Review 2010 – Group blogging experiences

And so 2010 draws to a close.

2010 began when some of us joined the New Asia Republic (NAR) in its nascent state. What I found unique about NAR was the fact that many of us were from the same generation, and there was a great degree of understanding and empathy towards different views.

It also helps that a lot of us were from different professional backgrounds. Myself, from the pharmaceutical sciences, others from economics, and we also have a political science major and yadda yadda.

There wasn’t a time when I didn’t learn something new. When Ian Choo reported on the Bhutan Prime Minister’s talk, I could immediately see the similar context it has to health models.

What I particularly like about NAR is that it attempts to address fundamental questions that we may ask ourselves e.g. is Austrian economics relevant? Or is Nuclear Power viable and yadda.

It is always good to have such expository pieces, where we think of a concept and then challenge our pre-conditioned or pre-conceived notions of that concept. Sometimes, we have to ask ourselves such basic questions once in a while. Like what is classical economics and the failure or strengths of it.

In a school setting, many a time, we opt to play it safe by sticking to what we are taught. But really, we are constrained by time and more often than not, we only scratch the surface of a concept, rarely venturing into lower depths.

In a sense, my work at NAR can be rewarding. For instance, I was only taught the biopsychosocial model of health, but I wrote on the biopsychosicial-environmental-cultural model of health, which was in greater depth. I am sure such expository cum exploratory pieces are of great benefit to the other writers. For one, it goes to show that what we learn in our textbooks is merely scratching the surface.

There is definitely a strong educational element to it. Having spoken about 2010, what’s in store for 2011?

The future is uncertain. However, what is certain is that producing a work at NAR isn’t futile. The writer learns as much even as he is writing the piece. Thus, one thing can be assured is that the writers grow in terms of knowledge.


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What really happened when I was last at KRC

I was initially inundated with work in my professional life with ongoing projects. In terms of editorial work, I was a volunteer in such a capacity with the Bone Marrow Donor Programme and was also part of The Online Citizen International desk team, on top of my writing work with the The Kent Ridge Common.

What transpired was the re-direction of the KRC servers and what appeared to be a falling out, and finger pointing amongst observers alike. However, the issue was discussed later among those whom are involved in the KRC setup, and what happened was really attributed to one thing – the breakdown in communications because it came during a busy period when writers were preparing for their exams and I was busy with my own work.

Initially, I thought I was relayed a message with regards to a change in editorial process and a comment with regards to the contents of my articles. I believed at first that this message was taken to mean what I have written thus far was unacceptable and not desired on the website, and with regards to changes in this editorial process, was that I was to make an exit out of the KRC team. Thus, I made the decision to just host the articles elsewhere and leave the team.

What really resulted in this misunderstanding was primarily due to the fact everyone was busy and do not have time to relay specific instructions. On subsequent verification with the KRC team, I have clearer picture of the actual instructions relayed to me, and it was indeed unfortunate that the busy period meant that communications lines were disrupted. The actual instructions were of changes to editing style and layout of articles.

Hence the purpose of this write-up was to address certain myths based on comments amongst observers elsewhere.

1) That an external party was involved in the events at KRC , e.g. censorship or mere disruption. This was never the case, something which I have verified with other writers. No external entity had ever disrupted the setup, and what resulted in my departure was based on my interpretations of messages sent out by my former colleagues from KRC, which upon later clarifications proved to be a misunderstanding between both sides. More importantly, at no time was KRC approached by any authority or such a representative.

2) That relations had completely broken down. Contrary to beliefs, the issue was resolved much earlier. I was invited to return to the KRC team earlier this year when the issue was completely resolved. However, I embarked on a demanding graduate degree programme that it wasn’t possible for me to commit my time (requires me to read 8 or more textbooks every week). In fact, my busy schedule started during the time of the incident that I only submitted sporadic work to The Online Citizen. After I left KRC, my works appeared mainly on The Online Citizen. However, I still showed my support for the KRC project by commenting occasionally on certain write-ups.

The next question is whether if I would like to return to KRC. To tell the truth, there were happy memories and camaradie involved and I will cherish them forever. Yes, I am an NUS alumni, but now NUS seems like a distant memory. Maybe because my undergraduate life was pretty uneventful that there wasn’t much memories for me to hold on to. But I have digressed. I am now in an institution miles away from home; a student of another institution, and in the near future, also an alumni of this overseas institution. I do not believe my presence in KRC is that appropriate; the ethos I experienced during my days as an undergraduate could be different from what the current generation experiences. And as I have mentioned earlier, I can’t spare the time to commit to KRC even if I wanted to. In other words, I have moved on. Even if the incident did not happen, I would have made a quiet exit from KRC given my current courseload.

To sum it all, after all in my opinion, KRC is a voluntary project where we are all giving our time. It is definitely not easy to keep a voluntary project like such going, and there is bound to be times when the going gets tough. During busy periods and when uncomplicated technical issues crop up, some breakdown in communication can occur, which is quite natural. Nonetheless, we emerged wiser. Last, but not least, I would like to thank readers for their continued support of KRC.

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Increased focus on recruiting matured applicants into civil service in a move away from a scholarship focus?

Photo courtesy of Zach Inglis

The American system of education is fascinating in its own right vis-a-vis the commonwealth system. Entry into professional schools such as medical and law colleges requires the applicants to go through a college (university) education, before they can be considered for entry. That means that prospective students must have already earned a bachelors degree prior to their application to the medical or law college. More often not, these graduates have experienced the working world prior to their entry into professional schools. Such applicants are what is known as mature applicants. In most commonwealth countries, the practice of admitting students who are fresh out of high school (equivalent of “A” levels) into professional colleges still persists.

There is a prevailing mindset that mature students actually make better students and co-workers than those fresh out of high school. This could perhaps be attributed to their maturity gleaned over the years, even more so for those who have been through the working world. In fact, lecturers and professors who have worked with such students have remarked that they were extremely independent, and brought perspectives to the class that even they as teachers ended up learning! Actually, it doesn’t take rocket science to explain why mature applicants are more preferred and look upon more favorably than their freshie-out-of-high-school counterparts. In most job applications, those who present with experience in the working world are looked upon more favorably than those without any. The other advantage with mature students is that when they apply to go to a professional college, they would have thought through about their future, and made an informed choice about what they want to achieve, more so than their freshie counterparts. The intervening years of experience would have given them ample time to think over their priorities in life.

There is a wide debate over the effectiveness of our scholarship system. Basically, the scholarship boards of our government attempt to identify talented students straight after “A” levels. They are sponsered for their studies at top universities, and come back to serve their bond at various government bodies. The question with admitting these fresh out of “A” levels students is – 1) are they even sure of their choice to take up the scholarship and enter public service? 2) have they gleaned enough experience of their world around them, thought over what they have been through and then make an informed choice to enter our government service? The first two questions, these prospective scholars should be asking themselves. The third question is a relevant one that deals with their life experience – 3) have what they experienced thus far really prepared them for life in the work place of our government ministries?

The first question is definitely a rehash, and no one will it surprising that academic advisors of high-flying students would have counselled them on this point. The second question, however, if one considers seriously, is not really one that the fresh “A” level graduates are able to answer convincingly. They obviously wouldn’t have enough experience around them to consider what is best for their interests. In fact, it didn’t come as a surprise that some scholars regretted signing on the dotted line when they encountered what really suited them in line with their interests during the course of their studies. Mature applicants would obviously have been through this phase of sampling the world around them to rate their own priorities, at least the tendency is higher.

It goes without saying that the third question cannot be convincingly answered by the proverbial fresh “A” level graduate. They would obviously not have sampled the working environment for a substantial period of time to understand working culture or office culture, whichever way you want to call it. In fact, the mature applicant best suited to answer is one with working experience under his belt. Being through the working world, he would have understood the intricacies of networking, office relations, crisis management, and other finer skills that can only be picked up in the work place.

Hence, should our Public Service Commission turn their attention away from scholarship programs catered to fresh “A” level graduates towards attracting matured applicants? A resounding yes. Who wouldn’t want an employee with experience and who is in the job after priortizing what he has wanted in life? And to make things more attractive, mature applicants should be given an equal chance at promotion. About time for a new focus, no?


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About time to rethink about our scholar selection mechanisms

Photo courtesy of UNLV Rebel Yell

Mr Eddie Teo, Chairman of the Public Service Commission gave a lengthy, but insightful presentation on the government scholarship system entitled “Defending Scholarships but not all Scholars” some time ago at the Singapore Seminar 2009 held in London. What was eye-catching about the presentation was a particular segment with the sub-title “Young Scholars – Some cause for concern”.

Source: The Public Service Commission website
Most of the current generation of young scholars are responsible and dedicated, but a few have a poor attitude and misplaced expectations. Some are very choosy about their postings and tend to place their personal interest above organizational interest. Many Management Associates or MAs want to go to MTI or MOF for their first postings and get upset if they are posted elsewhere. One was so upset that he resigned, breaking his bond. When some young MAs were asked to go to NTUC to observe retrenchment exercises and learn about what impact the current economic recession is having on ordinary Singaporeans, one MA asked “What is a retrenchment exercise?”.

Why should the Public Service be worried that some scholars are like this? First, if our scholars seek to advance only their self-interest, it indicates that they may be unable to work in a team. Much of public service work today involves teamwork because Singapore’s problems are becoming more complex and involve many Ministries, and no single individual can solve them. Besides, public policy making is always the product of a group effort, of repeated discussions and revisions. From the first idea to the Cabinet paper, proposals will involve many people and countless drafts. Some young officers are not used to this and do not feel a close enough sense of ownership with the final product. This is the way government works and is in fact a strength of our system because this is the way we gather different perspectives and considerations into a well thought-through solution. Second, if fewer and fewer young scholars desire ground postings, more and more of them may become divorced from ground issues and will start to lose their empathy for ordinary Singaporeans. The problem is not yet so widespread that it cannot be rolled back. There is still time for the Public Service to correct the trend. – Mr Eddie Teo

It is indeed a worrying trend if fewer young scholars desire ground level postings and Eddie’s concern about this potentially leading to a divorce with ground realities resonates with that of the many observers who are interested in the topic. Yet, his concluding statement about the Public Service correcting the trend can be seen as a form of admission that reforms to the Scholarship system are long overdue.

Hence, the pertinent question is what are the reforms that can be possibly implemented to ensure that we select the right scholars who are in it to serve the public, even if it means that they should immerse themselves at the ground level?

Some time ago, I have advocated having having an internship phase in the selection system in a separate article, and now having read Eddie’s concerns, the idea of having such a phase should be seriously considered. The idea is really to assess the prospective scholar’s level of fit with the Public Service. In a certain sense, it is an added mechanism to ensure that scholars who harbor the right qualities are selected, which are assessed from a period of internship that gives the scholarship selectors much more information about the prospective candidates that what a mere interview can achieve. The time frame for such an internship will usually stretch over four to five months before the academic term commences between June to August.

Having read Eddie’s concerns about scholars desiring postings in certain ministries such as the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Trade and Industry, one possible form of internship can be considered is one which requires the prospective scholar to go through not only the government ministry of his choice, but also two others. It is a little bit like medical internship during the Housemanship years where new medical graduates undergo rotations through broad level medical disciplines such as Medicine, General Surgery and Paediatrics or any other selected disciplines. In a sense, rotational internship experience will expose him to the realities at the current ministry of his choice, and also allows him to sample the working culture at the other two ministries. At the end of it all, he can make an informed choice about the choice of his destination.

It will definitely be interesting times ahead for the Public Service Commission is concerned as it ruminates on how to correct the current trend of problems that was highlighted. After all, what everyone wants are talented government officials who are in it in the name of Public Service.


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Towards a more understanding and appreciative education system

Streaming has always been part and parcel of our education system. Those whom are in the know of secondary education in Singapore would understand the terms “Special”, “Express” and “Normal”, which describes the academic abilities of students from “best” to “worst” as determined by our National Examination, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). For the crème de la crème who did well, their paths are open to entry into prestigious academic programmes locally or overseas, and government scholarships. And unfortunately for those who didn’t perform as well, they are staring down at the abyss in what is popularised as “It’s The End” (ITE an acronym for the Institute of Technical Education) in Jack Neo’s movies.

Students who eventually enter Junior Colleges will take pre-university courses and subjects and many will eventually enrol in a university, locally or overseas. For those who eventually enrol at ITE, they would take technical-based courses which will prepare them for a vocational career. However, it is not really the end of the road for some, who will eventually do well in ITE to secure a place in the polytechnic, and subsequently earn their diplomas that will qualify them for entry into the universities in a process that will take a longer time, but nonetheless, earn the same qualifications as their special or express peers (those who eventually earned their degrees).

One of the damaging effects of streaming is that it would obviously lead to segregation of students according to academic performance, and subsequently, a lack of understanding and empathy among different segments of the student population, such as that between the Integrated Programme and the Normal Technical stream students. Indeed, there were teachers who have raised their concerns that the students from the Gifted Education Programme rarely mixed around with the rest of their peers.

I had an enjoyable exchange recently with a top executive who currently works in the educational industry and the latter remarked that engineers at MIT and other top schools were good in terms of theoretical knowledge and hands-on work. Hands-on work in the context of this article refers to the performing of technician-related tasks such as soldering or operation and/or repair equipments used in our daily lives. This executive later went to lament that our engineering graduates aren’t up to par with their top school counterparts in terms of technical skills.

How can we move towards an education system that breeds greater understanding and appreciation between various segments of the student population? An obvious approach would be to promote student exchange hailing from different categories of institutions. It works according to the same principle of student exchange programmes in our universities where students typically spend a semester (or two in some cases) overseas so that they can expand their horizons.

How will such an exchange programme work? Students from ITE, especially the School of Applied and Health Sciences cluster can spend part of their curriculum in the polytechnics or even junior colleges if they desire to understand more about the theoretical aspects behind a technical subject. Students from Junior Colleges can be made to undergo technical courses at ITE so that they will be able to learn technical-related subjects and understand the technical applications of the theoretical knowledge that they have picked up previously.

The end result will be a win-win situation for all. The ITE students will pick up theoretical knowledge from their exchange programmes and combined with their technical knowledge will make them better in their field. The Junior College students will supplement their theoretical knowledge with technical skills that will come in useful even in their later lives, e.g. when they need to do soldering or repair equipment. Above all, such exchange programmes promote inter-mingling of students from different categories, and this will lead to greater empathy and understanding among them, which bridges the ‘academic divide’.


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Fear factor that gets really bad

Photo courtesy of whi1e

Our Internal Security Department (ISD) has really pervaded into the mainstream public consciousness for good or bad reasons, depending on which perspective you are coming from.

Even though Operations Spectrum and Coldstore occurred decades ago, they still instill a certain proportion of fear within our populace, even among those whom are not born within the era when those two operations were in effect.

How can the fear of ISD be invoked? Most of the time, it has to do with political opposition. And how can such a fear be manifested? A member of the opposition once related to me how a friend of his didn’t contact him for a long time when he joined an opposition party. The other case was even more extreme. A peer of mine kept looking over his shoulder out of paranoia when he met a friend of his who met Dr Chee in person. Apparently, he was afraid of being tailed.

It isn’t surprising that the opposition experiences the cold shoulder in places like academic institutions or other establishments. Guess there are those in such institutions and establishments who ‘look over their shoulders’ the moment they entertain the opposition. To save themselves the trouble, they simply shun the opposition by slamming the doors shut on the latter.

Little wonder they say it takes nerves of steel and some say balls of brass to take the leap into the opposition camp.


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Sociopolitical education for our students – doing it the right way

There used to be a predominant belief that our social studies syllabus represents a form of political education for our students, albeit for our ruling party. Well, if students are taught to accept whatever that is given on the plate and not question, perhaps that can be seen as a form of indoctrination.

Yet, when I caught up with a former colleague of mine who is currently in the teaching service, it did raised my hope that the current social studies program can ironically be a good source of sociopolitical education. The learning material is one thing, and much depends on the facilitator or educator. Why is this so? Well, if the educator simply tells the students to digest whatever textbook material that is printed, then that is really indoctrination, NOT education. However, it came as a comfort when I heard my colleague’s account on how social studies are taught at the ground level. Basically, students investigate the sociopolitical phenomenon and realities in other countries and compare them with Singapore, and then come to their conclusion regarding the realities in Singapore. Thus, it is a form of inquiry and investigative-based learning whereby students are encouraged to explore nations outside Singapore, and then compare the benefits and drawbacks of different systems.

As with the current science syllabus that promotes inquiry-based learning, teachers do try and achieve the same for social studies.

There is indeed room for improvement in the way educators conduct sociopolitical education for students. As with science where there is a field studies component in which students go outside and collect data, the same can be done for social studies. For instance, students can take on a project, where they can sample the sentiments of different demographics of voters. They can interview each unique age group of voters and obtain data on their views towards various political parties and the policies advocated by the latter. Or they can capture the views of ruling party and opposition voters.

Detractors who do not agree to the inclusion of such field studies components may cite the fact that such an approach will lead to partisanship. Ironically, that form of reasoning in effect shot these detractors in their own foot. Partisanship arises from the fact that students are exposed to only one version that is advocated by the textbook authorities within our education ministry. Hence, discouraging students to explore versions other than that of the ministry’s is in itself a promotion of partisanship. Such field works or projects encourages students to explore multiple versions of sociopolitical realities in Singapore and come to their own conclusion. Thus, in a way, it is a form of inquiry-based learning that defeats partisanship.

There is a belief among some that our youths nowadays are politically apathetic. Others are more optimistic and believe that youths are capable of more. Regardless of their level of political knowledge, educators have an important part to play in sharpening the intellectual tools of our young to raise their “political intelligence quotient” to a new level.

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