Monday, December 26, 2005

Piano culture: Singaporeans are so musically inclined!

If we start gathering statistics on the number of Singaporeans who have 'officially' learnt piano, I am quite sure that the statistics will be rather impressive. In Singapore, learning piano is part of the culture among a sizable portion of the middle-class! So the question I've been asking myself is: are Singaporeans really so musically inclined? Do we really have so many aspiring Melvyn Tan's? Do we truly love piano music so much?

From what I've observed over the years, in Singapore, piano learners are not really learning the instrument out of true love for it. Most of the learners are really young when their parents find piano teachers for them, and many of them seriously wish to give up this time-consuming 'extra-curricular activity' when they reach their teenage years, when their schoolwork gets more harrowing and their interest in the instrument wanes. Unfortunately, these parents do not really care whether their children like the piano or not. In fact, they don't care at all! But they will still force their children to go through this ritual for several reasons.

Firstly, many of them have not had the chance to learn the piano when they were young. Chinese cultures all over the world are like that: the older generation will always try to make the younger generation do what they had wanted to do in their time but did not get the chance to. Secondly, the piano is an instrument with 'class', so learning it confers some of the associated prestige to the family that has a child learning it, regardless of the reason for learning it or the actual capabilities of the 'pianist within the family'. Parents are usually quite proud when their kids practise the piano, since the neighbours can certainly hear the piano music which is quite loud compared to the music produced by other instruments. Even if the guitar were to have equal prestige as piano, people will probably still choose piano, because the latter can be heard much more clearly and thus the family does not need to go out of the way to 'advertise' that fact to the neighbours. It is not 'music' that the family-with-piano prizes, but the 'face' or 'mianzi' that this activity confers that it is attempting to gain...

But parents are not entirely to be blamed. Another reason why I think that piano learners in Singapore are not truly passionate about piano is that they can't be! The piano-education system here is flawed, for it mirrors the education system in general in terms of its exam focus. In Singapore, the ultimate credentials-focused society in the world, piano learning has mutated from a leisurely activity done out of musical appreciation into a stressful activity done out of the motivation to collect yet another certificate. Someone I know once told me that the reason why he wants his children to learn piano is that they can have an additional skill to make a living if the economy is not doing well. Gosh!

The focus is on passing exams of one grade after another, all the way to Grade 8 or even Diploma (LTCL, ARCM, etc). With this kind of focus, it's not surprising that the child's love for the music is eventually knocked out by the boring exam pieces, the 'scales', and other exercises that the child has to master in order to pass the exams. The compulsory Baroque piece that one has to play at every grade (for example, J.S. Bach, Haydn, Handel, etc) is usually not melodious at all, and certainly a great pain to practise (unfortunately, the two other pieces of different genres are usually not the nicest-sounding pieces in the world either, unless one is extremely lucky). And having to practise two to three uninspiring and not-exactly-melodious pieces daily after many tiring hours at school can really drive a teenager crazy.

It's also hard to find a stimulating piano teacher in Singapore. Many are teaching piano for the money, not out of real love for imparting this art to the children. Of course, they are probably also disillusioned after seeing so many disinterested children who have been 'forced' to learn the piano by their parents. How many will actually teach beyond the exam syllabus of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)? Not many will, I reckon. And it's not surprising because I would do the same too if I were in their situation, having to face the pragmatic parents who will scream should their precious and obviously 'talented' child fail the exam ("What?! I'm paying you so much money every month and he can't even pass his exam?? Then why are you wasting his time by teaching him these pieces which are not in 'the syllabus'?!").

Thus, the piano culture in Singapore is warped. It's parents-driven, exams-focused, and certificate-oriented. Perhaps parents should seriously consider thrice before insisting that their children learn the instrument, or let the children decide for themselves when they are older (say, 11-12 years old). It's really a heavy commitment in terms of finances, time, and energy. It may be cool to boast to your friends that your child can play the piano, but if you really think about it, despite the tens of thousands of dollars spent on learning the instrument, how many people with the Grade 8 certificate actually do continue playing it when they have crossed all the hurdles? Isn't it a waste to learn the piano if one stops playing it immediately after passing all the exams? Isn't it silly to play nothing but the exam pieces for 10 years of one's piano education? This reflects a mentality that is antithetical to the spirit of music learning. Somehow, I feel that Singapore's culture of pragmatism is so pervasive that no area of activity is spared. So the piano, despite all its beauty, similarly denegerates and mutates into a torturous tool for social comparison, prestige enhancement, authoritarian exercise of parental power, and credentialling for an uncertain economy. Which is sad, really......

Monday, December 19, 2005

Marriage in Singapore

Singaporeans are getting married later and later in life. More people are beginning to feel that marriage is a burden, or that being single can be a great alternative to getting married. This essay challenges only the former view that marriage is a burden. I do think that there are wonderful benefits of staying single, so it is not my intention to portray singlehood as an 'inferior' option. My only wish is to defend 'marriage' and to show that it is not as bad or fearful as many young Singaporeans tend to think it is (having been inspired by Mr Wang's recent posts and the ST articles).

Some feel that without an extremely strong financial base, getting married will merely lead the couple into misery. In many cases, the Chinese saying 'pin jian fu qi bai ri ai' (poor couples live a hundred years of misery) is quite true: if both parties are very poor, it may not be such a good idea to get married. Nonetheless, the phenomenon that is manifesting in Singapore is not the abovementioned one; it is one in which young Singaporeans with salaries that are often above $1500, $2500, $3500, or even higher, feel that they cannot get married yet. The key concerns are:

(1) not having enough money to get a nice flat;
(2) not having enough money and inclination to have kids

The first concern is not merely the insufficiency of cash to meet the cost of the flat's initial payments. Most young couples have seen so many advertisements of 'designer condos' or 'designer flats' that they too want such a well-renovated flat. Now, the ST, the television programmes, and the magazines are all partly to be blamed for always glamourizing these beautifully renovated apartments. In the past, people are satisfied just to have a proper apartment to live in; now, even for a temporary flat that one might want to change after 5 years, most couples would want to live in such expensively designed and renovated spaces. There are three forces at work here: the first is the increasing inability of people to defer their satisfaction of their wants (if they want something, they want it immediately), the second is the increasing fetishization of designer living spaces, and the third is the outright refusal to 'stay with parents', even for a few months. It is the combined operation these three entrenched psychological traits of young Singaporeans today that results in the final decision not to get married. This final decision is then simply explained as the 'insufficiency of cash', which I think is only the tip of the iceberg. It's a deceptively simple initial excuse that in fact masks a more complex tripartite operation, which I have elaborated above. (And the refusal to stay with parents might in turn be due to other entrenched social factors...)

The second concern is related to children. The reasoning goes like this: getting married is important if you want to have children, but since we are not ready for children yet (either financially or psychologically, or both), why get married? The implicit idea is that if the man and the woman are not thinking of having children, they do not actually need to get married. Again, there is more than meets the eye regarding this simple view. Three entrenched societal trends are at work. Firstly, pre-marital sex is becoming more common, or even increasingly regarded as 'normal' among some quarters of society, so people no longer feel the need to get married in order to consummate one's love for another. People now 'enjoy' the 'benefits' that in the past marriage alone used to bring: historically, only 'membership has its privileges'; now, even non-members can have the same or even more extensive 'privileges'. But since this shift of norms related to sexuality seems to be a worldwide trend, the Singapore government will have an uphill task if it wishes to criminalize the abovementioned practice...!

Secondly, on the view that one needs to first be 'ready for children'. This sentence is very misleading, yet it is at the same time appealing because it makes several assumptions that one who is not thinking carefully might simply accept without further questioning. The first of these assumptions is that one even needs to be 'ready' mentally in order to have children. This 'mental readiness' may or may not be related to financial readiness; it can even be absent when a couple is financially ready. Now, this line of thinking did not appear overnight. It is related to four entangled factors: (a) Singapore's culture of kiasuism, (b) Singaporeans exceptionally high level of risk aversion, (c) the children products industry's successful indoctrination of people, often via the media, and (d) the herd mentality. The second assumption is that one can be mentally ready, that somehow with the natural flow of time one might one day wake up and feel 'hey! I'm ready!' While this may be possible for some people, I think that for many others, it is impossible to be psychologically 'ready' for a baby. The readiness is instead created by your interactions with the baby when it arrives. So what we have here is a 'catch-22' situation: if you do not have the baby, you can never be 'ready', since the experience of being a parent is so unlike anything that a non-parent has ever experienced that it cannot be mentally prepared for by merely imagining.

Regarding the first assumption, the entanglement is explicated as follows: in a kiasu and 'face conscious' culture, people are afraid of being seen by others (e.g. friends, relatives) as giving their kids an inferior early childhood. Yet, they are also too face conscious to ask for the old baby clothings and other items that they might require, from friends and relatives who might be willing to pass them on. The desire to have the latest artefacts is largely due to the children products industry's constant hammering of the idea through various media and advertising campaigns that parents must certainly buy tonnes and tonnes of expensive products (e.g. diapers, toys, baby cot, etc) in order to welcome their babies. People, being forever gullible, will tend to believe in such rubbish (or, they may not be gullible but they nonetheless choose to prefer the state of affairs that such rubbish advertising portrays to them). In any case, when more and more people adopt such views, they spread the views around, among people they know such as friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives, and so on, creating the illusion that such views are now the de facto standard view in society. Being kiasu, Singaporeans also feel that the marketed products might well be 'safer' for their kids or 'better' in some other ways, and so the babies are likely to grow into healthier/gifted/ more energetic kids and could in future cope with a highly competitive society...

The apparently simple statement that 'we're not ready to have kids' is thus supported by a wide range of ideologies and widely-rehearsed myths, which people pass on from one to another in this tiny nation. The above explanation also attempts to illustrate why having the first baby is seen to be such an expensive affair. It's not inherently so, but it has been made out to be so, and the worst thing is that Singaporeans who have become so used to an ultra-hygienic environment have come to believe in the significant superiority and necessity of all those advanced childcare products that have been invented, for the assumption is that what a Singaporean adult is used to would be what the Singaporean infant wants. But I would think that this assumption cannot be adopted without further exploration, since Singaporean infants may well be less pampered than Singaporean adults!!

Having argued that the 'expensiveness' of having a kid is largely imaginary and self-created, I would say that the most critical difference between this generation and earlier generation is that the latter places utmost importance on 'having children'. My parents' generation accepts the need to have kids without much questioning. And because of the priority that they give to 'having children', cost considerations do not pose an obstacle at all. But things are changing, as I have argued in my early essay on 'conceptions of children': people are having an ever more pragmatic orientation towards children. Children are now conceived of in terms of dollars and cents. They are no longer the priceless treasures that they once were...

Anyway, I'm not arguing that people should all get married and have children today even if they see singlehood as a better personal arrangement; it's a personal choice. What I have done is merely to show that beneath the two ice-tips (represented by the two deceptively simple excuses that young Singaporeans present to deflect their elders' encouragement to get married), are two huge icebergs. These two simple excuses mask the two sets of complex forces that underlie Singaporeans' decision not to get married so early. In fact, I would go as far as to claim that young Singaporeans have not even 'decided' not to get married so early; they have merely accepted those views without attempting to challenge the assumptions on which those views depend.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Too much tuition is bad for your brain...

This post is about what I see as a rather unhealthy trend in Singapore society: the rise of a 'culture of tuition' that has become obsessive to the point that it defeats the very purpose of education.

Most parents in Singapore feel that tuition is necessary or beneficial for their children. In principle, the concept of tuition is supported by a rather convincing ideology which has nothing but positive connotations. This ideology says that there is no harm trying to improve your academic performance by seeking some guidance.

As a result of this kind of thinking, tuition has become a booming industry in Singapore. Tuition centres appear all over the island, and tuition-related advertisements can be seen at bus-stops, public notice boards, and in the newspapers. Parents who are not financially well-off are willing to part with their hard-earned money in the hope that their children can 'cope' with an increasingly stressful education system. Photocopies of 'top schools' exam papers' are on sale everywhere; and the 'Assessment Books' section in Popular Book Stores form a bigger and more crowded section than sections on 'Local Works' or 'English Literature'.

But what could be so wrong with 'tuition' when it is based on such a convincing argument? In my opinion, too much tuition does harm to your child in several ways. Firstly, it exhausts your child's physical and mental energies and lessens the time left for his brain to rejuvenate after school. Exhaustion makes the child unhappy and causes him to dislike the subject(s) for which he is being given tuition. Secondly, the child has less time to play, and playing is important for the development of a less uptight personality. Thirdly, and most importantly, tuition is based on a flawed pedagogical philosophy of 'coaching to or even beyond the point of understanding'.

Coaching per se is alright, but it is possible for 'over-coaching' to occur, with great harm to the intellectual development of the child. Overcoaching robs the child the precious opportunities for (a) discovering things for himself, (b) struggling and then succeeding in solving a problem by himself, and (c) feeling an enhanced level of self-confidence after achieving the above. It takes away much of the joy of learning and mastering a subject, and turns it into a cluster of banal chores that must be performed daily: doing exercises in assessment books, one after another; marking out vaguely difficult questions that they can't be bothered to struggle through by themselves, and then expecting a 'quick fix' by the tutor.

Overcoaching also prevents the development of a genuinely self-created and original 'kungfu of studying' by the student, which is likely to be crucial if he wants to really excel at the University level. The rationale is simple: everybody has different strategies of studying, and one must simply discover for himself the strategies or 'bag of tricks' that work best for him. The sophistication and effectiveness of such a set of skills can only come about with the practice and refinement over years of self-studying, not what I call 'over-reliant studying', which is overly guided by a tutor who may not even be that good himself.

I see no way that this Singapore-specific trend could be reversed, because of two reasons. Firstly, the culture of kiasuism sustains the tuition industry. People are 'kiasu' (literally 'afraid of losing') and will do everything they can to make sure they have some kind of competitive advantage over their neighbours' kids. Related to this is the fact that people are risk-averse, and risk-averse people would rather stick with the common approach of putting the poor kid through hours and hours of tuition. After all, this is what everybody is doing, so if the strategy is wrong, at least everybody suffers to the same extent. So unless every family in Singapore agrees to prevent their children from going for tuition, it is unlikely for this vicious cycle to be terminated.

Secondly, the prevalence of tuition could be the symptom of a deeper problem in the educational system. Is there something wrong about the syllabi, or the teaching methods in schools, or both? Why is there still a need for children to go through hours of additional instruction beyond what they go through in school during the official hours? Do teachers encourage students to go for tuition?

With that, may I reiterate the point that I wish to stress most in this post: that tuition robs your child of an opportunity to become a great scholar in his own right. He may become a great mugger, a reasonably competent student who knows how to get the correct answers to all the assessment books on the market, but that will not be because he has learnt how to think for himself or has cultivated for himself a unique style of studying and learning that will benefit him when he grows up. Everybody who practises enough number of assessment books can get A's. But what does this show about his cleverness? Not much at all. He will not be passionate in his subjects, because everything has turned into a routine, a routine of reviewing and regurgitation. Learning becomes a simple and predictable process of practice, rather than the exciting and unpredictable process of making enjoyable discoveries that it should be. When there are no longer any surprises within the educational realm, is it any wonder why creativity does not manifest when the children turn into adults and have to compete with people from other countries in this creativity-driven, knowledge-based, and innovation-oriented global era?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

If you want people's blood....(Free advice from an altruistic vampire...)

Nowadays I always see the advertisements on the MRT trains that try to convince Singaporeans to 'give blood'. This inspired me to write this post. I'm also inspired by this brilliant Chinese television series showing now which is called My Date with a Vampire III (我和僵尸有个约会 III). It features a number of actresses who have mesmerized some of my fellow bloggers (haha, you know who you are...) ;) Anyway, I've digressed. I meant to talk about the highly 'effective' advertisments that urge kind folks like us to donate blood. These MRT advertisements essentially go like this (based on my personal interpretation, which is obviously subjective, not objective)....

Advertisements' Summary
(1) "hey come on it's not a big deal! We just want a few drops of your blood! No big deal, right?"
(2) "hey come on, you're really gonna make a huge difference to Singapore. You're really really gonna make a HUGE difference by donating a few DROPS of your blood!"
(3) "hey come on, do you mean you can't afford to pay for the transport expenses that you'll have to incur for travelling all the way from (say) Yishun to that blood donation station at Outram MRT? Oh come on, it will cost you ONLY about $5 to donate the way, your time is not worth anything to us, okay."
(4) "hey do you know that you can keep donating blood? You are thinking of donating once only? So stingy!"

And on 5th December 2005, I read the Straits Times 'Forum' page. Dr Diana Teo from Health Sciences Authority of Singapore said that the reason why we shouldn't give 'material rewards' to kind folks who bother to donate blood is that 'Voluntary blood donation on an altruistic basis is promoted by the World Health Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Federation of Blood Donor Organizations and International Society of Blood Transfusion as the foundation of a safe national blood supply'. So look, all these prestigious global organizations are saying that altruism should be the basis for blood donation; and so, Dr Teo thinks that we in Singapore must therefore not even reimburse a single cent for the blood donors, because that one cent shall constitute a 'material reward'.

I personally feel that the whole campaign to get more blood from people is poorly conceptualized. Although the World organizations have stated that altruism should be the basis, one might feel that they are saying so (a) in order to sound nice, (b) because that is the right thing to say, and (c) they are assuming that this principle would work in all countries. But this is Singapore, a tiny city-state with so few people. Do you actually think that most Singaporeans will bother to go through so much trouble to donate their blood, bearing in mind that Singaporeans are people who are (a) frequently exhausted from work, (b) perpetually short of time,and that (c) it is expensive to commute in Singapore. Besides, the culture here is one of extreme pragmatism. Although there will certainly be folks who still donate blood, I think that without some incentives, it's very difficult for the campaign to succeed....

Dr Teo then says that 'those who have donated blood...regularly...form the basis of a sustainable and safe blood supply to meet the country's needs'. This makes potential blood donors feel that they are not going to make that much of a difference after all, as the MRT advertisements had led them to believe. The mentioning of a substantial group of regular blood donors undermines the MRT advertising to some extent, in my opinion. Basically, their messages are conflicting: on one hand they're saying, "Hey we're desperate..." (and one would indeed think they are seriously short of blood after looking at their advertisements); on the other hand they seem to be saying "Hey no worries, mate, we've got loads of blood...." I'm confused. If they are very short of blood, then I will donate. If they are not really that short of blood, then I won't donate. Now, it's not that I'm selfish, but Heavenly Sword is really scared of being poked by needles, you know? :)

The greatest problem I have with the blood donation campaign is that it simply trivializes the efforts and sacrifices of blood donors (current and potential). It makes it seem as though blood donors are only giving a few drops of blood when they are in fact giving much more than that, perhaps a few bags of blood! It remains silent about the money that people have to spend in order to travel to the blood donation station. It assumes that everybody lives in Outram Park, or has a bicycle (and the necessary energy) to cycle from Yishun to Outram. Worse, it assumes that a few dollars of MRT fare is not a big deal at all, that a few dollars is 'peanuts'...

Dr Teo in the ST Forum also said that there is 'clear evidence that monetary incentives will lead some donors to withold information that might prevent them from donating blood'. How am I supposed to interpret this? It makes me worried because I thought that there should be systems in place to ensure that the blood donated by everyone is safe. How can you just count on people being honest? People can still withhold information if they are sinister enough, and sinister people, I believe, are not affected by the presence or absence of monetary considerations at all! Also, there is no need for a large amount of money to be paid; a small token amount of $3 or $4 is better than nothing. After all, I think that after donating blood people will need to eat a more nutritious meal right after that in order to replenish their energies. And it is only fair to reimburse people who sacrifice their time, energies, money, and blood, for their commuting expenses, right?

In short, treat Singaporeans as busy people who need to work and are short of time. Also, assume that people are not staying within 5 minutes walk from the blood donation station. Further assume that people need to eat well after donating blood, and finally, acknowledge that a few dollars is not peanuts to everybody. These are the important assumptions that blood donation centres need to adopt before they formulate their advertising campaigns.

Translated to practical advice, this means:

1) Acknowledge that something requires sacrifices, if it really does.
2) Assume that your target audiences are those who are reluctant, rather than those who are already quite willing to donate (the latter group will donate anyway, with or without advertisements.)
3) Use realistic language (e.g. not 'drops' of blood - a 'drop' of blood can't help. And you are not drawing 'drops' of blood from people; people do want to know exactly how much blood will be removed from their body. If the process involves a little bit of pain, don't say it's painless. Tell us how long the process will take. I think the messages will be more effective that way, at least for me.)
4) Don't send out conflicting messages; aim for one thing at a time (e.g. do you want to convince those who've never tried donating blood to give it a try? If so, don't try to get them to donate many times when they haven't even gone for the very first donation. One step at a time. One message per campaign.)
5) Minimize cost to the donor; aim for maximum impact (currently the campaign can only convince those who are already inclined to donate.)