April 25, 2017

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Photo By Shawn Danker
The crowd begins assembling for the Pink Dot formation light up.

by Wan Ting Koh

MORE than half of the student leaders surveyed in a forum said that they will accept but not encourage alternative family structures to the traditional family structure.

This was the conclusion of a four-stage poll, where 500 student leaders, comprising of junior college, polytechnic and university students, were asked to choose between two options: to accept but not encourage alternative family structures or to educate the public about homosexuality and gradually open up as a society.

A majority – 56.5 per cent – voted to accept but not encourage alternative family structures, while the rest – 43.5 per cent – voted for educating the public about homosexuality and gradually opening up.

These youths were surveyed about their views on Singapore affairs at a forum by the Association for Public Affairs at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy last year, as part of the association’s inaugural project, called the SG100 Compass (Youth Edition). Their responses were compiled in the Dream Future Report and a separate report with policy recommendations was submitted to members of the Cabinet last week, said the association’s president Charles Phua.

Apart from policy-related issues, the student leaders were asked for their standpoint on three contentious issues: If Singapore should adopt a welfare or workfare stance, how open Singapore should be as a society and whether there should be freedom of speech.

Students were asked their take on family structures as an indicator of how open they wanted society to be. In the first round, students were given three options, which included the choice for supporting traditional family structures only. The second round took place after various positions were argued and discussed by students leaders, while the option for educating the public about homosexuality was only included in the third round, after a Question and Answer section with an expert.

In the final round, participants were limited to the two of the most popular options from the previous round.

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Amongst those who were all for traditional families was Raffles Junior College student Emma He.

She wrote in her position paper that it was important for the G’s policies to promote traditional families as children raised in single parent households were “often disadvantaged in terms of resources, guidance, and the stability of their familial background”. She added that Singapore was still a “predominantly conservative society”, hence it was important to reflect this in policies.

Another participant, UniSIM college student Nitish Singh, supported embracing individual choices on family structure. In his position paper, he wrote that even though the majority of Singaporeans were still conservative, not giving equal rights to those in alternative family structures was a form of discrimination which shouldn’t be practised.

“People should not be treated any less just because of who they fall in love with… By us accepting individual choice on family structures, we are fostering the true concept of equality where we respect every individual for who they are and not treat minorities as inferior”, said Mr Singh.

Here is the perspective of a student leader who adopted a more conciliatory view – that Singapore should accept the existence of alternative family structures but not promote or encourage them – reproduced in full:

 

Ms Saiyidah Sainal, UniSIM College

Today I would be elaborating on the reason and need for the society to accept the existence and not discriminate alternative family structures.

With globalization, different cultures and views are more spread across and exchanged so much that ideas that was once foreign to one culture, become acceptable now. This effect is being accelerated with movie stars such as Angelina Jolie that had children before marrying and the world champions her for being able to successfully raise her adopted and biological children. A by-product of this has resulted in the build-up and existence of alternative family structures that differ from the usual setting such as single parenthood, underage parents and cohabiting adults.

Discrimination is not only exclusive to judgement from other members of society but as well as discrimination by government policies against such alternative families. In a recent article by Teo You Yann, it was revealed that there are some benefits that single parenthood does not currently benefit from, such as 8 additional weeks of paid maternity leave and tax incentives. This is also the case for families such as underage parents and cohabiting adults where they are not receiving the same form of benefits such as buying of HDB flats. They would have to wait till they are 35 to do so.

However, the government do take measures to assist children from alternative families by having various policies to help the children in their education programmes. These policies are independent of the marital status of their parent. Thus with such steps, we are slowly but surely showcasing existence of alternative family structures in our society.

Singapore is well known for its meritocratic ruling which does not favour one group over another. By not embracing the different family structures seen today, Singapore is bound to face certain losses especially in this globalised world. Due to the changing global landscape, the concept of family units are evolving and it is widely debated that it shouldn’t just be based on a nuclear family structure that has been propagated constantly to us.

Due to the growing number of alternative families such as single parenthood, cohabiting adults and underage parents seen in Singapore, it is high time that society should lend a caring shoulder and hand to aid them away from discrimination.

Though, I would like to stress that although I have been addressing on the need to embrace the existence of such alternative family structures as a part of life, we do not need to promote or encourage such formations. Mr Lee Hsien Loong commented that Singapore still a relatively conservative society that is deeply rooted in traditional family value of a nuclear family. The society is still deeply embedded in the need for our society to hold Asian values as a part of the Singapore identity.

Furthermore, the article explained that such family formations do have a place in Singapore and they are not discriminated for their way of life. However, he mentioned that Singapore is still not ready to legalise homosexual marriages because it still offends a significant group of conservative members of the society such as the ones who advocate traditional family formations and religious groups.

While it seems that the Americans have managed to successfully affect a paradigm shift in the battle for equal rights for homosexual, the same, however, cannot be said for Singaporeans. This is because Singapore is still deeply rooted in Asian values that make it hard for the society to change overnight.

However, over the years, we have seen how globalisation become more viral; thoughts and preference are slowly evolving. The idea of an alternative formation should be slowly introduced into the society to allow for the older and more traditional people in the society to eventually accept such forms of family structures.

What we need is a caring society that sits on kindness and love. That extends to help families in need even alternative ones. The world is changing and many views are being put across. Regardless of different backgrounds we need to work together as a nation to achieve progress in our society.

 

Position paper reproduced with permission of Association for Public Affairs president and Organising Chairman of SG100 Compass Charles Phua.

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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Trying to understand depression? TMG offers a prelude to our upcoming content on mental illnesses with this primer by Winnie Lim..

by Winnie Lim

A FEW days ago, I told a roomful of people — both strangers and friends — that I am chronically depressed and suicidal.

Notice the present tense. I am still chronically depressed and suicidal. I am pretty certain people don’t really believe me. I look like I am the furthest away of being a person you would think is thinking of ending her life every other week, if not day.

That is the whole point though.

There is no telling how someone with chronic depression and suicidal tendencies should look.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that what follows is entirely my personal telling of my story, I am not speaking on the behalf of all depressed and suicidal people, because they have complex conditions — they cannot be reduced to one person’s story.

I have had countless people tell me that I have so much light on my face, that I am full of life. I tell them paradoxically, I have so much light on my face, and I am full of life, precisely because I think about killing myself all the time.

Life becomes a choice. It is not something I am automatically wired for, just for mere survival. Every single day, it becomes a fight. Do I want to live?

When I was younger, that answer often came back with a flat “no”. I did not want to live. Life was meaningless, often tedious. I did not understand why I had to exist.

I consider myself lucky. I had a few years when it all went away, out of my thirty-plus years of living. I stopped questioning my existence and I had thought I was recovering from my chronic depression. I know of many others who are less fortunate. They had never seen a day of light.

I now know. My depression and suicidal tendencies will likely not go away, ever. They are always there, just waiting. It takes only a split second to feel that sinking feeling all over again.

Life has gotten a lot more complex and also simpler. I have stopped looking at life in binary terms: do I want to live or die? I started to understand I could want to live and die at the same time.

I have learned to see nuances between being neurologically depressed and psychologically depressed. They are intrinsically tied, some would say they are one of the same. Yet I have some days when I know I am experiencing shitty emotions not because I have an unbalanced psyche. I know that is just my neurological system malfunctioning because I was not careful about up-keeping it through sleep, diet, and movement. I exert an extraordinary amount of effort just to be relatively functional. I know I cannot fight the hormonal imbalance during my monthly menstrual cycles. Once a month, I just try to let myself be. If I am weepy, I just let myself weep. I keep myself away from people because I know I have magnified reactions to everything.

Some other times, I know it is my un-excavated emotions that are affecting my physical health. Unexpressed emotions, repressed grief, denial of some sort, overwhelming sadness or triggers of old wounds. If I don’t address them in some ways, I start to fall physically sick.

Once in a while, I cannot deal with myself. I have overwhelming melancholy and I let myself go. I start to binge eat. I hide from the world. It snowballs. I start losing all perspective. My hormones and neurons are all over the place. My emotions are out of whack. There seems to be nothing left in me. I cannot move. I feel like dying. All that pain, it can just go away.

Else, I could be experiencing one of the most balanced periods of my life, and yet I experience moments of existentialist suicidal tendencies. I think of dying not because I am sad or numb or empty. I think of dying because intellectually, I question all of this. Yes, my life could be amazing and it could have meaning, but so? It is a rabbit hole.

I can tell myself: it is the process, the journey, the love, the evolution. I can look at it spiritually. But what if I just don’t care — about spiritual growth, about human evolution, or anything?

Sometimes, it is not the pain that drives me closest to death. It is when I am at my most sane self, and I find tiny moments in between when I just simply don’t care.

Here is what keeps me alive. I cannot find it in myself to end my existence knowing that people would have to spend the rest of their lives dealing with it.

How can I be someone who knows what it is like to carry so much pain and be the same person who delivers exponential pain to people I love?

So I try. I try to live. Since I don’t see the point of survival, I try to be brilliantly alive. My life has to be extraordinary, on my own terms. It is not enough for me to merely exist.

And I am curious. I love to create. As much as part of me is borderline suicidal all the time, I am curious about what I can make out of this. When life itself is not an incentive, it can be incredibly freeing, because I have a lot less I am afraid of losing. For me, it is not about losing money, people, reputation, it is about losing my will to live, so I am unafraid of most losses just so I can feel truly alive. It is easy to quit that cushy job or make a seemingly insane decision when the other side of the equation is feeling like I want to end my existence.

In a parallel universe, if I didn’t know people love me, curiosity and the desire to create may not be enough to sustain my life. It is also not enough to live just knowing that people love me. Both are essential in keeping me alive.

I deeply empathise with those who end up taking their lives successfully. I am even envious. I know what it is like. To exist at that brink, to feel so much pain that even the mere thought of death is a relief.

Or to feel so numb that nothing is capable of being an incentive to live. Or to look at humanity sometimes and be like, “really?”.

I am not sure if I will always be capable of reasoning. To be reminded that people love me, so I just can’t. But I have also lived through moments when I am not capable of remembering. To be so overwhelmed that I don’t give a shit about my curiosity. I understand why some people make that choice.

Yet it breaks my heart each and every time I know of someone ending their lives. I understand, I empathise, I am envious, but I still get so heartbroken. Life is not binary. The world is less without them. We have lost permanently, what these lives could have brought to us.

People get all confused when I tell them I am chronically suicidal and depressed as though I am describing the weather. Maybe some of them think I am doing it for the attention.

It is important to reduce the stigma, the misconceptions. There are so many others out there who are less lucky than me. I have been blessed with people who love me. I never used to know, but I have lived long enough to know, to be capable of knowing what love feels like. There are some of us who do not experience that. Some of them are unable to express the weight they are carrying until the deed is completed. They are afraid to be judged, censored, dismissed.

We wouldn’t judge someone for telling us that they have diabetes or any other long-term chronic illness. Why do we not acknowledge the life-long suffering of people whose brains are attempting to eat away every single bit of them?

We tell them it is not real, to get over it. If they could, why would they choose to tell us about it, even though they know how they are going to be seen?

The chronically depressed/suicidal people I personally know are the most empathetic, generous, creative souls I have known. I shudder to think what I, individually would have lost if life had taken them away from this world. I would be so much less without them. I don’t know who I’ll become if I thought that I was alone.

It makes me really upset and angry when we lose people this way, especially young humans who haven’t had a chance to experience a fuller spectrum of life, or for reasons that can be mitigated — bullying or trauma. They experience all that pain and they think, that is it. Why live? They think they are their wounds. They think their wounds make them unworthy of life.

And there are some of us who because of unjust circumstances, never ever got to get a hold of this condition. They did not get to experience anything else other than pain. They have never gotten the breaks I have been given.

I am not sure if I would still be alive if I didn’t make the decision to visit San Francisco in July 2011. If I didn’t have that one single friend who told me it was okay to be me, when I was in my early 20s and numb. If I didn’t fall in love when I was 15. If I wasn’t afraid of heights when I was 10. If sleeping pills were accessible in Singapore. If I didn’t start to meet people who saw me beyond my pain and chaos.

I was an extremely pale shade of myself for two decades of my life. My life only truly turned when I hit 30. Even then, even now, it is still questionable.

I discovered agency — that I was capable of making choices. I can now choose to live. I felt back then I was forced to buy into a life I didn’t want, now I am capable of consciously choosing to live. I started to see myself and accept myself, only because people saw and accepted me first. I learned more about my condition. It started to feel more like a blessing and a curse, instead of just seeing it as a lifelong affliction.

I have accomplished a lot. For my work, for the people in my life. My accomplishments are not to be seen in my resume. They are to be felt. This is the life I consciously choose.

But if you, the reader, have in any way derived value from me — whether through this post, through something else I have written or made, through my love or friendship, through something I am not even aware of; think about all those times I chose not to die; think about the ones who are still trying to make that choice.

Think about the ones who have chosen the other way. Think about what we as a whole, may have lost, or are still potentially losing. Because we saw them as less. Because they are afraid to tell us. Because they didn’t know we love them.

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Winnie was a multi-disciplinary designer for 15 years. In 2015, she decided her life was not sustainable as it was, so she embarked on a journey to discover a new way of living. In her spare time, she works on interactive narrative experiments at http://lucent.space, and intends to spend her life on three areas: individual power, mental health and education. She has been publicly writing about her suicidal tendencies and chronic depression since 2011, in a deliberate effort to reduce stigma and challenge perceptions. You can read more of her writings on Medium, Twitter and her website.

This article was first published on Medium.

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Featured image by Natassya Siregar.

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by Bertha Henson

WE DON’T talk about suicides because there’s plenty of evidence that this will invite copycats. But sometimes we have to. So Mainstream Media (MSM) broke some editorial guidelines on reporting suicides when it covered the case of an 11-year-old student who fell 17 stories to his death in Sengkang.

MSM did the right thing – and kudos to The New Paper (TNP) for covering the coroner’s inquiry earlier this week. It’s too heartbreaking for words but I’ll attempt to re-cap what happened in May to the boy and his family. They can’t be named because of his age. Nor can his school.

Before you ask, he didn’t leave a note. His father, 47, a customer service engineer, wanted to believe that he fell out his bedroom window at first. In other words, an accident. Although why the boy would be leaning out of the window while he was getting ready to go to school isn’t answered. But the immediate reaction of his mother, a housewife, on finding their son’s body at the foot of the block was illuminating. A police officer on the scene recalled that she was lamenting that she “only asked for 70 marks” and that she didn’t ask for 80 marks. That, plus the fact that he would be going to school to collect his results slips to show his parents.

The boy already knew how he fared for his mid-year Primary Five examination even before he received his result slips. He had failed two subjects, getting 12 marks for Higher Chinese and 20.5 marks for Mathematics. He scraped through English (50), Chinese (53.8) and Science (57.5). His teacher noticed how upset he was at failing two subjects. This isn’t surprising given that he used to score 70 marks and above in the previous four years.

So what happened?

The school said that students at Primary Five usually see a dip in results because of changes to the examination format to prepare them for the Primary School Leaving Examination the next year. There was a parents’ briefing earlier in the year for teachers to tell parents about their expectations. It seemed the boy’s parents did attend the briefing or other parent-teacher meetings.

You wonder about how drastic the changes were to let an average student move 70 marks to a mere 12 as the boy did for Higher Chinese. You wonder if his classmates fared in the same way or whether he was unique. You wonder if he had asked about his other classmates’ results and discovered that he was not alone. If he did, perhaps he wouldn’t have felt so bad.

All these questions are moot because the fact remained that he killed himself. It’s tempting to point fingers at the mother, who kept a hawk eye on his results and employed a carrot and stick approach. How many parents do the same? Obtain marks beyond a certain grade and you get an iPhone or bicycle; go below and get caned for every mark that was missed.

The coroner’s inquiry was told that she was “flexible” in this regard and would take into account the level of difficulty of the examination papers. You wonder if she had known that the format was different.

Every parent who has read this sad story would probably be examining their own attitudes to their children’s education. And it would be difficult for any parent to accept that it could be their own attitudes that have pushed their child to take such an extreme step.

Although she didn’t refer to the suicide Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin wrote in her Facebook yesterday: “We were all children once. We all do remember what it was like to open a result slip and see that glaring red mark or to hear that passing comment ‘You could have/should have done better’.”

“In that horrible moment, that result doesn’t feel like it’s just a result, it feels more like a judgment of who you are. And if that moment is not dealt with, not openly talked about, it can become a part of your identity.”

When I was 10, I failed two subjects. It was Chinese and History, which was being taught in the mother tongue as an experiment then. From being a top student to actually failing not one subject but two was so traumatic that I started crying even before I got home. I lived through the blasting from my mother. At age 10, the idea of killing yourself simply doesn’t cross your mind. Rather you’re thinking about ways to lessen the impact that will come, even wishing that there was some way to forge your parent’s signature.

But statistics on teen suicides today are alarming. Last year, 27 children aged between 10 and 19 killed themselves, according to the Samaritans of Singapore. Two years before, it was 13. I can only imagine how hard it is for investigators to probe a family on the probable cause of a child’s suicide. Imagine asking: “Did you scold him earlier in the day?”

TNP reported that a questionnaire will be developed for such investigators. They will have to look into salient factors such as depression, schizophrenia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, impulse control and rage issues.

Some many theories have put forward for the surge with the usual scapegoat being the education system. Parents will say that they pressure their children because that’s the way to succeed academically. They find it hard to believe teachers and officials who say that they’ve already changed enough of the system to reduce the stress to be “exam-smart”.

No parent wants to drive their children to death. They want their children to succeed. They want children to fear failure, forgetting they too have had failures in their past – and that they are still on their feet.

I like what Ms Kuik said in her note:

“The uncomfortable truth is that the only way we can teach our children such emotional resilience in the face of failure is to ensure we ourselves have dealt with our story about failing and feeling like a failure. If we are uncomfortable dealing with failure in our own lives, the chances of passing on those self-destructive stories to our children is much higher.

“If your child brings you a terrible report card or shows you a shocking grade for some spelling test, emotionally centre yourself before you say anything. Take your time to figure out what to say. If you can’t speak it, write it. Writing forces you to be more careful.

“The words of a parent are profoundly powerful. Somehow they always impact identity. That’s why it’s worth measuring out, weighing out, calibrating our words thoughtfully for good effect. Remember words once said, can never ever really be taken back.”

“Remember words once said, can never ever really be taken back.”

Yup, the words of a parent are powerful.

They can raise you up – or cut you to the quick.

It remains for me to offer my condolences to the family – father, mother and 16-year-old daughter. May your son rest in peace.

 

Featured image Look At All My Designs by Flickr user Daniel Lee. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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by Bertha Henson

NOW that the chuckling, blaming and finger pointing is over, I’m going to weigh in on the issue of having sex in small spaces.

So we’ve chosen to enlarge and interpret, translate and illustrate Mrs Josephine Teo’s straightforward response on why couples don’t have to wait for a HDB flat before having a child. It’s being looked at from so many angles that we’ve overcrowded the small space.

Then academic Donald Low weighs in, saying he agrees with Mrs Teo but takes issue with her comparison of couples in Singapore and those in the West who don’t seem to have any hang-ups about when or where to have sex.

Said Mrs Teo: “In France, in the UK, in the Nordic countries, man meets woman, tonight they can make a baby already. They love each other. Both of them partly have their own family, so it is a matter of living in yours or living in mine, and they also don’t have to worry about marriage — that comes later.”

Mr Low’s response: “But you cannot bemoan the fact that Singaporean couples aren’t more like the French or Nordics AND at the same time not provide the comprehensive, state-financed welfare services to children and parents. To do so is to engage in cherry-picking: you wish for Singaporeans to behave a bit more like the Europeans, but you refuse to contemplate a Nordic or French welfare state.”

Interesting. But what I found more interesting is how Singapore as a country is trying to overturn or upend some ingrained mindsets in recent years.

This is the chain of life in Singapore: go to school, get a degree, get a job, find a mate, book a flat, marry and move into flat. Then work harder, have a kid, sell the flat after five years, get another flat, maybe have another kid and add a maid and add a car.

Then work harder or change jobs and retire as early as possible, never mind the retirement age.

We’ve succeeded in changing some of the above. For example, we’ve succeeded in making a polytechnic education sexy and desirable.

In fact, we bend over backwards to say it’s better to be skilful than exam smart. Even universities have gotten in on the act of giving degrees in something that is “applied” rather than purely academic. The latest is UniSIM, which will be a full-fledged autonomous university by next year.

We have succeeded somewhat in breaking another link in the chain: get a job. While it was de rigueur that graduates head for well-paying jobs in big companies, now becoming your own boss is quite in vogue. Entrepreneurs are lauded. The trouble is, we seem to be starting cafes, bakeries and ice cream parlours, rather than creating something new and useful.

Now we’re in the throes of breaking another link: that you can work harder and harder and get somewhere. We’re now told this isn’t possible if we don’t keep learning and re-learning. Hence the SkillsFuture programme which subsidised every adult citizen who wants to try his hand at learning something different.

It’s a big push by the G. I doubt there would be many people taking up the programmes if they didn’t have the SkillsFuture credit to use.

What are the other links that need breaking? The “get a car” mindset. So much money is being poured into public transport infrastructure that car owners should think about whether they should take advantage of their own tax dollars and ride the train or bus.

But now with a sharing economy in vogue, rather than going car-lite, people are finding ways to earn money while driving. Don’t you think with Uber and Grab, there are many more cars on the roads these days?

Another link is Mrs Teo’s big bugbear: the “have a flat, then have a child” mentality. It’s actually tied in with another ingrained mindset: to own a place, not rent. Home ownership is such a big deal in Singapore that few consider other options.

Baby boomers would be au fait with having to rent a bedroom or an apartment on getting married. The HDB flat can come later. But increasingly, the lack of a flat has been blamed for our birthing woes, something that even the G acknowledges when it came up with the housing scheme to reduce the waiting time for young couples buying flats for the first time.

The trouble is, the G, like any good government, is used to responding to complaints from citizens. In any case, providing subsidised homes for married couples is in line with its objective of achieving full or near-full ownership. Life is therefore laid up.

The next stage of adulthood is becoming a parent and owning a home – at the same time. It’s like a big bang, not incremental improvements.

Mrs Teo said some nice things about the millennials being adaptable. I hope that like jobs, which come and go quite quickly these days and which can be full-time, part-time, contract or working from home or being your own boss, millennials will realise that bringing up a family doesn’t always have to be along a straight line.

There’s another link in the chain that looks likely to be broken by G fiat: buying subsidised flats and making a windfall on selling them five years later.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong described it as winning a lottery. It’s after all, quite by chance that you land a flat in a much-desired location. And being the gambling nation that we are, we congratulate the winner rather than moan about inequitable outcomes.

The flat becomes an investment, not a home. Attempts to keep the community in place with subsidised upgrading exercises don’t quite work, except to make the place even easier to sell at even higher price. Good luck to the G if it thinks it can break the link without causing a huge outcry. It has become an entitlement, not a privilege.

Looking at the above, it isn’t the economy alone which is being disrupted, but the way we think we should live as a society. Maybe given that we live in such a small space, we can change positions faster.

 

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Chiara Micheletti helps her mother Marisa Vesco take a shower in Cossato, Italy, June 7, 2015. Marisa suffered from incurable liver cancer and in the last months of her life she was not able to bathe herself. Her daughter Chiara cherished the time she was able to help her mother. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSMMRJ

GAIA SQUARCI/ REUTERS

Marisa Vesco eats ice cream in her bed in Cossato, Italy, June 30, 2015. Marisa suffered from liver cancer and a loss of appetite during the last months of her life; eating ice cream was one of her few pleasures. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMRF
LIFE PLEASURES: Marisa Vesco eats ice cream in her bed in Cossato, Italy, June 30, 2015. Marisa suffered from liver cancer and a loss of appetite during the last months of her life; eating ice cream was one of her few pleasures. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

MY GRANDMOTHER’S life and mine overlapped for 27 years. I always called her “Nonna.”

Our age difference and profoundly contrasting values and way of thinking did not prevent us from developing a strong bond and a relationship punctuated by mischievous games and moments of tenderness and humour. We were amused by our differences.

“You know, I was still young when you were born,” she told me a few weeks before she died. “It’s a little like we grew up together.”

At a lunch table a few months earlier in Milan, I learned from my mother, her daughter, that Nonna, 85, suffered from incurable liver cancer. Years before, she had already survived two bouts of breast cancer.

 

Old family photographs are seen on Marisa VescoÕs bed as she works on creating a family album with her granddaughter, the photographer Gaia Squarci in Cossato, Italy, July 1, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSMMSH
PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY: Old family photographs are seen on Marisa Vesco’s bed as she works on creating a family album with her granddaughter, the photographer. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

Nonna would tell me time and time again that the news of my birth had given her the strength to fight.

When I learned that she was sick again, I had just landed in Italy, where I would be for only three days before flying back to New York.

Even more heartbreaking than the fear of saying goodbye to her was the fact that my grandmother did not know how sick she was. My mother and aunt believed she could not bear the thought of a third bout with cancer, this time, affecting her liver. Nonna was told by family members that her liver was ill.

 

Chiara Micheletti helps to bathe her mother Marisa Vesco in Milan, Italy May 21, 2015. Marisa suffered from incurable liver cancer and in the last months of her life needed assistance. Her daughter Chiara cherished the time she was able to help her mother. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMS3
MOTHER AND DAUGHTER: Chiara Micheletti helps to bathe her mother Marisa Vesco in Milan, Italy May 21, 2015. Marisa suffered from incurable liver cancer and in the last months of her life needed assistance. Her daughter Chiara cherished the time she was able to help her mother. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

No one ever mentioned the word “cancer.”

Because of this, one question haunted us until the day she died: Did we have the right to know the truth about her condition when she did not?

Nonna spent most of her last months at home, surrounded by family. She reconciled with the idea of death and said she could slowly feel it coming.

Doctors felt that surgery and chemotherapy would be pointless.

 

Marisa VescoÕs perfume bottles, almost all of which were empty, sit on the edge of the bath at her home in Cossato, Italy, February 5, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMSD
A WHIFF OF THE PAST: Marisa Vesco’s perfume bottles, almost all of which were empty, sit on the edge of the bath at her home in Cossato, Italy, February 5, 2015. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

In the midst of all this, I realised my mother was losing her mother.

After moving back to Italy for a few months, I witnessed the range of my mother’s emotions and the energy she devoted to the time they had left together.

Nonna’s world shrank to a few walls and fewer streets. In this narrow existence, every detail and daily act took on deeper meaning.

 

The pills taken by Marisa Vesco to alleviate the symptoms of liver cancer are photographed on her bed in Cossato, Italy, June 23, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMSF
DAILY SUSTENANCE: The pills taken by Marisa Vesco to alleviate the symptoms of liver cancer. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

One of the things my mother treasured most was giving her mother a bath. She did not hesitate to touch her old body, and she did not want others to do it on her behalf.

I joined my mother and grandmother in the bathroom to quietly observe them with my camera.

 

Marisa Vesco reaches for a magazine in a bedroom of her apartment in Cossato, Italy, June 7, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSMMR1
REQUIRED READING: Marisa Vesco reaches for a magazine in a bedroom of her apartment. She joked about the photos taken by the photographer appearing on the magazine covers. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

As I experienced those precious moments, I imagined myself at an older age and thought about how time changes one’s perspective on being a woman.

As my grandmother faced my lens, completely naked, her body bearing the signs of past and present illnesses, she did not show the slightest bit of shame – only trust and pride.

 

Marisa Vesco embraces her nephew Luca Squarci during a visit to Cossato, Italy, June 22, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSMMSQ
HUGS: Marisa Vesco embraces her nephew Luca Squarci during a visit to Cossato, Italy. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

If you spoke with people in Nonna’s town they would say she never left the house without being enveloped in a cloud of perfume, her white hair perfectly coiffed and her face tinged with makeup.

I was surprised by the way she confronted being ill without losing her femininity. She was able to poke fun at herself. More than once she asked me, “Am I going to end up on Vogue or Marie Claire?”

 

Chiara Micheletti embraces her mother Marisa Vesco in her room at a hospice where she stayed for a month and a half before her death in Biella, Italy, August 21, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMR5
BY HER SIDE: Chiara Micheletti embraces her mother Marisa Vesco in her room at a hospice where she stayed for a month and a half before her death in Biella, Italy, August 21, 2015. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

On October 11, 2015, the day Nonna died in Biella, Italy, I was across the world in Brooklyn, New York. I had spent five months with her, celebrating her life instead of mourning her death.

I remember taking a walk through the Greenpoint neighbourhood of Brooklyn and staring for a while at kids competing in a race. I was unable to come to terms with the fact she was no longer a part of the world around me.

I struggled with the concept of death and the abstract emotion we call grief. I found peace only when I returned to Italy to spread Nonna’s ashes.

 

Marisa VescoÕs ashes are spread by her nephew Luca Squarci at her favourite location where she grew up near Cossato, Italy, December 16, 2015. REUTERS/Gaia Squarci SEARCH "ITALY CANCER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTSMMRC
FAREWELL: Marisa Vesco’s ashes are spread by her nephew Luca Squarci at her favourite location where she grew up near Cossato, Italy, December 16, 2015. (Photo by REUTERS/Gaia Squarci)

 

My family and I walked to Nonna’s favourite place in the mountains not far from Cossato in northwestern Italy, the town in which she had grown up.

Her ashes felt heavy in my hands. I threw them far up into the air, and they fell all over the grass, and all over me. My mother, brother and aunt did the same, again and again.

In the end, we were covered in Nonna’s ashes and so was the field around us.

Months later, my mother sent me a photograph of that field. It was completely covered in flowers.

 

Featured image by Gaia Squarci/ REUTERS.

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It's not just an exam: scores matter

by Brenda Tan

IT’S that time of the year again. Parents will be working furiously to ensure their children work hard to ace their exams. The more anxious may even take leave from work, or up the number of tuition sessions for mock exam papers to be completed, marked, and corrected. The goal: to get their kids’ scores within the 90-mark zones.

But there’s something a little different this time round.

This exam season, there are more calls for parents to look beyond their children’s grades. There’s even a viral post that started from a school in Kolkata, that has been re-attributed to “a school principal in Singapore”, reminding anxious parents that while they want their children to do well, their children have talents and dreams that may not correlate to scoring well in a school subject that they show little interest in.

It reminds parents that “if your child does get top marks, that’s great! But, if he or she doesn’t, please don’t take away their self-confidence and dignity from them. Tell them it’s OK, it’s just an exam!” That “no matter what they score, you love them and will not judge them”, “One exam or a low mark won’t take away their dreams and talent.”

While I agree with the sentiments of the post in principle, I do not think simply telling our kids that their scores don’t matter is the right way to go.

Realistically, if the scores don’t matter, then how would we know that the child has mastered the subject? If the scores don’t matter, then how would we know where the issue is in learning, and where to improve? That the scores matter enough to decide which class, and in the case of the PSLE, which school to go to, it’s disingenuous to tell our children that their scores don’t matter.

That said, it’s important that we help our children to put their scores in context.

If we know our kids have been working hard and have been consistent in getting good grades in school, a one-time bad score would already cause our children distress — it’s not helpful to add our disappointment to theirs by focussing on the grade. How would getting angry with our kids help the situation?

Besides, this is the best opportunity for a lesson in resilience!

 

1. Help our children talk about how they feel about their result.

Helping our children identify and articulate their emotions is one step forward to helping them take control of their emotions and dealing with disappointments.

They may be feeling guilty in not doing well and disappointing us. They could be feeling angry that the paper was “tricky” and all their hard work was “wasted”. They could be feeling that they are simply stupid and that there’s no point in working hard since they cannot make the grade. Or they might be feeling fear that they’ve lost all hope to go to a “good” class or school.

On our part, we need to help our kids accept that what’s done is done, and while their emotions are natural when we don’t do as well as we expect, we can choose to accept the situation and do something more constructive instead.

 

2. Help our children review the situation.

What caused that bad grade? Was it a particularly tough question or two? Did he or she misunderstand the question? Was it a situation of bad time management?

Working through that exam paper calmly with our kids and helping them master the areas that they did not get right teaches them that resilience is a matter of review, correction, and being prepared to show mastery the next time they face that same issue.

 

3. Encourage our children to see where they have done well.

At the Parent-Teacher-Child meeting for my son in primary one last year, his teacher and I didn’t focus on his grades, but we celebrated with my son that he could finally write sentences that consistently had space breaks between words. This fed his confidence to feel that he was doing something right in English, and his attitude towards the subject remained positive.

What could be points of celebration for our children in spite of the poor score? Could it be that they have shown mastery in topics that frustrated them during revision, but they did well for in the exams? Could it be a particularly good phrase they used in their composition? Or for doing consistently well in their Spelling tests throughout the term?

Acknowledging their negative emotions; reviewing the situation and rectifying it; and taking stock of the positives in the bad situation are three steps that can help our kids to build up a lifelong habit in dealing with any failure or disappointment.

I’m reminded of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech this year (Aug 21), where he concluded that his wish for Singapore is to have a “divine discontent” – being not quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better – and the “wisdom to count our blessings”.

I already see plenty of both “divine discontent” and “wisdom to count our blessings” in Singaporeans in our wish to better our lives, while counting our blessings.

We just need real opportunities to teach our next generation to follow suit.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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skillsfuture_300x250

by Brenda Tan

“MY FAMILY is crazy!” wailed my 17-year-old teenager. “I’m supposed to be the one wild about Pokemon, but my father’s got more Pokemon and rarer Pokemon than me! Even Di-di has more Pokemon than I do! Hey, I’m suppose to be the gamer in this family!”

When Pokemon Go was launched on Saturday (August 6), my eldest was out of the house (and not on the computer!) for about an hour that morning, hunting Pokemon in the estate. He came back all excited about the Pokemon he caught, and the people he met, and where all the PokeStops were nearby.

The younger ones were extremely envious because their phones don’t have data roaming, only wifi access. Furthermore, they weren’t able to set up a Pokemon account because they are below 13 years old.

So, while waiting for dinner to be delivered that evening, I decided to download the app and set up the two younger kids’ Pokemon accounts under my parent account. After dinner, with their phones’ wifi tethered to my phone’s personal hotspot, my husband and I took the younger ones out for a short walkabout the estate – to see if we would have any success catching Pokemon beyond the initial one that came with downloading the App.

 

Water bottle
Water bottles, insect repellent, walking shoes and hats. That’s why Pokemon Hunters have a backpack! Fans optional.

We encountered the initial frustrations of learning what to do at a PokeStop (swipe to get Pokeballs and eggs), and quickly learnt that a buzz from the phone indicated a Pokemon was nearby. The kids took great delight in interacting with their environment and catching Pokemon — and so did my husband!

We encountered a group of teenagers on the hunt, and one of the boys gave me a sheepish smile, which I returned — our “hunting tribes” differed only in age. I also encountered Pokemon Trainers (as they preferred to be called) who hunted alone.

Due to my health, my family managed to complete only a short walk, but even then I was able to catch four Pokemon! My more active tribe members caught a few more creatures than I did.

The excitement didn’t end when we got back though. The eldest who had to remain behind for a school project meeting, took a break to lecture the young ones on the creatures they’ve caught, their values, and how to evolve them.  Needless to say, the younger ones went to bed that night happy and satisfied with the time they spent hunting.

The next day, my husband brought the young ones to Nex to visit the library, and while they were having lunch at MOS Burger, my husband caught 20 Pokemon, and the younger ones caught about 60 each!

When they got back home, their Kor-kor who was with his youth group for lunch were amazed by their haul, and he went on his little tirade. After dinner that night, the two younger kids got their dad to go for another hunt as a post-dinner workout!

Although I do see a lot of “Pokemon NO” posts on my Facebook feed and lots of references to Pokemon “zombies”, I’m actually glad that there is a game that is able to get my entire family excited, actively engaged in conversations, and spending time together.

My kids get active outdoors and discover their neighbourhood in greater detail (and intrinsically learning to read maps via the App), delighting in capturing Pokemon. I’m just happy that they aren’t lazing in a corner watching YouTube on their mobiles. The trio share tips about how to care for the creatures they caught, and strategise how to capture more Pokemon.

As for my Pokemon-expert teenager, all my husband or I need to do is to ask him for help, and he’s more than happy to spend time with his parents to teach us how to work the game. Who says teenagers are a sullen lot, who never have anything to say to their parents?

While the hype lasts, it’s really a good game for families, even if the only thing parents of younger kids do is to watch out for their children’s safety, as they look for Pokemon all over Singapore.

Our children’s enthusiasm for this game is understandable, as my eight-year-old puts it best: “We’re on a quest! An epic journey! We want to catch ‘em all!”

Stand at a safe place to catch the Pokemon
Stand at a safe place to catch the Pokemon

How do we start playing?

  1. Download the App on your smartphone.
  2. Create your account.
  3. Add children’s account and set security level.
  4. If your kids have their own phones but don’t have mobile data, you can create a personal hotspot with your phone, and tether the kids’ phones to yours. Tell your kids they need to stick close to you for the tethering to work, and they’ll stick to you like glue.

 

Where do we go?

The Pokemon Go app will show you where the PokeStops are in your area. PokeStops are where you can collect Pokeballs, which you will use to catch the Pokemon that appear.

Sunblock is a must
Sunblock is a must

If you’re hunting with the kids, it’s best to look for an area that has a cluster of PokeStops near each other, so that the kids can explore the area and be able to collect enough Pokeballs for catching Pokemon. The best places are parks and the PCNs, so it’s good to get the kids to get their ‘park gear’ ready – Water bottles for hydration, insect repellent, sunblock, walking shoes, hat and raincoats. That’s why Pokemon Hunters have a backpack!

For shorter hunts, look for nearby PokeStops in your estate. These can be a quick 30 min to 45 min hunt pre-dinner or post-dinner.

There are indoor areas, such as malls, where you can also hunt for Pokemon. However, the more interesting Pokemon and landmarks are usually found outdoors.

 

Safety first!

Look for a rest stop
  1. Set ground rules and enforce it. If you say a violation of rules means going home, go home. If your kids know you mean business, they’d toe the line quickly.
  2. Know your kids. Do they have the maturity to hunt apart from you? How far apart? Also, alert the kids to lookout for joggers, cyclists, rollerbladers because the PCNs and parks are shared spaces. In fact, the younger your kids, the more physically connected you should be with them. Hold their hands… or onto their backpacks.
  3. Teach your kids to only look at the phone intermittently, to check if they are within the area of the Pokestop. They don’t really need to look at the screen while walking. The phone will buzz if there’s a Pokemon in the area.
  4. When the phone buzzes, teach the kids to stand at a safe place, out of cyclists and joggers’ path to catch the Pokemon.
  5. Take note of the time and try to arrange for rest-stops near a PokeStop.

 

Learning points

Captured real creatures on camera (see the spider!)
  1. Regardless of where you’re hunting, get the kids to note something interesting at each PokeStop. Some PokeStop might have interesting write-ups in the app, while others could be more mundane. What else can the children see in the area that’s interesting?
  2. Along the way the kids might find Pokemon, but they might also find real creatures like insects, spiders, birds, or squirrels. Get the kids to “catch” these creatures on their mobile cameras and see if they can find out more about them later at home.
  3. As the kids look at the screen, teach them simple navigation skills like taking note of the compass, observing how the road looks like, and estimating how far the distance to walk between PokeStops.
  4. After the hunt, when the kids return home, teach them to look at their Pokemon and strategise with them about which Pokemon to exchange for candies, and which Pokemon to groom. A lot of these strategies are available online, and it would be good to explore them together with your kids.

 

What if my child gets addicted to Pokemon Go?

It’s doubtful that kids can get addicted to Pokemon Go in the same way they would be to a computer game, as part of the Pokemon Go game-play requires the gamer to walk some distance to catch Pokemon. Nonetheless, if your child is enthusiastic about the game, use it to your advantage as an incentive to get their chores and homework done quickly.

 

Featured image and photos by Brenda Tan. 

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skillsfuture_300x250

by Wan Ting Koh

COULD you forgive a family member who takes the life of another loved one? A son who rapes his own mother? Parents who torture their own children?

With the recent spate of family crimes in the news, we spoke to psychiatrists on how individuals might cope when faced with the traumatic situation of a loved one harming another. They said that there’s a whole web of emotions involved: Guilt, shame and self-blame for failing to protect a loved one or for not sounding the alarm earlier. The road to recovery is long, and talking about it is the first step to feeling better.

The most recent report of such crimes – a three-month-old baby was allegedly smothered by her father during her feeding time in October last year. Mr Mohamed Shiddiq Sazali, 27, was feeding baby Reyhana Qailah with one hand while playing a mobile phone game with another.

He was reportedly so absorbed in the game that he failed to notice Reyhana thrashing about for some two minutes, apparently choking on the milk.

He was reportedly so absorbed in the game that he failed to notice Reyhana thrashing about for some two minutes, apparently choking on the milk.

He only realised that Reyhana’s body was pale and motionless after his father-in-law entered the room and noticed something was wrong. Reyhana’s mother, Madam Nurraishah Mahzan, 31, rushed home after receiving a text from her husband, but she too failed to resuscitate her child. The final cause of death report mentioned smothering or suffocation and choking on milk as possible causes of Reyhana’s death.

When such horrific things happen, how does the family deal with it?

To say that grief would be “normal”, or even the sole emotion would be inaccurate, said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital, who added that a family member who is related to both the victim and the perpetrator would feel a more “exaggerated” form of grief.

This may cause an extended period of depression, as compared to when a family member dies of natural causes.

Then, there are the other emotions: Anger, disappointment, and disbelief at the involvement of another loved one. This may make it hard for the individual to reconcile him or her to the incident.

Dr Brian Yeo, a consultant psychiatrist in a private practice at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, said that family members of the victim and the perpetrator will feel guilt and self-blame primarily, especially if they see themselves as the supposed protector of the individual.

“[They will ask themselves] ‘How come I didn’t see this coming, and how come I didn’t take action to protect the people I love?'” said Dr Yeo.

“[They will ask themselves] ‘How come I didn’t see this coming, and how come I didn’t take action to protect the people I love?'”

Dr Yeo noted that such an incident in the family would also call into question the parents’ parenting capabilities if they had other children: “Parents would question whether they are competent and able to take on the responsibility of looking after the surviving children.” In Reyhana’s case, it wasn’t reported whether she had siblings.

The fact that the identities of Reyhana’s parents were disclosed to the public may well worsen situation at home. According to Dr Yeo, family members would have to deal with the stigma on several levels. “All your relatives will be talking about it. It affects how society sees you, your colleagues, your extended family and how you see yourself,” said Mr Yeo.

Not to mention the legal intervention, such as police investigations and social workers who are involved. However, it is the exposure to the public that is “more devastating”, said Dr Yeo. It is this disclosure that allows “the public, neighbours, family members to effectively know and pass judgement”, he added.

 

Other factors to consider

Age was another factor when assessing the extent of the impact on other children in the family.

Children, said Dr Lim, tend to be “more egocentric”, so they blame themselves more. Adults on the other hand, have a “better understanding of the attribution of guilt”, he said.

And then there are the children who grow up in an abusive environment, such as in the case of two-year-old Mohamad Daniel Mohamad Nasser, who was repeatedly kicked, slapped and pinched by his biological mother and her boyfriend for 25 days over a 35-day period.

That wasn’t the only thing that his mother, Zaidah, 41, who goes by one name, and her boyfriend, Zaini Jamari, 46, did. They also made Daniel stand with his hands on his head while wearing only a nappy and forced him to eat spoonfuls of dried chilli.

Their abuse finally culminated in little Daniel’s death, on Nov 23, last year. The morning after a horrific day of torture inflicted by Zaidah and Zaini, Daniel remained motionless. He never woke up.

An autopsy later found a total of 41 external injuries on Daniel’s small body. The duo responsible for the act were charged earlier this month, with Zaidah given 11 years’ jail, and Zaini ten years’ jail and 12 strokes of the cane on July 5.

But Daniel wasn’t Zaidah’s only child. The cleaner, who was pregnant at the time of her abuse, has five other children. All of whom might potentially be more vulnerable to anxiety, depression or feelings of trauma if they grew up in the same environment Daniel, or if they witness the incident, said Dr Lim.

Daniel’s biological father, Mr Mohamad Nasser Abdul Gani, 42, had lost contact with his son and his ex-wife, Zaidah, after a prison stint for drug offences. The heartbroken father said in an interview with The New Paper that he blamed himself for not protecting his son. Said Mr Nasser, who works as a cleaner: “If I could turn back time, I would stay away from drugs, then maybe Daniel would still be here.”

“Instead, I was not there when he was born. I could not be the father he needed to protect him.”

Another case involving a young victim at the hands of her parents made the papers at the end of last month. The perpetrator was a 43-year-old security guard, and the victim? His 12-year-old daughter, whom he molested over a period of ten months in 2014.

The father would wait till his family was asleep or the house was empty before sending text messages to his daughter to go to his room, where he would grope her. After her mother, who was living apart from the family, found out, she confronted her estranged husband. On June 30 this year, the guilty father was sentenced to four years and three months in jail and five strokes of the cane.

Dr Yeo pointed out that for such cases in general, the question is whether the mother believes the child or the husband’s version of events. Either choice would have its own set of consequences. If the mother chose to believe her child, she would have to file a police report which would not only destroy the family, but affect the family finances, especially if the father is the main or sole breadwinner, said Dr Yeo. “Once you start it is not easy to turn back.”

 

No one saw it coming

As to how other family members can cope with the incident, Dr Yeo said that one of the factors is the “intent” of the perpetrator. The main thing would be to subject the perpetrator to a psychiatric evaluation to find a possible motive behind the crime. For the case of a son, who went on trial earlier this month for allegedly raping his mother for example, assessing the son will be a priority.

The 33-year-old man was accused of raping and molesting his biological mother, 56, at their home, where he allegedly restrained her while kissing her breast and forced her to touch him sexually. The incident occurred at the victim’s one-room flat in October 2013, while she was sleeping. Her son returned in the wee hours of the morning and, according to the prosecution, “molested and raped his own mother despite her pleas for him to stop” while her husband, the man’s stepfather, was out.

Said Dr Yeo of the possible impact on the father: “If it is due to a mental disorder, it’s easier for the father to see that… there is an explanation and there is some sort of redress physically and psychologically.”

He added: “If on the other hand the son has always harbored such lustful intent towards the mother, then the father may suffer a bigger portion of the guilt because it’s something that he had some sort of inkling may happen, and he did nothing to prevent it.” If his son had been “plotting or planning” the act for a while, then the father would have a “higher moral duty to act”, said Dr Yeo.

“If on the other hand the son has always harbored such lustful intent towards the mother, then the father may suffer a bigger portion of the guilt because it’s something that he had some sort of inkling may happen, and he did nothing to prevent it.”

Same goes to the son who allegedly caused the death of his father after putting him in a fatal headlock and causing him to suffer a cardiac arrest in February last year. Mark Tan Peng Liat, originally charged with murder, is currently on trial for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The victim’s elder sister, Madam Tan Hoon Choo, 72, took the stand on the first day of the trial (July 7) to testify that she was at home when her brother’s maid, Ms Sumarti Dwi Ambarwati, came to her house in tears, saying that the Mark and his father, Mr Tan Kok Keng, 67, were fighting.

By the time she reached the semi-detached house at West Coast Rise, which was two minutes away from her own, it was too late. Her nephew, a 30-year-old businessman, was standing outside, looking unlike his usual self. Madam Tan said: “His face was pale. He looked very bewildered and lost. I gave him a hug… I had a grim feeling.” She entered the house and found her brother lying on the floor of the second-storey master bedroom. The elder Tan was later taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

No one saw the incident coming. Not the aunt, who described father and son as having “a very good relationship”. Not Mark’s mother, who reportedly broke down in court after her son was charged and said: “What do you expect me to do? Kill my son?”

“It is a confusing and frustrating event, generally you don’t think such things will happen. It is not as if this is a drug user and you fear he will go back to drugs again. These things are much rarer, you wont expect it to happen unless he has prior knowledge that it has happened before,” said Dr Yeo.

“It is a confusing and frustrating event, generally you don’t think such things will happen… These things are much rarer, you wont expect it to happen unless he has prior knowledge that it has happened before.”

The fact that it happened within a close-knit family also makes it difficult to talk about. Said Dr Yeo: “You cannot really talk to other family members because this is going to be so shameful.”

 

The road to recovery

But talking also happens to be the first step towards recovery.

When asked how family members may cope with traumatising events, Dr Lim said that one of the best ways best ways to get over it is “really to talk about it”.

“A lot of people will try to deny this has happened…sometimes in their grief their first stage is denial, so the best thing is to keep talking about it so that the brain can process the whole event,” said Dr Lim. He added that the afflicted individual needs to talk to someone who can not only assess the grief but guide him along on the process.

“A lot of people will try to deny this has happened…sometimes in their grief their first stage is denial, so the best thing is to keep talking about it so that the brain can process the whole event.”

This was how Ms Leela Jesudason coped after the death of her sister at the hands of her nephew in a 2012 case which made the papers last July. Her nephew, Sujay Solomon Sutherson, who was diagnosed with paranoia schizophrenia, had brutally attacked his mother, Ms Jesudason’s sister, with knives, then hid her body under his bed.

“For me the way I cope is to be active. And to do something positive. I started a charity called PSALT Care, with the intention of giving support to families of those who have mentally ill at home, and also support groups for the mentally ill as well. For me, coping is to go round doing these kinds of things,” said Ms Jesudason.

Her first reaction, when she got the phone call in London from her sister-in-law about the incident, was incredulity. Then came the uncontrollable crying. Learning that her nephew was the one who did the deed only intensified her grief. However Ms Jesudason, 50, said that she felt no anger or resentment at her nephew. Only pity.

“I was sad not just for her but for him too because I knew that this is not going to go well for him either. His life is also over in that sense,” said Ms Jesudason. The first thing she did upon returning to Singapore was to engage a lawyer for her 35-year-old nephew, who was later sentenced to life imprisonment.

Said Ms Jesudason: “I don’t blame him. I blame a system that doesn’t enforce medication, because we had spoken to several doctors about him being off his meds, but there didn’t seem to be much concern on their part…he was throwing the tablets away.”

However Ms Jesudason cannot come to terms with her sister’s sudden departure. Nor did knowing that her nephew suffered from a mental disorder make the incident any more acceptable. “I think the sudden departure of somebody that you are close to, it’s very hard to say this could have lessened it, I don’t think so,” said the director of a public relations firm.

When asked whether she blamed herself in any way for the incident, Ms Jesudason said that she felt she “should have pushed a bit harder.”

“My sister was not the sort who would pick up the battle cry. She was a much more placid person than me, I feel like I should have taken up the mantle and gone to see the doctors,” said Ms Jesudason.

“I feel like I should have done more. I don’t know what more is, or could have been. But I should have done more.”

“I feel like I should have done more. I don’t know what more is, or could have been. But I should have done more.”

 

Featured Image by Natassya Diana Siregar

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by Daniel Yap

I’VE already called the 2021 changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) system an exercise in game theory. What’s the game now? What are the new rules? And most importantly how is it going to play out?

I’ve got skin in the outcome of this game. More than money. My eldest will fall under the old system. My four (soon five) other children will play the new game.

Of course I have to first face the fact that a single dimension of change, such as the PSLE, can never be enough to reform what we hate about society. What we hate about society is what we hate about ourselves. It is deep inside – that compulsion to play kiasu even though you loathe it at the same time. We do it because lives are at stake.

Competition is a feature of this world. To pretend that it and its consequences don’t exist would be to fail to educate our children. We don’t want to eliminate competition but blunt its barbs for our children by creating a less risky outcome for them. And we want to temper competition with collaboration and cooperation – that philosophy that society is not red in tooth and claw, but can be greater than the zero sum of its parts.

Still, the new PSLE system solves a problem with the old game. It addresses the issue of chasing down every last point in the PSLE (now every 4-pointer is the same). It addresses the problem of students playing the zero-sum bell curve game.

The new PSLE system, as some rightly point out, is still a competition – the objective of the game is the same – parents must, by means foul and fair, get their kids into the “best” school they can possibly get them into, with “best” being the manifestation of the parent’s perception.

But here the game gets harder with the new system. Imagine a kiasu parent, bug-eyed and frantic, trying to determine which school is THE best school.

For example, a cohort of 2,000 4-pointers (or under-6-pointers, whichever definition of excellence you want) will fill 10 schools easily, distributing slightly for choice, probably 15. Empirically, all these students are of the same quality. Which of these schools is now the best? Answer: none/all. Whereas in the past the school with the highest cut-off points was THE best school, now everything becomes vague. MOE said that no school will likely have a 4-point cut-off.

You see, there is no universal “best” school in Singapore (except my school, because perception). MOE’s system of distributing resources and educators means that differences in teacher and facility quality across the nation are, frankly, imperceptible. But there are schools for which demand is higher. Why?

The problem is that there is demand, competition, to get into “better” schools. This demand exists because (says the marketer in me) of perception, built up by marketing: reputation, publicity, promises, positioning – the brand of a school. (Mind you, “brand name” schools are just that – they have actual marketing and comms departments within the school. Other schools mostly rely on teachers wearing five hats to manage the same job: Guess whose brand is more “flashy”?)

So as long as this strength of brands exists, as long as there is demand, then there will always be somewhere for kiasuism to be channeled to. I’ve wondered aloud to MOE about the impact of independent schools having their own marketing and branding teams – maybe the effect needs to be blunted more aggressively.

You know what else MOE could do? They could fiddle with their published cut-off points for schools. It doesn’t need to be “wrong” – all it needs to do is be vague. It can range from ceasing to publish cut-offs altogether, which will remove decision-making data from parents and increase risk (and therefore encourage risk averse school choices), to simply reminding parents (in bold, highlighted text) that the published cut-offs were based on last year’s results but liu lian bo bao jiak – maybe this year everything is different. Think twice before choosing.

What else can MOE do to mess with kiasu parents? Now not only is it pointless to chase the last point in PSLE, it also becomes possible for a large number of students to score top marks in any given year’s exam. Kids are no longer pitted against each other.

All MOE has to do (although they’ve said that they won’t) is set an easier PSLE exam and suddenly you will have a large proportion of students getting the perfect 4-point score. After that happens, and say 25 per cent of a cohort (9,000 students) qualifies for the cut-off to RI, RGS and ACS, who will dare risk it all and gun for only brand-name schools in the selection round?

MOE probably doesn’t even need to do anything like that. I predict that in a few years, we will see a batch of students with empirically better grades than their predecessors, since there is no longer a bell curve. This batch will dent the system of “elites” by distributing academically talented students across a broad range of schools. The peak of elitism will become wider (maybe 30 top schools instead of 10) and lower. When everyone’s elite, nobody’s elite.

Same goes for parents who want their kids to “hang out” with smart kids to make them smart (or with obedient kids to make them obedient). You can no longer tell where the smart kids are congregated. The batch at ACS/RI this year may just be lucky (and indeed they are, if they got in by ballot)! “Bad” schools will similarly blend into the mean as higher-scoring kids choose to attend schools located near their homes because the attraction and definition of elitism has faded.

Now all that remains is to do away with that unmeritocratic, elitist hangover called the affiliation system (and with it the Primary School alumni benefit). Maybe SAP schools as well, which favour Chinese speakers. The DSA now also becomes more questionable and will need tweaks, especially given RI’s miserable experience.

So now, MOE has tools to take kiasuism and use it to make kiasu parents avoid all-out competition. Kiasu parents will be their own demise (or irrelevance). Game theory predicts it, and the G’s slow but steady movement away from rewarding muggers will seal it.

The kiasuism won’t die for a while – it is tough to come to grips with reality. Kiasu parents will still pat themselves on the backs after sending their kid to (after too much tuition) some generally good school and convince themselves, their kakis and relatives that their kid went to “THE OMG BEST” school in the whole country. But whereas they may have been right before, they will now simply be consoling themselves.

The rest of us who live in reality will have a less stressful time of it, our kids will still get a good education and though the game plays on, the stakes have come down significantly.

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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REUTERS

 

Featured image and video by REUTERS.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

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