Tutoring A Different Kid

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A few days ago, I was perturbed by a Singaporean mum who wanted me to tutor her son.

This parent is understandably anxious. After all, her child didn't do well despite attending tuition at two other study centers. There is a slim chance that he may be able to pass his end-of-year math test such that he can opt for the Additional Mathematics course next year.

His exams will take place 5 weeks later and I'm supposed to help him improve sufficiently. This quantifiable goal with such a tight timeline is a rather tall order.

Please don't be mistaken, I love such challenges. I love teaching a child to enjoy learning. The priceless sparkles in their eyes as they grasp universal laws, the gradual improvements in their morale as they learn to cater to the demands expected of them, these signs are wonderful.

Tutoring can be an inspiring activity - for both the tutor and tutee - if not for the presence of overly concerned parents. 

As the mum listed the rules that her son has to obey, I felt a little sorry for him.

He can't stay back in school to study because he may be distracted and waste precious time. He can't go out with friends after lessons because he's too young to tell who are the people he should hang out with. What if he goes out with the wrong crowd? That would be terrible. He can only be trusted with such decisions when he's older and wiser. He can't even eat sweets.

But how does her son learn to be wise then? Wisdom isn't not related to age, not at all.  A person can be 75 years old and yet be unwise. Another may be a 15 year-old precocious thinker.

Wisdom is about making mistakes and learning from them. How can her son ever be wise enough to make decisions if he isn't allowed to make mistakes? It's akin to expecting a hen to give birth to a hamster - unnatural, if not utterly impossible.

This is Singapore, I suppose, and citizens aren't expected to make mistakes. They're expected to pop out of the wombs as children with the paradigms, wisdom and experiences of old people. Some mums would rather handhold their children then allow them to walk, simply because they may trip and fall.

So what if they trip and fall? So what if they injure themselves? So what if they walk on uncharted routes in unexplored territories? Is it really that bad?

The high school years - the best years of her son's life - are wasted on inconsequential rules. Transmogrified into a stale, boring and dull existence.

I wonder how to tell the concerned mum that I was a loiterer too - once upon a time, many twilight years ago. My friends and I played catching in the neighbourhood, crawled through the drain next to the bus stop, pretended to study at fastfood restaurants. My childhood was all the more richer and my grades didn't suffer. This highly educated mum probably had a similarly vibrant childhood herself, littered with precious, wonderful, life-improving mistakes.

Perhaps what her child - and what every child - needs isn't more rules to protect them. Perhaps what they need is the freedom to fall and pick themselves up.

Most parents, thankfully, don't do this.

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Art Appreciation 101

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This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common.

Yeh Chi Wei, Drying Salted Fish (1961), Oil on canvas,
61.2 by 79 cm, collection of Mr Yeh Toh Yen  
Art is about beauty and spirit and life. It can be food for thought or comfort food. Unlike what some people may think, art isn’t reserved for a select group of people.

It is meant for everyone, the way music and movies are.

Given the universal appeal of art and the recent conversations about the Singaporean culture, why not take a look at Between Here and Nanyang, the latest exhibition at the NUS Museum?

It features paintings done by Singapore-based artists during the post-independence turmoil. Some items are on loan from private collectors, yet others are rarely-displayed pieces in the museum’s own collection. This would be a great opportunity for us to understand more about our history, through the prism of visual aesthetics.

While wandering about the exhibition, a friend asked me what should one consider in order to appreciate paintings more fully. After thinking about her question and researching online, I came up with a checklist that one may think of while viewing artworks.

Firstly, ask yourself if you like the painting before you. Do you enjoy it? If so, why? If not, why?

Then, employ the following 5 ‘C’s to help you clarify your feelings. These 5 ‘C’s don’t represent the creature comforts of ‘Car, Condominium, Cash, Credit Card and Country Club’.

These 5 ‘C’s stand for ‘Colours, Composition, Content, Context and Choice’.

1) Colours

Is the painting a dreamy red, remind you of a quiet thumping joy? Or is it a fiery crimson, angry and hurt?

Is that shade of blue serene or is it sad? Perhaps it is melancholic?

Shades of the same colour can carry different meanings, according to the painting’s subject matter. Also, the same painting may seem different depending on one’s mood while viewing it.

Self Portrait, by Ng Eng Teng (1955)
2) Composition

Also, consider the composition of the painting. Do the lines and colours lead to a focal point?

Does the artwork feel imbalanced to you?

The oil painting of the bamboos below has an asymmetrical balance for it captures the vibrant randomness of growing plants.
Bamboo, by Sunyee (Undated)
3) Content

The subject matter of the painting matters. What is it about? Does it show a group of people eating potatoes or is it a still life of a bowl of fruits?

Is it a critique of social issues? Or does it take a simple pleasure in the quiet beauty of life?

The Chinese scroll painting below by Zhang Daqian is a meditative piece showing an old man gazing at a clump of banana shoots.

Strolling under a Banana Palm, by Zhang Daqian (1963)
4) Context

When was the painting done? Sometimes, it helps to know the socio-political context during which the artwork was created.

For example, many of these displayed paintings were created during the tumultuous founding years of Singapore. As such, they may come across as being uncontroversial pieces.

Some pieces – including the one below – may record the kampung life then.

Feeding Chickens, by Chua Thean Teng (undated)
5) Choice

And finally, understand that no one has a monopoly on the interpretation of art. Even artists and art historians quibble about the nature of art all the time.

So feel free to step into the NUS Museum. It literally doesn’t cost any money to enter and might turn out to be rather fun. During certain hours, student docents would be present to give guided tours on these works by Singapore’s pioneering artists.

You do have a choice in finding out more about Singapore’s art and deciding what it means to you.

As local singer Kit Chan says, “I call on all Singaporeans to support and to nurture all our emerging and mature creative local talents, so that they may continue to tell the Singapore story through song, books, poems, films, food, beautiful clothes and furniture, and all those comforting things for living and for the soul.”

Visiting Between Here and Nayang at NUS Museum would be a positive show of support.

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Permanent Goodbyes

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Five days ago, I bought a used phone from one friend. It was a black iPhone, with a sleek touchscreen panel promising a comfortable online experience. For an inexplicable reason, the messages couldn't load well when I transferred my memory card into it. I had to scroll through an inbox of old messages, with tired resignation.

There were two unexpected notifications, reminding me to check messages which I've hitherto not read. Startled surprise melted into shock. I stood in the middle of the train station, gripping the non-sentient phone, hoping it'd speak its secrets.

These messages were from a person who is now dead.

They were from Peter, sent in February this year but not received. My phone account was deactivated during an overseas exchange program. I imagined these messages, as pixelated pigeons, trying to fly into my inbox only to realise that its entrance was barred with chains and padlocks. They, in disappointment, fluttered about, not knowing what to do, before deciding to give up and fade into the digital world.

Two months before he committed suicide, that was when they were sent, and their notifications were only received four months after he passed away.

It turned out that the service provider deleted these messages as they were stored for far too long in their database, under a deactivated account.

I couldn't retrieve these messages. I couldn't read them. I couldn't find out what Peter has to say.

We weren't close friends, Peter and I, but it seemed as though I was one of the few people he trusted enough to want to chat with. It felt as though I've failed his trust.

And my professor's dad passed away on Tuesday's morning. I wondered how to console him then realised that maybe, just maybe, he didn't want a stranger's condolence.

And my friend shared a story of how her friend's boyfriend got ran over in Changi and passed away. Death became personal. It was no longer an abstract concept we read about in the newspapers, something that happened to other people. It has become familiar, and carries urgent but unclear meanings.

For that week, I've been out almost every night, enjoying good food and thoughtful chatter with friends. Life moved on with a startling, almost indecent, normalcy. At times, my eyes flicked open during darkened hours, an inner world plagued by a vague ache, unable to rest well anymore.


what is death
but fingers no longer moving,
a phone that keeps ringing,
spasms tiptoeing
on stiff lips.

else, what is death
but the closing
of reluctant eyes.

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The South China Sea Dispute & The Malleability of History

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China has been asserting its maritime strength in recent years, claiming sovereignty on waters and land that other countries consider theirs.

From the map below, we can see that these disputed areas cover significant grounds and involve numerous stakeholders. These areas are relatively under-explored and rich in resources - most notably oil, natural gas and fisheries. They provide the maritime rights to lucrative trade routes as well.

Now, more children are being born in this part of the world. About 1 in every 7 people originate from China. There are more mouths to feed and less resources available to each citizen.

China must find somewhere to harvest the energy and food needed to satisfy its growing demands. Every other country in this map faces the same problems, albeit on a smaller demographic scale.

Source credit: Asia Now
I was fairly sympathetic to the plight of fellow Southeast Asian countries. After all, they have less military might. In this regional tussle, they come across as the weaker, more vulnerable underdogs. Besides, it's ludicrous how China could claim waters that are almost along the coasts of other countries.

My friends, Chinese scholars studying at the National University of Singapore, remarked that these islands do belong to China. After all, given the extensive history of China, it shouldn't be a surprise that some Chinese fishermen might have visited, rested on and laid claim to these barren, once-insignificant rocks. There are probably historical records of such activities in the Chinese archives.

Assuming that such explorations did take place and there are uncontested records, there remains a pertinent problem. Where do we draw the historical line?

The People's Republic of China, as we know it, was only formally founded on 1 October 1949. The preceding dynasties, traceable back to 2100 BCE, were conveniently circumscribed into the modern China story.

'The explorers during the Ming dynasty have floated on these seas and landed on these islands. As such, these lands belong to China.' The problem inherent in such a statement is that China did not exist then. The Ming explorers were exploring as Ming people for the Ming emperor, not for the not-yet-existent China. The maritime rights belonged to the Ming dynasty which had faded away long ago. How can the claims that such islands belong to China be legitimate?

History is like play dough. It has been carefully massaged to give the impression that China has a legitimate claim to far-flung islands.

Here's another question: what if people from the ancient equivalent of Vietnam did visit some of these shoals but their activities were never recorded? Does the absence of archival records mean that modern Vietnam can't reclaim these spaces?

This South China Sea dispute can favor different countries depending on which historical fact is unearthed and re-presented. From it, we can observe that history can be stretched, pulled, pressed and compressed to fulfill any number of purposes and most countries have no qualms about moulding it.

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The Phone That Plays Truant

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This morning, I went on a journey to find my lost phone. It has been missing for one night and I kept wondering where I lost it.

It wasn't in my bag pack; it wasn't hidden in any of its numerous compartments. Nor was it in any pocket of the clothes I've been wearing or the wooden drawers in my room. It simply disappeared.

This phone had went missing before. Not just once but many times. Some friends suggested that each disappearance was due to my carelessness. I prefer to think that my phone has a wild, independent streak and likes to play truant once in a while.

At the beginning of this year, my friends and I were taking jump shots in front of the Buckingham Palace. We were happily hopping about, taking photos of ourselves as we attempted to float. It must have been then that my phone decided to explore London by itself.

For that hour when it was gone, I was a nervous wreck. How do I justify the escape of a good phone? Who do I blame? Could I even find someone to blame?

My friends and I chased my phone all the way to the Tate Modern Museum along the Thames River before we finally retrieved it from a Parisian girl.  That silly piece of metal and plastic probably enjoyed its brief adventure swinging in a handbag and being caressed by tender fingers.

So, last night, it decided to disappear again. 

It was strange, having no phone and the resultant sense of being wholly unconnected. Strange and strangely liberating.

Perhaps my phone has sensed that I needed some time alone and decided to disappear, to give me the space to think through a labyrinth of thoughts.

Or, more likely, it just wanted to play with other phones in the lost-and-found corner.

I didn't worry about its disappearance, not that much. It has returned, like a pigeon, even after tasting the air of freedom as it cavorted along the streets of London. There wasn't anything to fret about. It has proven itself to be reliable enough to come home.

This morning, I tried to track my phone. I went to two lost-and-found corners in my university, made a report and disturbed the peace of some security staff. Shucks, perhaps my phone has found a partner and decided to elope, shucks.

Back in my room, I lazily tossed my bag pack about. With a dawning embarrassment, I realised that my phone was secured in the strap pocket.

Maybe I should have searched harder for the things I thought I lost. Maybe the things I lost have been around me all the time, not lost but merely hidden.

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