Trekking in Bako National Park

It has been a long while since I last posted anything.

A child discovered this dying blog - the final effervescence of forgotten wine, the dehiscence of a poorly stitched wound.

Is it because words have dried up, from an overflowing river to a mere trickle to a dehydrating puddle of mud?

Thoughts are there, still there, just not processed into anything coherent, anything worthy of being read.

I wish I could talk about how the baby mammals misbehave, how they remind me of those infant primates clinging to their mummies' tummies.

These little creatures run around, hooting, screeching, touching, smacking. They are adorable and infuriating and (sometimes) show sparks of intelligent life.

But since I am circumscribed by my circumstances, I shall talk about what I did this holiday.

Let's start with a photo of this handsome fella, ruggedly bearded. He was loitering around the accommodation in Bako National Park and seemed lovingly tame.

There are many beautiful pitcher plants - seven different subspecies! - twining around trees, like snakes.

The most charismatic animals are, of course, the endangered proboscis monkeys. This one was foraging for tender leaves just a few meters away.

Silver leaf monkeys are more cautious and take extra care to maintain a healthy distance.

Here are photos of the flora and fauna we encountered in the park. I'm lazy to write descriptions of the many wondrous things we have seen.

There was a constellation of stars in the sky and a constellation of fireflies in the mangrove and everything was blinking and the world was magical and beautiful.

It is banal and unfortunate and irrefutable that everything must become the past. Work will begin again next week.


There are always bright spots in the darkening sky. That's how we see metaphors in constellations, Orion in the scatter of stars, Ophiuchus from disparate pinpricks of light.

We see meaning in what that may be essentially meaningless. Random clusters of rocks are imbued with myths. Within stars, there is an archer, a lion, the snake charmer.

We are meaning-making creatures, prone to see colours in drifting leaves. Apophenia: that's our tendency to attribute meaning to perceived patterns between unrelated things.

Sometimes, it's easy to be disheartened by young people, how they lose their temper for what may be trivial reasons. That vulgarity, that arc of marker across the classroom, that defiant tilt of the chin.

How easy to see patterns in these acts, a constellation of why not to be. How easy to forget the oft printed call to make a difference.

Much more challenging to remember the laughter within the classroom, the easy smiles along the corridors, the unexpected gifts between lessons.

There are many people to leave behind, many reasons to leave. How then to perceive the network of light to stay for, to remain for.

A Reminder On Why We Teach

Sometimes, it's easy to forget why we teach. There are exams to set, students to counsel, stacks to mark, meetings to attend, parents to call... There's a litany of activities, one after another, a frantic rush.

The key point, of course, isn't grades. It isn't about the number of passes, the percentage of distinctions, the mean subject grade.

It's about sitting down and talking to students and explaining your point and raising your voice when you have to and softening your voice when you have to and trying to grow with them, beside them, alongside them. It's a balance that's impossible, given the sheer number of individuals we try to help.

It's easy to be swallowed by the rush, to forget.

Today, during assembly, the principal shared about a call she received. Usually, these calls are complaints about students not moving to the back of buses on their morning trips. I was ready to nudge students into paying attention.

"A seventy-five year old uncle called me last week," she said. "He was on his bicycle when he made a turn and fell off. Two of our students went past, paused and offered help. He told them that he would be fine, just let him rest on the ground. Our students said, "We cannot leave you in the rain." This was the line which touched him: "We cannot leave you in the rain." They helped him to the bus stop and wanted to call for an ambulance. But the uncle said that his wife was waiting for him at home. So they helped him home and even called him regularly to ensure that he is well. Turns out that the fall had caused a fracture and he needed a surgery to insert a metal plate into his hip. Our students help were invaluable."

It's incidents like this, that reminds us of why we teach.

The warmth, it's akin to swallowing a mug of hot chocolate.

(Monkeys seen in Bako National Park)

Day at the Flower Dome

I rushed into the staff room with a box of orange files and a fistful of papers. There was a need to prepare them - files and forms - for checking by some colleagues. It was the last day of the first week of June holidays and I simply wanted to rest.

In the neighbouring cubicle, there was a little girl playing with Lego blocks. My colleague's daughter.

'Hello, girl girl. Do you still remember my name?' I smiled, hopefully in a non-creepy way.

She mumbled something. 'Sian Yoo.' For that, she deserved and got a bottle of Vitagen drink.

'Girl, you must be polite and say thank you loudly,' my colleague pointed to me. 'Do you call him Kor Kor or Uncle?'

The child looked at me, paused and said, 'Kor kor.'

It was a sweet glorious moment.

After a while, my colleague wanted to bring her to the washroom. She came back up and whispered, 'Uncle, I'm going off to visit the forest today.'

Look at her. She's not cute at all. How could she call me an UNCLE?!
We were going to the Gardens by the Bay, to meet up with a group of elderly and show them the myriad of flowers. It was strange, every interaction with such elderly seniors, their vulnerabilities and ours, all exposed.

I wondered if I would be stuffed into an old folks' home next time, deprived of possessions, a living thing waiting for death.

My colleague and I were paired with a 76 year old lady. She kept reminding us that we were fortunate to receive an education and to be paid decently for the work we do. At the end, she reminded a nurse to buy 4D for her.

Some of these old ladies told another colleague - very forthrightly, perhaps too forthrightly - that she should lose weight. 

There were many flowers in the dome, all resplendent and cheerful. Their colours were a promise; their youth, a harbinger of rot. 

There were many orchids as well. Some look so different from others that one could scarcely believe that they were grouped into the same sub-genus.

All in all, this was an interesting trip - the intersection between the faded, the fading, the blooming and the just-blooming.

Where we are, the multi-generational fabric is fraying. Threads unravel, everything falls apart.

Through this trip, we remember the whys of our existence.

Comical Moments In Class

1) Was standing in front of the classroom while going through a newspaper article when I spied a cable twisting towards a charging point. 'W h o i s c h a r g i n g y o u r p h o n e? o w n u p n o w.' The class went silent before starting to giggle.

It turned out to be the school's air purifier which was installed since last September.

2) A group of hyperactive students went past the room. I casually remarked to the three students right in front, 'These sec ones are so cute. So bouncy and mini. You know, you were like them last year.'

They swivelled their heads, looked out and said, 'Cher, they are prefects, not sec ones, and they are old.'

3) Under the subtopic of human circulatory system, students learn that valves are present in veins to prevent backflow of blood.

'Valves only let blood go in one direction.'

There was a studied silence.

'Valves, blood, one direction. One Direction, get it? One Direction.' Their groans drowned out my little One Direction hum.

4) 'From food to faeces, from ingestion to egestion.' It was the topic on the human digestive system.
'In fact, Disney wrote a song about how our digestive systems end. Do you know which one?'


'It's about the excretion of waste materials. And it has a line like this... ... Let it go, let it go, can't hold it back anymore, let it go...'

5) Probably something of an equivalent nature will happen tomorrow.

Decisions After N Levels

There are many pathways available now that you have received your N level results. Let’s take a look at some of them:

1) Promotion to Sec 5N(A)

Must get less than 19 points in English, Math and three other subjects (ELMAB3) and at least a Grade 5 for these five subjects.

Will sit for the O level exams in the same school.

2) Direct-Entry Scheme to Polytechnic Programme (DPP)

Must get less than 19 points in English, Math and three other subjects (ELMAB3) and at least a Grade 4 for English and Math and Grade 5 for three other subjects.

Will attend the Higher Nitec course at ITE for 2 years, and if the minimum score is achieved, will get into a corresponding poly course.

3) Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP)

Must get less than 11 points for ELMAB3.

Will study for a 1 year curriculum related to a diploma course and then proceed to that course.

4) N(T) students can go to ITE and if they get A for Eng and Math, and B or better for one other subject, they can apply to 4 N(A).

5) Those who cannot or choose not to go through the aforementioned options can opt for the Nitec courses at ITE OR repeat the N level exams.

6) Those with the means – time and money – can opt to study for a private diploma/ degree.

Now that the options are all laid out, let’s have a discussion on what suits you better. The following points are based on my experiences and discussions with colleagues. Please consider them with your own teachers, counsellors and family members before coming to a decision that will be satisfying or at least cause minimal regrets.

1) Many students will be tempted to take the O level exams. They may wish to spend another year with their classmates or their parents want them to avoid ITE. The peer pressure and social stigma can be overwhelming.

The truth is that a student who gets a 1 for N level is expected to get a B4 for O level. This is the general trend. Are there exceptions? Yes. Are there many exceptions? No. There is a sudden and huge leap in curriculum demands between N and O level exams. A student who gets 4 for a N level subject will most likely get a D7 for O level. 

For example, my younger brother was a top N level student in his school. He achieved 9 points. After spending an extra year at school, he sat for his O levels, failed badly and could only qualify for ITE. If you are sure that the 5N(A) students with whom you will be in class with are diligent, you may benefit from this choice. If your form and subject teachers hint that you should return, this choice may be apt. If you had the option of choosing between N(A) and Express streams after PSLE and decided on the former, you may benefit as well. If a school has a very strong 5N(A) team of teachers with a commendable track record, you may benefit from opting for this choice. It takes a great alignment between many different factors for N(A) students to do well at O levels.

The truth is that O level exams are more competitive because there are many more people taking them. There are, of course, former N level students who did well for O levels. Based on experience, however, most should avoid this option as they tend to fare poorly at O levels. 

2 and 3) Direct-Entry Scheme to Polytechnic Programme (DPP) and Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP)

If you meet the academic prerequisites, you should opt for the DPP and PFP. The truth is that the O level exams are centred on generic knowledge not very useful in real life. Being able to calculate differential equations and balance ionic equations would not be useful to most. Why not spend that extra year learning skills and acquiring information more aligned to your interests?

Do note that not all courses are available for the DPP and PFP. If you already know what you wish to study in polytechnic and are certain that these courses are not available at the DPP/PFP level, then you may have to consider option (1).

4) N(T) students can go to ITE and if they get A for Eng and Math, and B or better for one other subject, they can apply to 4 N(A).

As with all other options, consider your natural inclinations and decide on a most suitable pathway. Do note that the N(T) curriculums are vastly different from the N(A) ones and be prepared to make necessary efforts to adapt to steep academic changes.

5) Those who cannot or choose not to go through the aforementioned options can opt for the Nitec courses at ITE OR repeat the N level exams.

Between these two options, the first one of going for a NITEC course seems more appropriate. You get to pick up new skills though you may have to face a certain social stigma. The truth is that many students who choose to spend one year and repeat their N levels end up with the similar grades. Unless you are certain that you will put in a much greater deal of daily effort, it may be more realistic to go to ITE and learn new skills.

A side note: school fees can be heavy for foreign students. It may be a economically sound decision to sit for N levels again and try to get into a polytechnic course in as few years as possible. 

6) Those with the means – time and money – can opt to study for a private diploma/ degree.

Many people do end up taking degrees at private institutions even if they were to attend polytechnic courses. My cousins, my own brother, many relatives. For some of them, having a degree opens up certain job opportunities. For others, not at all. I will not rehash tired arguments about the value of a degree and relative academic prestige of various institutions.

If you have the money and are certain that a private diploma course will be useful and am willing to learn more independently, you may wish to consider this option.  

Again, please note that these opinions are derived from observing batches of students. THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS – a N level student can do well at O levels – though most are not exceptions – a N level student usually do poorly at O levels. Consider carefully if you can be one of these exceptions and make sure that it is not just wishful thinking.

Also, note that academic grades are not everything. One is more than the sum of one’s N/O level grades. If you were to run your own business(es), grades are not important at all. However, if you were to choose more traditional career pathways, grades may have an outsized influence. 

Lastly, a less appropriate decision may set you back by a year or two as well as incur an expense of time, money and opportunities. BUT it is not a life-or-death decision. Different  openings will present themselves whatever your decision.

I shall end with this disclaimer: the following points are based on my experiences and discussions with colleagues. Please consider them with your own teachers, counsellors and family members before coming to a decision that will be satisfying or at least with minimal regrets. Bear in mind that there are exceptions to academic stereotypes though not many. After all, these stereotypes exist because they have been proven true often enough. Either way, there is no easy option in choosing and in life.

All the best and choose wisely! Enjoy the break while it lasts.

Growing Heat Tolerant Cymbidiums in Singapore

It has been a month since that day I woke up in Bangkok, half my face numb, sagging and immobile.  Now, I've recovered. My friends tell me that I look perfectly normal and there is no trace of that sudden health scare. To think that I couldn't even blink properly back then!

When I was in Thailand before the right side of my face flattened, I intended to get some cymbidiums. These orchids are elegant with gently arcing spikes of flowers. They can thrive in the equatorial sunshine.

My uncle would buy cold-climate orchids for Chinese New Year and it is such a waste to watch them wilt in the heat, petal falling by petal, tear-like, the image made more heart-rending by the fact that these cool-growing plants are prohibitively expensive.

In Bangkok, I didn't manage to find any heat-tolerant cymbidiums when I first arrived and completely lost the sense of holiday good cheer when my body felt apart thereafter.

Upon knowing that my younger brother would be visiting Bangkok, I casually asked him to get some of these orchids for me. He can be rather mean - having said that I shouldn't go out to frighten people when I was miserable with the facial palsy - and somewhat kind - buying random food goodies for the family. I honestly didn't expect him to get any for me. It would have been troublesome for him to search out these plants when he has no interest in all things green and would probably enjoy the more touristy offerings of Bangkok.

A few days later, when I was lunching at the nearby food court, he called and asked me what I want. Good question, what do I want? World peace, cooperative students keen to learn, a reversal of environmental damages caused by years of negligence and greed.

What do you want? He insisted. He was referring to those orchids that I asked him to buy. He took some photos and asked me to choose. Honestly, I felt touched by his rare act of concern, us being part of a typical Asian family with members who don't really voice words of care and concern. 

They look slightly traumatised, having been uprooted, charcoal ripped from their roots, leaves somewhat crumpled and dry. These blooms will drop off before their time. I'm hoping that they will acclimatise quickly and celebrate the next festive occasion with joy.

There's something satisfying, these things that sprout and flower and grow into spaces around them. A quiet understanding that maybe I've been marginally responsible for their growth.

Have a great Christmas tomorrow and a great year six days later. All the best with your hopes and health.
Here's a thoughtful article on tending to cymbidiums by Kobsukh:

Growing Heat Tolerant Cymbidiums in Tropical Climates
(by Kobsukh Kaenratana)

Growing heat-tolerant cymbidiums (HTCs) in tropical climates is easy, comparable to growing dendrobium hybrids, which is usually the starting point for beginners. Generally, HTCs can stand the impact of rainfall; therefore they do not need a rainproof roof.

Most cymbidiums enjoy good ventilation and moderate humidity. It is not advisable to grow cymbidiums with other high-humidity genera or under hanging baskets of other orchids. Though cymbidiums do not enjoy high humidity, they need to remain moist at the root ball. It is important that the growing medium is well-drained, yet retains some moisture well.

Pots should not be placed on the ground or closer than 18” to it as this will allow fungal diseases to infect the root ball. However, placing cymbidium pots directly on a dry clean surface, such as a balcony or terrace is acceptable. One precaution is to watch for water trapped at the bottom of the pot. To solve this problem, pots with one or two holes on the side of pot near the base are suggested. Another solution is to use pots with standing legs that prevent the bottom holes from contacting the floor. When cymbidium pots are placed in a well-ventilated location without exposure to strong & direct sunlight, growing cymbidiums is quite easy.

Light and Growing Location

In most tropical climates, 60-70% shade cloth is suggested for most HTCs. This rather heavy shade cloth will help prevent leaf burn during the hottest and driest months when the sun shines directly from above; peak sunlight in upper Thailand comes during March through May. Shade might be reduced whenever clouds and rains are more prevalent throughout even in the summer months. Less shade is also appropriate in the southern peninsula of Thailand, where heat is reduced by the nearby seas.

Growing in a home garden requires a well-ventilated area not exposed to direct sunlight in the afternoon. However the desirable intensity of sunlight for each cultivar can be quite different. It depends on the different species in the background of the hybrid. For example, hybrids with a heavy background of C. ensifolium can tolerate areas of particularly heavy shade and poorer ventilation. In contrast, hybrids with a large proportion of C. canaliculatum in the background prefer greater sunlight, very good ventilation and a drier environment.

Importantly, most cymbidium hybrids will not yield any bloom if plants are placed under other hanging orchids.

Pots and Medium
Clay pots are the best for growing cymbidiums in tropical climates as the porosity of the clay encourages evaporative cooling during hot weather. This is the real advantage over plastic pots. In addition, the heavier weight of clay pots helps increase stability for cymbidiums with large top growth. Taller pots also add another advantage as the depth allows better roots development. This increases the overall health and energy storage of the plant. In addition to the bottom hole, a few additional side holes near the bottom of the pot will prevent water from standing at the bottom, which might cause root rot.

In general, baskets are not the preferred pot for growing most cymbidium hybrids. There are some exceptions, such as species that are highly epiphytic, including C. dayanum, C. lowianum, C. aloifolium, C. atropurpureum, and C. madidum. Baskets are only suitable for those species that form upright pnuematophores (upright aerial roots). It should be kept in mind that the terrestrial root trait always dominates epiphytic root traits in hybridizing. This explains why most hybrids should be grown in pot rather than basket, as most hybrids are the combination of both terrestrial and epiphytic species.

The base of the pseudobulbs should be placed on the surface of medium as this keeps good ventilation around the bulbs, thus preventing any rot problems in monsoon season.

There always seems to have a common misunderstanding in perceiving and treating cymbidium as a terrestrial plant. Many people try to grow cymbidium with soil or soil-like medium. This almost always leads to root rot. The resultant demise will be fast, especially in hot and humid weather, but will be delayed in cool climates.

Growers should select the media that fit their local climates, something locally available and that do not break down too soon. Examples include hydroton balls, charcoal, volcanic rock, construction rock, broken pieces of new clay pot and quality pine bark. All mediums should be in the size of 1/2”-1”. Sphagnum moss is a very good choice for the mix.

In many cases, staking the newly repotted plants is essential for the success. If plants are grown in loose mediums that allow plants to shake, it will take a very long time for the plants to establish.

In areas with less rain, such as upper Thailand (central plain, north and northeast region), the proportion of pine barks can be increased or some sphagnum moss might be added at the bottom to stabilize the moisture during the dry season. When moisture is constant, roots will grow faster.

It is common that pH in a medium drops to an undesirably acidic level over 3-4 years. Low pH is harmful to cymbidium roots and this will retard growth and reduce flower productivity. Adding or mixing Dolomite with the medium when the plant is potted helps regulate the pH. The prolonged proper pH level can prevent the plant from being damaged by bacterial and fungal infections. In addition, calcium and magnesium in Dolomite will boost growth vigor and spike productivity.

For deflasked cymbidium plantlets, the agar should be removed. It is better to grow plantlets in a medium such as sand or rice-husk charcoal in trays or community pots. Unlike other epiphytic orchids such as dendrobiums, vandas, and oncidiums, cymbidium plantlets will not tolerate drought or being bare-root. They will dehydrate quickly and die.

Once plantlets are well established, they should be moved to individual 3”-4” pots with coarser media, such as small coconut chips of 0.5”-1” size. They will grow in these small pots about one year before needing to move to the final, blooming size, 5”-6” pots with regular media mix.

Diseases and Pests
Most diseases and pests of cymbidiums are common among other orchids. Basic fungicides like Orthocide (Captan) and common pesticides like Carbaryl (Savin) still work well. Herein, typical and common problems for cymbidiums are mentioned.

1) Red Spider Mites can be more common to cymbidiums than to other orchid genera because of the soft long arching leaves, which are suitable for mites to dwell underneath.
Symptoms: Plants stop growing, leaves turn patchy yellow or colorless and dry, necrosis appears in older leaves, white spider web and red mites are found under leaves.
Treatment: Spray with Propargite (Omite) alternately with other miticides such as Pyridaben every seven days and emphasize spraying the underside of the leaves.

2) Bacterial Rot can cause damage from time to time, especially in monsoon season with poor ventilation. Another possible factor is too low a pH in the potting medium.
Symptoms: Brownish, soft, wet rot occurs on new young shoots.
Treatment: Improve ventilation and raise pH by adding dolomite. Repotting with new medium is recommended. Move the infected plant away from water and rain for a week.

3) Fungal Rot is usually caused by soil-borne fungi, mainly Fusarium wilt.
Symptoms: Soft rot, but not as wet as bacterial rot; occurs on new young shoots.
Treatment : Raise pH in medium by adding Dolomite or change the whole mix. Prevent the mix from contact with contaminated soils. Improve ventilation and spray with Terachlor if necessary.

4) Virus can cause hidden problems to all orchid growers. In fact, there are many viruses that cause diseases in orchids, but the two most common ones are CyMV (Cymbidium Mosaic Virus) and ORSV (Odontoglossum Ringspot Virus). It is possible that infected plants may not show any sign of viral symptoms.
Symptoms: The most common symptom is chlorosis on leaves. This is caused by the lack of chlorophyll in damaged cells; thus that area appears colourless or yellowish instead of green. In some cases, chlorosis occurs on floral tissue where it creates small colourless patches on flowers.

Since there is no cure for a virus-infected plant, it is crucial to understand the mechanism of spreading virus so that growers effectively can prevent the spread of virus.

• Cutting tools must be blazed or burn or treated with antiseptic agents before use between each plant.
• Never use recycled water from other orchids.
• Keep control of viral vectors such as spider mites, thrips and aphids.
• Keep good ventilation and enough sunlight around the growing area.
• Never pollinate with pollen from virus-infected plants.
• Never reuse pots and potting mixes.

5) Thrips and Aphids can be widely spread during dry periods.
Symptoms: Receding colour or colourless patches and burns on floral tissue.
Treatment: Spray with pesticide such as Carbaryl (Savin) or Methomyl (Lannate) every 2-3 weeks.

Watering and Fertilizing
Most cymbidiums hybrids are not sensitive to less desirable water quality. They can tolerate water with higher dissolved minerals than many other orchids. This characteristic becomes more evident with the hybrids that have a large proportion of terrestrial species in the background.

Watering cymbidiums can be done every day or once every week, depending on rainfall, moisture, and the ability to hold water and moisture of the potting mix. Watering cymbidiums should not be done more than once a day even on a very dry day.

Besides spraying fertilizer weekly, slow-released type fertilizer should be applied on top of the medium. Magnesium (Mg) as an additional micronutrient can be added a few months prior the end of the monsoon season or the start of blooming season for boosting the bloom.

Taking Care of Flower Spikes
For cool-growing cymbidiums, key factors to initiate flower spike and spike elongation are low-enough night temperature accompanying with minimal 10-degree differential day-night temperature. However, these two factors become less relevant and less pronounced for HTCs.

During the period of breaking flower sheath, plant should not be moved around to many different locations. To help reduce chance of bud drop in tropical weather, plant with spikes should be moved to a shadier location or grower must provide more shade cloth.

Propagation (Division)

A sign to repot is when the plant has formed a big clump and its root ball has pushed the whole plant upward or even breaking its pot. Another less desirable sign to repot is when the plant lost vigour and blooming productivity. This is because the medium has stayed in the pot for so many years, thus pH has dropped down to too acidic level. This condition makes roots damaged and rotted.

Dividing cymbidium can follow the same rule as we do with other orchid genera such as Cattleya. Each new division should be composed of at least 2-3 mature bulbs plus one leading new shoot/bulb. Apply the cutting wound with fungicide after cutting. Healthy root ball is usually dense and well pact. Big knife or, sometimes, saw is needed to divide them.

Backbulbs can be planted in tray of sand or rice-husk charcoal. In a few months, new shoots will emerge from the base of backbulb. Then, move to 4” pot.

Dividing should be done during the start of growing cycle, which generally matches the start of monsoon season. This timing helps the plant to recover faster and will be able to bloom in the next blooming season. One should not divide and repot at the end of growing cycle period or the end of rainy season as this means a waste of another blooming year since newly repotted divisions will not grow right away after repotting.

A huge clump of cymbidium leaves will yield wonderful spikes of flowers. As with everything, be patient and you'll be rewarded.