Changing Perceptions

Jeremy Clarkson, the British journalist famous for being one of Top Gear’s four presenters (fourth is The Stig, but you should know this already), recently posted an entry in his column at TopGear.com about modern cars having too much horsepower, to the point where it becomes a real danger to the driver. This, coming from an Englishman who spent at least the past eight years on Television screaming “POWERRRRR!!!” a lot and openly showing preference towards cars that emphasised on engine size, acceleration, torque and, most importantly, speed. Any one who does as little as follow Top Gear from a discreet distance, however, will notice that, in the past few years, Clarkson’s affection for this has toned down quite a bit, such as during his review of the Mercedes Brabus SL.

What Clarkson actually and honestly thinks about the idea of the speed and power of a car’s engine affecting the car’s fun and relative safety, I do not know. What he did make me think about with this recent column entry of his, however, is my own changing perceptions of the world.

Back in 2007/2008, when I was leaving secondary school and entering tertiary education (or college, if that term is more familiar to you), I thought that I was close to reaching the absolute peak of what I could ever know, and that somehow, some way, world peace was possible within the next half-century. I had spent ten years in the safe environs of government-funded education. In the final two years, I discovered that I could write argumentative essays with relative ease. This was the catalyst that made me take the plunge into improving my proficiency of the English language and adopting a more minimalistic approach to writing, using simple words for most of my essays to improve reader comprehension. It also resulted in me topping the entire graduating cohort of my school in the English Language paper of the GCE “O” Level Examinations that year, an achievement that I am still very proud of to this day.

Perhaps against the expectations of many people I know, especially my sister, I chose to take up a Diploma in Digital Visual Effects at Ngee Ann Polytechnic instead of entering a junior college and progressing into University after that. The reason I did so was because I was interested in knowing how the special effects in films such as Star Wars or Avatar worked. I did not fancy spending two years of my life memorising textbooks and staying up late to do revision, which my sister did at great cost. I knew back then I was probably shooting myself in the foot consciously, but I told myself that I would take whatever consequences there would be when they show up. It’s funny, in hindsight, how this mentality apparently got me through my tertiary education years and conscription period. I never complained. I just did my work. If I made a severe enough mistake, I apologised, performed damage control and moved on. I found complaining about things to be too much effort and pointless. For there to be a problem, there must also be a solution. If there is no solution, there is no problem. By extension, if I can fix it, I will. If I cannot, there is nothing else I can do. What do you expect me to do for a dead person?

At one point when I was nearing the end of my conscription period, my sister asked me if I really wanted to become a teacher, and I gave it more thought than I’ve ever done. I ultimately decided that being a teacher was not what I wanted to be. A teacher must juggle dealing with a room of hormone-induced youngsters, correspondence from parents who need a textbook on parental guidance and assessing a stack of sheets two feet high. Of these three, two of them require good communication skills, and I’ve performed more communication kills in my own family than I ought to have done. From the sidelines, I’ve learnt that what a teacher says within earshot of the students they are in charge of has a massive impact on their performance in their later years. I do not wish to be a custodian of their future. The thought of a single sentence I utter ruining the future of a potentially brilliant young mind is more terrifying than anything else.

A few days ago, I installed Vue 11 Pioneer. This is a software I was familiar with back in my tertiary education days. Apart from the headache of node-based terraforming, which I never really grasped, I was incredibly familiar with the tools at my disposal. In 2011, I performed an improvised presentation of Vue’s capabilities to a group of secondary school students who were visiting Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Within a single minute, I could generate a landscape that was realistic enough for the crowd (and their guide) to ooh and ahh over it for a few seconds (they didn’t stare at it for too long because Vue is not something you learn in any other course at the School of Film and Media Studies back then).

A few minutes into Vue 11 a few days ago showed me just how much I’ve forgotten over two years of not using the software. The reality has always been there, and it exists in various forms in many places, but experiencing this, the deterioration of knowledge, first-hand and realising that even the knowledge I gained only two years ago fades so quickly makes me more unnerved than any form of prose could ever hope to do. If my skills fade this quickly, don’t even get me started on how quickly my social bridges will collapse…

When I entered primary school, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. When I entered secondary school, the thought of becoming the President of Singapore didn’t seem too far off. When I left secondary school, I wanted to be a teacher. When I left college, the thought of being a visual effects artist occasionally strayed into my ambition of being a teacher. Now, with conscription out of the way and more doors to the world open than I could ever dream of when I was a kid, I find myself lost. All my past ambitions specialised in something, but I now know that to specialise in something would require me to sacrifice the possibility of learning everything else. Is this what I want?

The joy of learning is itself, but it is an eternal process. People learn things all the time. Even after the death of an individual close to them, for instance, they still learn new things about that person. This is something I’m not ready to give up over the prospect of reaching the top of a specific field and staying there. Yes, you still learn things when you’re at the top, but you learn less about it than you would if you’re in the middle. This means you get less joy from learning, and less desire to learn anything new about it.

What good are dreams of world peace if I don’t have the necessary skills to make that possible? There’s no point dreaming about it if it takes longer than my lifespan. The world has been at it since the League of Nations, which was a century ago, and they are still going at it right now, with no end in sight. The only thing I can do is ensure that the process sustains momentum, as it has since the end of the Second World War. But first, I must know how…and maybe that is where I will eventually be heading.

Until today, I still do not fully understand or appreciate the magnitude of government-funded education in Singapore, as well as its positive and negative effects, but I hope to do so someday.

RE: Five Reasons Not to Travel to Singapore: This South East Asian Country is One to Avoid

This old Yahoo! blog post seems to have caught the attention of several Singaporeans on Facebook recently, so I decided to have a read, because the title was interesting enough. I can’t say that I wasn’t ruffled by some of the things that were written, but as an opinionated post, I felt that there was little worth getting riled up about. I was, however, incredibly annoyed by the missing “is” at Point 4, so I pointed that out on the Facebook wall post where I saw this link. In response, I was told to “try looking deeper”, so I will.

Point by point, I will respond to each of the five reasons Cassandra James claims that this country I live in is one to avoid. It is no less opinionated than hers, but it is, at least, the point of view from a hermit-crab fence-sitter who was born here. Which amounts to very little, unfortunately, and will be a massive train wreck…

1. Singapore Is The World’s Most Boring Country – One of the smallest countries on the planet, Singapore has little to do to keep you entertained. Sure, if you like shopping malls, or sitting in restaurants, Singapore has many of them. But other than tacky Sentosa Island with its Universal Studios Theme Park, there’s little else to do except shop and eat.

Half the fun of being in Asia is its lively streets, smells, sounds, street nightlife, food stalls and cities that never sleep. Singapore, on the other hand, is one of the world’s most sterile countries, with all the outdoor food in ‘hawker areas’ (dull, compared to Bangkok), and with none of the street life of most Asian cities. After being in Bangkok, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, I felt like I was sleepwalking in Singapore – it really was that dull.

To be honest, this is something I agree with, but only to a certain point.

Yes, on one hand, Singapore is as boring as it gets if you follow the main road, and much of what some might consider fascinating may have been removed due to the development of Singapore’s built environment. Even the above quote seems outdated as hawker centres are a rare find around the main Orchard Road area.

On the other hand, as accurate as the above quote may be in describing what is fascinating here, it is still inaccurate. Every untruth has a modicum of truth in it, so the reverse is true, and the untruth about the statement that Singapore is the world’s most boring country is this: much of what may make Singapore interesting is gone, but there is still some of it left. As I mentioned earlier, hawker centres are a rare find in the Orchard Road area, but Bugis Street and Chinatown are still standing. That flea street market has been there for a long time, and it will still be there for some time to come. Not much has changed at Pulau Ubin either. I went there on an orienteering excursion in 2008 and, if anything, the recent newspaper reports highlighting it proves that little has changed over there in the past half-century. Shopping malls here are also pretty much standard-issue and all alike, but that there are a few that stand out. Mustafa Shopping Centre has a reputation for selling almost everything and swindling some people, and the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands has a man-made canal running through it at basement level. The author has also mentioned nothing of the parks that are located at the fringe areas of Singapore, particularly the eastern region, or even the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Pasir Ris Park and East Coast Park are great areas for doing all kinds of sports. The latter even has a lagoon where individuals can do water-skiing. What about the Botanic Gardens? The origins of this massive bastion for nature in the middle of the city can be traced all the way back to Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern-day Singapore, and it contains most of the flora and fauna native to Singapore. This same place could very well be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the near-future.

It may also be worth mentioning that current-day Singapore fascinates some people in less overt ways.

2. Singapore Is Expensive – Compared to most other Asian countries, Singapore is expensive. With things like taxis, hotels, shopping and eating on a par with America, I saw no point in visiting an Asian country, then spending as much as I would in America, if not more. For cheap yet amazing places to travel in Asia, avoid Singapore completely, and try Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh – basically anywhere but Singapore.

Yeah, riiiight, like my mum and her modern dance class. Only an individual who relies on a salary amounting to more than S$200 a month can spout such nonsense and get away with it. As an army conscript, I have managed to get by on a meagre allowance and still save enough to buy the computer I used to mash up this blog post.

Every country has its own share of tourist traps, but when it comes to Singapore, these tourist traps are in all the best places, and in this regard, I will agree that Singapore is an expensive place. Orchard Road alone is a huge tourist trap where many things are pricey, as is Universal Studios (S$6 for 150ml of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream; Häagen-Dazs has nothing on this). Taxi fares have sky-rocketed in the past decade, and public transport fares have gone up quite a bit.

However, this author has obviously never been to the food centres around the Bedok area, where decent meals are sold for less than S$4. I personally buy dinner on occasion from a food store located in a residential area and I can feast like a king for less than S$10. I get much more value for money from that store than I do at any fast-food restaurant in this country. Public transport to a location 30 minutes away? Forget it; I can walk there. In slippers, even. I save a dollar off that every time. If an individual wants to find a place where things are sold cheaply, the shopping centres and supermarkets located at the fringes of Singapore may have something to offer. There’s also the tap water, which is free flow and drinkable, but that would be pushing it, really.

3. Everything in Singapore Is Regulated – A society gone mad with rules, you hardly dare breath in Singapore, in case you do something that’s against the law. Chewing gum is against the law and bubble gum and chewing gum are not allowed to be sold in the country. Forgetting to flush the toilet could get you a fine of $500, if you’re a gay man and discovered kissing another man you could end up receiving a jail sentence, and don’t forget people are still caned in Singapore for some crimes, including that really serious one of chewing gum.

I’m sorry, but I absolutely cannot agree to this, no matter how I try. This is not the Army. Rules are there for a reason. The major rules ensure that our infrastructure runs like clockwork; the lesser rules are enforced in other ways. The government will sue people for blunting the country’s reputation to the outside world (because the country’s image to the outside world will affect tourism), but for the most part, they will not care if a simple “no littering, fine S$50” rule is flouted. They are not stupid enough to go after every tourist who does not or forgets to flush a toilet bowl because they are aware that doing so does little for the tourism industry. If they had so many eyes, we would have 0% unemployment. This author may not have read up on the reason why chewing gum was banned here in the first place either. Did anyone ever think about how difficult it is to clean a dried-out wad of gum off a tiled floor? Having done that in primary school, I know how tiring and revolting it is to do so. In a vertical city like Singapore, in a society so heavily dependent on mass transit, you cannot expect anybody, not even the National Environment Agency, to keep sending people to clear up the mess left by other people on staircases in HDB flats or between train doors. Because of this same law that the author seems to be getting riled over, the cleaners the government employs are given an easier task of cleaning flats by hosing them down every other week, and our Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system ran completely unfettered for over 20 years. Without this law in effect, there is no way the flats in Singapore can be cleaned so quickly and efficiently, yet infrequently, nor is there any possibility that the MRT system could run so well from the day it was officially opened in 1991 until December a few years ago.

I would also like to point out that our strict gun control laws mean that shoot-outs are unlikely to happen in Singapore.

4. Singaporean Culture is Conformist – In other Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia, the culture of the country is fascinating as, with less rules, citizens are free to experiment with ideas. In Singapore, due to the restrictive laws, the Singaporean art scene practically non-existent. Not surprising really as, if you stifle a people’s creativity and imagination as the Singaporean government does, then people are socialized to conform and think within the box and not outside it. Not a catalyst for great artwork, literature or any other cultural experimentation.

There has been a lot of talk about the lack of a culture or an arts scene here over the years, and much of it has been negative. There is no denying that Singapore lacks both, but attempts have been made, and they do not give immediate results, nor are they always successful. I would like to point out that the government has, in recent years, been taking baby steps to pursue an education system that encourages more creative thinking. You cannot blame them for taking such a slow approach; after all, they are deviating from an established education model that works. Give them credit, at least, for being courageous, because no other government in the world is as bold as they are in this regard.

5. Singapore Is One of the World’s Most Censored Countries – Censorship in Singapore is rampant. Political, racial, sexual and religious issues are frequently censored, with most TV programs, movies, magazines and newspapers censored by the Singaporean government. Movies have scenes cut from them, certain books are not allowed to be sold, some music can’t be played, cable TV has some shows banned, and newspapers and magazines have to be careful what they publish in case the government shuts them down.

Many people think Singapore’s intense censorship is to keep the People’s Action Party in power, which is done by stopping political dissention and discussion. But, to a tourist or business person thinking of visiting Singapore, why would you want to give your hard-earned money to a country that practices that much censorship and control over its citizens?

The final straw for me though, as a writer, was to hear about the arrest of British journalist Alan Shandrake. Shandrake, who lives in both the UK and Malaysia, was arrested during a book signing in Singapore because of his book “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore’s Justice in the Dock”, a critique about Singapore’s legal system. Now stuck in Singapore awaiting trial, Shandrake will probably be found guilty, if Singapore’s censorship court cases in the past are anything to go by, and could receive a fine and a jail term. All for criticizing a long-outdated legal system and one which has the world’s highest per capita rate of executions.

This is probably the focal point of the author’s post, given its length. It has its merits. Over the years, I have seen a significant increase in censorship here. Pornography is outlawed, profanity in shows and songs is muted and violent scenes from films are cut entirely. This was never the case back at the turn of the century.

However, the censorship in Singapore, while possibly extensive, is not entirely inappropriate. Censors in Singapore are related to the rules outlined by the government, which brings me back to my response to Point 3. This is not the Army. However, censoring major issues, particularly those revolving around race and religion, is a necessary evil to ensure that the society in Singapore does not descend into chaos, as it did so many times nearly five decades ago. Without the censors in place, there is a very real likelihood that Singapore cannot function as a multi-racial, multi-religious society. The older generations in Singapore know this all too well, having been in the middle of that period of dissent, and they have no arguments about it.

I conclude this post with one final retort, in response to this quote:

As a writer, and as someone who travels around Asia often, for the above five reasons plus many others, Singapore is the last place in the world I would ever go back to. Censored, conformist, bogged down with rules, and the dullest place on the planet – Singapore? You can keep it.

I am a 22-year-old conscript who rarely leaves this country and cares very little about local politics or events. However, I am also a writer and a stickler for English. That I can find ways to rebut four-fifths of what this author has written, using my own personal experience at several points and sources I plucked from the Internet, speaks volumes about how little I know about Singapore, so I say: take it as you will, because you do not look hard enough.

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