'letter of condolence' written by the prime minister of Singapore to his grieving sons:



30 September 2008

Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam
Mr Philip Jeyaretnam

Dear Kenneth and Philip Jeyaretnam

I was sad to learn that your father, Mr Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, has passed away.

Mr JB Jeyaretnam was a Member of Parliament for Anson constituency from 1981 till 1986, and a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament from 1997 till 2001. He used to engage in heated debates in the House. Perhaps it was because he and the PAP never saw eye to eye on any major political issue and he sought by all means to demolish the PAP and our system of government. Unfortunately, this helped neither to build up a constructive opposition nor our Parliamentary tradition. Nevertheless, one had to respect Mr JB Jeyaretnam's dogged tenacity to be active in politics at his age.

However, our differences were not personal. In 1993, one of you (Kenneth) wrote to Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was then Prime Minister, to say that you found employers in Singapore reluctant to offer you a job, and your only explanation was that the employers felt the authorities would not welcome your employment because of your name. Mr Goh replied with a letter which could be shown to prospective employers, to say that the government did not hold anything against you, and that employers should evaluate you fairly on your own merits, like any other candidate, because Singapore needed every talented person that it could find. Mr Goh had previously made the same point to your brother Philip, whom he had invited to lunch. I am therefore happy that both of you have established yourselves in Singapore.

Please accept my deepest condolences.

Yours sincerely

Lee Hsien Loong


Us Singaporeans have often lamented this lack of graciousness amongst our compatriots. Well, if our leader cannot be gracious even in death and bereavement, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

To be fair to PM Lee, he does not get much practice in writing such letters to opposition politicians.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bigger = Better? Always?

The words 'big' and 'mega' have been in the news all around the world.

The big banks and other massive financial institutions have fallen, or are falling.

I could not understand how Fannie May and Freddie Mac could become so big that they are not allowed to fall. (They were 'born big', being instruments created by the American government.) And the likes of Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers.... Big does not mean invincible.

In Singapore recently the spotlight has also fallen on the 'mega-churches', non-denominational churches led by very charismatic personalities that now boast of thousands of 'attendees' (apparently not all are 'members') in sparkling new buildings with massive carparks, state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, huge auditoriums, etc. with millions of dollars in the pot. This scrutiny is partly due to the fallout from a few major charities where the accounting has been found to be somewhat less than transparent. (My ex-boss first blew the whistle.)

I have been thinking also about 'whether size matters' in the area of education. While the Labour government is pushing for 'city academies' where thousands of students can be educated in more sparkling new buildings, I wonder if in the area of education and other 'affective endeavours', small is actually more beautiful.

Economy of scale makes sense in certain aspects of life. So if I needed to fit out a 100-room hotel I buy furniture and fittings in bulk. The supplier saves on cost of transport, profits from a higher-volume sale and the customer gets a discount. It's a win-win situation.

My son goes to a school of under 200 children. What impressed me most when I went to the Open Day (son was four months old, I had to ask for a space to nurse him in private), was the fact that the teachers knew all the boys (it was boys only then) by name.

From the time the child joins the junior school at age 4+, there is a practice of the most senior men teachers visiting regularly, to read stories with them, or to teach a lesson or two.

The school does not benefit from large playing fields and all kinds of mod-cons. In fact I chaired the parent committee which took years to raise enough funds to give them a new playground that does not flood every time it rained, quickly followed by a second interactive whiteboard, etc. Facilities like interactive whiteboards that other schools take for granted, we work very hard to provide.

But the school knows each child well and nurtures each according to his/her gifts. Some children excel in sport, drama, music, art, languages, science, etc. The school recognizes all of these and each child is rewarded accordingly. So small is beautiful in this instance.

Churches. I am always wary of big churches. I am not saying that they are all bad. But the experiences of many such churches and the scandals involving their leaders in other parts of the world is history we must not neglect. (Why do Christians have such short memories?)

My first question is why does a church wish to grow so big? Churches with under 200 members struggle often for critical mass. Once they break that 200-member threshold it seems, they could grow exponentially.

(The advantage of being in a big church is that one could become pretty much anonymous, practise 'spectator Christianity': I go to church, I tithe, someone else can do the work. Talk to my boss about Jesus? You must be kidding! He only uses that as a swear word. )

Then what? Bigger churches? More pastors? Bigger carparks?

Do we read the Apostles in Acts saying, 'OK, mates, we'll stop with Antioch. Those who wish to learn more about what this Christianity is all about are now welcome to trek to Antioch where we would have a state-of-the-art 5000-seat amphi-theatre, spa baths for dusty feet and food and drink to satisfy the hungry and thirsty'?

The Apostles travelled -- from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth -- to where the people are to share God's Word with them.

If my church were to grow to 2000 I would suggest to the leadership that we planted new churches in places that need the Word of God. That is why there are so many churches in the red light district in Amsterdam. Christians have seen the needs there.

Instead of putting up new expensive buildings where tens of thousands need to drive to every Sunday, to queue up to get into an air-conditioned auditiorium, etc -- just imagine the carbon footprint -- would it not be easier to have smaller churches where members could simply walk to?

In Singapore there is a particular problem in that it is difficult to get planning permission to raise a church. I understand that. But what about setting up community-focused services like free clinics where the space could also be used for other purposes?

There are three things I would warn against as far as mega-churches are concerned:

1) I cringe when members of such mega-churches refer to their church as 'So-and-So's church'. Or more commonly it is the name of the church, followed quickly by the name of the pastor. It is no more God's church, but 'that very charismatic leader's church'.

2) I get wary when these charismatic leaders set up businesses (often called 'ministries') named after themselves. Where is the separation between the church they minister to as God's calling and the personal (financial) benefits they reap as a result of God blessing this church?

They are welcome to write books to share the success of their ministries, but when their own name becomes the selling point, much more important than God's name in this whole venture, I become suspicious.

3) Most importantly when such churches teach a lop-sided gospel, be it prosperity, grace, or whatever the buzzword might be, I would stand back to take stock. I have been a Christian for nearly 40 years and sometimes the going IS tough. Churches must preach the whole Bible, the whole gospel, minister to the whole person.

So coming back to the big banks. At the last fellowship group we mulled over this and decided that it all came down to 'the LOVE OF MONEY'. The love of money was -- as it has been shown again -- the root of all evil.

Many people have benefitted from this financial crisis, let us be clear about this. They have gambled with the money of ordinary folks (not their own) and made a bundle (obscene bonuses) and a quick exit. We, the taxpayers all over the world, have now to pick up the pieces, mend the broken-hearted.

A commentator noted (with clear disdain in his tone) that the failure of AIG is due to this 'insurance company pretending to be a bank'. Another analyst said that with the boom and bust cycles in business, someone always has to pay. This time it was the turn of the banks.

Christians are to be 'in the world, but not of the world'. There are clear teachings about not serving God and Mammon, not turning the House of God into a den of thieves. There is ample warning that 'the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour' (I Peter 5:8)

If churches forget their God-ordained purpose to be 'the body of Christ' and prefer instead to run themselves like big banks or big corporations because it 'makes business sense' then let them be aware that when the chickens come home to roost (when boom goes bust, as boom WILL go bust), there will be -- as Eric Clapton sings -- 'tears in heaven'.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

NIMBYs in Singapore

Recently the 'not in my backyard' syndrome reared its ugly head in Singapore. Somehow news got round that a disused school in Serangoon Gardens -- a rather nice, quiet, very middle-class part of Singapore -- were to be converted into a dormitory to house a thousand foreign workers.

There are more that 500,000 such foreign workers in Singapore working in construction sites, apart from many more thousands working as domestic servants in households while both parents are at work.

I know Serangoon Garden well because I had relatives living there, and I used to have to change buses at what is called the 'circus' (roundabout) when I went to Nanyang Junior College.

I wrote the following letter to Straits Times and it was, of course, rejected. Basically I believe that there has been a dereliction of duty on the part of the policy-makers to make life in Singapore more human/bearable for the foreign workers in our midst:


Social scientists have long debated the meaning of ‘community’ and the residents of Serangoon Gardens are to be congratulated for showing an example of what ‘community’ could be.

The issue of housing 1000 foreign workers is not simply a question of this community against the rest of the world, or where to site such dormitories.

My perspective of the issue begins and ends with the fact that my late father was a migrant. He came here to escape poverty. Did he intend to stay? I think not.

But it was pointless to consider returning to a communist China. He stayed, got married, and raised six children with no additional help from the government.

I remember my father’s intense pride in his chairmanship of a huiguan. He was a man who taught us to ‘ying shui si yuan’, and so gave back to his village/clan associations what they gave to him when he was a new, young and single migrant.

Our current problem stems from years of neglect both in terms of policy and funding to ‘integrate’ these workers, even if temporarily, into Singapore culture.

Shall we let them organize themselves as clan associations did and therefore take care of their basic needs, provide facilities where they could congregate, enjoy some entertainment, receive counselling, celebrate festivals, etc?

Where there are efforts to help our foreign workers, it is often by voluntary groups like the churches (and temples?) who organize services in Tagalog, Tamil, Telegu, etc for our foreign workers. Would running English lessons and giving opportunities to learn about Singapore make a difference to the way these workers behave?

Our government seems to have done a ‘Pilate’, washing their hands of looking after the welfare of these workers. So in the last decade or two we have followed their lead to see these workers as mere digits, worker ants, nearly sub-human even, as having a different morality and therefore prone to criminality. We tolerate their presence as a necessary inconvenience.

We forget that they have the same needs and feelings, hopes and aspirations as those of my late father and those of his generation. Note the words of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, reminding us that he is only human:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”


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Monday, September 08, 2008


Having found the Olympics a bit too political and commercial, I found myself sitting down in front of the Paralympics by default (the TV was on, we'd just come back from a walk, I was tired).

It was interesting how some commentators say 'paralympics' in such a way that it sounds like 'power-lympics'. And for me, I think the 'power-limp-picks' was a lot more meaningful. Part of the opening ceremony brought tears to my eyes.

Can't see the point of an Olympics with tennis, basketball, etc, being played by top-notch, overpaid professionals. And beach volleyball? It's just an excuse for TV to sell spots to beer companies so that men could ogle at those bodies.

I might never understand the different categories in the paralympics, but it tugs at more than one heart string when I see these athletes strive against mental and physical disabilities to excel in the various fields of sport. This is the real Olympics for me.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008


Sometimes that's how I feel: old and limp, needing a pick-me-up.

Family obligations took me back to Singapore where we missed the opening of the Beijing Olympics. When we did see the highlights of fireworks and the lighting of the Olympic flame I felt: what a waste of energy.

Fireworks … well… China is the leading exporter of fireworks, I guess, and it should not cost all that much in real terms. (Subsequently, of course, we learned that the fireworks had been digitally enhanced. Still, fireworks were used.)

But keeping the flame burning for the duration of the games … well … that would require a good deal more of fossil fuel.

Fast forward to 2012 and the London “eco-friendly games”: do we plan to outdo the Chinese in the use of fireworks?

Instead of it being the "most expensive", could we make it the most frugal?

My husband suggested using a virtual flame.

Well, if the Chinese could use digitally enhanced fireworks, I think a virtual flame will be an excellent idea.

I wonder what Boris would have to say to that.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Primark in the News (2)

The last time I walked past the local Primark with my son he spotted from the outside "organic cotton T-shirt £4".

I was incredulous. Here we are, organic cotton retailers struggling to procure certified organic cotton because the big players now want a piece of the cake and are coming in with their huge buying power, and we see organic cotton T-shirts at £4 at Primark.

How do they do that? How much do they (not) pay their workers to be able to afford to sell at those prices?

Today I walked past that shop again (as my local sub-post office had been forced to close I now have to take my parcels to the main office) and saw the same sign again. I meant to go in to examine the label, but somehow couldn't bring myself to do so. Maybe on the next trip.

What would Mary Portas say? Been watching her series on turning retail fashion boutiques around. How can I run a business without knowing my competition?

Here's what she has to say about Primark (Independent, 12th July 2008):

"It's when a shop is just turning the stuff over without a care for design, the environment or about selling. It just gets to me and it knackers the retail trade. I don't like it."

"I don't know what's going to happen to Primark," she says. "I don't think even the consumers know. They're a funny bunch – if you ask them what they want, they invariably don't have a clue. I do point my finger at the fashion press for helping Primark become as big as it is. All that [puts on a snivelling voice] 'Primark is the new Prada' and 'Primarni' stuff is not funny."

"What's interesting about Primark is how many middle-class people are in there, buying for their kids. I've walked through Selfridges on a busy Saturday and all you see is those brown Primark bags going up and down the escalators. So all that stuff about Primark being democratic fashion for people who can't afford anything else is b-----s."

As young children might be reading this column I've had to beep her word out. (???:-))

My son despairs, "The most common bag is the 'Primark' bag," he noted to me and his Dad, on different occasions.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

45-49? Let's face it!

Having been nudged by a customer onto Facebook -- I like to claim that I try to meet customer demand -- I had been dipping into FB gingerly being very careful about being sucked right in. You know what I mean? It can get very addictive.

But FB can also be a bit scary. Like every time I log in (which is not often) I get on the left-hand side an advert that usually headlines with "45-49?" followed by small print -- which I am still able to read without my reading glasses, thank you -- about manufacturers requiring people of that age group to test various products.

Of course a vehicle like FB requires advertising for all these fun and games to be provided 'free'. Ah, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

I really hate to think that someone has gathered so many of my details as to know what kinds of food I eat so that they could 'target' their marketing at me.

This morning we received junk mail sent to my eight-year-old son. He managed to fill in some details on a certain site without clicking the box that said 'no unsolicited mail please'.

Why did we let him do that? Because he had already been playing safely on this site but they then decided to 'do an upgrade' or whatever and needed their parents to fill in their details again in order to log in. My son decided to use his own email address.

Foolish? Maybe. But now we know the source of those junk mails. Just this morning I heard news reports about the sale of names and details on the radio. So now we know how it's done.

I've been advocating that junk mailers be required to indicate how they first got our names and details. That way I can march back to the retailer/business I had dealings with to complain first-hand. I could stop doing business with that organization. The more complaints these businesses receive, the more they become aware of this sickness that does not pay, the sooner they stop. ???

Said it too many times before but I am now quite afraid of buying from new retailers online because I am so afraid of being inundated by unsolicited junk mail and email. As I run an online business as well I am sure lots of folk would hesitate to buy from me because they are thinking exactly the same.

One of our local bookstores has -- in the last few years -- changed from Hammicks to Ottakars to something else and now it's Waterstones. The last time we were there they offered us a card for 'eco-points'. That's five points for every time we do not ask for a plastic bag. I've not asked for a plastic bag in that shop a long time before all those name changes.

Did I want their card?

No. Enough of my personal details swirling around the information soup in a slowly simmering cauldron over which we seem not to have any control.

45-49? What does FB not know?

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Primark in the news

Last Saturday while out trying to get stuff for husband's birthday we got stopped by a socialist. He alerted me to the TV expose (sorry, don't know how to put accent in) on Primark and I duly signed a petition.

I don't shop at Primark. Call me snooty if you must. But I smell a fish when clothes are sold so cheaply. (See previous post.) In any case I have eschewed 'fast fashion' for some time and prefer fashion on the slow, classic lane.

Any way I went home and sought out the programme on BBC iPlayer. The three things that struck me were
  1. women quarrelling over drinking water in a village devastated by a huge textile factory (of which effluence has poisoned the natural water supply and drinking water has to be trucked in every day -- criminal!)
  2. the smiling faces of the boys being rescued from sweatshops because they know they are headed for a better life, and
  3. big corporations like Primark simply washed their hands off the whole issue -- buried their heads in the sand -- by not giving their properly contracted factories new work for six months.

Our yearn for cheap, fast fashion has had a direct impact on the livelihood on people elsewhere on earth by way of poisonous dyes, pesticides, detergents, etc making their only source of drinking water undrinkable.

The reporter asked if taking employment from these young children would mean leaving them with no livelihood. I used to struggle with this. The interviewee replied without any hesitation, "Why can't the jobs that the children do be given to their parents?"

Why not indeed, except that the employers, contractors, big corporations, us consumers, must be willing to pay more.

As for withholding work from these factories which employ hundreds and thousands of workers legitimately, the likes of Primark are merely running from an opportunity to 'engage' with their contractors to thrash out terms that would allow them to have the clothes made and finished (with elaborate beading) at a fair and reasonable price. Meanwhile the company goes elsewhere to exploit another group of factories, another group of children, away from the gaze of investigative journalists and their cameras.

Sometimes when I look at the sad state of education, health provision, youth crime, etc in this country I think we need some root-and-branch reforms. When we look at the issue of child labour, unfair wages, corporate greed, etc, the same idea of root-and-branch reforms come in. But how?

Do I go into politics to strive to make that change? Or do we do what us little people could do in our little local area? Is what I do with young mothers and their young children at a toddler group, for example, more effective in imparting support and lessons in parenting than in becoming an MP?

If I help these young parents now to manage their children, would they be better disposed to manage their children when they are older?

What if everyone of us were to do the very little that we are able to do, would that make a difference?

Then I read: Hello, class, I’m the 16-year-old head

A 16-year-old started his own school in India (when he was 11!) to help children in his village who did not have the privilege like him to go to a private school. This is an example of how the 'little people', the real people, could make a difference and change the world.

Now, how can I become like this 16-year-old?

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hay fever, cold, virus infection

Husband came back from work on Tuesday looking rather rough. One eye was bloodshot. He went to bed early.

We both had a difficult night. I was up blowing my nose, struggling to breathe, etc. He was up counting the hours to the next lot of pain-killers.

Next morning he was aching all over and so stayed in bed. It is difficult enough when a husband who has been as healthy as he could be suddenly finds himself not able to get out of bed. But I found that I was now also full of cold and feeling extreme tiredness.

So after school drop-off I too went to have a snooze to make up for the rather sleepless night we had.

I tried to get life back to 'normal' as much as I could. But husband appeared to be deteriorating and at one point was groaning in some pain. So it was decided that we needed a doctor to call.

But it was "too late" for our GP practice to send a doctor. We had to wait for some three hours till "after hours" for the out-of-hours Harmoni doctor to call. Why? I don't know.

School run, late today as there was Fun Choir. Then a quick change-around as today was also the day he had to get down to the park to test for his Cub's Athlete's badge. Made arrangement with the neighbour to let the doctor in should he/she call when we were out.

The tests were completed quickly and we rushed home. Neighbour was standing at her front door, looking out for the doctor who, as I thanked my neighbour, was being driven up in a "Doctor on Call" car.

He checked out my husband who appeared to have improved quite a bit, tested urine sample, etc and decided that it was a virus. Little we could do. We know that with the immuno-suppressants he is on, any infection would be a bad one. Off I went to the chemist to get him some stronger pain-killers.

Thankfully husband made a gradual recovery on Thursday. He wanted to get back to work on Friday but eventually decided that it was best that he had complete rest and recovery before going back to work.

But I had to discharge my usual Friday morning duties with a community group. It was a particularly stressful session. The person in charge was away and while we had extra helpers there was a lot of 'unusual' activities that only I could tend to.

When I came home in the afternoon, I was exhausted. Son was on a school trip, which meant coming home late. Then it was a quick change and feed before taking him to Cubs.

The weekend found me between bouts of dizziness and extreme tiredness requiring bed rest and sudden bursts of energy enabling me to, eg, iron son's school shirts.

I am looking forward to some 'normality' next week. But tomorrow is another stressful day: piano exam in the morning and clarinet exam after school for son. I will be very glad when I see 4.30pm tomorrow.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Hay fever

Didn't really kick in this year till about two weeks ago. Even then it has not been at all bad.

But Saturday was a different story.

Cousin has flown in to see her supervisor. As she often does, she took us out for a meal and we went to a nice Thai restaurant. Good food it was.

Took my anti-histamine pill as usual. Fell asleep at some point.

Then at about midnight it seemed, fireworks went off. Someone close by were letting off fireworks with loud bangs at every second for a while. Why do people wait till midnight to do this?

And to celebrate what?

Totally inconsiderate.

Any way, didn't manage to get back to sleep with my nose thickening up. After getting up every minute or so to blow my nose into hankies which were getting sodden, it was time to move into the bathroom.

I sit on the 'throne' reading, and blow my nose into the sink whenever necessary. Dab hot water all over the face. That way it gets a 'steaming' effect and the tubes are cleared a little.

I read my book. I blow my nose. I blow my nose. I read my book.

Nothing more intellectually challenging than my son's Famous Five books, I'm afraid. He has graciously loaned me those for the season.

Was in the loo then till about half-past three. Finally tired enough to drop off, thick nose or not. Managed to stay asleep for another two hours.

Father's Day, right?

Son duly came in and deposited his card and present. We decided that I was in no fit state to get to church and the others decided that -- since none of us has any 'duties' this week -- we'd skip the service.

Had breakfast and went back to sleep.

Strange, how even in the depths of my tiredness I kept thinking, "I haven't ironed my son's school trousers." (Did the shirts on Saturday.)

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Friday, June 13, 2008

"Retcro©": or how retro is eco

Take ironing for example. As a young child one of the first tasks I was allowed to do was sorting the clean clothes, folding them up neatly, and putting them away.

Then I graduated to being able to 'moisten' the clothes that needed ironing. This entailed getting an enamel jug of water and sprinkling water all over the clothes with some deft wristwork and rolling them up.

I've often wondered why we didn't just iron the clothes while still wet, rather than wait for them to dry and I had to wet them again. These were then bundled up in a large piece of cloth for a few minutes.

Then Mum would do the ironing. She would have a bowl of water with her and would sprinkle the clothes with water when she saw fit.

That was 'steam ironing'.

Later I watched for the first time my sister-in-law use a steam iron and I thought how marvellous the steam iron was.

In my married life -- just coming up to ten years -- I cannot remember how many steam irons we'd gone through. The hard water here means the holes get caked up. Sometimes I banged really hard on the ironing board for the limescale to clear.

Or they start leaking!

Once someone managed to trip the relay, cut off our power supply, triggered the security alarm system and somehow the men at the local fire station got a message that there was a fire in our house. (When these hunks/"men in uniform" arrived I was trying to get my toddler son to sit on the potty. They were bemused, pointing out, "That is a real emergency.")

In short, these steam irons do not last. They soon end up in landfill. As far as I know my mum used one iron in all the time I lived with her!

My son's organic cotton school shirts and trousers are hellish difficult to iron. I've recently returned to using the "spray - wait - iron - sizzling steam" method. Works a treat. (Using a spray bottle designed for watering house plants.)

Then there are the wicker baskets that my mum and everyone in her generation used when shopping at the 'wet' markets.

Even my father used a bamboo basket -- his 'briefcase' -- when he was a butcher. (It contained his float -- which he sometimes let me prepare if I was good, a notebook and pen, and his KNIVES, very sharp ones. What would the local police think?) These baskets were mended and used for as long as they were safe to use.

Yesterday my cousin flew in from Singapore and brought me some bak chang -- glutinous rice with all sorts of fillings wrapped in leaves shaped into a tetrahedron and then steamed. Yum!

Put the bak chang in the microwave to reheat it -- perfect! The leaves (I can't say what sort of leaves, but they are long and narrow-ish) are a perfect 'container'. No need for glass or plastic. Totally biodegradable, too.

What else can I think of which is retro and eco?

Too late now. Good weekend to all!

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Finding a fit

Many years ago at university someone -- who's now someone very important in Singapore -- said to me, "You have old men and women who like to tell stories, and young boys and girls who like listening to stories. Why not just put the two together?"

There are scientists who argue organic agriculture will not solve the world's food problems because there is not enough people to do the labour. Or it gets too expensive.

In the UK we have an exploding prison population and concerns that prisoners do not get to spend more than an hour outside their cell.

Why not put these prisoners to work in organic farms? Lots of sunshine (are you seriously talking about the UK?) and fresh air to give them lots of exercise. Tire them out and keep them out of trouble and off the drugs. Why not?

Prison has become so comfortable that for some it's a better place than to be on the streets. I hear stories that illegal migrants controlled by 'gangmasters' prefer a prison bed to themselves in a warm cell to sharing a bed in a cold room.

What is the sense of locking up perfectly able men and women 'on Her Majesty's pleasure'? Her Majesty takes absolutely no pleasure in doing this, I am sure. If prison means hard work, then people will think twice about offending just so to avoid prison.

Or is this thinking too alien to the thinking of a 'developed nation'?

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Blood, Sweat and T-shirts -- an addendum

Didn't get round to saying it before.

The workers that the six British young people got to see in India in this TV series can be said to be caught (up)/trapped in a 'culture of poverty'.

While education in most countries allow people to experience 'social mobility', those trapped in poverty do not have the wherewithal to better themselves. Once they stopped working, they stop eating. Education or any form of training really becomes a luxury. (Something that Richard in the series learned, eventually.)

That is why everywhere where education becomes available and children are able to make use of it, they do better than their parents: social mobility. (And also family size comes down, easing over-population.)

In Britain, however, we are negating the effect of universal free education. At least some parts of the population are.

Instead of using education to achieve social mobility, it is easier for some to choose a 'culture of dependency': the government will provide.

Why work 35 hours on minimum wage when you can sit around all day, watching TV and getting fat when you can get the same amount of money for doing nothing?

In my studies on migration I've learned that first generation immigrants see the opportunity for a free education as a passport to a better life. Where previously parents had to slave to earn school fees, free education means a chance to better oneself minus the sacrifice needed.

Parents press their children to capitalize on these opportunities.

In some families you can clearly see how free education has lifted the younger generations from a labouring to a professional class.

The problem is when things are 'free', it quickly loses its value. Brand name goods will not be worth anything if they are sold cheaply. Likewise, after a generation or two people do not see free education as something of value.

We hear stories of parents taking their children out of school to go on holidays because it is cheaper. Would they do the same if they had to pay school fees?

When children in a class take turns to go on holiday the progress of the whole class is slowed. Teachers have to give time to children who need to catch up? Who suffers? Those who cannot afford to go on holiday.

When services are provided for free, taken for granted, we promote what I call a 'culture of dependency'. This is the 'something for nothing' culture. There is no sense of responsibility and no sense of obligation; the benefits system is there to be milked.

What is troubling this nation? Though the present government talks a lot about 'lifting children out of poverty', it is not material poverty that is the real problem. I believe it is a 'poverty of the spirit' that is levelling every aspect of this once great civilization down.

It is not for me to just criticize, surely. My community work puts me in contact with a lot of functional and dysfunctional families. It is great to see that there are some who accept help and try very hard to make a better life for themselves and their children. There are struggling parents who take advice on how to discipline their children, etc.

But I also see some who are -- for want of a better description -- milking the benefits system for as much as they could get out of it. There are young single mothers, for example, who have child care paid for by the tax-payers so that they could get an education. My friends who provide such care have stories about how they are abused.

How do we stop this cycle of dependency?

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Friday, May 30, 2008

When it's gone, it's gone

I went ballistic yesterday. Then I was tearful. Then I felt a part of me died.

My elder brother told me that he had just -- last week -- thrown away my Brownie uniform. This was all the more difficult to bear because I had just told a sister to look after it for me because on my next trip I would be collecting that item from her flat.

You see, my son has just joined Cub Scouts and has really taken a fancy to the challenge of badge-collecting. This is a little boy who is so shy and finds it difficult to get out of his comfort zone. He joined the Cubs, asked to be enrolled and has now set sights pretty high.

Many years ago I was just like that. I worked very hard to pass all the tests I needed to become a full-fledged Brownie. The Golden Hand, the Golden Bar, etc and became the Sixer of the 'Fairies'. I turned 12 before I could complete all the tests I needed to get me my Golden Wings. One could only get those Wings if one passed a series of tests before one turned twelve.

The positive outcome was I joined the School Band when I transferred to secondary school. I "abandoned" the Guide movement so that I could join the band, learn to read music, play a musical instrument at school. I've always wanted to play music but my parents just could not afford to give me lessons or buy me an instrument.

Had I got my "Wings" I would have stuck with the Guides. Any way, School Band it was.

But I kept my Brownie uniform for all these 30-odd years. Every time I had a chance I would look at the uniform and thought, "Some day I would show this to someone who matters." I wasn't sure whom I would show it to.

With son in the Cubs it suddenly tweaked: I must show him my own uniform. He is growing up in a vacuum as far as his maternal cultural and historical heritage is concerned.

While his Dad could say, "This was where I went to school" or "O! I remember this place well. There is a row of shops round here" and we would walk round to find those shops, etc, etc.

As we so rarely go to Singapore I can't do "This was where I went to school". Not when the first school I went to has since been torn down to be a power station. The second school I went to has been torn down and the new one is more like a country club house to me. The third school I went to has also been torn down for totally new architecture!! (The original buildings were really awful to begin with.)

Through all this tearing down of schools, I still had my Brownie uniform. Until last week, that is, when my brother decided that it was time he took it to the Salvation Army (which runs thrift shops, recycling points, etc in Singapore).

I've since asked as many people as I could to hunt down this uniform. It's just a bit of fabric with seams on it. But this is precious to me because:
  1. Mum had to put aside household money for some time to buy me the uniform.

  2. I worked really hard to earn all those badges and Sixer stripes.

  3. it is potentially an important symbol of shared experiences between my son and me while we live away from the fast-changing physical landscape of Singapore.

And then I remember how my father's stories of his childhood in mainland China were so meaningless to us. We just could not connect with his history because there was nothing physical or material that we could anchor his history to.

We could not understand the poverty he talked about. We could not understand why -- despite us being poor relative to many people we know -- we had to put money aside to send things like bicycles and sewing machines, etc, to his relatives in China.

I would love to have a bicycle for myself, thank you. Instead all I had was, "We filled another crate with this and that and that and this" while we in Singapore had to do without those same "this and that and that and this".

I don't think I actually connected with my father until after I had been to China myself. But that is another story.

Well, unless a miracle happened and that uniform is recovered, there is now nothing for me to show my young son of my childhood in Singapore. Still we hope to visit Tiong Bahru, that estate we called home. Hopefully things have not changed so much in that sleepy area of Singapore.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts (Episode 4)

The last episode of this series is a bit of an anti-climax.

Basically all six young people decided to be more cautious as to where their clothes come from.

The person who stood out this time was Stacey, she with the inimitable smile and indefatigable spirit and an ever-ready 'Namaste!'. She went about looking for child labourers and at the end of the show we found her returning to the factory where a boy labourer was to be sent home. She was indignant when she found another young child there.

The team also visited a rescue shelter for boys rescued from child labouring. (Whatever happened to the girl child labourers?) There they hit upon the brilliant idea of repainting the walls. The children added their favourite pictures and everyone seemed happy.

Stacey then managed to procure pictures drawn by these children and auctioned them off at a private function she organized.

Meanwhile Tara went off in search of an organization that promotes fair trade and which shares out its profit amongst its workers. When she tried to get them to sew a design inspired by her days in the cotton fields however, she found that their sewing skills were not up to the standard required to produce such garments.

I have high hopes that when Tara (and her mum) sets about designing their next collection that they would consider using more of such workers from such cooperatives. Where these workers lack in skills, effort must be made to train them to do better.

So a positive result all round. These young people relate better with their own parents. Amrita sells her designer clothes to give the money to a worthy cause and Richard talks about the need for clothes labels to give 'health warnings', etc.

But the most troublesome question was: what would happen to these child labourers or even those adults in sweat-shops if we decided to stop buying what they produce?

If within a day we (everyone of us) were to double or treble what we normally pay for an item of clothing and say, make sure the primary producers get a fair share of this, would we be able to rid us of their sweatshops?

On the other hand, is it going to get better if we stood still and did nothing?

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Christian Aid Week 11th-17th May

We went to a different church on Sunday because my soon-to-be-enrolled Cub Scout son wanted to attend a ceremony at the church which sponsors his pack. We learned that it is Christian Aid Week.

There is a little old lady who faithfully comes round to every house on the street at this time of year with this little envelope, and she'd come back again to collect, hoping that people would put some money in it. I really take my hat off to people with that kind of committment.

And so we faithfully give.

Present Aid is the 'shopping' outlet for Christian Aid. Through this site you could buy various gifts -- even a can of worms -- that will make a significant and positive change for those who need it most.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Shopping ethically

In line with my current interest in the Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts series, I thought it worthwhile to link to some ethical / organic shopping sites. Apart from People Tree listed by Laura in a previous post (thank you, Laura.) :

Sale on here for 10th to 18th May

My husband is looking for some casual organic cotton shirts (to replace those from the last millennium). Any recommendations?

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts (Episode 3)

Hats off to these young people for their cooking skills. I am suitably impressed.

While five of the team were slaving at the cotton mill, Amrita who found herself allergic to this work took to the market and cooked up a meal for the team. No one complained, so the food -- which looked good -- must be good.

Several of the team members complained about headaches. It might be the sun, or it could be the pesticides, we will never know.

Apart from finding it difficult to complete the task set for them, leading to the owner of the mill having to resort to asking his regular workers to work overtime, there was also the ongoing dispute over who should clean up the toilet.

The girls insisted that the boys had blocked it up and the boys insisted it was the toilet tissue used.

No one -- and nothing -- budged. So the stand-off and stench continued. By the end of the programme we still didn't know how it was resolved. But a plumber would cost 120 rupees.

It just reminded me of how boys and plumbing somehow do not mix.

What is it about boys that they would not put their hands into the sink to clear a blockage, let alone unblock a blocked toilet.

I used to partner Bernard G at Chemistry lab while preparing for my A Levels. At the end of each gruelling three-hour session we were supposed to clear the sink. But would Bernard stick his fingers into the drain hole to pick up some escapee litmus paper?


Nothing I said would persuade him to clear the sink.

This programme suggests to me that the young people have never had to clean a toilet and therefore did not know how.

Good to see that Richard has stopped complaining. Hilarious to see him mucking around the mountains of plucked cotton. The supervisor told him to work and not have so much fun.

Richard's reply was his workers would work better if they had fun at the same time.

At 70 rupees a day for seven to eight hours work, what fun can you talk about?

Also very odd that he said, "I'd kind of forgotten that someone has to pick the cotton."

Just as milk comes from cartons, Richard thought (logically but wrongly) that someone had invented machines to do the actual cotton-picking. Not in India.

In the mega-farms in USA, they do use heavy machinery, but this can only be done after chemicals have been used to defoliate the plants.

Already the six are coming round to think that it is unfair that so little should be paid for so much hard work. So we live in hope that next week 'fair trade' would take on a different meaning for them.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

How could fathers do that?

Having posted three times about mothers (even though I sometimes meant 'mothers and fathers') I guess it is only right to post this.

But I found it too difficult to write about this. It challenges all that I held about fatherhood.

The news is still about the Austrian father who imprisoned and abused his daughter.

It has also affected my faith in thinking that "God does not make mistakes".

Did God make a mistake in allowing the birth of this very evil man?

Did God make a mistake in allowing the birth of these children/grandchildren?

Having learned that I nearly did not get born because of the impoverished state of my already large family (Mum was advised to abort me) I thank God that I was given an opportunity to life. I love my life. I feel that I have been able to do so much about my life.

Then we think of those children, many such children especially in areas of civil and political conflict, born of rape and we wonder "Why does God allow these children to be born?"

How could our all-loving God allow such children to be born to such suffering not of their own making, or even that of their mother?

I do not have the answers (yet?), but this case is just so beyond the incredible. It sickens me just to think of it. Was this a man, or was this an animal?

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts (Episode 2)

In this episode my attention was drawn most to Richard the working-class boy made good on a journey discovering that good intention and even stellar motivation alone does not eradicate poverty.

His point was that -- because he has done so -- anyone could make a better life for himself. All you need is an education. Go to night school if necessary.

I think it is good for this nation that young people can have role models like Richard: I was poor, I worked hard, now I am doing well.

I, too, was poor. I grew up with five other siblings sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor in a one-bedroomed flat. We were then allocated a two-bedroomed flat elsewhere. We still slept on the floor.

We had one table which was used for food preparation, meals and then homework. We had no wardrobes and clothes were kept in boxes (old wooden fruit crates), etc. As for clothes I wore discards all the time.

When I made it to university (thank God Singapore had a meritocratic system then) there were times when I didn't have a clue where my next meal was coming from (I had to work to put myself through university) and often simply went hungry.

Books? I did not have money to buy books. I did not even have money to photocopy books/essays like all my friends. Instead I made copious notes.

I made good because I lived in a culture where hard work and a good education could turn your life around. And it was when studying urban anthropology at university that I learned about the culture of poverty.

Please if you are a friend of Richard, ask him to put in search engine "culture of poverty". The anthropologist Oscar Lewis first enlightened us on how those caught in this 'subculture' of poverty often do not have the means to get out of it.

So Richard quizzed a tailor, "Why are you not going to night school?"

Richard is correct to think that a good/better education/skills set will help the impoverished to get out of this cycle of poverty. What he has yet to learn (but he seems to be learning this well if slowly as we see on his train journey at the end of this episode) that often it is not as simple as signing up for night school.

The other members of the team are slowly coming round to understanding that "it does not seem fair" that while they pay some £10 for an item of clothing, the worker only gets 12p.

Question is what would Richard, self-made ad-man, do about the people caught in the cycle of poverty after he tires from effing and blinding about the conditions in which his Indian hosts live? Would he now be equipped with some inspiration as to how this cycle could be broken?

What would the aspiring designer, photographer, etc amongst the group do when they get home about the plight of the thousands of workers in back-street sweatshops in India and elsewhere in the world?

Would Tara, when she becomes a designer (I'm sure she'd be a good one), allow sweatshops to produce her designs?

Next week they apparently do the actual cotton picking. I wonder if they get exposed to the huge amounts of pesticides used?

Just some thoughts.

Thoughts on Episode 1 here.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

To B or to B

I was ironing a shirt and I thought, hmm, the colour is a bit faded.

I've had some of these shirts for so long. They are cotton, but not organic, with pretty lace on the collars and sleeves. I bought these years ago before I knew that conventional cotton was harming the environment.

B are still sending me catalogues and I have studiously avoided their cotton and polyester clothes in recent years. I must confess that some (not all) of their styles appeal to me. More importantly they do clothes in my size.

Recently, having not bought any clothes for more than a year, I succumbed and picked out a couple of wool numbers.

The company -- like most companies these days -- claims to have an "eco and ethical" policy. (You could read on their site.) They claim fair trade policies, re-plant trees, etc.

I wonder what other pro-organic folk think.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Throwaway society

This was my gripe of the day.

I came across this comment: A world of hemp lingerie? No thanks (Timesonline, 21st April 2008) and felt outraged that the writer implied that it is not worth sewing a button back on an item of clothing, or that doing so (sew) is akin to slave labour.

If Melanie Reid wants to know what slave labour really is, I would suggest that she reads Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace by Pun Ngai.

Pun (pronounced 'Poon') and I crossed paths while doing our PhDs in London. I read some of her original writing for our thesis-writing workshops. Let us just say that after reading her harrowing ethnographic accounts of what these dagongmei (girls who leave their villages to work in the cities for a few years to earn as much money as they can) go through in their factories and dormitories, I could not sleep that night.

I think I became sensitized to the possible abuse involved in anything 'Made in China' after that.

I don't know much about the green credentials of this company. But it is refreshing to learn that there are still shoe retailers that advocate a 'care and repair' ethos rather than 'buy them cheap today and throw them away tomorrow' mentality.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Blood Sweat and T-Shirts -- BBC Three

Sadly I only learned about this programme a few hours before the first episode was aired, and so did not have time to flag this up on my other websites.

What can I say? The factory scenes brought back vivid memories of my own stints in garment factories.

Between my O and A Levels I found a 'finishing' job in a garment factory. That made me the lowest of the low in the hierarchy, short of the tea lady. So when the tea lady was not around, the supervisor made me serve tea to visitors. The rest of my time was spent cutting the loose ends of thread, ironing the finished products, folding, packing, and so on.

My most painful memory at this factory was the tea lady hovering around the office, refusing to go home, waiting for the boss to come back to the factory to hand out that week's wages. The boss had left the factory earlier on for a meeting. She didn't come back that evening and we never got paid. The tea lady moaned that she didn't have the money to pay her children's school fees.

I returned to a garment factory when doing my postgraduate research. I swopped the meagre wages of a university tutor ($65 an hour) for the handsome reward of $9 a day for eight hours at the factory.

We were paid 1.5 our wages on overtime between 6 and 9pm and twice our wages after 9pm or something like that. I stood all day packing clothes, after I had checked their sizes and put on the correct tags.

My most painful memory here is ... pain. Excruciating pain in my feet shooting up to my knees. Taking my feet off the ground did not alleviate the pain. One just had to endure it. Day after day after day.

Otherwise this wasn't such a bad place to work in. The women were generally good-natured, but they had to work really, really hard. The supervisor worked her way up and had a way with people. She had the most uncanny ability of estimating how much time we needed to finish each consignment. For that I take my hat off to her.

But the tedium, the noise, the dust, O, it was dire. The air was also a bit blue with the jokes that these women shouted across to one another. At least, unlike the workers in the Indian factory, these women were able to joke.

Of course after my four weeks of such participant observation I could (and did) retreat to the safe confines of my ivory tower at the university. And there I spoke of my counter-culture shock. University seemed so surreal after my four weeks on the factory floor. (It was this experience that convinced me that I had to get out of this university as soon as I could.)

My friends at the factory -- they didn't have the choice.

The six young people featured in this programme could, like me, withdraw from the factory. But not the workers.

I was a bit surprised (naive) that these young people seemed so naive (surprised) about what real working conditions in factories are like. But then I do come from a working-class background. It was educational, watching their excitable faces turn forlorn as they travelled in a taxi from the airport to where they were desposited.

Hands on their noses, they communicated well the stench coming from the piles of rubbish and stagnant waterways they had to walk past. Hey! Welcome to the real world.

This was what I found most difficult when on a short work stint to Jakarta I saw the rich businessmen in their expensive chauffeured cars living and working in expensive buildings and yet across the road from them there could be a stinking canal on which some people lived. (I must confess that we the foreign consultants to a bank continued to walk glibly past this lot in our designer clothes and briefcases without nary a glance at these people. I think we were embarrassed.)

But these rich businessmen in their own country, would they -- did they -- do anything to help clean up this area? Answer on a postcard please.

More information on the programme here.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

More (or less?) on Food

Interesting headline and report this:

Exposed: the great GM crops myth

"Last week the biggest study of its kind ever conducted – the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development – concluded that GM was not the answer to world hunger.

"Professor Bob Watson, the director of the study and chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when asked if GM could solve world hunger, said: "The simple answer is no.""

Do read some of the stories related to this report.

Compare with

The city-dwellers who are becoming front garden farmers

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Friday, April 18, 2008

How could mothers do that? (Part 3)

Last night I watched a taped programme of 'Child Genius'.

Let's just say I felt really uneasy -- perhaps 'disturbed' is a more accurate description -- after that.

There is a three-year-old girl who fell asleep while being tested for her IQ (at 152) and was re-tested. Her IQ was found to be so high they could not properly score her, so 'suka-suka' as we say in Malay/Hokkien or 'chin-chai-la' (in Cantonese), they call it 170.

Girl's mother wanted her tested to prove she had 'special needs' so she could go to a good state school. She was devastated (the mother) to find that the school had rejected her. Well, obviously the mother is not very intelligent, because which state school would want a child with an IQ of 170?

She will be no end of trouble. The school will have to pay for extra resources just to keep her occupied, etc, etc. The mother should have played down her intelligence and left it at 152-maybe. So she is NOT A PUSHY PARENT -- clearly!

Another 11-year-old boy was being home-schooled, but seems to do little else other than Maths and Chess. No languages, no science, no music, sport, meeting friends, etc. He comes across as being really obnoxious.

His sole purpose in life is to be champion chess player. I suspect his parents got it into his head that as chess champion mum and dad would not have financial worries EVER again ("Who needs school when you could play chess?"). Poor chap. To have to bear this burden of achieving so that his parents could be well provided for.

So he goes to Croatia to play a chess tournament where he thought he would slaughter his opponents, but he didn't do very well at all. As viewers looked on to see him discuss the match with his dad we were thinking, "Give him a hug, dad, he needs a hug." But he did not get a hug, poor lad. What a relief it was that at the end of the programme we see that he's joined the scouts and hopefully he would make some friends and assume some kind of normality.

Another boy (eight years old?) with an IQ of 170 was clearly NOT BEING PUSHED by his parents. He was only seen enunciating the formula for a quadratic equation and then -- having lost interest in Maths (O dear!) -- watched his mum dissect a rat in the kitchen. She then proceeded to ask him to identify the organs, which of course he did with great accuracy.

They sent him to boarding school (at reduced price because he is gifted) in the hope of getting him to Eton. Then they say to camera, "O dear! now that he's spends so much time playing with his friends, he seems to have become just average."

Young Asian boy has IQ of 137 but his verbal skills were not so good. So what do his NOT PUSHY PARENTS do? They put him on a programme of English and spelling to the point that he is now 'obsessed' with spelling. Why, the reporter asked is he so particular about being able to spell?

"Because it makes me clever".

So should I feel guilty? I let my son play with Lego and PSP and I don't make him do extra work books after school. What if his IQ drops to only 130-something? Would Eton want him? (Actually do we want Eton?)

Part of me thinks: is this abuse of young lives?

What do you think?

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Monday, April 14, 2008

How could mothers do that? (Part 2)

Last week I agonised over a nine-year-old in the UK here.

The news over the weekend is still about a certain Maths genius who has adopted my surname (yes!) and is making a rather tidy sum (taxed or untaxed, who knows?) being a high class 'social escort'.

My husband pointed me to the article: Pushy parents: the naked truth. As we've been told that our son is highly gifted, any article about geniuses (genuii?) is of great interest to us.

Anyway, said genius's pictures are plastered all over the media, helping to sell newspapers, no doubt, and thousands of column inches and blog posts must have been written. I add my own.

There are dysfunctional families amongst the illiterate and lowly-educated, and there are dysfunctional families amongst the highly-educated. And the media already well know there are dysfunctional families amongst the most well-heeled and well-educated.

Genius's mum has also started a blog, further muddying the waters. There have been claims and counter-claims about how the genius was actually brought up. I suspect the public will never know the whole truth.

Maybe I am not so interested in the details. The point seems to be there are parents who will think that children who achieve their 'milestones' earlier are better than those who achieve theirs later. Some make capital of such children and some make capital out of such children.

I live not too far from a 'college' -- a private set-up -- that hot-houses young children, and boast of many who sit public exams or being the youngest with the highest IQs, etc.

I plead with parents who have such children, whether they are gifted academically, in sport, in music, drama, etc, to please give your children a childhood.

Such news only help to remind me that we (husband and I) need to know when to encourage as a parent, and when to cut our children some slack. In our household, I think we tend to err on the side of being too slack. The thing is we will never know until our children have grown up and they are able to say, "Wow! I enjoyed growing up with mum and dad," or "You gave me hell."

So shall I make our son practise his piano and clarinet every day? (He does not, at the moment.)

Shall I set the timer to make sure he does at least 15 minutes of each every day? (We do not, at the moment.)

Should I worry if all he wishes to do is make more and more complex, transforming Lego models?

Or shall I make him sit down to revise for his exams which are coming up in two weeks?

I don't know. Parenting -- especially parenting an only -- is so hit-and-miss. Help!

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