Saturday, February 28, 2009

Law of wealth

The current economic recession, probably the worst that Singapore has ever seen, may be a blessing in disguise. For too long, Singaporeans have had it too good, and expecting that the good times will roll on and on - strong economic growth, high wages, sky-high apartments (of the $$$ kind) and easy credit through very very low interest rates.

I have lived long enough to know that this happy state of affairs cannot last long. That it has done so came as a bit of a surprise to me. Of course, there was the recession in 2003 - largely caused by the SARS outbreak, so it was not representative of typical economic cycles. The same can be said of the internet boom/bust and even the Asian Financial Crisis back in 1997. All of these were largely localised. For the connected globalised economy, the real markets were still there. So it would appear that globalisation would smoothen these economic boom-bust cycles, leveling the fluctuations that are characteristic of capitalist economies.

We got drunk on globablisation, we became careless with our money, and like the US consumers, we began to go into debt thinking that we will always have that steady stream of income to cover ourselves. Debt financing, sophisticated people call them. Even the Singapore government was bullish about this, talking about the desirability of developing a debt market as if it was the next best formula for pushing the economy to ever greater heights.

Now, I am not saying that debt financing is all wrong. Most businesses depend on a careful balance of cash flows to survive and many go into debt to expand, for example, listing on the stock market. But when everyone is doing it, including the clueless sub-prime people in the US, where debt is miraculously converted into interest-baring assets, which are then resold as it they were gold, ad-nauseam no less, with no accountability and no tomorrow (because the people who sell these get their money today -why worry about accountability some time down the future?), we end up with what the world is lamenting but can't do much without - toxic assets. These 'assets' which came out of the ingenuity of the human mind - to create something out of nothing. Ironically, every banker is now holding a lot of these toxic assets and none of them dares to move on them.

The problem is, they forgot that only God can create something out of nothing. We mortal souls? They again forgot about Isaac Newton and the greatest physicists that came after. They taught that matter cannot be created nor destroyed. But I suppose those PhDs who went into Financial Engineering - they abandoned Physics and its immutable laws. They did not look at 'wealth' as matter, so you could create new wealth without limits.

When you tinker with matter, you can save mankind or blow up the whole world. Is it any surprise that when you do the same with numbers, you can end up destroying the world too?

God help us all.

Image: Author: clarita

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Love and law

For the voyeur amongst us, the story titillates. For the family of the woman, it was a tragedy, non more so than the 2 children who will not see their mother for 10 months. For the youth, it may have brought on psychological scars. Hopefully, these scars will heal so that another tragedy might not happen.

I am referring to the case of a 32 year-old woman, formerly a school teacher, who was jailed for 10 months for having sex with an under-aged boy, now 15. No, there was no rape involved. It was reportedly a consensual affair. But the newly minted law on these matters made this consensual affair a crime - whether the 'perpetrator' (read: the older person) is a man or a woman. Newspapers have given this story enough coverage that it does not need recounting here. On its own, this story isn't all that remarkable. Woman teachers have been reported elsewhere to have engaged in the same sort of activity before. See for example, Buffalo, Lamar CISD, Mary Kay Letourneau, etc.

While the woman has been 'put away', and the teenager probably receiving psychiatric counseling, the woman's 2 children will be the real victims in the long run. They require counseling too, though I am not aware how old they are now. And if the family were to break up because of this, then it will be a double tragedy. This is really a mess, and on hindsight, could all have been avoided if the woman's family had been more sensitive to her needs.

It is too late to say 'I told you so', but if there is a lesson to be learnt her, it is that everyone, including teachers, need attention, that nothing should be taken from granted. Are we engaged in something that takes up all of our time to the exclusion of everyone and everything? This is an obsession, and obsessions are no good. If you want to get married and have children, then you are obliged to stay married and bring up the kids. Why should somebody else's interests rank higher than your own family's? The simple straightforward answer is, it shouldn't.

Love others as you would yourself. If you cannot love your own family, what right have you to go around doing charity for others?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Ageing and willing

Just the other day, I got a lift from a person I met for the first time around a 'yusheng' dinner at a posh Chinese restaurant. We had an interesting chat around the table, from which we discovered that we shared knowledge of several people in our profession - talk of a small world.

He dropped me off at Potong Pasir MRT station. As we neared this Opposition-held ward, I casually mentioned Mr Chiam See Tong. He has been known to be in bad health since a minor stroke he sustained a few years ago. He hasn't made his presence felt in Parliament for a long time now, not like when he first got into Parliament and got ridiculed for his stuttering speeches. He spoke in Parliament again last week. His manner of speaking was again a topic of discussion. He was slow, very slow, but he spoke, nevertheless. He puts to shame many other MPs who merely put in perfunctionary speeches in Parliament. Quite frankly, I never thought that Mr Chiam would ever speak in Parliament again, but I, together with Singapore, were proven wrong.

No, he wasn't the fiery speaker, never was anyway. And yes, he was often ignored, even in his heyday. But he always came across as ever sincere, earnest and honest. Some would add naive. Probably not the type who will built up an opposition alliance of any substance, as history seems to have shown.

I am happy that he spoke. It was probably an inconsequential speech. But he is showing the rest of us that when it matters, however hard it is personally, we should make our point and presence felt, never mind the ridicule and talk behind the back. I haven't got what he has - courage and honesty. You've got to be honest with yourself, and if Mr Chiam believes in cobbling a GRC together in the next GE, I wish him well. He will probably try his best to keep his word, come what may. He's an old but willing warhorse that you'd feel confident of supporting, somehow. Instead of playing dead and living on sympathy, he has shown why he is still the MP for Potong Pasir after 24 years, in spite of the repeated assaults from the PAP juggernaut over this same period.

Source: Chiam See Tong Friendster Account

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Learning and training

Someone asked me, "What's the difference between a test and an exam?"

I would have brushed off the question, thinking that he just wanted to split hairs, except that this question has gained a certain significance with the announcement by the government of the intention of scrapping exams for Primary 1 and 2 students and replacing them with tests to be held throughout the year.

Ever since this announcement, many Singaporeans have weighed in on the issues. Many feel that the absence of exams at P1 and 2 will disadvantage students when they eventually take exams in P3. There's this thing about practice and pain that almost all Singapore parents of school going children are all too familiar with. Right from Primary 1, if not earlier, parents engage private tutors to grill their children on how to work out problems and answer exam questions. If the private tutor did not have an inventory of practice questions for their children, his/her competence could be called into question. One wonders then if our more 'successful' primary school students are exam-smart or just simply smart? Of course, one can be both but a lot of cynicism has been expressed over exam-only-smart students.

So perhaps it is the right thing to do, abolish exams for P1 and 2 students and get them to really learn and not merely be trained, like you would a dog. But doubt lingers, and I am not convinced that you can brush aside such doubts. The current exam-heavy regime of education in Singapore will still be there - the PSLE, the GCE 'O' levels.... As many parents point out, from P3 onwards, exams will determine the options, directions and schools that their child can take and go to. And if you don't train them early, especially when they are young, their ability to cope later becomes questionable. Of course, the really smart ones will adapt quickly, but those needing coaching will now, ironically, get more extra-curricular coaching in anticipation and preparation for the P3 exams and beyond. After all, it is a conventional wisdom in government to take the long-term view. And this has filtered down to the governed(?) Perhaps schools will also offer such coaching because they will also be ranked. No principal wants his/her Primary School to be ranked last. It isn't good for the school's image and certainly damaging to morale and prospective promotions of teachers and principals in the dog-eat-dog world of education in Singapore.

So what is the difference between tests and exams? I would venture that, as far as anxious parents are concerned, the difference is like night from day. Somehow, exams are viewed as a more serious form of assessment and thus a true validation of the competence of their children's performance compared to tests, even if tests are held more often throughout the year. If the latest government initiative is carried through (and there is little reason for it not to), we might see tests evolving into mini-exams. This will mean an increase in the anxiety for parents, students, teachers and private tutors throughout the year.

Pity the educators.

See also:
Primary education in Singapore
Review of Primary education in Singapore

Image: Author:gracey