Thursday, August 30, 2012


My Uncle Ann passed away last week. He was 63. If you were a casual visitor to his wake, and listened to all the eulogies by his mother, siblings, children and friends, one word would echo about Joe Tan Kim Ann - "generous". A man of very few words, Uncle Ann went out of his way to help others, quite often at his own personal expense. Many a story was told of how Uncle Ann would take in a person on the street and invited him to work at his cleaning company - "just because". And there were the times when he loaned out money to those in need, sometimes without them ever returning him the cash.

I was a recepient of this generosity as well - many a time I would ask him for help to move furniture from one location to another, and he would always comply, offering his men and his van to help me transport the items. And when I asked how much I should pay, all he said was, "Just give the men coffee money - that's enough." On the last occassion almost five years ago, he showed up at my in-laws' place to supervise the moving of my wife's items to our marital home. "When Uncle Ann wants to do something, he will make sure he gets it right." That was his explanation to justify his personal appearance at the site.

And then there was that difficult time in my life during my parents' separation. Uncle Ann's home was a shelter for us in our moment of need. Even then I hardly remember speaking much to him, but his actions spoke far more than anything he could ever say.

In the minutes just after Uncle Ann left us at the hospital, my grandma was in tears as she said the final prayer. At first Amah lamented why God allowed her son to be taken away before her eyes; but as she continued her prayer, she expressed relief that he was now in a better place and no longer had to suffer. She then thanked God for providing him with a wonderful wife and three children who loved him dearly.

That was his greatest legacy.

The deep bond between my cousins and their father is something I never had. Having lived with them for a while, I saw the day-to-day goings on of a family closely knitted by the love of the father. It was not the loud type of love - my uncle hardly spoke much - but it was a quiet and special kind of love; he spent many weekends taking them swimming and eating at the club, and they spent many holidays together in locations as exotic as New Zealand and Alaska.

I'm thinking about what kind of legacy I will leave behind for my children.

It's not easy being the parent of two young children. Since the arrival of E slightly more than a month ago, our life has been turned upside down. We had a nice routine going before E arrived, with both our parents taking care of Z during the two days that Sue works, a play group for Z, as well as somewhat of a home school curriculum for him during his other days with Sue. But all that went out of the window the moment E arrived - with 3-hour night feeds and pre-dawn nappy changes the least of the transition. 

What has been trying has been how Z has been reacting to the arrival of his younger brother. To date we cannot count the number of times he has hit E, nor the number of scratches he has inflicted on E. We know that Z's response is a classic case of sibling rivalry; although knowing the facts don't always help us to feel better about the situation. We were, however, comforted when we visited our friends and we observed that their children were also engaged in intense physical sibling rivalry - even among sisters! In addition, our pediatrician has been a source of encouragement. She characterised the behaviour as normal and shared that older children can sometimes take up to three months to adjust to their new sibling's arrival. It's so far only been about one month, so I suppose our case can be classified as "normal".

Another difficult realisation is that we have not been bonding with E as much as we did when we first had Z. Perhaps it could be characterised as a "second child syndrome" in that the needs of the younger child tend to be neglected in favour of the older toddler, the elder generally being more vocal about what he or she wants. In that respect we have not been spending as much time bonding with E in the manner with which we bonded with Z; focussing more on our older son's tangibly louder demands instead of the younger's silent needs. There just didn't seem to be that many hours in a day - especially given the other constraints such as my work commitments and the need to support my uncle's family during their time of grief.

We have, however, been learning how to cope in small ways. For instance, an elder lady from church, whom we greatly respect, shared with Sue that when her second child was born, she too experienced a similar situation. Her solution was to spend an exclusive one hour a day with the older child so he would feel special. Sue has since been creating special intentional moments with Z, and he seems to be responding well to them.

With regards to E, I have been learning to respond to his emotional and social needs more. It is easy to feed him and simply put him down in his cot to sleep. But I remembered the times when Z was still a baby, when I used to sing to him and hold him close to comfort him. I have since resumed a similar posture with E, singing to him during the times when he is fretful and letting him rest snugly on my chest; and that instead of simply stuffing the soother into his mouth and hoping he would sleep.

Despite the difficulties, parenting does have its precious moments. For instance there are times in the morning when Z comes to our room and goes straight to E's cot, gently stroking him and gesturing, "Didi... Nice!". Then there are the moments when Z tries to hold E's milk bottle and positions it near his mouth in an attempt to feed him. These moments remind us that our older child is still young, and that in time his bond with his brother will be a close and deep one.

The last stanza of the poem New Beginnings by author Gertrude B. McClain reads:
Although the cares of life are great
And hands are bowed so low
The storms of life will leave behind
The wonder of a rainbow.

Uncle Ann's life truly reminds me of a rainbow - the myriad of colours glimmering in the wake of a storm. What I remember most about my uncle was his deep devotion to God. He would wake up about 4 each morning to pray, and spend many waking hours reading the Bible. Towards the end of his life, he opted for surgery despite the 30% odds that he would survive. "What's the use if my quality of life is so low," he said, "I rather go back to meet my maker."
In echoing the words of a great man so many years ago, "To live is Christ and to die is gain," my uncle left behind his greatest legacy - his deep love and longing for God. That's what I want to share with my children. It doesn't matter what I may do in the community and in the world; but if what I do directs them towards an intimate relationship with God, that's enough for me.

Monday, August 13, 2012

National Dreams, Childhood Aspirations

It's difficult not to contemplate the meaning of life when you're 47 years of age. You consider the birth pangs, the moment of anguish when you were expelled from the womb into a harsh and cruel world. Things were different then - no Facebook, no iPhone, not even the ubiquitous medium we now call the Internet. Listening to the voices of yesteryear, you were conditioned to recall a childhood fraught with difficulty - of how you were surrounded by a host of hostile foes eager to bully you and tear you down. Yet you were presented with numerous accounts of how you survived against all odds. And you smile as you look back at your personal accomplishments; still a little red dot in a sea of lines and curves, but a dot nonetheless in the big wide world.

This National Day seemed to have gone by for me without much fanfare. The glitzy parade and all its military and societal exhibitions, the thrills and controversies surrounding Singapore's 3rd and 4th Olympic medals, even the rumours that a great man's journey on earth had come to an end. Then again, I suppose I could be forgiven, considering that most of my attentions have been directed towards the newborn baby boy who had found his way into our lives and into our hearts just three weeks ago.

What has been on my mind has been what I desire for my little son E. And as Singapore turns 47, it's truly a time to reflect and dream about what the future would be like for one of the country's newest citizens. I am not the only one taking stock. No less than the Singapore Prime Minister has announced the formation of a ministerial committee to take a hard look at current government policies. That such a committee would be headed by the Education Minister is significant; as is one of the focal points of the review - Singapore's pre-school education.

The early childhood education sector has recently been the subject of much criticism. Following a report by the Lien Foundation, which in June this year ranked Singapore 29 out of 45 developed and emerging countries, suggestions have been rife about how to improve the quality of Singapore's pre-schools. This especially following the research findings that Singapore has fared poorly in three areas - the availability, affordability and quality of its pre-school services.

I was not surprised at the findings of the report. Consider the availability of early childhood education. I have heard personal stories of how Singapore parents proceed speedily from the hospital to the immigration office and then directly to the registration offices of the branded kindergartens. And all this to ensure that their child gets a place of choice some 3 years later. In terms of affordability, Singapore parents spend a significant percentage of their income on enrichment classes and other educational niceties; just to ensure that their children get a supposed head-start in life. Quality. There is a prevalent argument that pre-school teachers do not get paid as much as mainsteam educators. I believe the roots of the issue are deeper than that; I have met children from childcare centres, and many of them seem to be products of a rote-learning system which emphasises conformity more than creativity.

In stark comparison, the Lien report named Finland, Sweden and Norway as the countries with the best early childhood education. At a symposium in 2011 by the Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Dr Judith Wagner provided some reasons for the success of the Nordic system. The American Charter President of the World Organization For Early Childhood Education (OMEP-USA) observed that Nordic countries place great importance on what they call en god barndom, translated loosely as "the good childhood", a childhood in which play and exploration are at the centre of the learning experience. Dr Wagner cited the case of Finland; where she noted that school does not begin until the age of seven, that there are no standardised tests, that homework is minimal, and where children spend more time at school playing outside than inside even in the depths of winter. 

Dr Wagner's perspectives concur with my favourite educationalist Charlotte Mason. In her book Home Education, the 19th Century writer emphasised that children learn best through the exploration of nature via their five senses. I elaborated more on this in my previous blog entry on childhood. Charlotte however took the issue to a deeper level, insisting that a "very full scheme of school work may be carried through in the morning hours". She was of the firm conviction that homework should not be given to children under the age of 14, lest it disrupt the family life of the child.

What I desire most for E is for him to develop to his fullest potential on his own terms. I don't mean that my son should be allowed to do as he pleases, running in whatever direction the wind blows; what I do mean is for him to be guided towards his chosen goals - that Sue and I play a primary role in helping him achieve this objective. And what I desire for E, I too wish for my older son Z.

My good friend Galvin recently wrote the melody for a song that went viral on Youtube. The catchy tune, "I Still Love You", has become somewhat of an unofficial National Day song. It encapsulates a deep-felt love for the country despite the struggles faced by Singaporeans on a day-to-day basis. It is my hope that the new measures in early childhood education and in other sectors will be able to address some of the issues faced by Singaporeans.

As for me, my desire is to see my two children sprinting towards the horizon, persevering as far as the eye can see. There need be no limits imposed for the children of the next generation; only the constant encouragement and support from their parents, the firm yet gentle hand of guidance and direction; and an unwavering belief in them - one that will steer them through the deepest of valleys, and inspire them to ascend the highest of mountains.