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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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Big Brother

I've been trying to write up an abstract for a conference paper on the need for (in)visibility of the business owner and the customer.

So what do I see in the Saturday 'papers' (online)? "Tesco to monitor millions of consumers around the world".

It's all about how the Club Card tracks your buying habits. Bascially this one supermarket chain has more information on you than the Inland Revenue.

I remember the day the Club Card started. I loved it. You had to spend more than £5 to gain a few points. Single and on a very low salary then I had often to compute mentally whether my shopping basket amounted to that minimum £5 limit. I also didn't have a car or freezer so could not benefit from bulk buying.

Then I got married and had a child, and what became quite disturbing was that they kept sending us coupons for the items we often do need to buy, and with the tempting offers off other items we don't wish to buy.

Clearly our shopping habits were being 'monitored', not that someone actually sits and watches us, but the Club Card activities could be tracked by powerful IT systems and I felt the unease.

Some years back we decided to switch supermarkets and left TESCO for good.

I gave all my coupons to a friend, a refugee single mother, who spent them all on nappies.

I feel a chill down my spine even as I consider having to step into that store again.

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Global Food Insecurity

O dear! It is happening. Riots because people cannot get their staple foods at prices they can afford:

Starving Haitians riot as food prices soar

The other global crisis: rush to biofuels is driving up price of food

According to the latter report: "All across the world, cereals, meat, eggs and dairy products are becoming dearer. "Food prices are now rising at rates that few of us can ever have seen before in our lifetimes," said John Powell of the World Food Programme. Prices are likely to remain high for at least 10 years, the Food and Agriculture Organisation is projecting."


"Government policies do not help: the rich world subsidises agriculture not to feed the world but to enrich its farmers."

Environmentalists have long warned about food shortages when farms and resources are diverted to produce fuel, which is hardly carbon-neutral.

Meanwhile in Singapore, we are told that there is enough rice. A government minister insists that for as long as Singapore is able to pay, she would get her supplies of rice .

That may be so, but I am still not comfortable with this scenario of Singapore being totally dependent on imports.

What if the Thais and Vietnamese also rise up in riot because rice is being sold to Singapore while their own people starve? Would their governments still allow exports to Singapore? And is it moral?

There will always be the black market, of course. As in any war and famine, some people stand to make a lot of money.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

How could mothers do that?

Is this the conclusion to this sad story?


I am still feeling low from yesterday's news that a boy from my son's Form has been diagnosed with leukaemia. I've known this young boy since he was a few weeks old. His mum and I were in the same ante-natal group.

We had visited each other, the boys have played together, and it was after long discussions with me that they decided to move JD to our school.

Then today we learn that a certain mother has been charged in court for neglecting her child and perverting the course of justice.

Do I feel sorry for the mother or the child? I am not sure.

A young woman of 32 with six plus one (according to her sister, she had forgotten she had seven) children with different fathers. How does this developed nation manage to breed families like this?

By tweaking the 'survival of the fittest' principle seems to be a most likely answer.

In a typical non-welfare state, young girls will look for mates that they can be sure would look after and protect them and any offspring. Mothers will teach, educate, brainwash their daughters to ensure that if they did decide to engage in sexual relations, then they must choose someone likely to be top dog.

After nearly two generations of the welfate state, however, mothers and daughters have forgotten this very important survival instinct. With the delusion that 'welfare' or 'gah'ment' would look after them, even give them a property of their own, daughers do not see the need to seek out a strong, protective partner any more.

In fact, the more feckless the partner, the better their chances of getting their own accommodation without the encumberance of the useless father. And the child will be 'my child', over which such young persons have total and complete control, and from whom unquestioning love could be assured for years to come.

We are talking of young girls who probably never had a sense of control over their own lives and bodies before. Being in charge of their new-born infant is the 'rite of passage' that finally makes them feel grown-up.

What about the father's story?

In days gone by, these men with no proper jobs would not have found a partner or married. Girls would avoid anything to do with such men and these men might never father a child -- at least knowingly -- in their life-time. His genes die out.

But the current state of affairs/welfare means it suits some young men to father children irresponsibly. They might be jobless, they might be illiterate, but their equipment works; they are not firing blanks. At least it gives them some street cred.

And so the vicious circle begins. The 'under-class' is not something the politically-correct wish to discuss. They are there, they are eating up a lot of public resources in terms of benefits, income support, social workers to protect vulnerable children, but we pretend they do not exist.

This news story brings into public scrutiny once again some of the sordid details of what happens when we allow generations to go down the route of no-work-rely-on-benefits culture. Yet, when this case blows over, we will return once again to creating and breeding (literally) many more families like that, at taxpayers' expense.

Why do we give incentives to teenage mothers to have babies out of wedlock knowing that the future does not bode well for them and their babies? "Because we must care for the babies" is our answer. We must provide for the mother so that the baby could thrive.


Some would further argue that the benefits they live on are barely enough to sustain them. So these could hardly be considered 'incentives'.

What utter nonsense!

When a young person goes from dropping out of school to being on benefits on the basis of having a baby, we have denied her her future. We have denied her any incentive to make a life of her own. We have denied the baby a chance to be brought up by two loving educated parents who would know something of nutrition, discipline and common sense so that the child would thrive both at home and at school.

If we care for these babies, we should endeavour instead that they were not born in the first place. It is very hard for me to say this, considering the fact that I myself nearly did not get the chance to be born. But I came into this world, and despite poverty, despite disadvantage, managed to make good, through sheer hard work.

If we want to stop unwanted babies, we must begin by empowering young people so that the girls realize that they do not need to be a mother to be a whole person, and young boys do not need to think that they must boast of fathering children before they could walk tall like a real man.

If I -- or anyone -- were to say let's encourage the institution of marriage, I will be shot at. Yet everyone knows and every research study has shown that children do best in school and experience less poverty, etc when they live in households with two parents in a stable relationship.

By encouraging marriage one is said to be old-fashioned, or even Fascist. Yes, there are non-married couples in loving, lasting relationships and whose children thrive. There are many good examples.

Yet the power of logic is such that if we can find a contradictory case, ("Look! We have x number of well-brought up children, we are not married, so how can you say that we are not as good as being in a marriage?"), then the premise does not stand.

Perhaps to help these children, politicians and social commentators must now speak of stable co-habitation in contrast with families where a child's parents have multiple partners and produce children from innumerous casual relationships.

Until young girls learn (and probably not from their mothers) that their future is best ensured by not having babies too early, that they must find a partner who could protect and provide, etc, yes, being old-fashioned, would this circle be broken. Only then can they break out of poverty. Only then could their own children stand a chance of doing better.

Sociologists speak of a 'culture of poverty' (Oscar Lewis), and we are not discharging our responsibility by feeding this culture instead of helping future generations lift themselves out of poverty.

It comes down to the old adage: teach a (wo)man to fish.

So I am doubly depressed.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

University to Business to University

I was very amused, tickled, chuffed when, over the weekend, I discovered that something I wrote about pl-st-c bags has become required course reading for a university writing course at a North American university.

As I said to my friends at SOAg (Sociologists Outside Academia Group, we even have our own very stylish logo), it was painful not to be able to remain in academia. So I indulged in writing, as well as started this Organic-Ally business.

Now I'm sort of more established and comfortable taking on my business-woman persona, and I find that an 'output' meant for industry has found its way back to academia.

Irony? But I am not complaining.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Be content. Perm the face.

One of my most indelible memories of my Sociology Honours Class was a statement made by SH Heng.

We talked about hairstyles and were possibly looking at magazines. Then she said, "When we asked the hairdresser to 'perm that hair-style', we really mean to 'perm that face'."

Let me explain. Us Chinese girls in Singapore normally have straight, straight hair. We spend hideous amounts of money to have our hair 'permed' into all sorts of curly styles. Or we have a 'body perm' after which the hairdresser teases our hair into a shape similar to the picture we'd shown him/her.

However, our hair never looks like the way we walked out of the hairdressing salon again. No amount of gooey hair product and hair-dryer would get it back to the shape at the hairdresser.

SH hit the nail on the head though with her shrewd observation that we really want to have not just the hairstyle, but the face (and figure) of the model we were staring at.

Fast forward to 15 years ago when I first started working in this country. I must have remarked that someone looked really nice in a particular hair style. A church member responded with, "But everyone wants to have straight hair like you."

(At this point my hair had not touched perm solution for years and years.)

That was the first time I realized that lots of European (or 'Caucasian' as we call them in Singapore) women with 'wavy hair' aspire to straight hair like mine.

Then only did I notice that women, especially 'Asian' women (from Indian sub-continent, for readers in Singapore), were spending a lot of time and money having their hair straightened.

I had nearly forgotten about this when a young Ghanaian girl I know from my voluntary work at church came to me one day and said, "Have you noticed my hair?"

She had slicked her hair back.

"I made it straight. To look like you. I want to look like you."

I looked at her, reading glasses perched on my nose, "You will never look like me, dear. Why do you want to look like me?"

And so I was overwhelmed once again on how it is human to want to be like someone else.

I have straight hair, but for years I had my hair permed into different styles -- when really I wanted a different face.

This young lady with a beautiful physique, lovely glossy ebony skin with a thousand-watt smile that lights up the room, she wanted to have straight hair like me.

No, I said to her. God made her beautiful in his sight. There is no need to change because God does not make mistakes.

Even more recently one of the youths in our church said, "I am too tall. I wish I could stop growing."

"No, no, no!" I said. I know many girls who would die for the height she has (she IS still growing), but this girl thinks she is far too tall.

I said the same thing, God does not make mistakes. She is beautifully made as far as HE is concerned.

Perhaps she is afraid of the difficulty in finding a husband tall enough for her. I said, "Marry a short man clever enough to appreciate a tall woman."

So it is that pale-faced women wore rouge to give them some colour. I, too, bought this story that we should have red cheeks but instead turned a funny shade of orange!

And dark-skinned women try all sorts of tricks to make their skin look lighter.

The sheer amount of waste these days as plastic pots, tubes and canisters in cardboard boxes in even larger cardboard boxes transport these potions and creams over many miles so that men and women could look like someone else. Usually the complete opposite to their own good self.

Why bother?

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