Sleeping during BMT and Signals

I haven’t been feeling too good these past few days. My mouth is dry, my eyes are burning (slightly). I went to bed at around 7 or 8pm, and I woke up at 10pm- so I figured I’d write and publish something before going back to bed. And I’ve been meaning to get started on some memoir stuff forever, and I figure it’s best to do it in lots of baby steps. So here’s one.

I have two particular memories that really stand out for me during my National Service that have been lingering on my mind for some time. One was during my Basic Military Training at Pulau Tekong, and the other was during my Signal Operator course at Stagmont Camp. In both cases, the beautiful memory involved getting to sleep in, and unexpectedly so.

Tekong first. I believe this was after we were already done with field camp, which is I think the turning point of BMT- where you start feeling more “soldier-like”, instead of being merely a boy wearing a uniform. Survive field camp, and you know that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

So in one of the weeks following field camp, I think there was training for IPPT (Individual Physical Proficiency Test?). Some of us had already passed, and wouldn’t need to take the test again- the bulk of the training was for those who failed. (Actually, I can’t really remember the exact details anymore.)

Anyway, we woke up at 530am or so for breakfast, as usual- did our morning PT, had breakfast, and then went up to our bunks. We would typically have about half an hour or so before we’d have to fall in for the IPPT test. We went down- and it started raining thunderously. It was about 7am, and yet the sky was pitch black, and it was freezing cold. We waiting around for about 20 minutes or so before our sergeants told us to return to our bunks and wait for further instructions.

There were none. We’d be completely free until lunchtime. We smoked cigarettes in our bunk (oh wow, I’d almost forgot about that. I’m getting a little emotional just thinking about this…) I happily got back into my bed and enjoyed some of the most luxurious sleep I ever had during my NS life. I still remember how cold it was, I still remember the pouring sound of the rain, and how I huddled under my yellow blanket to keep warm.

The second time this happened was during my Signal Operator course. I was posted to a PES C platoon, so many of my platoon-mates had old injuries or pre-existing conditions that excused them (or us, collectively) from participating in particularly strenuous activities. I think there were two instances- both after particular exercises- where we had the entire day to ourselves. We’d have to wake up for breakfast, as usual- but the rest of the day was ours.

We went back to bed after breakfast, and I remember waking up again at around 10am or so- and it was just such a peaceful, blissful day. I saw some guys playing cards, some guys were reading, some were sitting around listening to music, some were talking and joking, some went to smoke. It was a beautiful lull. (I’d do something immeasurably stupid later on, though- I’d open up some newspapers and the edge of the paper went straight into my right eye, which would be red for practically a week afterwards.)

Lots of good memories. I suppose as I sit here now, 3 months after I’ve completed my BMT, I find myself trying to recreate those moments. They were blissful not merely because they were idle- but because they were much-needed moments of idleness in an otherwise stifling schedule. You only really enjoy sitting on your ass after you’ve been put through the grinder for a bit.

What would Lee Kuan Yew be like if he were born in 1990?

I often feel like we don’t explore Lee Kuan Yew’s personality enough. His swag. He used to smoke, drink and hang out with lawyers, criminals, academics and communists. His white-washed political persona is far less interesting. He was once a visionary, entrepreneur and hustler extrodinaire.

I read a fantastic article once by someone who said that if you take a war strategist like say Napoleon or Clausewitz or Sun Tzu and you put them in a modern day war room, it might maybe take at most a few days for them to get up to date with modern warfare- they’ll need to learn about high-tech systems, but it’s still intuitively understandable.

On the other hand, try getting any early trader to understand and manage something like, say, Facebook. Money and business has gotten ridiculously complex. (I’d like to make sense of this better. I like to consider myself a somewhat knowledgeable person, but I am woefully aware of my shortcomings in these fields.)

Anyway, here’s the point- Singapore has never been one to innovate, business-wise. (Correct me if I’m wrong! I would love to hear from you.) Our business model, as far askI’ve understood, is one of early adoption. That was the driver of our success. You remember the examples from social studies class, right?

We let other people handle the risk and the pain of trial and error. Consider the USA, for instance, which is arguably the birthplace of innovation and crazy experiments. (I imagine many will protest this. Your protests are valid. Consider this an oversimplification.) The conditions arekideal for generating these crazy business ideas. There’s a culture of failure acceptance, and a sacred right to pursue happiness in whatever means you see fit. Their society is large enough to support a few crazies who want to change the world.

Then the moment they find something that works, we take over. We create conditions that are ideal for the nurturing of these young saplings. Favourable tax conditions. Government policies with prudent long-term planning. Solid infrastructure, educated and compliant workforce. We’ll take your crazy idea and we’ll implement it in a cost-effective way.

Our best companies were, and continue to be (in my opinion, please correct me if I am wrong) “first followers”. We don’t take the risk of innovating ourselves- we let other people do it first, and once something works, we are the first (and best) at following. The problem with that today is that we’re no longer the best at it. Enter China and frie.ds. They have adopted “our” (quotation marks because these things don’t belong to anybody) system, and they’re leveraging resources that we simply don’t have.

If we continue to compete as “first followers”, we’re screwed. We can’t produce as much, and at such low cost.

So the only way forward, as I see it, in this simplistic sense, is to begin innovating. But Singaporeans have never been innovative… have we?

We have. And in a remarkable field, too- nation-building.

Think about it. The birth of Singapore- unexpected independence- was handled by some of the greatest entrepreneurs our soil has ever seen. They were pragmatic, forward-thinking, and a little bit ruthless. (You have to be.) They were visionaries who dared to imagine something that had never existed before, and they created something that was the envy of statesmen around the world. Sure, we had unusual conditions and certain advantages. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about. Figuring out your advantages and leveraging them to create something meaningful and useful.

HDB. Singapore Airport. Garden City. MRT. Reservoirs. Throw a stone and you’ll hit a foreigner- sorry, I mean an instance of remarkable vision. Dreams made reality.

It remains one of the greatest ironies, perhaps a repeated motif in human history- men and women of great vision and innovation practically engineering a society wherein they would have never survived.

If Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and others were born and raised in modern day Singapore 2000,  instead of the chaos of colonial pre-65 Singapore, perhaps they might never have had the chance to meet the people and experience the ideas that made them think for themselves. Think bigger, think risky, think different. And the institution they put together would eventually stifle the very chaos that must have played a role in  creating them.

I am now curious to know what Lee Kuan Yew would be like if he were born in 1990. What would he be interested in, what would he be passionate about, what would he be using his skills to fight for? I’m guessing he would be an opposition politician- because, if you remember correctly, that is what he was. The PAP was once an opposition party. Or would he be a nobody at all, without encountering the catalysts that drove him to do what he did? Would he just be an above-average guy in an above-average job? I’d like to ask him that.

I believe that Singapore is a deeply pragmatic nation. It’s become a part of our DNA now, and we can’t reject it. We are a fundamentally pragmatic people. Even when we dream, we dream not because we want to be wishy-washy, idealistic tree-hugging hippies. We dream because it is somehow the pragmatic thing to do. (Disagree? Our nation was built on dreams. How like that?)

Here’s another fun bit of irony- Lee Kuan Yew and friends were largely western educated- Lee himself was kicking ass at Cambridge, getting double starred first class honours. (Did you know there was such a thing?) It was the white man institution that taught Lee to seek freedom from the oppression of the white men (who did do a good many things for our society). In the end, the greatest service that the British did for us was to teach us that we could transcend them.

So consider this- it was the men in white that taught us how to be pragmatic. But the pragmatic thing to do now is to transcend the men in white themselves- the over-dependence on our institutions, on top-down directives, on the monopoly of ideas. As Chan Chun Sing said, diversity is the only survival strategy. So I believe that the previous lesson will apply- the greatest service that the PAP could do to Singapore is to make itself redundant. To create conditions where Singapore’s survival is not dependent on PAP super-dominance.

Keep daring to dream. Our nation was built with dreams. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise- even if they claim to be playing for the same team.

Teacher Cannot Shave Head One! Unprofessional! Parents will make noise!

Updated in September 2014, mostly formatting and simplifying things.

‘Before’ and ‘After’ images of Damien Ong (4 yrs) and his father Kelvin, who both had their heads shaved during a ‘Hair For Hope’eto raise money for the Childrens Cancer Foundation, and to show solidarity with children with cancer, who often lose their hair during treatment. Image courtesy of TODAYdigital.

Simple question: Can a teacher shave her head as a symbol of support children with cancer? Yes, but no.

I’ve heard this story from two different teachers in two different schools on two separate occasions- both young female teachers who are passionate and socially conscious individuals who wanted to shave their heads for the Hair For Hope programme, which is organized by the Children’s Cancer Foundation.

It’s since grown to the thousands, with hundreds of women shaving their heads as well. (This is somehow a noteworthy fact,  because we assume that women either aren’t supposed to be bald, won’t want to be, or shouldn’t be allowed to be.)

When one teacher asked her principal if she could participate, she was told that her personal choices are respected, but she’d have to wear a wig, because of “professionalism” and “noise from parents”.

If you are allowed to shave your head to show that it’s okay to be bald, but you’re not allowed to show that you’re bald, aren’t we essentially communicating that it’s not okay to be bald?

Why is it unprofessional if a female teacher were bald?

What happens if a female teacher undergoes cancer treatment herself? Is she supposed to wear a wig, to be ‘professional’? Is there something blatantly unprofessional about a bald woman?  What about male teachers who are balding? Must they wear wigs too?

Why do parents make noise, anyway? Are you afraid that your daughter’s bald teacher will inspire her to shave her own head? Well if she does, what’s wrong with that? It makes her less attractive or something? It’s her hair what. I want to hear from these parents. If you have a problem with this, please express it.

Suppose we have a mass epidemic of shaved heads, and almost all students in all schools, from primary schools to junior college, all shave their heads. So what? What’s wrong with that? How will that diminish our society in any way? If anything, that would be a wonderful newsworthy event, and a fantastic opportunity to talk more about cancer and the ordeal of the patients. A real opportunity for Civics & Moral Education.

Are we so afraid that our children will witness something real in this farcical education system of ours?

That they might actually have to think and discuss something that actually affects them in real life? What next, are we going to teach them how to manage their finances, and their emotions, how to handle disagreements? No, sorry, no time. Stick to the bullshit obsolete syllabus.

The whole idea behind Hair For Hope to demonstrate that it’s okay to be bald, that there’s nothing to be shy about, nothing to be afraid of. A wonderful idea in principle, but something that’s being directly contradicted by our top-down authority figures, who simply (in my opinion) want to avoid any unnecessary “trouble” or “difficulty”.

This upsets me. If I were a principal, and a teacher approached me about this, I would be overjoyed! I would ask her to speak to the rest of the school at morning assembly, to share her passion and conviction. Children need to know that it’s okay to be bald, and that it’s okay to support cancer patients. They need to be asked for their perspectives and opinions, and they need to be allowed to think about these things.

Why doesn’t the principal recognize this incident for the wonderful educational opportunity that it is?

1: Fear.

 Fear that somehow taking a step forward in uncharted territory might lead to undesirable repercussions. Fear of “parents making noise”. Fear of admonishment from “upstairs”.

What we have, essentially, is an entire system where everybody is scared shitless of doing anything meaningful because they’re worried that senior management will kao peh, and maybe they might lose their bonus or something.  (I might be wrong. Please correct me.)

2: Complacency.

This is my fundamental criticism of our public education system, or of public education systems anywhere in the world. It’s essentially a monopoly, and there’s no reason to innovate. There’s no reason to engage students more deeply, there’s no reason to make a real difference. Meet your KPIs and then GTFO. Video games have learnt to engage people, because through trial and error they’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t. Schools haven’t caught up, because a bad video game doesn’t sell, while a bad school system is allowed to persist. Natural selection, and evolution. (Are we allowed to teach that, by the way?)

Our education system is supposed to prepare our children for the real world, to lead them forward. Well, cancer is very, very real.

But we only want to talk to them about it behind a glass panel, under the “safe” restrictions of an academic setting, in a Civics and Moral Education class.

One criticism I can preempt: Students will shave their heads without any real concern for Hair For Hope– it’s somehow an act of rebellion, a fuck-you to the system, and such acts should be discouraged.

What would happen, anyway? I can think of a few jokers who would shave their heads just to be “cool”. That’s normal. These kids will find their own ways of expressing their supposed individuality through some means no matter what. It’s part of growing up. If it gets to the stage where large swaths of children are shaving their heads, then it’ll stop being cool. And eventually it will normalize into something “tolerable”. (Again, I ask, what’s so intolerable about bald people?)

I think the only reason people want to rebel against the system to begin with is because they intuitively sense that there’s something unjust about it, that there’s something silly about having to maintain appearances instead of dealing with the truth.

And the truth is that children do get cancer, and they do undergo treatment that makes them lose their hair, and that there’s no reason why adults shouldn’t be allowed to support them and commiserate with them. Pictures of mothers shaving their heads to support their children (with cancer) get tonnes of Likes on Facebook, and I think there’s a scene in a movie where Cameron Diaz or some other Hollywood actress shaves her head because her daughter (or some other young character) says “you don’t understand what it’s like to be me”. But we’re only allowed to clap appreciatively, rather than do anything ourselves.

There’s not enough innovation in our schools.

In the private sector, in the best companies around the world, approaching your boss with a novel idea is something to be prided on. This isn’t really the case in schools, we just pay lip service to it. Whenever a real opportunity rises for critical engagement, for genuine, interesting conversations and learning to happen, we shy away from it. Stick to the approved syllabus, please.

And you wonder why we’re getting more educated in terms of qualifications, but seemingly not any smarter.

PS: There are notable exceptions. Republic Polytechnic supports it, and I believe so does Raffles Institution.

PPS: My girlfriend suggested that perhaps the problem in this case boils down to choice- perhaps a teacher undergoing chemotherapy will be allowed to be visibly bald, but a teacher who chooses to go bald is somehow dangerous. I can understand this reasoning, but I reject the validity of its premise. I think it’s important that people be allowed to express themselves  through their choices. We are, ultimately, defined by our choices. It seems awfully cruel and almost outright unjust to limit another’s choices without at least exploring the issue.

PPPS: “I was once told to dye my natural blonde hair ‘black’ by the discipline mistress (of a school we were about to perform in) because it might give off the ‘wrong impression’ to students who might “want to change their hair color” (Oh the irony and retardation!).” – Levan Wee


Teachers are implicitly discouraged from shaving their heads. Why? I also don’t know. I think it’s because our public education system- or perhaps our society at large- is dominated by behaviour that is selfish, risk-averse, complacent and outright cowardly. If you want to stick your head out to do real, meaningful work, you will be shut down. This needs to end.

7 Important Things I’ve Learnt (Really Basic Stuff)

During my 2 years of National Service, I began what I called the 90 Week Project. I had heard many horror stories from men wiser and more mature than myself, and they described how easy it was to lose one’s focus, to become lethargic and listless. Many joked that their minds rotted away in that time. I had already wasted my 13 years in public education, I reasoned, so I was determined that the next 2 would not be as mediocre.

The project was neither an epic success nor a total failure. Here are a list of lessons that I had learnt from semi-religiously keeping track of my day-to-day life.

1: Sleep is vital.

I noticed several trends in my calendar, and the strongest one revealed to me the ridiculously damaging effects sleep deprivation has on my quality of life. Days marked “didn’t sleep enough”, or “sleep deprived”, or “zombie day” weren’t just lousy, lacklustre days in themselves- they often compounded. There were entire weeks at a go where I’d spend my life living in a blurry haze.

I noticed that I was far more likely to fall ill when I was sleep deprived. I was far more likely to waste money taking unnecessary cabs. I was far more likely to be rushing to camp late, stressing myself out unnecessarily. I was far more likely to be edgy, cranky and difficult, and I was never productive during the periods punctuated by bad sleeping habits.

If there’s only one thing I learnt from my 90 Week Project, it’s that sleep is of utmost importance for contented living. If I could change only one thing about myself, it would be my sleeping habits.

2: Water is vital.

Days marked with “dehydrated!” were almost as bad as days without sleep. Often the two would go hand in hand.

I was rarely, if ever, dehydrated during my Basic Military Training. This was due to the somewhat crudely implemented (but wonderfully effective) system of “Water Parades”, where entire platoons or even entire companies would gather just to drink large quantities of water. Done is better than perfect,kand all else held constant, it’s better to be hydrated than dehydrated. I notice that my BMT and Signals Course (both which were stay-in-camp affairs with strict regimentation) happened to be periods of time where I was remarkably chirpy, healthy, lively and alert. I also wrote. I wrote in staggering quantities, and was disturbed by my own productivity. It is clear to me that a combination of regimented sleep and hydration is key to unleashing high qualities of work.

3: Books are rocket fuel.

I’ve been meaning to write an entire separate post on this, but perhaps this will have to do for now. I am writing this blog post now because I started reading a little bit of Richard Branson’s “Screw Business As Usual”, and it set me on fir%. I couldn’t go past 50 pages- I was overwhelmed with the urge to write. I came straight home, and here I am, writing this.

Books always compelled me- this was a truth that was so intuitively familiar to me that I was never even consciously aware of it. Any advantage I might have had as a child, which subsequently carried over to my adult years (through the pervasive Matthew effect, surely) is almost entirely attributable to my love for books. They energize me. I was at a bookstore earlier today and I was simply in love, and in awe. Bookstores and libraries are wonderful, beautiful places for me. (I saw a video of Ray Bradbury talking about this, and I think it may have made something click for me.)

A good book can sometimes counter the effect of sleep deprivation- I remember that my time spent in my storeroom or office in NS was determined by whether or not I had a good book with me. A good book would energize me and have me enthralled. Lose the book, and I was most likely asleep.

4: Exercise is powerful.

I’ve heard from some motorists that it’s important to occasionally rev your engine hard- I’m not sure about the nitty gritty details, but I believe it cleans out the engine and ensures that everything is well-oiled and moving smoothly. Exercise seems to have the same effect for the body. I have experimented (in a non-deliberate, random sort of way) over the years, and I have found that it’s necessary to exercise regularly (I now do 20 pushups in the morning when I wake up, and 20 pushups again before I go to bed), and to occasionally push yourself really hard. (I go for short runs around the block. I haven’t hit the gym in a while, but I feel like my body is begging to face the iron again.)

5: Music is therapy.

I started a band called Armchair Critic in 2007, and we played many shows over the years. I developed a bit of a passion for music- I learnt a little bit of guitar and bass, and it was a great source of pleasure for me- although on hindsight I never really practiced as much as I ought to have. I never quite realised how fantastic it felt to be able to express myself, so I never really explored those avenues as well as I would now if I had the chance to start all over again. That said, now that I am aware, I am slowly making an effort to learn more, to practice more conscientiously and to make more progress as a musician.

I still play music today- right now I’m playing bass for a band called Green Lake, and we play at bars and pubs when we get the chance. I get paid to do it, which is great- but it’s also just fantastic to do what you love. Playing music has made me learn to appreciate it more, and it’s just wonderful to have something to go ‘home’ to- to sit and listen to good music and to just vibe to it, to allow it to waft over you and take you away. It’s amazing and a huge source of joy in my life.

6: Decluttering soothes the soul.

There are two sides to me that contradict each other directly. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and a neat freak, and at the same time, I can be messy as hell. How does that work? Well, if I’m given free reign and total control over my surroundings and workspace, I would turn everything inside out, upside down, get rid of everything non-essential and keep things ultra clean, tidy and spartan. I often don’t feel like I’m in control, so I tend to just ignore the underlying impulse, and simply allow the mess and filth to accumulate- be it physical, psychological or even digital. (I’m the sort of guy that renames all my music so that it’s displayed elegantly.)

At some point in time- perhaps it was reading people like Leo Babuta and Derek Sivers- I decided to start decluttering my shit. I realized that my wardrobe was full of clothes I never wore. I junked a good half of it. I would have liked to have donated it, but I simply didn’t have the patience or time. I’ve been cleaning out my workspaces.

My house is a huge mess- my parents are both packrats who love to accumulate Stuff. When I have a place of my own in the future, I swear it will be as minimalist as possible. Never own anything that doesn’t add beauty and value to your life, someone said. That’s the plan. All extraneous clutter must go. It’s a huge source of psychological peace.

7: Unfriend the non-essential.

I purged nearly 700 friends from my Facebook account a while ago. It was initially somewhat traumatic, but after a while it became hugely cathartic. It’s my own fault- I just kept accumulating more and more connections with people who I wasn’t particularly close to. I always made it a point to delete anybody who I didn’t personally know, but I tend to meet a lot of people- you play a gig with some bands, and you add all the musicians- and then never talk to them ever again.

My new rule is- I remain Facebook friends with anybody I can immediately start and sustain a conversation with. That’s all. I want connections, not statistics.

Even during the days of MSN Messenger, I made it a point to have as many contacts as possible. It wasn’t about showing off- nobody else could tell how many contacts you had, unless they were literally looking over your shoulder. I convinced myself that I was “networking”- that I was doing myself favours, somehow, by remaining connected to people who might perhaps come in useful someday in the distant future. Perhaps I might date this pretty girl someday, or perhaps I might need legal advice from this law student once he graduates. Perhaps. It does make sense- up to a point. But once you’ve got over 1,500 friends, it’s hard to keep track of everybody personally. The noise overwhelms the signal, at least for me. I find it more important to have depth of connection- to talk to the people who really care.

It feels great!