Sunday, 27 January 2019

Help, my father is a hand-phone addict.

What does a nine-year-old boy in central China know about work, life and hand-phone addiction right?

Well, it depends on whose perspective you are viewing it from. To him, his father has an addiction...yes, to his handphone.

The boy (named Xiaozhi) was troubled by this and did a rather public catharsis of it via a school essay. It was posted on Jan 17 by his teacher on Weibo at Luoyang International School in Henan Province.

The title of the essay was: “Father, I want to tell you this.”

In the essay, Xiaozhi described how “his father was glued to his mobile phone “day and night and every day” as though he could not live without it.”"

The essay won full marks for his year-end examination and here are some extracts of it.

“Father, every time I ask you to check my homework, you would just take one look and say “Not bad, now go play”. Otherwise you would just give me a phone so I could play too.”

At one point, Xiaozhi compared his father to a ”vicious wolf that has starved for three days and three nights, eyeing that big chunk of fat meat.”

“It’s also as though there is a vacuum cleaner inside the cellphone sucking him in...Father, what I want is not a house full of tidbits, the most high end cellphone, and certainly not ultra high-end toys.”

“What I want is only for you to put down your phone and play with me. That’ll be the happiest thing to happen to me in my whole life.”

“Father, as long as you put down the phone, I’m willing to trade my life for it. I love you, my father.”

Therein ends the essay. 

Xiaozhi’s mother acknowledged her husband’s addiction and said that he “is a heavy mobile phone user as he uses the device for work and would sometimes play games on it for relaxation.”

She added: “Before this, we didn’t think using the phone all day was an issue, and we didn’t realise this child was so sensitive.”

Lesson? really have to define “all day” here. Now, I do not know the family’s background in detail and so, whatever I write here is provisional.

But when you put the expression “all day” and “didn’t realise this child was so sensitive” together in one rather nonchalant statement, you get the feeling that normalisation within the household has different meanings for different people within the family. That is, what is normal to one can be extreme to the other.

Last night, my daughter Joy (8 yrs old) came to me. She was excited. She had recently learned how to tell time. She was all psyched up with the hour hand and the minute hand. I saw her tracing the seconds hand with great fascination just so that she could get it right. To her, it meant a lot to get it right.

Then, she came to me and can’t wait to tell time. To the adults, the expert time-teller, nothing could be more mundane. And mind you, this was not her first time telling me every few minute that passed her little life by.

Well, confession time, I was on the phone watching Seth Meyers dishing out on Trump and I do that recently as a form of mental relaxation, a brainless romp in cerebral empty space.

As a side note, Trump tends (unknowingly) to dump tons of materials on the lap of late-night comedians like Meyers, Colbert, Trevor and Kimmel, and they run with it like wild animals on a celebrative hunt.

And when Joy came in, all flushed with excitement, I paused (the phone) quite reluctantly and forced a smile.

After she told me her chronology expedition, and it took what seemed like an eternity to me who had to pause the phone at a cliffhanger, I told her deadpan bye bye.

There was no engagement whatsoever. No small talk with her. I just can’t wait to return to the screen no bigger than the size of my palm.

And so, this morning, Xiaozhi’s essay was a gentle awakening for me. It reminded me about last night.

My point is that while there is justification to what we have to do on the handphone or before the computer screen, sometimes, we have to stand back and take stock. We just can’t go on autopilot mode with this indefinitely.

From the adult perspective, handphone, digitalisation and technology in general can be part of work and meeting quotas so as to support the family. For doesn’t this ”vicious wolf” have a small trooper pack back home to feed?

But having said that, I still take my cue from the words of a nine-year-old when he wrote: -

Father, what I want is not a house full of tidbits, the most high end cellphone, and certainly not ultra high-end toys. What I want is only for you to put down your phone and play with me. That’ll be he happiest thing to happen to me in my whole life.”

Now, as an adult, a father, I am not saying we shouldn’t have our alone-time, a sacred privacy space for us to wind down and live it up. Nothing’s wrong with self-care.

But what we need to take stock is, have we gone too far with some activities? Most time, we don’t even realise it.

And what’s worse is that our children (even our spouse) might think it is a lost cause to ask for our time, attention and engagement, knowing that it would often be no more than a patronising smile or a condescending nod. In other words, we are seldom fully there, fully engaged, fully present.

Alas, what we might not know, or wish not to know, is that these patronising nods add up over the years. They add up to dilute affection, undermine intimacy and backfire on personal authenticity.

And yet, despite all that, we often catch ourselves telling ourselves this in rueful lamentation: “Time flies. They grow up so fast. Where have all the time gone?”

Mm...I think it has gone nowhere. Time has always been there. It came to us countless of times, hoping for a glance from us, for a quick connection to affirm the presence, but it often walked away with desires unrealised.

For me, she came last night. She came with much enthusiasm, craving for what I could easily afford, that is, those few minutes to acknowledge and savour her little growth moments. But she walked away, with desires unrealised, opportunity missed.

Some may say that I have overstated the effect, but they all add up, and add up without our conscious awareness.

Most times, it is not the big disappointments that estrange the relationship. We can make up for them because we are aware of them. We somehow keep track.

It is however the small ones that accumulate over time that are most damaging because we are seldom made aware of. We seldom keep track, or it is easier to lose track.

So, going back to our earlier lamentation, the time has gone nowhere. It came with earnest and the only one gone is, well, us.

Let me end with this quote: “Relationships deepen not because we necessarily say something in particular but because we are invested enough to show up for another conversation. In family conversations, children learn that what can matter most is not the information shared but the relationships sustained.” (Sherry Turkle ”Reclaiming Conversation”).

And relationships are sustained by making every moment counts, not necessarily with words or elaborate engagement, but by simply making our presence felt.

Beauty for Ashes - the love of Intan Syari and Dr Rio Nanda Pratama.

Beauty for ashes? I believe some things are meant forever, and its beauty is beyond this world, beyond the ashes of time. 

It’s Friday and if you want a news to deepen your weekend with hope, here’s one. 

Hospital worker Intan Syari, 26, went ahead with what her late husband, medical doctor Rio Nanda Pratama, wanted. It was literally his last wish. 

Dr Rio, also 26, was “among the 189 people on board Lion Air Flight JT610 that crashed after take-off from Jakarta on Oct 29.” It reports that he was returning from a conference there. 

That crash was Indonesia’s worst aviation disaster “since a Garuda Indonesia plane crashed in Medan in 1997, killing all 234 people on board.”

And here is Dr Rio’s last wish. He jokingly told her this: -

“If I don’t return by Nov 11, go ahead wear your wedding dress that I chose for you, wear beautiful make-up, ask for a fresh white rose from Ms Sheila (wedding organiser), and take good photos. Then, send the photos to me.”

Syari fulfilled that wish. She donned a white wedding dress, holding white roses, and the photo went viral on social media in Indonesia. One photo showed her wedding ring. Another photo showed her standing beside Dr Rio’s sister. 

She said: “There is sadness that I cannot describe, but I have to smile for you. I shall not mourn. I have to stay strong like you always told me. Although you are not beside me, your sister was with me to fullfill your most beautiful last wish. I know you are happy up there.”

She ended with this: “He always reminded me...that in the world, nothing is eternal.”

Lesson? One. 

Yes, it’s about love. Some call it that old devil; others call it the conqueror. Still others call it God. 

But whatever name you give, whatever label it receives, love will see you through. It was the beauty of undying love that gave Syari hope to face tomorrow. And love, pure love, can never be corrupt, can never betray. 

This story has to be told not so much because it went viral or it was touching, to say the least. But it has to be told because if there is any refuge left in this world for a heart so broken by the state of the world, it has to be in the arms of love. 

Love defies not just gravity, but time and space. You are lifted above the circumstances by it. When love envelops, you lose all sense of time. Timeless love transcends the past, the present and the future. 

Even the space upon which you stand expands out into boundless horizons of courage and hope when love takes hold and transforms the jaded heart. 

Indeed, Dr Rio reminded his fiancĂ©e well. He said nothing in this world is eternal. And it is trite and still true that a love that overcomes cannot be from this world. For whatever draws its strength or sustenance from the world depletes fast, corrupts deep and lasts but for a time. 

Fame is not forever. One moment you have a thousand followers and ten thousand “Likes”, and the next, when you are old news, you are forgotten. 

The world of fame works the same way as the world of lust. It comes in hot, demanding and beyond your control. But after the party is over, it leaves you lusting more. 

Power can never quench or satisfy. It in fact changes you. It takes over you. It makes you do its bidding. It reduces you for its feeding. You lose yourself in power and not the other way round.

Then wealth. Alas, need I say more? Wealth may satisfy your deepest insecurities, but what good is riches if every kiss you receive is loaded, every embrace is calculated, and every promise is conditional.

We cry out for authenticity, for a beauty that lasts in this world, but the love of Dr Rio and Syari is that lasting beauty we often take for granted. And in a world of impermanence, the love they embrace is just a visitor passing through, leaving behind a glimpse of what is truly eternal. 

Let me end with the enchanting words of Hafez, a Persian poet, as a tribute to the love that Dr Rio and Syari shared: -

“Our union is like this: you feel cold, so I reach for a blanket to cover our shivering feet. You ache with loneliness one night so much you weep, and I say here is a rope, tie it around me, I will be your companion for life.” 

Alas, to behold such love, to have but a foretaste of it in this life, sometimes requires, even demands, that we risk everything. The reservation is understandable from a place of natural resistance. But to not risk everything, to fear taking the plunge, we may risk even more. 

We may risk a heart that refuses to be broken, a heart so decidedly invulnerable that it has to be kept safe from love, from hurts, from disappointments, and from growth. 

And to escape from its reach, such a heart has to be caged up, kept in the dark, reclined in a cold coffin, and buried together with all its owner’s possessions, his wealth and fame when he leaves this world. Cheerz.

Finnish inclusivity and Singapore's Education System.

Some trips make you think. Some experiences reported about that trip makes you think even harder. And reading about their experiences make me think even more. 

Amelia Teng, Education Correspondent, recently made a trip to Finland to study how they did it and this is her opening salvo: -

“Finland has often attracted global attention for being an education miracle - there are no major exams until the age of 18, private tuition is unheard of and yet students still do well in global education rankings.”

As a parent of three growing kids, putting my kids through the rigors of our local educational system, the part that raised my eyebrows to the heavens was “private tuition is unheard of” and “students still do well in global education rankings.” (And I won’t even get to the part about there being “no major exams until the age of 18” - I only have two eyebrows to raise).

Well, our students here have done equally well in global education rankings too. That has to be said. But still, our route (or experiences) is quite different from the Finland’s path. 

And I know there are many roads that lead to Rome, but can one of the healthier road be the Finland’s way where (as reported and experienced) there is no major exams (until 18) and tuition is unheard of?

PSLE and GCE “O” level are the sacred cows of our educational system. They are what our unique meritocracy is based on. They are the cornerstone of how we streamline society, kind of like a filtering system, where the academically bright are separated from the academically less bright - to put it simply.

Mind you, it has been with us since independence and it has worked well - so, what’s ain’t broken, shouldn’t we just let it be?

At most, we can tweak the entrenched system a little or progressively in the same way a race car would be spruced up at a pitstop at F1 race. But don’t expect major overhaul because the driver has a race to catch, and most times, it can be really intense. 

But before I drone further on this point, let’s return to the article’s main point. 

The report on the trip was mainly on inclusivity in schools, that is, “more than 95 per cent of its students with special needs, including those with severe conditions such as cerebral palsy, are in publicly funded, regular schools known as comprehensive schools”. 

In Singapore, we have a comfortable percentage of 80 (who attend mainstream schools). 

To be exact, the stats are that “these students have learning difficulties due to conditions such as dyslexia, autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The rest, or about 6,200 students, attend 19 special education schools, which are for those who require more support.”

But many felt that we can do more, and do more without compromising and undermining the development of other students.

In fact, according to the report, “a 2016 paper by Harvard Graduate School of Education found that students with special needs who went to general education classes outperformed their peers in segregated settings.”

Lien Foundation chief executive Lee Poh Wah said “the concept of special education here is still rooted in an archaic system of separate special schools run by social service organisations.”

What was suggested was for the channeling of resources “to create a network of inclusive primary schools, training more mainstream teachers in special needs and equipping schools with dedicated specialists such as psychologists, therapists and social workers.”

This is similar to the experience of Finland educators where “special education teachers in Finland are highly qualified and well-trained; a key feature of the inclusive classrooms was their co-teaching and co-planning of lessons with the mainstream teachers.”

Surprisingly, it reports that this system “may even improve teaching practises for all students, as teachers and principals are required to support the needs of each child individually.”

And “by law, special classes even in regular schools are kept small in Finland - one teacher to a group of six to eight students with severe learning problems.”

If you put a mental tag on that aspect of inclusivity in Finland, and move back to what I discussed earlier about no major exams and where tuition is unheard of, you get a picture of a system that is somewhat kinder and healthier for students as a whole as they progress from age to age until maturity. 

Now, of course, the ultimate goal is testable results and the report card (at the end of the day) must show learning, knowledge gained and applied, and academic maturity. But this has to be bore in mind, at what cost? 

Let’s take our system on tests at every crucial stage for example. Dr Jacqueline Chung, academic director and senior principal at St James’ Church Kindergarten, said that “primary school teachers here tend to focus on gearing up children for the Primary School Leaving Examination.” 

She added: “It can be pressurising for students with learning difficulties if they cannot keep up with the pace of learning.”

In Finland, it reports that children “do not have any standardised or high-stakes exams. Teachers use projects or homework to evaluate their progress and track learning.” 

Dr Marjo Kyllonen, head of development services in Helsinki said that “schools in Finland believe in portfolio assessment - assessing students based on learning tasks and objectives. This learning is more natural for opposed to cramming for tests and not remembering anything you studied the next day.” 

To sidetrack...parents, she does have a point right? 

We all experienced this before, when we study to pass and not study to learn (or study for interest). The major difference is that for the former (study to pass/score), it is all about that day, and everything that leads to that day of exam. 

Once we have done it, completed it, we jettison most of what we have stored mechanically in our brain out of the system. The mental script is: Mission accomplished, let’s prepare with technocratic focus to jump through the next academically-intense hoop.

My concern is that our system somehow risks setting up our children for that kind of mindset. Alas, it is said that education is not about cramming everything into our kid’s brain, but lighting a fire within - stoking curiosity, rekindling passion, igniting desire and fortifying interest. 

The gist of my post this morning is about rethinking. This sentiment is expressed aptly by executive director of Rainbow Centre, Ms Tan Sze Wee, when she said: -

“If we can move away from exams as the primary way to decide on places for schools, and look instead at different ways of teaching and evaluating diverse learners in one classroom, our children will learn to value and respect diversity.”

That’s the direction I trust our system designers are taking. Not just a more inclusive system where no one is left behind (or feels as if he or she is left behind), but also valuing each child for what he or she can excel in within an environment that is essentially child-centric and not exams-centric. 

Imagine with me for a moment: Our education system is not a race to see who finishes first, to crown the winner with trophies and the glam-lights and leaving the rest in winner’s shadow. But it is a marathon, where the first to arrive is no doubt recognised for his or her endurance and character, yet those who come in thereafter are also applauded for their endurance and character. 

There is still an element of competition to some extent and it is unavoidable. But unlike an academic rat-race to the bottom, a marathon is more about challenging yourself, beating your personal best, and doing better the next time round. 

While a race like a sprint is to see and compare who’s better/faster, a marathon is about completing it with pride of one’s achievement and about self-congratulation and giving a good pad on one’s back. 

Most importantly, the whole community rejoices with every marathoner arriving at the finish line. But in a race, the celebration is usually about who comes in first, and by how much he or she beats the last timing. One is communal and the other is largely individualistic. One is about intrinsic motivation and the other fiercely competitive. 

I feel that the Finland road is a marathon while our system is largely about racing within certain highly anticipated timing - lest you, as a competitor, is frowned upon. No doubt we are evolving, and that is why we send delegates to Finland to learn from them. 

But my concern (as I end) is that if we remain fiercely meritocratic coupled with the all-consuming goal of putting the economic growth cart before the inclusive/communal horse, we run the risks of merely paying lip-service to changing our educational system without changing the script behind it, which we have unwittingly elevated to the status of inscrutable sacred cows. Cheerz.

A tribute to the father of superheroes - Stan Lee.

Stan Lee, or Stanley Martin Lieber (b. Dec 28, 1922), can be said to be the author of the Bible of Superheroes. 

Stan Lee first created their universe with a bang in the 60s, he molded them from the clay of artistry and imagination, breathed life into their make-believe characters in the pages and big screens, gave them a purpose for existence to fight evil vilians, and most important of all, he cursed them with human traits and personalities so that even possessing such incredible gifts of might, smarts and powers, they cannot escape from the universe of their own tormented conscience and flaws. (That finishing touch is truly the secret of his success). 

Hugh Jackman said: “We’ve lost a creative genius. Stan Lee was a pioneering force in the superhero universe. I’m proud to have been a small part of his legacy.”

And that is ironically why he is so successful...because he had fulfilled our deepest desires to live vicariously through the contrived narrated lives of superhuman beings frantically trying to save the world out there, but at the same time, struggling with their own redemption and mortality.

If anything, Stan Lee was not just a dreamer but a builder; more specifically, a bridge builder. He bravely with vision and endearing empathy bridged the worlds for us, that is, the world of what we lack or crave, our current reality, and the world of what we can only dream of, our desired fantasy. 

Honestly, think about all our flaws, inadequacies, and shortcomings, and Stan Lee had deftly created an alter-ego in an alternate universe in a very personable way to overcome most of them. 

And what draws us in quite helplessly is that we can identify with each and every superhero on the screen. Think about it. Has there been anyone in the hall of justice that we cannot relate to? 

Hulk? Mm...we all have anger issues and for some of us, we seriously need to manage it. 

Spider-Man? Well, a teen ignored in school but finding super strength when stumbling in the middle of an experiment that has gone awry is the lego blocks of our pubescent aspiration. 

And for the male macho adults, we have iron man and bat man. Tell me, frankly, who never dreamed of being a billionaire, philanthropist and a superhero all rolled into one glorious living legend?

How about the ladies? Well, Stan Lee has not forgotten about them. If one has to mix beauty, brains and kick-ass feminist power, you have black widow, “sue” the invisible girl, storm, scarlett witch, and captain marvel. 

Mark Ruffalo said this of Stan Lee: “You let us be extra human...superhuman even. I am deeply honoured to have been a small part in the Stan Lee constellation.”

In real life, Stan Lee was not perfect. He was “often faulted for not adequately acknowledging the contributions of his illustrators, especially Jack Kirby and artist Steve Ditko”. They in fact had a fall out. 

However, in 2014, “Marvel and the Kirby estate reached a settlement. Lee and Kirby now both receive credit on numerous screen productions based on their work.”

Personally, I don’t know much about Stan Lee’s life and I don’t pretend to know. But like everyone else, we have our skeletons in the closet. Some more dark than others. Some more crushing than others. 

The searchlight into our closets is our own conscience. But at times, even the light of our conscience goes off or goes dim due to lack of willpower, resolve and direction. 

That is why we need a leg up to give us hope. And that is where people like Stan Lee, PT Barnum, J.R.R Tolkien, CS Lewis, Stephen King and JK Rowling come in. They hold us up by the bootstraps, nudge us to stay focus on the road ahead, and keep us walking forward regardless of how dire our surrounding circumstances may be. 

In fact, I used to think that Stan Lee was incredibly, super rich because of the royalties and licence fees and so on he would have collected from all his Marvel super characters. 

As it stands, in the first decades of the 21st century, movies with his Marvel superheroes grossed more than US$20 billion at theatres worldwide. Black Panther alone hit US$1.34 billion. 

But it reports that “in 2002, (Stan Lee) sued to claim his share, months after Spider-Man conquered movie theatres. In a legal settlement three years later, he received a US$10 million one-time payment.” Underscore “one-time payment”. 

The report continued: “Some people assumed that, as a result, Lee’s wealth had soared. He disputed that. 

”I don’t have US$200 million. I don’t have US$150 million. I don’t have US$100 million or anywhere near that,” Lee told Playboy magazine in 2014.Having grown up in the Great Depression, Lee added that he was “happy enough to get a nice pay cheque and be treated well””. 

Lesson? Just two. First, I send my condolences to the family of Stan Lee. He had indeed lived an extraordinary life, most of it in his boundless imagination. 

And second, I am always reminded that we all want to be remembered as ”superheroes” leaving a superhero-like legacy for our children and their children’s children. Some of us want to make history and leave a mark for aeons to come. 

But I have come to realise that there is actually little difference between the fictional characters we admire and real life we cannot comprehend at times. The common thread that runs through them in all situations they/we face is how do we respond to what is before us. 

While Superman has to contend with Kryptonite, Iron man with his ego, Batman with his past, and Dr Strange with millions of probable anxieties in the future, we have to confront our here and now. 

Whatever powers they possessed, the problem they face is never resolved with a snap of the fingers. Even Thanos with his six stones secured has to face a part two akan datang next year, which will see to the sealing of his fate with the convergence of a concluding infinity war. My point? Mm...

Well, even in the greatest of superheroes in the Marvel universe, there is always an ordinary human struggle. And even in the most ordinary of humankind, there is always extraordinary strength that sees to our eventual overcoming. 

What therefore defines us ultimately and eventually is not what superpowers we possess or crave after. It is on the contrary in the most unembellished, and most times, understated strength and virtues that we often find in a mother who loves unfailingly, a husband who keeps his marriage vows unconditionally, a friend who acts with honour and trust, an employer who treasures his employees above profit, and a leader who is prepared to sacrifice for his people. 

And I earnestly believe people like Stan Lee bring the super-characters to life in comics and screens so as to remind mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, employers and leaders just that - that is, there is a superhero in all of us when we never give up, keep carrying on and live with joy, hope and love. Cheerz.

RIP Stan, your Marvel universe awaits...