Monday, August 31, 2009

Binding Religion?

Recently I came across posts which seem to be coming down hard on Christians in Singapore. One that caught my eye was the displeasure voiced by netizens on the suitability of the principal of a church-based junior college, Mrs Belinda Charles, to speak at a Christian conference.

It touched me because though Mrs Charles never actually taught me, she was the person who handed me my 'A' Level results many, many years ago. I don't recall her trying to convert anyone to any faith.

I penned the following letter to Straits Times, but it was never published. So I am reproducing the contents of the letter here.



My Dutch friend Sheila once said, "Only in my car do I feel safe. Then I have the freedom to go any where."

Sheila’s freedom comes from all motorists, including herself, obeying the Highway Code, a set of rules. Imagine someone insisting on driving on the wrong side of the road "because it is my right".

Likewise when whole communities subscribed to the Ten Commandments they have found their freedom to worship, work (and rest), own property, live and love.

Sceptics have added an eleventh commandment: "Thou shall not be found out", played out in all its glory in the expenses scandal of the members of both Houses of Parliament in Britain.

Jesus’s own "new" commandment: Love your neighbour as yourself.

Clearly the young men in Britain who stab another love their neighbours little. Perhaps they love themselves even less*.

Having not related to a father, or watch a father relate as a husband and son, many such young men have no notion of family. When there is no sense of family honour, there is no sense of (family) shame.

When "churchianity" still provided the social glue in Britain people observed boundaries.

The welfare state – designed with good intentions to care for the orphaned and the widowed – has suffered a "mission creep" by removing the stigma of illegitimacy.

Where once women looked for husbands who could protect them and their children, and men looked for wives who would help support their careers, the decline of the church coupled with the expansion of the welfare state have led to the rise and rise of an underprivileged class.

On one hand people who do not believe in God champion "the survival of the fittest". On another they build a comprehensive counter-Darwinist system that "selects in" the weakest, encouraging those who are least able to look after themselves to procreate.

Britain is broken because the family (where one might "Honour your father and mother") is broken.

Take away the family and the young man who stabs another is no different from the City banker who gambles away someone else’s money. They cannot extrapolate, envisage, the consequences of their reckless actions (violence, greed, selfishness) on their "neighbours": sons and daughters, fathers and mothers.

Harriet Harman (British Deputy PM) asked if Lehman Brothers would be different if it were Lehman Sisters.

What if Lehman Brothers were "Lehman Brethren"?

Take away the freedom for people with religious convictions to comment on the state of society, and particularly the state of the family – whether these be as doctors, accountants or politicians, Christian or otherwise – one takes away the potential for ideas, suggestions and solutions on how society could be (re)built, improved and sustained.

Happy birthday, Singapore!


Does religion bind us or does it free us? Do we wish to bind religion or free it?

*See this post as well.

Just for fun, read this.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

He who has been stealing ... Ephesians 4:28

Oooh ah! Harrow boy Michael Portillo has something interesting to say here in:

Idle young should be entitled to nothing

"In Britain — maybe throughout western Europe — belief in work, vocation, community, family and God have declined together. "

He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. (Ephesians 4:28)

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Laziest Housewife I might be, but ...

When we take our kid out, we make sure he behaves himself.

I remember my sister-in-law saying of her children (now grown up), "Rather they behave badly at home than they behave badly in public."

Us Chinese have this notion called jiajiao (literally "education by/in your family" which can be translated roughly as "parenting" or as I prefer "family honour"). So if a child behaves badly, a grandparent is likely to mutter, "Don't do that. No jiajiao."

Those words alone were often enough to stop most young children from misbehaving.

So when we go out with son to an event we make sure he is polite. We also help him with his food when he was much younger, and wipe up any spills, etc. to ensure that we do not trouble the hosts too much.

Last Friday was a very emotional day for me. I was in tears a lot in the morning. I was finding it hard to get over how our neighbours' eldest son had died so suddenly, and it was his funeral. This death also brought to the fore the sudden death of my father-in-law almost exactly ten years ago.

N and I were married in September 1998. In May 1999 I was in Singapore when I lost my mum. When I came back to London, my in-laws were quick to visit and greeted me with, "We are your only parents now."

August 11th was the total eclipse of the sun in Cornwall and Devon. We discovered with great joy only the day before that I was pregnant. But because it was early days we had not told anyone about the pregnancy.

On the evening of 11th August, I got a call from M, who's now our son's godfather. M had gone down to stay with my in-laws in order to watch the eclipse. M said that P had collapsed while ordering drinks at a pub, and it didn't look good. Could we come to Devon immediately?

I was at a loss. Husband had gone to church to help with moving a piano, and had left his mobile phone at home.

A few minutes later M rang again to say, sorry, P had died.

I managed to get in touch with the church secretary who drove to church to locate my husband who was already on his way home. Paul followed him home in the car and stood at the door to make sure we were OK as I delivered the news to husband.

So within three months I had lost my mum and my father-in-law, both very, very dear to me.

The next couple of weeks were a blur. What was most difficult was that we had such good news, a baby was on the way, but we didn't dare celebrate. We had to give mum-in-law and everyone else -- all in a desperate state of shock -- time to grieve and mourn the totally unexpected passing of a man who was so, so dear to us.

So the death of John-next-door was tough on me. Their family runs a business from an office in their back garden. John was next door every day. He knocked on our door often to ask to park in our drive. I also go to them for help sometimes when I needed, eg. photocopying for my research projects and they were always kind to me.

I could not bring myself to go to the funeral service because I would make a fool of myself, I know. Besides, the house needed cleaning as we were having this open house thing for the church. I was suffering from mouth ulcers (probably as a result of all that stress) and was in some pain.

Then round about 6.45pm I found myself suddenly surrounded by eight and then ten little children. Only one of these was being carefully watched by his parents.

Then they were going, "I want this [pointing to food]" or "I want that [pointing to drinks] or "I need the toilet", and there was I, one woman who was coping with both physical and emotional pain, trying to tend to several young children (not her own) all at once.

Then someone decided it was funny to spill his brother's food. Someone accidentally dropped food on the floor. (These things happen.) Another spilled half a cup of sweet red juice. (These things happen.) As I was clearing and mopping up I thought, "Hang on a minute. Where are their parents?"

And gave up.

Got the husband to bring out the picnic mat and sent the children out to eat. Ah! Why didn't I think of that earlier? There they could mess as much as they like and I didn't need to mop up (to prevent others from slipping on a hard floor). The foxes will be happy tonight.

After exhausting himself in the garden first with playing and then with tidying up, our son decided he was going to bed. He had had a very long day, doing sports at holiday club, and he was required at someone's birthday party early the following day. He went upstairs and got himself ready for bed.

Then someone decided to fill a water pistol with apple juice. All the water pistols were confiscated (they weren't meant to be used at all) and someone else was not happy.

The children continued to play in the dark in the garden. Whoever said children should be seen and not heard?

Our garden lights had stopped working for some time and we were happy that they were out of our hair. We could hear them playing outside although we could not see what they were up to ...

Until the following morning when we realized that they had wrenched the swing ball stake out of the ground, leaving a very ugly hole right in the middle of the lawn.

Husband had hammered this into the ground as deep as a washing line. One or more of these children must have used a considerable amount of force to dislodge it.

Thankfully nobody was hurt in the course of removing this quite substantial stake and they hadn't tried to break anything else with the stake that now lies in the garden.

At breakfast I was furious. Why did they have to do this? This is vandalism, criminal damage, I fumed.

Then I turned to my son, "Do you think Mum is being petty or do I have the right to be angry?"

"Well, " he said very calmly and in as diplomatic a tone as he could muster, "At this moment, I personally think you are being petty."

It is great to learn that son has learned he does not need to appease his mum all the time.

Still, maybe it is a cultural difference, maybe it is an age thing, maybe I am being a parent at a different age from these other parents.

I may be a lazy housewife but personally (such a redundant word) I think children should learn to respect other people's property. There is a difference being having fun and doing something they had been told (by our son, earlier, as he later told me) not to do.

I may be a lazy housewife but I do not abandon completely my duties as a parent when I visit other families.

I may be a lazy housewife but I did spend two days cleaning up the house so that, uhm, there was room for people to enjoy their food and chat.

So maybe I was, as my son thought, being petty. Or maybe my excuse is it is just that time of month. That time of the decade. That I am in between two hospital visits and feeling the stress. Whatever.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

NHS - Putting Patients Last

Is it coincidental that on this Saturday morning, me groggy from last night's responsibility of hosting an "open house" to members of my church, that I should receive an update from Civitas with reviews of their recent publication Putting Patients Last? (See eg this.)

Earlier this week I had phoned two hospitals to try to re-schedule two appointments. I had been given really awkward times during this summer break when I am a full-time carer for my young son.

No, they cannot re-schedule, because it would mess up their six-week targets.

In other words, if I don't accept the appointment given, then we all suffer.

So I had to make some rather complicated childcare arrangements.

Could this policy be a good thing?

Last Thursday I turned up just before my appointed 6.05pm and found that I had gone to the wrong hospital. Yes, I felt like a complete idiot.

This was because I was seen at one hospital and expected the MRI to be done at the same hospital. It didn't occur to me, nor my husband who also read the letter, that the MRI scan was at their "sister" hospital 20 minutes drive away.

As I did not know how I would be feeling after being put into a noisy tube, I opted to take the bus to the hospital. When I discovered that I was at the wrong place I rang the required hospital and they asked if I could get there.

I didn't have a clue. I am well known to be rather directionally-challenged.

Thankfully there was a shuttle service between these two hospitals. One was leaving at 6.30pm and the scanning people told me that if I got there by 6.50pm they would see to me. The staff were also very concerned that I was able to find my way home.

I got there by 6.49pm, thanks to a very sympathetic driver. When they finished with me, I was asked again if I could find my way home. (I had ordered my taxi, thanks.)

NHS staff are really very nice people. Once you got past the appointment making business they are the most competent, most caring professionals. Really.

But I have lost count of the number of times I had been reduced to tears trying to make an appointment on my husband's behalf.

He has a chronic illness and is immuno-suppressed. It is very testing trying to get him an appointment to see the GP to sort out his prescription if he isn't on the verge of collapse. In which case I should be ringing for an ambulance instead.

For those who are unfamiliar, this is how it works for him.

He is under the care of a team of consultants at one of the best, if not THE best, colo-rectal hospitals in the country. But it is the GP who issues his monthly prescriptions, often in response to changes in his regular blood test results.

Sometimes husband suffers a relapse of sorts, or side-effects from the drugs, and he knows his body well enough to know that the prescription should be tweaked. But could he get a GP appointment to advise?

They tell you to ring at 8.30am in the morning for an appointment the same day. I have never been able to get through at this time. It is also, inconveniently, school run time for me. If I needed to see the GP myself, ringing after the school run means no appointments are left.

In reality it is a lottery. You ring at 8.30am and HOPE you may get to be seen on that day.

I tried explaining that husband -- who runs a busy IT department -- cannot expect to stay at home and HOPE to get an appointment.

"I'm sorry. That's the way it works."

I am often tempted to say, "But do you realize that he works to pay the taxes that pay your salary?" Then of course, he could be struck off the list by this surgery for abusing the staff. To that extent, we live at the mercy of the GP surgery's receptionists.

Try booking an appointment with the GP who knows his case? You must be joking.

The wait is usually AT LEAST two weeks. So now I tell him to book at appointment with the GP every time he has a blood test so that when the test results come back in two weeks' time, he has an appointment ready. If he didn't need to see the GP, he could cancel it.

Why do they have such a system?

One reason, I figure, is because patients miss appointments without informing the surgery. Because no payment changes hands, everything seems "free" (it is not, we taxpayers pay), it does not occur to some types of patients that their no-shows mean other patients cannot be seen. How do you correct such ingrained selfish behaviour?

Second reason, targets. Patients have to be seen within 48 hours. So if you stop them from being able to make an appointment other than on the same day, they will be seen withing 24 hours. Target met.

At our surgery you could also phone in the evening after 6.30pm the day before you wish to be seen.

Two problems here. One, I am often cooking the evening meal, trying to get son to bed, etc. Tired. So on both accounts of the 8.30am school run time and the 6.30pm cooking time, my surgery is discriminating against women, housewives, people with caring responsibilities.

Second, if I tried using this system to book for my husband for the end of the day -- so that he could get to work, come back on an earlier train and get to the surgery for the last appointment -- I have to be on the phone pressing "1" for "the next appointment" for about 20 minutes to get to the last appointment.

I don't kid you. I've done that before.

All these just so that targets are met. So is this a case for "putting patients last"?

The truth is, as truth must also be told, we do get very, very good professional care once we get past these gate-keepers of targets aka the receptionists.

During times when the husband had been too ill to get out of bed and I'd rung for a GP to visit, they often come as soon possible to make sure that he was OK.

If one were so ill that one needed emergency treatment, there is A&E. The only difficulty is when you are a conscientious non-acute patient who needs medical advice to make sure that your condition does not deteriorate to the extent that you need A&E, ambulance, etc.

Is this short-termism or what?

Yet millions of pounds are spent every Friday night looking after drunks for free, possibly of people who don't pay much tax at all.

The issue is not just one of putting patients last or first, or somewhere in between. There needs to be a massive re-think on the relationship between a health service and an individual.

These days there is such a divide between the ethos of a universal health service and the notion of being entitled to a universal health service that supply will always not be able to meet the demand.

Take for example the case of fertility treatment. On one hand we do not stop practices that could increase infertility (eg smoking and drinking that could result in cancer, and/or indiscriminate sex that leads to STDs with long-term effects on fertility, etc) and on the other we are spending massive amounts of money helping people get pregnant.

Then there is the anomaly of treating patients who neither qualify for, nor require, a free service.

My friend from Singapore came to see his daughter graduate from university. He fell seriously ill with heart problems and needed hospital treatment and hospital stay. Now he was fully covered by his insurance. Yet when he asked about payment, he was told, "Not to worry. Everything is being taken care of." [update: compare Obama's stepmother's case, see below.]

Why, in this situation, was a foreign non-taxpayer given free treatment? Why was there no attempt to recover the cost of his hospital stay from his insurers?

I have seen TV interviews where medical staff say that it is not their duty to screen foreigners out of the system. If someone needs care, NHS provides it. They are medical professionals. Very good ones, too.

But we hear also of people flying into Heathrow with serious heart trouble or needing an organ transplant, etc. and they, too, are treated for free and we wonder if, along the line, someone has become far too generous (spending our money).

No such thing as a free lunch. Why should I pay for other people who do nothing to contribute to the same system which (presumably) would look after me when I need the service?

And then I keep getting this questionnaire about whether I am happy with the service I get at the GP. Well, I know a thing or two about questionnaire survey design. I have designed several of these in my own professional life.

Guess what? There is not a question about how easy or difficult it is to book an appointment. Lots of questions about whether we are seen to within certain time limits, the decor and comfort of the surgery, the speed with which phone calls are answered, etc, but NOT a single question on my experience of trying to get an appointment at a time that suits my circumstances.

Was it: very easy, easy, OK/average, difficult, very difficult?

The Civitas report suggests that the NHS begins to treat patients as customers. By coincidence I worked on a project for a private hospital in Singapore where they were trying precisely to teach the same: the patient as a customer.

They did not stop there, they wanted all staff to treat other staff members as customers, too.

Not just a digit, not just a hospital or NHS number, not just someone in the system who must be pushed through the relevant numbercrunching gateways with the result "target met".

I live in hope.

For an example of the NHS's creaking bureaucracy, read this post.

Should we have paid for Obama's stepmother's healthcare?

Apparently Daniel Hannan prefers a version of healthcare system akin to that of Singapore.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Sunday Philosophy Club (not a book review!)

This time last year we were in sunny Singapore.

I often borrow some crime fiction books from our local library to take away on such home visits. It helps to settle the jet lag.

Last Saturday I took our son to the library so that he could pick up more books for his "reading challenge". Asked absent-mindedly if they have books on the "#1 Detective Agency". I first heard this on radio and was fascinated.

The librarian -- maybe she's on HRT now -- said, "Alexander McCall Smith, isn't it?" and then bounced over to the shelf, "Let me show you where they are." "Bounced" is the operative word.

I felt obliged to borrow a book or two after this. The Sunday Philosophy Club took my fancy (why? later ...).

I started reading this on Sunday evening. I was really chuffed because the author has allowed the heroine Isabel Dalhousie to sprinkle the book with philosophical musings. As I twittered on Monday morning:

"Loving the Alexander McCall Smith The Sunday Philosophy Club. Time to read (of, about) philosophy in any form is a treat to me."

Then I googled AMS (Alexander McCall Smith) before breakfast and found more information about this series.

Chuckled over the critics' comments, like:

The New York Times sees her [Isabel's] philosophical musings as “less than riveting”.

According to : “the tone is a bit daunting for readers who never progressed beyond Philosophy 101 in college”.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls Isabel “the anti-Precious” and suggests that the novel will “delight McCall Smith's existing fans and win him some new ones”.

The USA Today's reviewer commended Isabel’s penchant for philosophical self-examination and saw the novel as a “painless introduction to philosophical questions”.

I guess I am one of those "new" fans of AMS. I find the Philosophy painless rather than daunting. I was, after all, chided by Cedric Pan (one of my Philsophy professors) when, in my final year at university, I asked if I could put his name down as an academic/character referee in my CV.

"Aren't you staying to do your Honours degree?"

Fact is I would have loved to do an Hons. degree in Philosophy but didn't think I was good enough. Although I knew for a fact that my second-year essay on Kierkegaard was being circulated and studied by the third-year students reading Existential Philosophy (I wasn't, having opted for "Modern Philosophy" with "cowboy" Dr Patterson instead) I didn't think I was clever enough to read Philosophy any further.

Cedric's remark spurred me on. I studied very hard for my finals. But, as I have recounted to my son at least twice, I forgot to turn my exam question paper over in my final final "Buddhistic Philosophy" paper.

I found myself giving the same content twice in my answers and wondered why the questions were so limited in scope.

Then fifteen minutes before the end of my three-year undergraduate life I realized that HAD I -- "if only" is such a poignant phrase, isn't it?, if only I had -- turned the question paper over, I would have found not one but TWO other questions I could have answered with relative ease.

After all I knew "everything" required to argue over karma, dukkha and nibbhana. No, I didn't want to be reborn as a cockroach. Thank you very much.

And so -- no "if's" -- I was marked down for using the same material twice in completing that final final exam.

I failed miserably in getting into that very elitist Philosophy Honours Class. Few wanted to read Philosophy in my time. It was not a "marketable" subject. They wouldn't even let you into teachers' training with a Philosophy degree.

To rub salt into the wound, not only did all those who opted for Dr Patterson's paper fail to make the cut (his paper was so tough one of my mates walked out of the exam), many of my friends who had been regurgitating my Kierkegaard paper were offered a place -- which they rejected!

It transpired that these friends were practically told what questions to expect at their Existential Philosophy "revision class" by the lecturer whose name escapes me. (Lucky him.)

There were some 200+ students fighting for 20 places in the Sociology Honours class. I found myself -- most unexpectedly -- offered a place in "Sociology Honours" instead. ("Sociology" was made up of Sociology and Social Anthropology and to this day my social science still straddles both.)

And because of that mistake in my Buddhistic Philosophy 306 (or whatever, sorry Mr Goh, you have been such an inspiration since you introduced me to Logic in PH101) I am now a PhD in Social Anthropology. Not Philosophy.

Got that?

So I chuckled even more when I read more information about the AMS books I haven't read. Wikipedia does spoil some of the fun that way by revealing the plots.

Apparently in a sequel, says that "the interjections of philosophical and high-brow intellectual reasoning ... can seem snobbish and isolating to the average reader, ie those without a PhD."

I shared this with my son at breakfast and had a good laugh. My young son enjoys reading Philosophy for Kids and we often have protracted philosophical discussions.

Well, I have yet to finish reading this book. Last night I read about Isabel receiving an article from someone in the Philosophy Department of the (wait for it) National University of Singapore (NUS).

Well, what do you know? As I sometimes peer-review journal articles as well and have in fact reviewed one from NUS (the articles come to me "anonymized" but you only have to turn to the Bibliography, note whose name is listed repeatedly to guess who had submitted the paper) I can identify with Isabel's job.

Especially when I used to be a full-time editor (of a Christian magazine) and had recently considered offering my services for free to a journal desperate to find an editorial team. After all I am the inspiration behind SOAg (Sociologists Outside Academia Group).

But alas, unlike Isabel, I am not in my early forties (any more), live in a large house with a summer house (hmm a garden office will be nice), nor have the services of a very amicable and efficient housekeeper. (A butler has been the only item on my Christmas list for some years.)

I was also fascinated by the author's reference to the (lack of) use of handkerchiefs. As you know I rather fancy myself as the #1 Hankies Agency. The very positive response to my recent addition of handmade organic cotton lawn hankies has taken me by surprise.

I also play the trombone and flute (not terribly but not as well as I would like to) and love the idea of the RTO -- Really Terrible Orchestra.

Must go load the dishwasher now and perhaps finish reading the book tonight?? Must leave the hankie-sewing till tomorrow.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Six inches of time and 20 centimetres of parenting left

Son's piano teacher tells us that he has "lazy fingers" and should consider playing the organ. Is he joking or what? Dunno.

But some time back he brought to my notice my son's tendency to "swap fingers" and I blogged about it here.

Then he organized for us to go to his church where he is organist for son to try out the organ (here). The conclusion was son is a 'natural' on the organ.

Okay. What do we do? It's good news, but let us not be rash about anything. My feeling then was: thankfully we still have six inches of time. Son was too short to reach the pedals and we will just carry on with his piano and clarinet.

He's had a growth spurt. First he was tall enough for us to despatch with the car booster seat. (We highly recommend Freecycle.)

Then last week even other parents started telling us that he had "shot up". His mate who has been much the same height as him suddenly looked small.

I measured him a couple of days ago and he is 20 cm short of my own height.

That means, O yes!, I have a mere 20cm of parenting left to do.

While discussing parenting teenagers, etc, with my ex-RGS girls in Singapore and elsewhere in the world, I came to the conclusion that a mother's parenting duties should be completed by the time a child is her height.

I cannot imagine looking up to a stroppy teenager a head taller than me, myself with a finger wagging, going, "Now, you listen!"

What if you are short?

Short mothers have short children, so short mothers do not necessarily have a shorter time to "parent". Don't fret.

In my case I have a tall husband and so our son seems to be growing tall at a much faster rate that I did. Then how? (As we would say in Singlish.)

Husband steps in. He would still be towering over the son for some time. But son will probably overtake him in due course.

Which, if you have been following my posts inspired by Steve Biddulph, fits in with the idea that fathers must take over as the 'main parent' at some point as sons grow up.

What about parenting daughters?

Girls tend to grow slower, according to my little red book issued at the birth of my son. So mothers can parent daughters for a little bit longer. Including those crucial puberty years when they get self-conscious about their body, their first bra, etc.

Then -- I imagine, so don't quote me -- it is very nice to have dad around to show them how boys (men) view the world -- girls, women, sex, marriage, etc -- which is also much needed by a teenage girl.

That, I think, is why God designed children to be made by both male and female. Unlike some animals which become more or less independent soon after birth, human babies require an extraordinarily long period to learn about being adult.

It is us parents who must help them into their adult years.

What if children only have one parent?

I think one way around this is to seek the help of good friends, a brother, a sister, to help play the part of the missing parent.

So I have 20cm of parenting left. So help me God.

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