Sunday, December 05, 2010

Taking what is not yours is ... stealing

This time every year we run a Christmas party for the children and their parents/carers who bring them regularly.

We provide party food for the children and the adults are asked to bring food or give £3 towards food. We give each child and adult a Christmas present.

The money for the food and presents comes from what is left over from the £1.50 we collect every week, after we have provided drinks and biscuits for both children and adults, craft materials for the children, etc. We also invest in new toys and equipment regularly.

Mdm P is a parent who usually arrives quite late. Sometimes after I've put my moneybox away and I would say, "Pay next week." But she'd forget to pay the following week, especially if someone else was standing in for me.

In fact, even if she did come early-ish, she would shuffle about, taking ages to look for her money. Sometimes I have to confront her (which I find very embarrassing) to say, "Have you registered?" and she would claim that she had "forgotten" to pay me.

Also, she has friends calling on her virtually every week come coffee time. And without asking for permission -- even as a courtesy -- she would invite her friend/s to get a coffee and biscuits.

We are not a miserly lot, but we have seen her walking away with a stack of biscuits about four inches high. Whatever she does not finish, she takes away.

We wondered at one point if she was so poor she could not pay the £1.50. If this was the case we would waive her payment, as we have done with another family where the father had not found employment for some time.

However we noticed that Mdm P could afford to send her child to the most expensive nursery in the area. So though she is a non-working mother, she obviously is not short of money.

Last Friday, before she arrived, we had a young mother with multiple body piercings come in saying she had been invited by Mdm P to the party.

What? How dare she invite someone to our Christmas party?

We said she (Mdm P) shouldn't have done that because we did not have a present for the child, etc. The mother looked annoyed and scowled at me. If I were her I would have left at this point. But she stuck on.

We asked her if she intended to attend regularly. She said "no". Which means she would not be contributing towards this party after the event either.

In the end we decided that it was not very Christian not to let this young woman stay. (No room at the inn and all that.) We found an old Christmas present for her little girl.

Then Mdm P arrived. I was busy making sure the hall was set up correctly for the second part of the programme (called the "changeover").

When the children and parents came back from the other hall I noticed that Mdm P had brought along ANOTHER friend (AF) AND a teenage girl (TG), presumeably the daughter of this AF. These two were at Toddlers the week before. (Why was the teenager not at school?)

For child protection reasons we have strict rules about signing people in. Also in case of fire, I need to account for all those signed in. Just drifting in like these two women did was not acceptable. Mdm P knew that.

Nevertheless they sat down and started tucking into the food.

Word came to me that some other mother(s) have complained that Mdm P should not have brought her friends (two adults, one teenager, one toddler). I was given the task of telling Mdm P off.

I waited for the right moment and did. Mdm P justified it by saying that her friends brought food. That is, they did not come empty-handed, and so were just eating their fair share of the food.

OK, I gave her the benefit of the doubt on this matter, and reported it to my "boss". It was not possible to prove that her friends did bring food. I only noticed that they did not stop eating. TG was constantly going back to the table to get more food.

I was also detailed to hand out gifts to the mums and dads and carers who come regularly.

Mdm P and friends watched me carefully. Then when I was called away to see to another matter and a young lady was standing in for me, they cornered her.

When I returned to my station my young assistant (YA) told me that TG had asked for a gift. She tried telling her that it was only for those who came regularly. TG apparently told my YA that her niece comes regularly and therefore should be given a gift.

When I returned to my station TG had the cheek to come back to ask for an exchange of her gifts saying she preferred the one with the purple toiletries. At this point though I hadn't be given a full account of what went on, I had the impression that she should not have been given a gift at all.

I asked, "Who's your niece who comes regularly?"

TG gave a name. It was not a name I recognized. AF (her mum?) corrected her. Suspicion: it was not her "niece". TG held on to her gift which I had refused to exchange. I should have just taken it back at that point.

Her mum said, "You could swop." Meaning TG could swop with Mdm P. (Confirmation: Both Mdm P and TG had taken a gift.)

This morning I had the chance to speak with my YA who told me that TG had told her "her niece comes regularly" but was ill that day and so should be able to collect a gift. Then YA told me that the older women were with her, telling the same story, and practically snatched the gift from her hands.

It was an utter and blatant lie. Not only did the TG lied. The older women with her colluded.

Whatever for? For a Christmas gift worth £5 that we were giving away!

On one hand I felt that if they were so desperate then they need those toiletries much more than I do. On the other, I realized that they were stealing, plain and simple.

If this girl were to go into the store next door, take those toiletries and tell security that her mum usually shops there, would they let her leave with those toiletries?

I am minded to make Mdm P pay. When our sessions resume I shall ask her to pay £1 or 50p extra every week until we get our £5 back.

Dilemma: Should I, as a Christian, quibble over £5? Or do Mdm P and her friend and TG and the other mother (with piercings) who came to the party need to be told they are simply taking from someone who had paid for those things. In other words, they have been stealing?

Has anyone told them that this is not a "something for nothing" society? Or were they doing this because they are so used to a "something for nothing" society?

Do they think that just because we are a church they could come in and take advantage of us?

I have been very patient with Mdm P. She has refused to cooperate where her child's discipline is concerned. This group is not benefitting her daughter at all. If we continue to be so generous with her, is it equivalent to casting pearls before swine?

There have been times when people say to me, "You are a church, aren't you?" as if just because we are a church they could take advantage of us.

Eg when they try to pay £1.50 in 1p copper pieces, I kid you not. I would say I am not obliged to take more than 20p in coppers and they would say, "You are a church ...."

We may be representatives of God's church, but we are not doormats. Do not step all over me.

Should I or should I not make Mdm P pay up for the toiletries TG took?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Making good accounts

This time of year, every year, I dread having to do my accounts for tax purposes.

I am fairly numerate, but when it comes to accounting, I wallow in the abyss between the debits and credits.

My dear husband, trained in accounting, thankfully tolerates sitting down with me to sort out the numbers. Always we row over my poor book-keeping(??), my lack of analysis, and ... O dear!

So last year, for Christmas, I was given Book-keeping for Dummies which I attempted to read, and even did exercises, etc.

Last Saturday we sat down to do the accounts.

I had made a start on the Trial Balance and the numbers on various bank accounts were adding up properly, etc. But still I managed to put some DRs and CRs in the wrong columns -- which he spotted, and I failed to find a record of my last payment to the accountant (!).

But, BUT, we managed to balance the account without getting too cross with each other. Whew!

Profit/Loss? Apparently I made a tiny, teeny profit, not enough to buy a half-decent handbag.

But I was surprised at the amount paid out on items like storage, postage, courier, stationery, website maintenance, consumeables, TAX, etc. apart from the actual goods purchased.

If I were not trading and crafting, even with this low turnover, it would mean even lower revenues for the purveyors of these goods and services, and therefore possibly more unemployment.

And so, multiply this by the number of small businesses up and down the country.

OK, we're not the Middletons with our barn in Berkshire or wherever. But one day I know our little business will grow.

The point is small businesses like ours go quite a long way in keeping other businesses going. And we certainly pay our taxes.

I could very well do nothing and make a zero contribution to this society.

But I've chosen to run Organic-Ally to do our bit for the environment, to promote ethical business ideas, fair trade, and to support co-ops such as
KV Kuppam (via Bishopston Trading) so that consumers this end of the globe could actually make life better for producers on the opposite end.

When I relate this to what's happening in the wider economy and in particular after watching "The Trillion Pound Horror Story" I come back again and again to: We must make (or grow) things to sell.

We must encourage small businesses, and give these small businesses time and opportunity to grow.

When I first came to this country nearly 20 years ago I noticed that manufacturing had declined. I was told the service/finance sector was the way to go. This country cannot compete with India and China in terms of labour costs.

Whilst that argument about China/India might be true, the service/finance sector has also failed us.

We must return to making things to sell to customers who want those things. Not just antique Chinese vases.

I also wonder how much the UK welfare system has sapped the entrepreneurial vigour that was so much a part of this nation.

I read of young people, graduates, school-leavers trained in hairdressing, eg, saying, "If I don't get a job I would have to sign on."

And I think back to my first graduating from university with no job in sight (and no welfare state). What did we do? We took on whatever jobs were available.

I worked at two-and-a-half jobs at any one time because I needed to support my family, plus I had a Rotary Club student loan to repay.

So I was part-time oral history interviewer, part-time university tutor, and freelance newspaper columnist. This last I became because I was fearless (shameless?) in bombarding editors with unsolicited articles.

Not quite a "manufacturing" job, I know, for I was trained in manufacturing ideas (including ideas that sell newspapers) rather than ... handbags.

If I were trained as a hairdresser I would definitely look to starting my own business.

Most interestingly some of my friends started a little craft business. OK it lasted only until they found a "proper" job. But it was their spirit of enterprise that impressed me. And I am sure it was this spirit of enterprise that impressed their eventual employers.

So why don't our young school-leavers think about starting their own business? Why does "business" seem a bad word to some people? What do young people in similar situations in countries with no welfare provision do?

I know parents who own shops who do not wish their children to remain shopkeepers "because it is such hard work". They would rather their children get a job in an office.

How do I say to such parents: "I worked in an office, too. From 8.30am to whenever. Sometimes all weekend. Made so much money I had not time to spend it." (I even needed a personal shopper to buy my clothes.)

We need businesses to generate revenue, to feed other businesses, to create employment.

What must this country make (or grow) to sell?

I would think not those things that the Chinese (and note I am an ethnic Chinese) can make cheaper and faster. But products that depend on changing the whole outlook on consumerism.

I don't believe we should spend our way out of the recession. But I think we really must evaluate our buying/spending patterns.

Finding that balance between buying organic/conventional, sustainable/disposable, fair trade/cheap and plentiful, supporting the local/global is not at all easy.

If I do not need another handbag it's probably only because I only buy good, well-made, handbags.

See also: Workshop, not Casino

Giving a Good Account (2)

Isn't it ironic that someone who does not know how to take good pictures to profit from market-place websites like Etsy should have one of her photos featured in the local papers?

Sadly it was the photo of my 'little brother' "Big Ben" in a tribute page.

We looked at our photos of Ben. They are either of him with hands in his pockets or arms around a little baby.

The photo here is actually one of him with our new-born son ten-and-something years ago.

We knew then that he would have made a good father, and we were right. Sadly his daughters now won't have him around any more.

Our prayers are with your family, Ben.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The tax system explained in beer

This was going round the Internet. There is no certainty over its authorship, and the piece has been called a "hoax" and all that. Still it is worth reading, methinks.

When pondering the question of taxes and the structure of our tax system in general please refer to this explanation using the language of Beer !!

Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100.

If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this;

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
The fifth would pay $1
The sixth would pay $3
The seventh would pay $7
The eighth would pay $12
The ninth would pay $18
The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59

So, that's what they decided to do.

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy withthe arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve ball.

"Since you are all such good customers," he said, "I'm going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20". Drinks for the ten men would now cost just $80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes.

So the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free. But what about the other six men - the paying customers?

How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his fair share?

They realised that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody's share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer.

So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man's bill by a higher percentage the poorer he was, to follow theprinciple of the tax system they had been using, and he proceeded to work out the amounts he suggested that each should now pay.

And so the fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100%saving).
The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33% saving).
The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28% saving).
The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% saving).
The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% saving).
The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% saving).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But, once outside the bar, the men began to compare their savings.

"I only got a dollar out of the $20 saving," declared the sixth man.

He pointed to the tenth man, "but he got $10!"

"Yeah, that's right," exclaimed the fifth man. "I only saved a dollar too. It's unfair that he got ten times more benefit than me!"

"That's true!" shouted the seventh man. "Why should he get $10 back, when I got only $2? The wealthy get all the breaks!"

"Wait a minute," yelled the first four men in unison, "we didn't get anything at all. This new tax system exploits the poor!"

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn't show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had their beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn't have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and government ministers, is how our tax system works.

The people who already pay the highest taxes will naturally get the most benefit from a tax reduction.

Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore.

In fact, they might start drinking overseas, where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier.

David R. Kamerschen, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics.

For those who understand, no explanation is needed.
For those who do not understand, no explanation is possible.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Giving a good account

Yesterday was a very sad day at church.

Last Sunday we heard that we cannot put God in a box as we looked at the passage in the Book of Samuel and the way the Ark of the Covenant was treated and feared.

The congregation was bowed by the news of a serious house fire that left one of our church leaders and his wife (a paediatrician) in ICU.

Later that day we learned the news that Ben, a Microsoft engineer, had been called home. Smoke inhalation had led to cardiac arrest. And the young man who first came to our church 11 years ago, spent Christmas with us, gone away, come back, got married, had children, was now back in the arms of Jesus.

Yesterday was the first day back at church together for many of us.

There was such an outpouring of grief. Ben was special. Ben was much loved.

I spent time with his mum last Friday.

O, how we cried.

"Why? Why? Why did God take him at the prime of his life? Why did He not take me instead?" Ben's mum cried.

We will never understand. I could, and can, only feel the pain of a mother's heart.

Ben was her miracle baby. He grew up so well, so strong, so tall. (We called him "Big Ben". He kept walking into the light fixture in the middle of our sitting room.)

Most of all, he grew up strong in the knowledge of his loving heavenly Father despite ... despite his own father's irresponsible ways.

What mother wishes to say "goodbye" to a child like this? The child whose flesh and bones were knit in her very own body?

But why the grief from all those who had the privilege of knowing Ben, even for just a little while?

Because he was special. Because he was much loved. Because people only have good things to say about him.

And I am sure, this boy-young-man-husband-father who did not have a bad bone within him, would be able to give a good account of his own life when we come before God's throne.

Rest in peace, brother Ben. We will keep an eye on the wife and the two little girls you left behind.

Rest in peace.

Tributes paid to Santosh Benjamin-Muthiah who died in Wealdstone fire

See also follow-up post

Sunday, November 07, 2010

My sister is sixty! Or what is poverty?

I find it hard to believe that. My eldest sister. Sixty.

And she spent four hours working at McDonald's today, because the manager there could see that her work ethos was so different from that of Generation Y (or X or Z?). But she had a run-in with a much younger staff member who did not realize that she was a champion french fries fryer whose "just-in-time" technique was exemplary.

Sister has a full-time job in accounts. She 'retired' and started doing some hours at M's, but was soon offered a job elsewhere. M's called her up, asking her to work Sundays.

Actually Big Sister is very good at audit/accounts but never quite bothered to get her accountancy qualifications. I remember her talking for hours on the phone trying to explain to her best friend the difference between debits and credits, assets and liabilities.

I look back at my young life with great sentimentality today because the talk in the UK this week was -- still -- on cutting public spending. Today Iain Duncan Smith tells us that those on long-term benefits will be forced to do unpaid work in the community.

As you can imagine, uproar from the red corner: that's slave labour, exploitation, unfair.

From the blue corner (or whatever colour corner you choose to call it): about time, too, why should people be giving something for nothing?, three generations of workless households? they need help in being introduced to work, etc.

Incidentally magistrates often sentence minor criminals to unpaid "community work". This week we read of one such "Lazy thug chooses prison over community work 'because he doesn't like getting out of bed'".

Earlier this week BBC journalists went on strike. I personally found it very refreshing. None of that 24-hour dribble (drivel?) speculating as to who was going to say what at which platform. They were protesting against a 25% cut in pensions.

25% of what? 25% of a very large sum would still leave you with 75% of a lot. The BBC licence fee is something we have to pay, or face jail (if I'm not wrong, but of course the prisons are too full now for that).

They quibble over the big bosses having huge pay packets. That, as far as I am concerned, is quite a different issue from their pension cut. Everyone is facing a cut, so why should BBC journalists be different?

My eldest sister's birthday was significant because she was the first person who finished her education at sixteen, went to work in a factory to help support our family, and then learned her trade in audit/accounts in the evenings.

My family was materially poor. There were six of us children and we lived in a one bedroom flat in Tiong Bahru. The flat was kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and a large sitting room. So most of us slept on the floor in the sitting room.

We had one bed -- my parent's. Come evening, the mats -- we didn't even have mattresses then -- were rolled out and we slept on the floor.

We had no wardrobes, except the one dressing table/wardrobe that was part of my mum's dowry. Our clothes were kept in wooden boxes that used to hold vegetables/other goods. Mum collected these boxes from the market and cleaned them out. These were stacked, double decker, under my parents' bed. We each had a different box.

Under the bed, too, was a metal trunk, again from mum's wedding, where she kept some very beautiful dresses that belonged to my cousins. Every so often she would open this trunk to take out new (old) dresses when I outgrew the ones I was wearing.

Come Chinese New Year mum would take a pink dress out of a cardboard box, a very pretty lacey dress, from the wardrobe. How I loved that dress! It was very long when I first wore it. A few Chinese New Years later it got rather short.

Then my parents could not afford the rent and we had to move into Queenstown. Two bedrooms, but a much smaller flat.

We still only had one table. It was our dining table. In the evening the food was cleared away and we sat around it to do homework.

Someone gave us a second smaller bed. Two sisters shared this bed. The rest of us slept on the floor, in the bedroom, in the sitting room, anywhere we found space. Later we could afford mattresses. Then an old bunk bed was donated to us, complete with mattresses. Wow!

Someone else gave us an old wardrobe/cupboard. The sisters now each had one shelf. Such luxury!

When I read of "overcrowding" in this country, I chuckle.

Second sister went into nursing a year or so after she finished school (at 16). Third sister worked and studied in the evenings for five years to qualify as a quantity surveyor.

With the financial burden eased somewhat, Big Brother was able to finish his A Levels, finished his National Service and went into university to study engineering. Second Brother joined the navy and through a circuitous route is also an engineer now.

Yet when we were growing up we did not think of ourselves as poor. We were happy. We had food. We were always clean and tidy.

We might not have TV, but we had newspapers, in two languages. We had Rediffusion and radio, through which I learned my English. Mum collected discarded textbooks and I would read those. An uncle bought us a subscription of Readers Digest which we read avidly.

Ours is a reading family and we read everything we could put our hands on.

We were materially impoverished by today's standards in the UK, but boy! were we rich in our ambition and desire to succeed.

We did not have a choice. When you see your parents working their fingers to the bone to pay for school fees, to buy books at the beginning of the year, to keep us in school uniforms, etc. because nothing came free, you just want to do something about your life.

Yet when I look around me now I see young children considered "poor", with their satellite TV, annual holidays, expensive shoes, and parents not in work, I have to question: what has gone wrong?

My young son stared in disbelief when I recounted how when at university there were days when I literally had no money for the next meal -- only to find my grandmother visiting and giving me some cash "to buy something nice for yourself". Or it happened to be my birthday and aunties gave me small sums of money, as aunties do.

Was I poor? Perhaps. I remember mum telling me I must aim to get to university.

I said, "But we may not be able to afford university."

She said, "Don't worry. If you are good enough, we will find ways to pay for it. There's such a thing called 'scholarships'."

In the end my big brother, a young graduate himself, paid my fees. I worked throughout university to support myself. And yes, I graduated with a (Rotary Club) loan to repay, etc. I had to repay this even when I was jobless, having graduated in the midst of the first major recession my generation has ever seen. (I worked at two part-time jobs until I was awarded a graduate scholarship.)

What this nation needs is not money -- taxpayers' money, ie my money -- poured into a system to "eradicate" material poverty because some will always be poor when compared to others; "the poor you will always have with you", Jesus said.

What this nation needs is blue-sky thinking that will lift the millions mired in their so-called "benefits trap" out of their poverty of ambition.

And a very happy birthday to my sister for her contribution to our family since she was 16, making it possible for the younger siblings to move on to higher education. Wishing you God's every blessing!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Dad, Dad, no Dad

In my short walk to the Post Office and back I was struck by three family situations.

#1: Little blonde toddler running after balding dad who went, "Come on, catch up with your gingerbread Dad."

#2: Dad and son had just crossed the road and dad had swooped son into his arms. Both having a lovely chat.

#3: Attention drawn to child (about 11-12 years old) stamping and completely destroying a pair of glasses on the ground. It was a family of mother plus three small children plus this lad. They must have just come from the cinema and had been given those pretty sturdy 3-D glasses.

Mum was tending to a much younger child when the oldest child stamped on the glasses.

Mum: "Any why did you have to do that?"

Boy: "Because no one would recognize me."

Mum: "Now pick up those bits and put them in the bin."

I don't know what transpired before this incident. But the look on the boy's face and his manner suggested to me that he needed some help with anger management. Did he feel he was not getting the attention he wanted? Anybody's guess.

Thankfully his mother seems a sensible sort of person.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Time of my life, living in hope

Earlier this evening I said to "my boys" how I always enjoyed our meal times together.

Son was telling good jokes and giving good reports of life at school. What more do I want?

Had to explain how when I was his age meal times were served over two hours. Because of the wide range of our ages and the two-session school system, my siblings and I never seemed to sit down at the same table.

Either I came home far too late to eat with any of the family (older siblings would have eaten and gone onto evening classes) or I had to eat way too early before I set off for school. That is why I always made it a point that our family sat down together for meals.

No TV. No books. And lately no talk about Lego and computer games.

We're at the end of our first half-term. There has been many changes, not least of all that son is walking to and from school by himself.

He's supposed to be at a 'silly age'. But he's also getting more and more responsible and I AM NOT COMPLAINING.

For example, he's up at 6.40am, checks that I have finished showering and then turns on his own shower.

He takes his own breakfast things back to the kitchen. Without my telling him.

He changes into his school uniform, makes his bed, etc. and gets himself ready for school without my prompting, well, apart from reminding him to have a fresh handkerchief. He likes one particular handkerchief more than others, it seems.

He still needs reminding about packing his games and PE kit sometimes, but he does it all by himself.

At the appropriate time he would tell me (as I am busy answering emails), "I think it's time to go to school," and he goes.

When he comes home from school he eats a snack (usually a variety of biscuits) and moves on to his homework. Yesterday he came home and announced that he had finished his History homework during lunch break at school.

My reaction: "But you must play! You must give yourself time to play at break."

"It's OK, Mum. I did play at first break."

Since their homework was doubled this year it is good to see how he is managing his time.

Today he tells me that he is bringing his work with him on our short holiday so that he could revise. I said I'd rather he did not do that as I wanted us all to have a relaxing time.

I'll let him bring his books. Whether or not he actually revises will be up to him.

My only question is when would I start to find him doing his piano and clarinet practice without my reminding him! I live in hope.

This morning I saw a young mother struggle to change her baby's nappy. The daughter was going through the "I am not going to lie still" stage.

My son went through that stage. He was always big for his age. So changing his nappy was physically exhausting and I often ended up in tears.

You cannot reason with a big baby, and I lived in hope that he would grow out of it.

He did.

And as I witnessed a grandmother then change her toddler's nappy -- and this little girl kept still -- I told the first mother to watch.

See, they do grow out of it.

Talking to some of the younger first-time mothers I was surprised that many have never heard of the "terrible two's". O well, never mind. They will soon learn about it.

The point is I am having the time of my life, enjoying my still-sensible son at a point when he is well able to look after himself but before he becomes a stroppy teenager.

And I live in hope that the relationship we're building up would mean that he would at least treat me with trust and respect when his stroppiness sets in.

Husband and I are eternally grateful to our friend who spoke at our church wedding. The message we came away was "give each other space".

I wonder if the "giving space" principle also works on teenagers. If we gave him space, would he give us respect?

In fact we are going to give him so much space that we might live in a different country altogether! We'll see.
And then 16/10/10 husband chanced upon this report: Are middle class parents driving their children to depression?

This is why we (together) opted for me to stay at home. Until he was about three years old, our son saw his dad for three minutes every evening before he was put to bed. (Sometimes Singaporeans call this process "put to sleep". Parents don't mean an intention to kill their offspring, let me assure you.)

The full attention son received from me led to other issues, but that is a different story. The point is, this was noticed and we could intervene as soon as possible.

Children are only children once. Let them enjoy their childhood.

26/10/2010: One in 10 families NEVER has an evening meal together

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Economics Nobel Prize Winners


And what are they saying? Apparently:

"governments need to cut benefits and tackle restrictive practices and regulations in the labour market to boost employment levels".

What does this mean? Minimum wage, maximum hours, and everything in between?


Original report here.

Who would win the Nobel Prize for saying that "ethical" employment practices would benefit all?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sitting still -- whose job is it to teach?

Sunday morning and having breakfast with son. Somehow we drifted into a discussion on asking the right questions.

My point was as we grow up and are being introduced to new knowledge, knowing the right answers is important.

But as we progress up the learning ladder it is not knowing the answers but knowing which questions to ask that matter most.

It is the case in research. The whole point of research is finding the answers. What answers we find is directly correlated with the questions we ask.

So this report on How Fair is Britain? appears to have the statistics for all sorts of un/fairness. My question to my son is: Were they asking the right questions?

Take the issue of gender and how boys do not know how to sit still.

Or sitting still – something girls tend to be better at. "So a boy can't sit still, so he gets told off, so he starts to feel like a bad boy, so he starts to behave like a bad boy, so he gets told off some more, so he gets angry, so the teacher gets angry and so on," said [interviewer], her words tumbling out as she described the vicious circle. "And so his work will suffer."

So you must ask why do some children find it difficult to sit still?

In my toddler group (the one I help to run as a volunteer) you would always get a few children -- both boys and girls -- who refuse to sit down at juice and biscuit time.

There are some children, all under three, who would sit and would not dare get off their chairs unless told to do so, and there are children who cannot sit and would run wild around the large hall where the group is held. See previous post here.

The difference is very much due to how their parents/carers train them.

Yes, "train" does sound a bit like "training dogs". I used that verb deliberately.

We train athletes, boys and girls to play football, etc, so why not train them to sit down?

I have enduring memories of grandmothers, mothers, maids, etc running around little children at feeding time. When my son was born I was determined that I do not have to train for the marathon while feeding him.

Son was coming up six months and sitting up. I had to see my supervisor for a final session before my viva. There was no one to child-mind (as usual) so I took him with me to the university.

I put a piece of muslin cloth on my supervisor's office floor and set my son down and gave him toys to play with. He sat within that square.

When another much younger lecturer came in and saw him within that square of cloth he asked, "Is that it? He does not go any where?"

No, first of all because he was only six months old. And secondly when he manages to move out of that square he gets plonked back onto that square. I was bigger and stronger than him.

All through toddlerhood he was sat down, no matter if it was for a drink, a piece of fruit, a biscuit, etc. So much so that whenever you gave him food, he always looked for a place to sit down.

There. Trained.

He is still a bit of a wiggle bottom, but he knows there are times and places when he must sit still.

Decorum "at table" (ie meal tables) was important. No messing about. Mum and Dad would see to it.

Sitting quietly (not always the same as sitting still) at church was to be expected. We sometimes played games when he was bored but he was still required to be quiet.

[We had two "hand games". Game #1 entails holding our palms perpendicular to the ground. One of us tries to push both our hands together while the other tries to keep them apart. We switch over occasionally. Quiet and fun.

Game #2: one person places an index finger in the open palm of the other person. The one with the open palm attempts to trap the index finger which is withdrawn at appropriate times. Great fun, too.]

I keep telling "my" parents at Toddler group that getting their children to sit down with all the other kids at juice time is good training because they need to sit down at school later.

Many young and new parents heed the advice. Some -- a small minority -- simply don't get it.

As we would say in Singlish: what to do?

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Linguistic Hegemony: Cockles and Muscles

(A shorter, less controversial version of this was published in the Straits Times online section on 11th October. I had assumed that the Editor was not going to run it. Apologies for the overlaps.)

The English-Singlish debate has thrown up a vociferous group defending the use of Singlish, largely because they see Singlish as being tied up with a Singapore identity. (I tried to explain how being a good Singaporean should not preclude us from learning to speak good English in a letter to the press.)

This group seems to be made up of people who are able to speak (or at least write) excellent English when they choose to.

There is a deafening silence, at least in the English cyber-media (and understandably so), from the Singlish-speaking group who could most benefit from learning to speak good English.

If I were a Marxian sociologist (not the same as being a Marxist, nota bene) I would say that this ‘good English’ group own the “means of production” and the ‘Singlish’ group do not.

In original Marxist philosophy the bourgeoisie own the “means of production” – land, tools and other resources – unavailable to the proletariat who merely provide the labour.

In Singapore today we can equate “means of production” to access to, or monopoly of, a good standard of English, and with it, ideas, knowledge, jobs, money and therefore, power.

By championing Singlish the ‘linguistic bourgeoisie’ are ensuring that the ‘linguistic proletariat’ continue to be ignorant of how they and their children are being deprived of these “means of production”.

I have spent enough time working on the factory floor to know that parents in this ‘linguistic proletariat’ are unlikely to march up to the school principal to flex their collective muscle and demand that their children are taught English grammar so that they could speak and write proper English.

It is therefore a form of hegemony when the ‘linguistic bourgeoisie’ act to ensure that the social mobility of the ‘linguistic proletariat’ is, henceforth, effectively curtailed.

Outside of economic gain there is another issue related to the grasp of ample language skills: we need good language skills to think through complex ideas.

The tools of language, like the keys on a piano, are all there. Just as good music would evoke a response, a good leader could put words together in such a way that listeners could go, “Wow! I’ve never thought of it that way.”

Good use of language could stir listeners to action. Think of famous speeches like "I have a dream" and "We shall fight [them] on the beaches", etc.

In his recent National Day Rally speech did the Singapore PM choose to inspire?

Instead he chose to dwell on bread-and-butter issues, using anecdotes and case studies to engage, explain and communicate.

Perhaps he had discerned that his audience were unlikely to have the vital language skills to be inspired by clever rhetoric. He has learned that they much prefer to talk cockles and chilli*.

Years of languishing in a linguistic torpor have guaranteed that enough people remain merely useful and utterly apathetic. So apathetic that there is no real fear of uprising.

But alas! these same people cannot be stirred to action either.

Think about it. (And if you do, I am almost certain you won’t be thinking in Singlish.)

*In a 2006 speech the PM used the phrase "mee siam mai hum" which translates into "a spicy local noodle dish without cockles" to illustrate a point. It was then noted that "mee siam" is never served with "hum" (cockles). So did he mean "mee siam mai hiam" where "hiam" refers to "chilli"? What's the point of ordering a spicy noodle dish without the spice? Whatever the defence for this mistake was given, the suspicion remained that this PM has not eaten at hawker centres as most Singaporeans do, suggesting that he was (is?) completely out of touch with the electorate.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Learning to Labour

Some of you might recognize that this is the title of a 'classic' by Paul Willis.

It tells how working class boys learn to become working class and take on working class jobs.

We recently had a downstairs toilet refitted to make it easier for our aged visitors. It was put in single-handedly by a young man of 30 (30 is young to me now!) who originally came from Bosnia.

Us here in the UK are very familiar with the tea-drinking antics of workmen. A point not lost on the author of the The Yellow Tractor, for example.

But I was quite taken aback by how hard this young man worked. He was always on time. He never asked for tea or coffee unless I offered. I didn't even see him taking lunch (although I'd seen him drinking Red Bull twice). He cleaned up every day after he had finished.

He was meticulous. If something didn't go as planned (like finding a loose floorboard) he would check with me, suggested solutions, waited for approval and then acted on it.

He did not even turn his radio on until I went out to shop. I told him he was welcome to keep his radio on.

Then he told me how his father used to work for the same company. The company took him on as a much younger man. He knew nothing and did some labouring for them. Then he learned to do painting work (and he was meticulous with painting our walls).

I don't know how many years intervened but he is now able to fit bathrooms all by himself, from start to finish. If I owned a bathroom fitting company I will be very happy to employ him. If he had his own business I will not hesitate to recommend him.

This came amidst all the doom and gloom talk about cuts in government spending. And as I had pointed elsewhere (here and here) while millions are on benefits employers have to recruit from overseas to do the jobs that ARE available.

Two things stick out in his story. First he worked with his father. There was a father figure.

There had been many occasions when we needed work done in the house and contractors have brought their sons along, and/or later sent their sons back to do the work, and one electrician (who has a Masters degree) usually has an apprentice with him.

Again these young men are incredily well-mannered and did a magnificent job each time. They were trained by their fathers or mentors and their fathers/mentors can be very proud of them.

The second is he was willing to learn. It did not matter that he knew nothing, but there was a determination to earn his own wages. Conversely the company was willing to train him.

As we read of millions stuck in what is often termed (erroneously I think) as the "benefits trap" I can also imagine how a younger generation is learning NOT to labour because they have never seen their fathers and mothers labouring.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Don't mix Singlish with identity

Recently I sent this letter to the Straits Times:

To be or to be – what is the question hah?

“Should Singaporeans speak a standard English or Singlish?” is the wrong question.

We need to “go stun” (back up a little) to ask whether Singaporeans need, or wish, to speak and write a language – any language – fluently enough to hold a sustained, logical and sometimes protracted discussion. Then only do we know how/which to choose.

Many have observed that code-switching within a sentence (English, Mandarin, Singlish) is a common phenomenon in Singapore.

My Sociology professor reasoned, “But you can’t translate the concept ‘pek-chek’, can you?” No, I can’t. I cannot even spell it.

This difficulty in writing down the language is an intrinsic part of the problem.

We borrow words like “anomie” and “Weltanschauung” in Sociology because there are no accurate English equivalents. Similarly, when discussing localisms the use of a Singlish term may be appropriate.

However a lot of conversations I overheard seem to suggest that speakers simply do not have the vocabulary to complete a sentence in the language with which they started.

A superficial grasp of any language means we can only cope with the most superficial of thought processes. So:

(1) Do we want (our children) to learn a language that would give them access to the rich cultural heritage that that language has to offer?

(2) Do we wish to speak a language sufficiently well to discuss more profound issues relating to scientific theory, theology and philosophy, for example?

Singlish, like Cantonese, is difficult to write down. Would it ever evolve to such a level to give us the equivalent of a Shakespeare, Voltaire or Li Bai?

Admittedly most of us read foreign literature in (a good) English translation. What are the chances that Hegel, for example, would be translated into Singlish in my lifetime?

Of course, Singlish has its place amongst our family and friends. It made me feel “at home” even with my Tiong Bahru Primary School classmates after a staggering 37 years.

However because Singapore is that little red dot that trades (in goods and knowledge) with the rest of the world, we have to choose to learn a language that is able to serve this purpose.

For as long as we conflate the issues of speaking a language well (be it English, Mandarin, French) with that of our national identity (that there is nothing wrong with Singaporeans speaking Singlish) we will never arrive at the logical conclusion to either of these.

What was published was this rather bland version:

Sep 18, 2010
Don't mix Singlish with identity

THE question of whether Singaporeans speak standard English or Singlish is the wrong one ('Getting it right - from the start'; Sept 1).

We need to back up a little to ask whether Singaporeans need, or wish, to speak and write a language - any language - fluently enough to hold a sustained, logical and sometimes protracted discussion.

Only then would we know how or what to choose.

Code-switching within a sentence (English, Mandarin, Singlish) is common. We borrow non-English words like 'anomie' and 'Weltanschauung' in sociology because there are no accurate English equivalents.

Similarly, when discussing a local custom or peculiarity, a Singlish term may be more appropriate.

But the truth is, many speakers simply do not have the vocabulary to complete a sentence in the language with which they started.

A superficial grasp of any language means we can cope with only the most superficial of thought processes.

So, do we want children to learn a language that will give them access to the rich cultural heritage that it has to offer?

And do we wish to speak a language sufficiently well to discuss more profound issues relating to, for example, scientific theory, theology and philosophy?

Singlish, like Cantonese, is difficult to write down.

Would it ever evolve to a level that would give us the equivalent of a Shakespeare, Voltaire or Li Bai?

Of course, Singlish has its place among family and friends.

It made me feel at home with my Tiong Bahru Primary School classmates after a separation of some 37 years.

However, because Singapore is that little red dot that trades (in goods and knowledge) with the rest of the world, we must choose to learn a language that is able to serve this purpose.

For as long as we conflate the issues of speaking a language well (be it English, Mandarin or French) with that of our national identity (that there is nothing wrong with Singaporeans speaking Singlish) we will never arrive at the logical conclusion to either of these.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Story of Tommy the Cat

This is a brag post. My son gave me permission to post his poem written some time in the last academic year. The teacher had gone over the structure of a poem and the pupils were asked to write another based on that structure.

He wrote the first three stanzas in class and I saw him sitting at our dining table hacking out the last. As usual he refused to let me read any of his homework before submitting.


The Story of Tommy the Cat

The milkman was driving in his multicoloured truck,
When something jumped in front of him – a cat covered in muck!
The milkman swerved, the milk truck tipped, and threw him out the door.
The milk was flying everywhere and all across the floor.

The cat now grabbed a milk can, and knocked the man half dead.
Then dragged him to a building, and left him in a bed.
He grabbed the milk, then ran away, and gave himself a drink.
For the cat’s name was Tommy, and he needed milk to think.

The milkman woke up in his bed, and thought it was all a dream,
But Tommy appeared at the window and the milkman gave a scream!
The milkman fell, and his eyes rolled right back in his head,
And after he had fainted, fell right out of his bed!

Then Tommy ran off down the street to make his getaway,
The milkman also lived enough to drive another day.
Though after this short incident the milkman made a vow,
That any cat he ever sees, he’ll run them down right now!

L. T. (aged 10)


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Would you wear a shirt like this?

Bought shirts for son at the Singapore Zoo. The sleeves and bottom hem of one ended up looking like this after first wash:

Now the zoo shop people tell me it IS supposed to look like this. Here are the pictures they sent me to show what a new t-shirt SHOULD look like:

Except that I don't remember it looking like this on the display. And it did not look ripped on the day that son wore it. Basically I wouldn't have bought the shirt if I knew it was supposed to look "ripped".

Would you spend S$40 on a shirt that is ripped like that after first wash?

I think it is a rip-off.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

People on benefits should pick fruit and veg

Do you agree?

Original report here.

Yesterday as the IFS report tells us that the "poor" are worse affected than the "rich" given the new financial squeezes, our minds turned to the thousands needed to pick fruit and veg.

People complain that there are no jobs, yet thousands are recruited -- need to be recruited -- from overseas to fill these posts.

I have an East European chap working on my bathroom. He's very conscientious, very thorough, very diligent. And so polite. He didn't even dare put his radio on because I have mine on. Until I went out to do a shop.

No wonder this well-known local firm of bathroom specialists employ him.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sony Singapore O dear!

We are all set to check out of the YMCA hostel here which has been our home for the past two weeks.

Husband, however, has to trek over to Funan to get a battery for his new camera replaced. That is after we made the futile trek to Wisma Atria as instructed by the Funan salesman to claim our special wide angle lens at an incredible SGD99.

Sony is promoting this camera and enticing customers with a promotional offer, but when we went all the way to their distributor they have none of the lenses in stock. In fact they do not have this particular lens ANYWHERE in Singapore.

How then should they be allowed to carry on with this promotion? As husband says, "I see a letter (to the press) coming".

We tried leaving feedback at Sony website, but it does not accept complaints from tourists from the UK. (The drop-down menu does not feature either UK or USA, why?) So I phoned and guess what? they are closed because of a "company event" and they won't be available till Monday.

O great! We're flying today, Saturday.

Then it was clear that the camera battery we were given was a dud. We could not use it to take a panoramic (spelling?) picture of our family at dinner last night. Bah!

I hope Mr T is able to get his battery swopped quickly and what guarantee is there that it would work when we charge it up in the UK? None.

Thank you, Sony Singapore!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

People Tree Sale

I don't usually shout about promotions, but:

Just received my goody bag from People Tree. It's FANTASTIC VALUE!!!!

"Beautiful skirts, hand made tops, perfect summer dresses, cropped cotton trousers, delicate jewellery and stylish accessories – in this mystery Goody Bag you will receive at least FIVE hand made Fair Trade products WORTH AT LEAST £100 for JUST £30."

Get your own Goody Bag from People Tree quickly now!

(O no! just found out they've run out of stock on these bags. But still lots of other stuff that's good.)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Of mums and mums-in-law

Today one of my letters to the Straits Times in response to recent discussion on filial piety was published. I would have missed reading it if husband had not pointed out a letter on poorly-mannered Singapore doctors.

When I read my letter again, I realized that a very important sentence was omitted because it is, clearly, not politically correct to even express such a view in a national newspaper. The full text of my letter is here:

When researching elderly Chinese living in sheltered housing in the UK, I was struck by how often daughters-in-law were rendered invisible.

They did not feature in family photo albums nor were they talked about, except negatively, which is probably why these older Chinese were living on their own.

Why, I wonder, would this generation of women who had suffered the wrath of their own mothers-in-law, treat their daughters-in-law so unkindly?

It transpired that before our marriage my husband told his parents in no uncertain terms where I, his wife-to-be, would stand in the event of any future conflict.

And I, from as soon as I was able, had been preparing my son for life away from mum and dad (ie being able to cook and clean) just as my parents-in-law had my husband. I wrote to them soon after we were married, thanking them for bringing up their son so brilliantly.

Unbeknown to us while Singaporeans were agonizing over whether a husband should stand by his wife or mother, we were voicing our fear (in jest) over our son refusing to leave home till he was forty!

Clearly we are talking about different patterns of relating between generations, and in many ways, between cultures.

The cultural shift in residential patterns had been immense in under two generations: from new brides (especially of eldest sons) living with their parents-in-law, to young couples starting married life in new homes (leaving ageing parents to single siblings), to widowed/sickly parents moving in with daughters (instead of sons).

There is no “norm” any more. It is a question of pragmatic arrangements.

Of course my mum-in-law and I have differences. However because she treats me with utmost respect, I reciprocate. And whenever I find her “annoying”, I remember that she is the woman who made my husband what he is, for which I must be eternally thankful.

Filial piety manifests itself in different ways. We come from very different experiences of language, education, history and yes, family conflict. It is futile to expect a “one-size-fits-all” solution.

However if we must be prescriptive I would venture that the flipside of filial piety is respect. And respect – mutual respect – cannot be imposed.

The paragraph in red was the one edited out.

Last week I was also surprised to learn from some parents at school how rude some of the senior boys were. They were allotted the task of helping members of the PTA (equivalent) to set up a stall and there were mumbles and grumbles.

A PTA stalwart said, "I blame it on the parents."

So back to this doctor being ill-mannered by not bothering to introduce himself/herself to the patient before telling him to strip and asking very personal questions. We come back again and again to:

"Is it because we have had a whole generation being brought up by foreign domestic workers?"

Yes, 30 years, a whole generation who probably never learned to say "please" and "thank you" because one is not required to be polite to a paid servant.

I've lost count of the number of times doors at public buildings were slammed on me, because the person in front could not bother to hold it for two seconds for me to come in (and for me to hold it for the person following, etc).

I've despaired at how often I get bumped into on a busy street and the person just grunts and walks away.

Come on, guys, it does not take too much to utter a sincere word of "I am sorry" or "I do apologise".

One morning some months ago I saw my son cross the road and waited to see him approach the school gate. One elderly gentleman was walking towards him. When the gentleman crossed over to my side, he asked, "Is that your son?" I nodded.

"He's very polite," he continued.

I had no idea what my son did to warrant this response from a neighbour that I've seen in the area but whom I don't actually know.

It transpired that when they both came to a point where the pavement narrowed due to tree roots, my son stood aside to let the gentleman pass. That was all. Nothing to it. But I was so proud of my son.

So, do we blame poor manner on parents?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Which Child/Mother Benefits?

Millions may lose out in reform of child benefits

According to the above report in Times(Online):

"Frank Field, appointed by the coalition last week, is also looking at taxing child benefit and allowing parents to receive payments of up to £25,000 in the first three years after a child’s birth. In an interview with The Times, the former Labour minister said that the benefit, which costs the taxpayer £11 billion a year, should be linked more closely to the child’s age.

"Poorer parents are eligible for payments worth up to £100,000 in both child benefit and tax credits by the time a child is 19, according to Mr Field.

"He said there was a clear case for providing more money in the early years to help mothers to stay at home after their child was born — a policy also backed by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary."

It is great to have a chunk of a child benefit up front to make it easier for mothers (or perhaps fathers as well?) to stay at home to give them the best start in life.

I would just caution over the "returning to work" bit. Many women are wary about staying at home for too long because it is difficult to return to work, with the best will in the world, after being away for far too long.

If families have new children within the first three years mothers may be away from work for six years, nine years and then they would find it -- like me -- difficult to get back into paid employment.

The mothers who would benefit children most by staying at home tend not to, because their professional training makes it difficult to stay away for too long. And those mothers who should go to work and give their children a chance to be exposed to a more structured and disciplined life in a nursery do not. It seems to me.

I deal with lots of mothers every Friday morning at my toddlers group. I can safely say that giving some mothers £25,000 up front will not free them from poverty. More later.

Besides, what if they spent the lot when a child is two, or four, or six? They will be crawling back to "Social" for more money. What do we do?

Reading the various fora, there seems to be a rising tide from some quarters calling for Child Benefits to be restricted only to the first two children. If you would read earlier (long) post I argued how the welfare system has basically done away with the "survival of the fittest" principle.

The result of which is both young men and women do not bother to find the best mates so that their children could have their best chances in life to survive. The benefits system is a great safety net for those who care.

But for those who are not 'bovvered', the free flow of benefits for children inside and outside of marriage mean those who could least afford it (both materially as well as in parenting ability) have the most children.

Of course you could go round with your clipboard and questionnaire survey, or reporter's notebook, and NO MOTHER would admit to having children indiscriminately just for the additional benefits. Mothers (and fathers) do get a warm fuzzy feelings about having babies.

But they must know when to stop!

If you cannot afford children, then don't have any more. Don't expect the single person, the retiree, the school cleaning lady, everyone else who pays tax to support your family.

I don't even mind supporting families if I know that they would turn out good for the society.

"Mr Field ... also wants to scrap the current measure of child poverty, defined as 60 per cent of median earnings. He intends to recommend it is replaced with a “life chances” index measuring parenting, school readiness — such as being able to hold a crayon or sit still — and progress through education. Labour had got itself into a “cul de sac” over poverty targets that no country in the world had achieved, he argued."

There is a mother in my toddler group (there are others as well but let's focus on this one) who has not a clue how to control her daughter who is small in size compared to herself and coming up three.

Hold a crayon? You must be joking. Sit still? The little girl has not been taught what a chair is for. She certainly does not have a 'naughty chair' at home.

This morning I told both mother and daughter that at "juice and biscuits time" she must try to sit down like all the other toddlers. The mum tells me she can't sit still even at nursery.

Come "juice and biscuits time" Miss High-Energy-who-does-not-talk-but-screams was zooming around with her juice and biscuits. Mum? She was sitting as far as possible from the other mums and dads, drinking her coffee and eating the stack of biscuits she picked up from the biscuit box.

Busybody me went up to her and suggested that perhaps she could sit closer to the rest of the children (like all the other parents) so that her daughter might sit down.

"No, she won't do what I tell her. Maybe I should give her a smack," she told me while chewing on her biscuit.

It is not as if this is her first child. She has two older children. And yes, if benefits were to stop at the first two, there may not be Miss-High-Energy-etc.

I would guess that hers is not a family that sits down together to eat a meal. If they have proper meals at all, it's eaten in front of the TV, possibly a large-screen TV.

What would this mother do if Mr Field were to give her £25,000 up front? She comes to Toddlers every week with her push-chair laden, simply laden down with shopping. It topples over when the daughter comes off it.

After we have cleaned up and I am going home I see her, most weeks, still shopping in the high street. What would she buy with £25,000?

I said to the lady in charge of the group I had no success in getting that little girl to sit down because her mum does not cooperate. My co-volunteer said, "Did you know she put ten sugars in her coffee? Ten!"

At the mention of Mr Field's proposals she said many families on benefits in her children's school have more material possessions (large screen TV, satellite TV, electronic games, multiple cars, etc) that her family does not have. And her husband works.

So we are all agreed: it is not money they are lacking. So throwing away that 60 percent of median earning is the right thing to do.

Many people do not like the idea of a tax regime that benefits the married couple -- because it seems so liberal to take that view -- so you must not penalize those who are not married. By the same token benefits must not be reserved for children born within marriage.

The result: there is less to go around. Yet the same people then complain their schools are not good enough, hospitals are not good enough, retirement benefits are not good enough, care homes for the elderly are not good enough.

But should benefits for a third child be stopped when the parents are not married? Think of the huge number of children living in families with siblings of many different fathers. Recent high-profile cases on child protection seem to indicate that children in such contexts are most at risk.

We then throw money at social workers in the hope that each child in those circumstances could survive to adulthood.

Back to 'my' little girl. What would this little girl become after the £100,000 of benefits that us taxpayers give to her (mother)?

Like her mother, would be my guess.

So will keep trying to teach her to sit. Pray with me.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Copyright and Integrity

Last Tuesday some of the boys in son's school showcased their piano skills.

This usually means playing some boring exam piece they've spent the last six months practising.

Along came one of his mates who did not attend the rehearsal but decided to come on to play ... wait for it ... Star Wars (one of the tunes from). It was a hesitant performance, but never mind. It was brave.

Yesterday son came home to say another promising pianist in his class wants now to play the theme from 'ET' at the next concert (we're talking May 2011, OK?). Son asked if it was OK for him to loan friend his John Williams book.

"We are not allowed to make a photocopy for him, are we? So I've better let him borrow my book."

I felt really proud of my son who thinks about whether it is right to photocopy copyrighted material.

I would rather he does not let his friend borrow his book for a whole year, thank you very much. And should his friend choose to photocopy from it, we might never know.

And then I thought, ah, I don't think John Williams is going miss that bob or two of royalty that does not come to him just because a 10-year-old chooses to copy a tune from the whole book. Still, intellectual property is intellectual property.

We'd probably let said friend borrow the book and if he decides to, he could pay to download a copy of the music online, or he could go to support our local music shop by buying his own John Williams, which is what I'd prefer him to do.

Meanwhile son is happy playing Kats-Chernin Eliza's Aria from Wild Swans, or that music from the bank TV commercial.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Self-esteem and Mix(ed)-handedness

Had a most illuminating chat with son last night.

He was reading the book Stick Up for Yourself: Every Kid's Guide to Personal Power and Self-Esteem. Again.

Why? I asked.

"O well, you know, my self-esteem is at an all-time low."

Something to do with being ranked in "C" team at cricket.

But you came in top at skiing, I said.

"Yeah, but that is all forgotten," (ie by the other boys in class).

Then he went into the technicalities on how to bowl a cricket ball and how he was often criticized, and we drifted into talking about his preference to use the right hand for some tasks and the left hand for some tasks.

Clearly having a very strong left hand has given him an advantage in piano playing.

Obviously, I said, your brains must be a bit confused when it comes to bowling a cricket ball.

Ah! That explains why you are so good at skiing, I said. You use both left and right sides of the body equally when skiing.

Face on son shows a lightbulb has gone on.

Did some quick research on the internet and decided that while son is not ambidextrous (as his grandad was), he is also not left-handed (like his mum's brother and his dad's brother).

He writes exclusively with his right, more dextrous hand but uses his left but stronger hand for using a knife and twisting a jar top off. He told me when he used to try to remove a jar lid with his right hand, he would twist the jar with his left hand instead of twisting the lid off.

He is "mixed-handed".

Not very nice things are said about children who are mixed-handed, that they are more prone to ADHD, for example.

But not enough is said about how such children do in sport and what kind of sport they are good in. In this link I found that "Generally, people with crossed hand-eye preference seem to have the centre of gravity closer to the midline of the body, giving them better balance and hence better performance in gymnastics."

I would like to hear from other mixed-handed people or parents of mixed-handed children to find out what their experiences are.

In particular what kind of sports are mixed-handed people good at. We are still trying to find a sport that son could excel in (apart from skiing) at school. We can't wait for him to do hurdles, but athletics is a very short season at his school.

Our son, like Bill Gates, is able to jump very high from a standing position.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Parenting guru. Moi?

Not yet.

But it was good to meet a mother from my toddlers group last Saturday.

She was at my son's school "Open Day". She told me she would always remember what I said to her, many moons ago.

Apparently she was trying to tell her son -- who was happily chattering away -- to shut up.

Apparently I said to her that it is OK to let toddlers chatter away. Apparently I said that "we spend all their first months encouraging them to talk, and then when they start talking we tell them to keep quiet. It must be confusing to the poor child."

For whatever reason this young mum remembered this, and my face -- for I don't think she knows my name -- will always be associated with that "advice" I gave her.

I didn't think it was the right time and place to mention that we must also teach our children that "there is a time and place for everything", under heaven, if I might add.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Can this be true?

From the Telegraph today:

"Meanwhile, more evidence emerged of the painful cuts in public spending which are set to come in across the board whoever wins the election. It was revealed that secret plans have been compiled by NHS bosses which would see thousands of training posts for doctors and nurses axed after the election, despite claims from ministers that front line services would be protected if Labour were re-elected.

"Thousands of training posts have been earmarked for closure in cutbacks planned by the government."

Who are these 'NHS bosses'?

Trim the layers of bureaucracy, not stop training medical staff, I say.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

This ostrich-turkey-chicken election

This election has been so lacking in ideology. Max Hastings calls this the "ostrich election" as politicians and voters alike bury their heads in sand and hope that the real problems we face would just go away.

It is like a toddler putting his little hands on his eyes and saying, "You can't see me now."

Then toddlers grow up and realize, hey, other people can still see them even when they covered their eyes.

So, too, we must grow up.

None of the major parties seem to have any undergirding ideology in the recent years. There is no real 'vision' for this society. Everywhere there is just a bit of tinkering here, a bit of polyfiller there.

Meanwhile the voters want lower taxes, higher benefits, higher pensions, better schools, better health care, better transport, but how do we pay for that?

Many taxpayers (of which I'm one, just as women, of which I'm one) do not mind paying taxes to help those most in need. We don't even mind helping those who are genuine asylum seekers. But when the reality we experience is generations of unemployment because a career on benefits is more lucrative, then taxpayers are entitled to say, "Enough is enough."

We are not against immigration per se because an immigrant society can be a vibrant society. The problems arise only when (1) we see migrants who do not wish to integrate into local community; capitalize on education and health, etc, yes, but would not integrate (eg learn English) and engage with local people, and (2) when immigrants are taking jobs it shows -- logically -- there ARE jobs to be taken. So why are there still these millions on benefits, long-term benefits?

Our political parties have abandoned ideology because ideology does not win votes.

Unless we agree on austerity measures, we will go the way of Greece. Swingeing cuts in public spending will be required. With such a large proportion of the electorate being either employed by the government (local councils, central government, NHS, etc) or dependent on benefits, to vote for a party that has the guts to say "cuts" is to expect turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Instead, we have politicians saying only what the populace wish to hear.

The closest that I've come to hear about ideology is "The Big Society". It reminds me of "The Big Issue". Perhaps homelessness, or 'purposelessness', IS what is ailing our society.

We do not have poverty in physical, material terms as most of us could get by quite well if we cut out the booze and fags, mobile phones and those feral dogs. If you wish to know what real poverty is I can show you, in different parts of the world I've lived and worked.

I don't even buy those stories about families of four having to "squeeze" into a two-bedroom house/flat. I come from a family of eight and we lived in a one-bedroomed and then later two-bedroomed flat.

It only made us determined to do well in school to get out of that poverty. We had no social welfare but we had the tenacity in our spirit to better ourselves. Just as importantly, we had an education system (one that rewards achievement) and meritocratic society which allowed us to better ourselves.

Here in Britain where people prefer to be on benefits rather than to work, the poverty is in the spirit where no amount of tax credits could eradicate.

When I first moved into this area I went straightaway to a charity shop to volunteer my services on a Saturday morning despite working a full-time job. Here I met other volunteers who gave of their time freely for no other reason that it makes them feel good to give.

Retirees on pensions had little money but lots of time. They gave time. Someone suffered sufficient brain damage to make it impossible for her to complete her 'A' levels (back in those days when 'A' levels meant something). She volunteers much of her time at a charity shop.

So you see, people on benefits and people who are disabled can also make a net contribution to society. It cheers their spirits, gives them a purpose and reduces the need for dependency on drugs, TV or whatever.

Why don't the majority of people on long-term benefits do the same? People say it's not worth their while working because they lose their benefits. I have a simple solution: take away their benefits.

"Big Society" is about a "social contract". An ideology based on a social contract is workable only when people share a moral compass. We have rights and we have obligations. There is a certain amount of give and take. I give when I am able, and hopefully when I need help, someone else would give.

Instead for too long, far too long, we have lived in a situation where some of us give and give while others take and take. That is not a fair society. No matter how politicians dress it up as "those who have more should give more", those who have been giving and giving, and giving some more for the last 20 years or so, are tired. And then we give some more to bail out the banks.

Increasing the inheritance tax threshold is often made to sound like an unjust tax on the poor because only the "rich" benefit. Yet when you trace the paths of these so-called "rich" you could often find that they are ordinary people who made money based solely on their diligence.

Inheritance tax is an unfair tax on people who have worked hard all their lives and who have already paid tax on their income, including bank interests. It takes away the incentive for people to succeed, to accumulate, to pass on to the next generation when inheritance tax means much of what they earn in a life-time will be taken away, to fund those feckless others who only play.

On the other hand, many of those who have been taking and taking have had more than a generation to get back on their feet, but have refused to do so. Hard work is outside their 'comfort zone'. They are happy to keep taking some more. Why bother to have an education and find work when a 'career' as serial single mother is more lucrative?

What about the adage "God helps those who help themselves" or that thieves must no longer steal?

To refuse work when one is able to work so that one could remain on benefits is to steal. This person is stealing from the cancer patient who is refused drugs because the NHS does not have the money. And theft is punishable by law and that should be the case.

I can forgive a young girl for getting pregnant the first time. Young people are allowed to make a mistake here and there. But to have several other babies with different fathers subsequently smacks of total irresponsibility and as such, their children should be removed. No ifs, no buts. Their babies should be given to childless couples who are more likely to give them a chance to break out of this vicious circle of poverty and illegitimate pregnancies.

We are spending more and more on child protection because many more babies are born to people with no intention of discharging their responsibility as a parent. They go in and out of relationships like a revolving door just to satisfy their own needs with no consideration of the consequences of their actions. I, as a taxpayer, do not wish to pay for their profligacy. But do I get a choice?

So it's not just an "ostrich election", as we can be sure that come Election Day turkeys are not going to vote for Christmas. Whatever the outcome, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, our careless spend-and-spend policies will mean that the chickens will come home to roost.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Redundancy as Goal?

The politicians are not telling us about the cuts in public services that will be necessary. That's OK as I will argue that (1) because a lot of public services/offices can indeed be cut and (2) public/civil servants should work towards the goal of redundancy.

I have lost count of the number of letters we have received that tell us: you are invited to make an appointment to see your consultant; this is to confirm that we have cancelled your appointment with your consultant; this is to confirm that your new appointment with your consultant is ...; please complete the survey about your experience of seeing the GP*; please be notified that ballot papers for the local election will be sent out soon; please be informed that ballot papers for the General Election will be sent out soon; ad infinitum.

Does anyone seriously think that the people sending these letters out actually do make a difference to our illness/well-being or "front-line services"? What would be the effect of making this bunch redundant?

When there are people sending out survey forms, there are people collecting survey results, there are people analyzing survey results and there are people ticking boxes to say such and such government target has been reached or missed. Does it make a real difference to how we are treated at the hospital? (*And somehow these survey questionnaires never ask the most significant questions like how difficult it is to make a GP appointment these days if you played by the rules.)

Think about the "transport advisors" and the layer upon layer of "co-ordinators", "outreach workers" and "area managers" for this kind of political correctness and that kind of equality (but not other kinds). In today's newspaper (won't say which one) a local council advertises for a "Customer Insight Officer" (£38-£40K), "Neighbourhood Engagement Officer" (£32-£35K), "Business Development Officer" (£38-40K) and "Communications Officer" (£35-£38K) for the "not-for profit company controlled by the council" which runs their council housing.

Their duties range from: "to hold expertise for the organisation in resident engagement, involvement and community development" and "working in collaboration with partners and colleagues to implement service improvement initiatives across all areas of the business" to "championing an organisational culture that understands and celebrates diversity" and "produce a full range of external and internal communications material to meet the needs of residents, staff and partner and external agencies".

I tell you I worked for a not-for-profit organization and my colleagues and I had salaries which were no where close to those figures. The fact that a "not-for-profit company" was formed by the council (with an additional layer of governance with a board of directors and staff, etc) also suggests a clever way of disguising how the money flows through the system. And what EXACTLY do these people do instead of fixing broken taps and street lamps?

I say, cut their jobs and give the money to the schools and nurses and police and people who actually make a difference.

The goal of a public servant should NOT (never, EVER) be to move up the ranks, make more and more money and expanding one's department and increasing their departmental/sectional budget year on year. Their goal should be to work towards redundancy, ie work themselves out of a job.

Why are more and more children being taken into care? Why are schools failing? Why are the needs of sections of vulnerable people in society not being met?

Can any one deny that public/civil servants have vested interests to ensure that problems that they are employed to deal with remain entrenched in society?

If I manage to clear all the cases of children needing care, then I would be out of a job, won't I?

But if it says on my CV that I managed a department with x budget and z number of staff, then I can in my next job expect to manage x+y budget and z+n number of staff, and correspondingly my salary will increase as it shows I am capable of being a good manager. No?

A good manager within the civil service perhaps, one who knows how to tick boxes, but not a visionary, not a mover nor a shaker.

A public servant, and in particular senior civil servants, should be able to use the data, resources and experience he/she has to propose changes to a flawed system to eradicate the issues that give rise to, say, the need for child protection, homelessness, truancy, etc. Ticking boxes and following procedures do not a good manager make.

They should be able to provide ministers with the wherewithal to make changes to policies so that there isn't a continuous and vicious circle of teenage pregnancies, reoffending, obesity and so on. Instead many are carving out kingdoms of their own. The longer their "client list" the more dosh they get from us taxpayers. The larger their department, the larger their budget, the higher their salary.

Is that right?

CEOs are given huge salaries on the basis that they have to deal with huge budgets. It is logical. No?

But these salaries do not generate profits. CEOs could, might, make efficiency savings, but these are not the same as profits. It is not like I could choose not to pay my council tax, or pay it to another council. Fact is I would have generated more profit than most CEOs of local councils. It is not difficult -- at all! -- to spend money you have not earned. Ask my son!

I do not pay my son huge amounts to spend my money, why should these CEOs get away with their inflated salaries?

At what age do these civil servants retire and at what salary?

If at 35 someone is able to resolve the issue he/she is employed to fight then he/she deserves to retire at full pension, and not wait till he is 65 or whatever. Then only do civil servants have the incentive to be made redundant.

Where would the civil servants who are made redundant go? They could find another job, start a business, MAKE something to sell instead of shifting my tax money about.

If you say "but they do not have the skills to do this" or "that", then it shows our education has failed. If our education system has failed, why must my tax money be used to keep propping up a failing system?

You say, "It's difficult to start a business, there's too much red tape." Well, there you go, these are the same people who put the red tape in place. Case closed.

I myself am staring redundancy in the face. Not as a high-flying executive in some multi-national or professional partnership, etc. But as a mother.

According to his little red book, my son will be my height when he is 12 and three-quarters, come Christmas 2012.

If I have not instilled in him all my values (particularly of discipline and tidiness) by the time he is my height, I have no chance of doing any better after that. See earlier post.

It is because of this very conscious awareness of the limited time I have that I do what I do.

Civil service jobs apart from those that makes a real difference to one's health, civil protection (police, fire service), and education, should not be open-ended jobs. We must all work towards redundancy.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Being a Grandparent

My son (coming up ten years old) once explained to me why being a grandparent is such a wonderful thing.

"All that happens is you get a phone call that says, 'Congratulations! You're a grandparent!' with none of that carrying a baby around for nine months."

Out of the mouths of babes, eh?

He's been away on a school trip and we noticed that he is not keen to make contact on the phone. Conclusion: our son is growing up.

That is good. That is very good.

(I am the one who must get used to him being away from me. )

Still a part of me thinks he is never going to understand what it feels to be a parent, UNTIL he becomes a parent himself (ie when I get to be a grandparent).

However where children are concerned, you know how you keep telling them that childhood is the best time of one's lives when we could live without a care (at least it was when I was growing up). We tell them school days are the best days because we did not have to be burdened with the worries of earning a living.

Do they believe us? Would they ever understand?

My major objective these days (and for the past decade) has been to make a childhood for my son that he could look back and say, "Those were really some of the happiest times of my life."

Am I succeeding? You would have to check back in about 15 years' time, I guess.

Last night as I went to bed I just kept thinking how nice it would be if my husband and I would get to see a first grandchild at least. As we married late and one of us has a chronic (incurable) disease, it is quite a hope to cling to.


I would like to see my son when he is able to view the world as a parent. And then only would he understand what his parents had gone through. I think we can look forward to some really great conversations which are both between parent and child and between parent and parent at the same time.

He hates it when the Luther Vandross song with the poignant words "to dance with my father again" comes on radio. (I suspect deep down he is worried about losing his father.)

Sometimes I also share that sentiment of the songwriter: O! if only I had "another chance" to talk with my own father again, not just as a daughter, but as a fellow parent as well, how wonderful that would be.

And I suspect my husband would also love to be able to do that with his own father. We did not get a chance to tell him that another grandchild was on the way when he was taken away from us without any warning.

Yes, as we approach Father's Day my eyes well up thinking of the grandparents my son does not have, I can only hope to be a grandparent myself. Strange!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Help! Another Prodigy!

I really cannot understand why parents push their prodigies into university.

Let me go on field trip or I'll sue, prodigy, 13, tells college

Clearly these brains are so advanced they cannot see that learning something/sitting exams/graduating university earlier does not make them any better/more mature/nicer people.

So what if my child is able to sit A Level exams at age eight, ten, or twelve? After that, what?

My son was able to read anything he set his eyes on at five. So Dad bought him a whole set of Famous Five books. Why not? Both Mum and Dad enjoyed the Famous Five.

Son tried reading one and gave up. He did not have the emotions to cope with that kind of adventure. It frightened him.

He read the lot more recently and quite enjoyed them. Age nine is so different from age five when you are under a decade old.

Thirteen-year-old boys should do what 13-year-old boys do: get zits and gain an interest in girls. Children and only children once. They should not be deprived of their childhood.