June 24, 2017


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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Featured image and video by REUTERS.

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An employee trims a teddy bear into the fur of a dog at a pet shop, in Tainan, Taiwan June 19, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu SEARCH "PET GROOMING" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES - RTX2H5GP




We start at this doggie hair salon in Taiwan, where the Igogo pet shop has put a new spin — and trim — on their pooches.

How about a lion, a teddy bear, or even a Hello Kitty character for your dog?

Owners say it’s a creative and fun way to shed the fluff in the summer months.

Animal stories from South America took a more serious tone after news came out that a rare jaguar resembling that of team Brazil’s mascot was shot dead.

Jaguar ‘Juma’ was shot and killed following an Olympic torch ceremony, after reportedly escaping from zookeepers.

Though it had been tranquilized, it managed to approach a soldier, who fired the fatal shot.

Moving on to Buenos Aires, where it’s the end of an era at the city’s zoo as it closes its doors.

Over its 140-year history, the zoo has been riddled with scandals about the animal’s well-being and their habitat.

The animals are being transferred to sanctuaries elsewhere while a brand new ecological park is built.

In the United States — this black bear cub in New Jersey climbed up the wrong tree.

The cub, who authorities say had been hit by a car, had been hopping from yard to yard before it was spotted in a tree.

Animal rescue workers shot it with a tranquilizer gun.

The one-year-old cub will be treated for its injuries before being released back in the wild.

Last but not least,  swift, short-legged wiener dogs race for the top spot in the 2016 Wienerschnitzel Wiener Nationals in San Diego. The winning wiener was a dog named ‘Presley’, earning her happy owners a $500 check.


Featured image and video by REUTERS.

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By Brenda Tan

WHEN I read the news report recently about the national family council Families For Life‘s (FFL) survey on family, I wasn’t really expecting any jaw-dropping new facts about the Singapore family situation.

After all, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that long working hours are an obstacle to family time. Furthermore, while one in 10 respondents said that they spent six hours or less with their immediate families each week, this figure isn’t alarming if one considers that young people do have a greater need for socialising with friends, rather than with immediate family members during the week.  How else would we expect our young people to find a life partner, especially if they were to only focus on work and then go straight home to hang out with their parents?

However, what was interesting to me was what the council members had to say about what else affected family time.

FFL council chairman Ching Wei Hong believed that there were many factors affecting family time, including the intrusion of technology and gadgets, and the ubiquity of social media.

Another council member, Claire Nazar, suggested that Singaporeans need to “make conscious efforts to sacrifice their usual ‘screen time’ on their smartphones, laptops, TVs”,  to spend quality “face time” with their families. “If they can make the conscious decision to do this on a regular basis, they may find that they do have the time to bond with their families on a meaningful basis after all,” she said.

Frankly, while I acknowledge that there is increasing “screen time”, I’m not convinced that screens are as much of a hindrance to “meaningful” family bonding time as the council members make it out to be.

When I was in primary school, the television in my home would be turned on from “Mari-kita” to “Mari-kita”. In the early 80s, television didn’t have 24-hour programming. It would start its transmission with the national anthem at about 3pm, and end with the national anthem at night, past my bedtime. Even in the mid-90s, when we had 24-hour programming, watching TV was the main activity that my family engaged in – together as well as separately. Certainly, not all shows appealed to everyone in the family the way Under One Roof or Puah Chu Kang Pte Ltd did; I fed mainly on the English channels in the smaller TV in dad’s room when I got home from school, while granny would park herself in front of the larger living room TV for her Channel 8 melodrama fix.

Of course, in those days, the newspapers also carried similar warnings that spending too much time in front of the television set affected “family bonding time”, and that watching violent TV programmes would make you violent as well.

The irony now though, is that my large-screen HDTV is hardly turned on. My kids prefer watching their individual small screens, consuming personalised media tailored to their preferences via YouTube and other such media channels. Is their consumption of screen time more than when I was their age? I think it is probably less than mine, considering the greater number of school activities and homework my kids have, compared to my days in primary school.

As for the concern about “meaningful bonding time”, I looked at the survey and was highly impressed at the A* grades for “state of relationship and communication between family members”. With results that are 91 per cent and above, respondents feel that they have a good relationship with their children, with families readily lending support to each other. They feel a strong emotional connection to their family, and are satisfied with their family life. Those surveyed also feel their family members communicate openly and honestly, and despite the concerns of the FFL council members, the respondents feel they spend sufficient quality time with their family.

Families exist on a spectrum: there are nuclear families, some with both parents working, others are single income households; there are single parent families, multigenerational families, even extended families living within one compound. There isn’t really a single snapshot of a “typical” Singaporean family.

Growing up, my dad was a single parent, and the sole breadwinner of our household. I doubt I saw him more than six hours a week in my teenage years – I certainly watched more TV than spent time with him each week! Pa was a self-employed electrician/odd-job man who kept highly irregular hours. His weekends were usually spent with his friends on overnight sea fishing trips. Pa kept us fed on plenty of fresh fish and seafood, and my fondest memory of him is our time spent watching Japan Hour (his favourite TV show) on Sunday evenings in my late teens.

We didn’t do much of the stuff I do with my kids now, like regular cycling trips as a family on our PCNs or go for a family movie night (Oh no! Not another “screen”!). Unlike my kids who get to fly to Taiwan and Vietnam for our family holidays, I remember my single trip abroad with my dad, his girlfriend and my brother to Kota Tinggi waterfalls, which ended in a minor disaster when the car’s fan-belt snapped and we had to drive back to Singapore in a hurry to get it fixed. Needless to say, it was memorable for the stress, worry and missed “bonding” opportunity, but it was a family memory that I look back with fondness at Pa’s attempt to create a family outing for my brother and me.

Don’t get me wrong – I do think we need to be mindful to connect with our family beyond just sharing a living space together. And I do think that we could create plenty of good family memories via the many activities that Family for Life has planned via their #IChooseFamilyTime campaign, listed on their website. My kids certainly look forward to cycling with their dad to the upcoming Car-free Sunday on 29 May 2016, during which FFL will kick off their year-long series of picnics for the family.

In fact, I see our technology and screens as a means to connect with family members who live overseas or who travel a lot for work. Certainly, my kids always look forward to seeing what the view outside Daddy’s hotel room looks like on FaceTime. Even for myself, I get to see the hijinks my baby nephews are up to via my brother’s Facebook page, and it gives my brother and I something to touch base over, at our occasional family dinners.

Besides, the Internet also provides families with lots of ideas about how to engage with our children or our aged parents. After all, even FFL hopes to engage Singaporeans via social media and its website. It has even planned for “Facebook Live” chat sessions, with the first one to be held on 27 May 2016, with our Minister of Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, and a panel of parents who will share their personal experiences on the topic of family time.

I doubt the council expects parents to sacrifice their “screen time” for “meaningful family bonding time” during that time.


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Bilingual Baby Talk
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Felix Cheong

SO A study by the National University of Singapore has found that babies exposed to two languages tend to pick up language faster than monolingual babies. In fact, bilingual babies – knowing English and Singlish does not count – appear to have a six-month head start.

This is certainly bad news for jiak kantang parents who, like the best and rest of us, are always on the lookout to get our children that extra inch ahead in the rat race.

Fret not. We’ve done our due diligence, cross-checked with experts (namely, myself) and come up with five sets of handy-dandy Mandarin words you should pick up to talk bilingual-not-fully to Baby:

1. Ba 爸, Ma

The first words Baby ought to learn, but often don’t, are what to call you. Both terms of address are in the first tone: Baba (bonus if you’re Peranakan) and Mama. Be careful not to slip into the third tone, since he’ll be calling you a horse, 马. (Which is not that far from the truth since in a few years, you’ll be galloping Baby madly around to tuition centres, school etc.)

2. Wo 我, Ni

Essential pronouns when Baby refers to himself or to you. Or when you’re trying to sing him a Chinese version of that ancient Lionel Ritchie hit, Say You, Say Me. (Believe ni wo, wo still have no idea what the lyrics mean).

3. Guai 乖 , huai 壊:

Next, of course, come the carrot-and-stick words, which sound somewhat alike.

Guai, pronounced with a soothing first tone, means “obedient”. The opposite is huai, pronounced in that staccato fourth tone, for occasions when Baby gets up to mischief, like tugging at the table cloth and sending your four-piece crockery clattering in 12 pieces on the floor.

This is often the point when you wonder if the SG50 baby bonus was really worth the trouble.

4. Shi 是, bu

Baby needs to use bu when he reaches the mythical phase which civilisation calls “the terrible twos”. That’s when he answers any question with a firm “no” (like how Singaporeans have blocked Dr Chee Soon Juan’s entry into Parliament since the 1990s).

Shi is “yes” (try saying the Italian si with a Sean Connery lisp). And if Baby is really trying your patience, he would utter bu yao 不要 (“don’t want”), followed by lots of exclamation marks.

Interestingly, these words lend themselves easily to pillow-talk, which you can practice after hours when you’ve put Baby to bed: “Why ni so huai, go and buy toys like that? Bu yao!”

5. Gong xi fa cai 恭喜 发财

This is your annual opportunity to turn Baby into a money-spinner. These are four words that Baby, die die, must wrap his tongue around, complete with a cutesy Instagram-ready clasp of hands. Do it well, do it right, and you can utter “shi shi shi” all night long (another Lionel Ritchie number!) as you count the hongbao takings.

Oh, and for goodness’ sake, don’t teach Baby the Hokkien version, kong hee fatt chai. Your in-laws will do a double take and ask, “Kong Hee is already rich, He doesn’t need to fatt chai anymore.”


This article is part of TMG’s family package. Next up: Screen time and the family.

Featured Image by Sean Chong.

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by Daniel Yap

IT COSTS a million dollars to raise a child? That would make me the Six Million Dollar Man. No robotic parts, although my sleep deprivation sometimes makes me feel like a cyborg. Today, when my toddler (whom I’m potty training) started to poop in her diaper, I picked her up and made a dash for the toilet so fast it would make Steve Austin proud.

TODAY published an article that claimed the cost of raising a child in Singapore is between $200,000 and a million bucks. It then says that $360,000 is the “average”, and at $1,500 a month this seems “more reasonable”. It was so reasonable that my left bionic eye nearly popped out of my skull.

But pop culture references aside, what the heck is the writer talking about? Where does this figure come from? I can quote you $10 million to raise a child from conception to 21, and I’m sure I can find some millionaire who has done just that. The Ferrari for her 18th birthday will account for half a mil. Another half a mil for when she becomes bored with the Ferrari at age 20 and wants a Lambo. When I say it’s all about lifestyle and standards, you’re going to say “duh”, but yet we all fret that it’s actually going to cost us a million bucks to raise each child.

Come, I pull figures for you. Completely anecdotal of course, but since I can change a baby’s diaper one-handed, you have no choice but to believe me.

Pre-natal doctor visits for my kids usually ring in at under $100 a pop, including basic supplements. Delivery and a stay at a four-bedder ward (not bad standard already) sets me back $3,000 without complications. Complications are uncommon, which is why they’re called complications. All in maybe $5,000. Please don’t take a taxi to all your doctors’ visits or it will be $6,000. C-section is $8,000. We all want the best for baby, but the “best” is a $12,000 suite in a private hospital with top-notch doctors who charge $250 a visit (including ultrasound and a top-up of supplements). Then your baby is jaundiced and it costs another $6,000 for follow-up private hospital phototherapy. Let’s be realistic, ok? $5,000 all in.

Baby stuff? Just make friends. If you can accept hand-me-downs (just ask), you will get your hands on tons of clothes and toys and a used stroller (probably three). You’ll probably only need to spring for a cot and mattress ($180 from Ikea) which will last you for five years, and a set of bottles and breast pump, which costs at most $300 in all. Never buy small milk bottles because 40ml of milk fits just fine in a 260ml bottle, but not the other way around.

Baby’s first food, a literal shitload of diapers, and all sorts of odds and ends and entertainments in the first year amount to maybe a thousand bucks if you’re extravagant. Diapers cost $30 a month tops. Breastfeed, man. If you don’t it will cost $100 a month for milk powder. Do not send your baby to swim in those giant tubs where they put a floaty ring around their necks – that’s just weird.

Childcare? Vaccinations? Baby gets sick? I hope you took that $8,000 or $10,000 baby bonus and chucked as much of it as you could into the Child Development Account. That’s $9,000 in the bank plus $5,000 in cold hard cash (in contrast to the warm, soft child you’re now holding) or up to $33,000 in the CDA if it’s your fifth child or more (yay for me!) Do you know how many months of childcare $33,000 pays for? Even if you’re a rich man earning more than $7,500 a month (and then why would you be worrying about this?), you still pay like $600 for infant care and $300 for childcare at an anchor operator. If you’re poorer you probably end up paying less than $100 a month. Your child can go to childcare until he is 27 years old before that CDA runs dry. The point is – you won’t be paying a cent.

It’s tempting to want to send your kid to that private childcare centre with no government subsidies and fees that weigh in at $2,500 a month, but seriously there are no studies that can reliably correlate extortionate childcare with future success in life. The Breguet twin tourbillon is a magnificent and valuable timepiece but it will not make you early for your appointment.

Outings and clothes and entertainment – budget $200 a month and stick to it. Seven years and $21,000 later…

Congratulations, your kid is now ready for primary school! School fees are negligible, but it costs about $50 a month to send them to and from school and keep them fed with canteen food. You DID register them in the nearest school, and not some mythical “elite” primary school on the other side of the island that you have to spend $100 on transport for, right?  After school care is $300 a month. You don’t have a maid. Well, I don’t have a maid. In any case we are only counting the cost of a child, not your laundry.

Please resist the temptation to manufacture overachievement by cramming enrichment activities and coaching and tuition. If you play sports or music or something, share your passion with your children by spending quality activity time with them. Find cost-effective solutions: my three boys attend a well-organised no-brand-name football academy that charges $60 a month for two training sessions a week. That’s under $8 a session compared to the $30+ a session that you’d pay at a brand name academy. We’re more than a match for them at competitions.

Lived this way, this phase of your child’s life will cost you $35,000 with after-school care for three years AND tuition in two subjects from P4-6 (seems excessive). Secondary school is pretty much the same – another $20,000 for four years because ahboy/girl can’t manage on $1.50/day allowance any more and you’ve upped it. JC is like extended secondary school. If they go to poly, it’s $3,000 a year in fees, but remember that $9,000-$33,000 in the CDA? That rolls over to the PSEA and can be used to pay for polytechnic, local university or ITE fees. Paying for a local university out of your pocket might be as low as $10,000. If it’s a boy, he goes off to NS and everything suddenly becomes cheaper for you.

There you have it, a relatively normal childhood (if you consider age 21 part of childhood) for just between $100,000 and $150,000. Less if you’re thrifty. More if you want to spend.

Think of it this way. Poor people have kids too, and some of them go to university without a scholarship. An income of $1,500 a month means that at the end of 20 years you would have earned only $360,000 and I don’t believe for one second that $200,000 of it was spent on raising a child, especially when some of these families have more than one child (the G does help them out more, though). A family with two kids and a household income of $2,500 will earn $600,000 over 20 years. Housing probably will account for a third of this amount. Daily expenses account for another third. Between savings and raising kids, a budget of $100,000 per child is already too much.

Don’t let unrealistic cost estimations scare you out of having more kids. Life can be simpler. Life can be tougher. But a good family is something a million bucks can never buy.


Want to discuss the cost of raising a child? Leave your comments in our FB post and Daniel will try his best to respond!

This article is part of TMG’s family package. Read also: Baby Talk, Bilingually Yours

Featured image Family by Flickr user mrhayata. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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A boy wearing temporary tattoos smiles in the stands during the National Day Parade in Singapore August 9, 2007. Singapore celebrated the 42nd anniversary of its independence on Thursday.Photo by : Vivek Prakash/REUTERS

Ms Cindy Ng, a social worker, first published this note on her Facebook account. She has given TMG permission to share it, as long as we include Ms Kuik’s response to her, which is appended at the end.

by Cindy Ng

DEAR Shiao-Yin,

When I read the interview which you give to 938Live, I notice a few things which struck a deep chord within my soul.

I was also raised in the 1980s. I value hard work, I value integrity, and I value passion and compassion for the vulnerable. My values are reflected in many of the life choices I have made that go against the traditional route which my peers have taken as well. So I get you, when you talk about the culture of “there is one route to take”.

I am a mother to many. I have children both in formal education and in preschool. I have children of differing academic abilities, some requiring more support to learn, and some rather independent. All these years, I’ve prided myself in being a fairly chill person and I started out being determined to go against the tide when my children entered formal education. I was told many times before my kids enter formal education, “hold your horses, lady. Wait till your kids start P1”. I was unfazed, surely I could fight off the tide of peer pressure, school pressure and focus my kids on the important things in life.

I’ll say for a start that since my kids entered formal education, my journey had been nothing short of humbling. As such, your discussion on kiasu-ism, kiasi-ism, is an emotional one for me.

To start, you spoke about your life changing experience which influenced your outlook on life. I get that. I had mine. What I have learnt in my years working with vulnerable groups is also this: you and I, we’re blessed to be able to make choices that deviate from the usual path of our peers. The income mobility for our cohort has also been found to be relatively high and we have many people to thank. Many of our peers who do not enjoy the same resources by and large still have a shot at life, so we see many of our peers from poor socio-economic backgrounds being very successful individuals in life as well. Also, the sheer fact that you have a father to “engineer a prestigious internship for you in the States”, suggests that you have greater social capital than the average Singaporean of those times. So in some sense, you and I were able to deviate from the usual route because of the resources and connections we enjoyed in our formative years.

But we can’t be so sure these days. I admire your team’s innovative ways to build intellectual learning through the School of Thought. I applaud the many initiatives your team has embarked on. However, intergenerational poverty and poor intergenerational mobility are what frightens me now.

I’ve seen many teens and young adults in the last 10 to 15 years being trapped in the same cycle as their parents. I’ve checked the school bags of young children I work with and found scores of about 8/100. I’ve seen these kids barely trying to survive our system. Their prognosis, in my humble assessment, is poor.

Then you shared passionately about choices. You talked about how “each of us can choose to write our own story about the kind of life we want to live”. You described how people respond to your decision about life with “it’s okay for you to talk about being anti-kiasu now, but wait till you go to Primary One, then you will know.”

You know what? I used to be you. I think I finally “know” a little what these parents mean. Remember I said I was also anti-kiasu. My kids went to a neighbourhood childcare centre and have friends from different socio-economic classes and races. They attend the primary school that is nearest to my home. They did not attend any academic enrichment, only swimming and piano (and piano is only because they inherited my husband’s musical inclination). Unfortunately once we hit formal education, boom! The pressure from teachers and school kicks in. And it’s not always something you can fend off. The teacher writes to you asking you to do parent-child activities at home, the child starts to do poorly in some subjects (usually math or Chinese, thankfully my child is competent in the English language I dread to think the impact of the system on those who are late readers) and kids start feeling demoralised and overwhelmed. I wonder if you looked through some of the questions the kids have to answer and some of the homework they have to complete these days. I apologise if you have and I had assumed you haven’t. Some of the things they are learning these days are ridiculous for their level. The syllabus is also packed and there is no time for the children to take their time to explore and learn. I do not blame some teachers who wind up reverting to “traditional” methods of teaching (pen, paper, didactic teaching) in order to cope. You know what’s worst? I see my eldest slowly losing her love of learning and becoming increasingly competitive. Frankly I am disheartened. It sometimes feels like a losing battle. And guess what? I do not just have one kid, I have a few. And my husband and I hold demanding jobs as well.

This is why I do wish you acknowledge a little more how macro systems influence the culture of kiasu-ism. I totally get you about personal choices. Sure there is this element of personal choice. It is extended to most of us who have social capital, are educated and are fairly middle class. But the fear is great. With the pressure described above, I no longer judge parents for being kiasu. I no longer cringe when I hear of friends who send their kids to multiple enrichment classes in the weekends. I now see why they do so. It is because they love their kids. It is because they feel the pressure from macro systems (the education system, the workforce etc). Perhaps it is because they cower from decisions that will make their kids different. But I get their fear: they think “what if I am wrong?”

From what I see day in and out in the social services, social mobility is becoming increasingly poor in Singapore. This is what parents fear for their children, and in order to change the culture, we have to first validate and understand their fears and anxieties.

Those of lower socio-economic status do not even have that choice. I do not even have to go into that for you to understand what I mean. Less access to additional resources, more complex lives, and a culture of blame (the poor are often, but not always of course, blamed for being poor).

As you shared passionately about, it is also our personal choice to decide what we want for our family in this climate of fear and anxiety. These days, I focus on the values of being a good worker (I ask my kids to focus on being conscientious, having a good learning attitude even when you hate your work, and being kind to people around you). What I wound up doing is spending at least two hours a day from Mondays to Fridays going through their school work and ensuring that they keep up with the syllabus (not excelling, just keeping up with it). I spend time reminding them to keep going at the work they find difficult to overcome, to do their best, and leave the outcome to God.

I can’t help but wonder though. Perhaps, my “failure” was not getting myself acquainted with the formal education syllabus before they began formal education. My “failure” was not making a greater effort to speak to them in Mandarin, which resulted in their poor performance in the Chinese Language (I was more focused on building close relationships with them, and of course naturally focused on using the language we all felt most comfortable with).

I’m not sure if my children will wind up feeling demoralised because they may fall behind when they realise that they may not get the scores that others are getting, but I pray that they keep their eyes fixed on more important things in life, even in this climate.

If you haven’t already done so (and I apologise if you already have), do spend time looking through what the formal education is requiring from our children these days. Look at the routine of a child in formal education across different types of schools. Spend time with an average family with two working parents and two children (or more), and observe how they manage the multiple stressors in their lives. A good politician, a good representative in Parliament, goes beyond sharing from personal experiences, but bases their positions on formal and informal research (of which I am sure, you are already doing in your own capacity).

I wish you all the best as you represent the voice of the average Singaporean in Parliament.


NOTE: Ms Kuik got in touch with Ms Ng and has published a response on her Facebook page. Here’s an excerpt.

“Unfortunately, in an hour long interview with questions with multiple themes, a lot of stuff just can’t be talked about at length. There is a bit in the interview where the interviewer asked me about my reference to institutionalised favouritism towards elite vs poor in my Budget speech but that discussion got left out.

Anyway, I do agree with her on the need to address institutionalised privileges as well as the macro systems that influence culture of fear. Absolutely. I want to address that. The felt fear is great and it’s costly. We should talk about it in a way that helps those of us who feel discouraged move things forward.

During Budget, I said privileges buys us 2nd, 3rd, 4th chances that less privileged do not get. The gap is real. And we need more people to care about coming together to come up with real solutions to help close the gap together bit by bit.

So please help me do so by PM-ing me any questions you think should be raised in parliament. Unfortunately, I don’t have a research assistant (maybe we NMPs should hire one jointly, haha) and rely on various (and limited) sources for ground intel and opinions. It’s honestly always super super helpful when people and organisations initiate contact to share their perspectives.”


Featured Image by Vivek Prakash/REUTERS

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HAPPY Mother’s Day! The Internet is celebrating in a big way, of course. Here’s a sample of the most meaningful statements on motherhood found online in recent days:

Adventures of a new mum

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Image by Lucy Scott via Upworthy.

Artist and new mum Lucy Scott captured the adventures of a new mum really well. See the rest of her illustrations here.


Flying with a baby

Oh yeah! It’s hard flying with a young child but this is a great alternative way of looking at things.


A mum can dream

Yeah, we know the days are long, but the days are short, but a mum can still dream of a full night’s sleep and time in the toilet alone, right? Check out this cool parody of Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams.


Single mums lean in

Sheryl Sandberg speaks up for single mums in her first year after joining the club after the death of her husband.


Compiled by Esther Au Yong 

Featured image Hands by Flickr user Leonid Mamchenkov(CC BY 2.0).

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by Esther Au Yong

ARE you a SAHM, FTWM, WFHM or PTWM? That’s stay-at-home mum, full-time-working mum, work-from-home mum and part-time-working mum respectively.

And mama, do you BW, practise BLW or BF? That’s babywear, baby-led weaning and breastfeed.

Seriously, WTF and FFS. I’m not going to explain those.

The acronyms are all loaded to different degrees – it’s high time we be just Mothers. I have said this before and I’ll say it again: Mums are each other’s worst enemies. We judge, we assume, we define and we jump into conclusions about other mums too easily.

Let’s tackle one of the biggest challenges – and no doubt, blessing – a mother can face: breastfeeding.

Now, does it matter to you if another mother doesn’t breastfeed? To a lot of women, it matters very much.

When my elder son was two months old, I was shopping at a mall and had him in a baby carrier (so I guess that made me a BWMLM – baby-wearing maternity-leave mum). A sales assistant who looked like she was in her 40s approached us. “Oh is your baby drinking breastmilk?” she asked. A first-time mother, I replied rather hesitantly that no, I was not breastfeeding. I started to explain why (I simply had no milk) but I should have just told her to mind her own business. It wouldn’t have made a difference anyway as she simply would not hear it. “Rubbish! Every mother can make milk. Why do you choose not to give your son your milk?” she chided.

Things did not change two-and-a-half years later. A female stranger, about 50 years old, came up to me when I was feeding my second child, who was then three months old (I was a FFMLM – formula-feeding maternity-leave mum). “Are you breastfeeding?” she asked. No, I replied, this time rather defiantly. “Why? Do you not have milk or did you choose not to?” she demanded.

Like I said, FFS. Here’s the thing: While breast is best, it is also only one part of what it is to be a mother. Is it necessary to be so judgmental?

There are so many ways to mother, whether you work full time, choose to stay home with the kids or if you’re going through a challenging time of your own. There are countless ways to care for your child, be it having him or her in a baby carrier or in your arms; labouring over the stove each day to make fresh food with no preservatives or ordering in because you’re just too damn tired to cook; letting your baby co-sleep on your bed or “training” him to sleep in his own room from Day 1. Motherhood is a many-splendoured thing.

I think we need to learn the R-word: Respect.

My gynaecologist, a man, put a lot of mums to shame when I told him I couldn’t breastfeed at my check-up 10 days after the birth of No. 2. He put down his pen, closed my file, looked at me and with a kind smile, he asked, “How do you feel about that? Are you okay with it?” It was something even I did not know I needed to hear.

He cared and supported me as a mother, and most importantly, respected my mothering choices.

We can be better mothers together, by being kinder to each other. Happy Mother’s Day!


Esther Au Yong is a mother of two young children and TMG’s Lifestyle Editor.

This piece is a part of our Mother’s Day series of columns, showcasing the views and experiences of real mums in Singapore. Read Pam’s, Jean’s and Brenda’s pieces, and check out our video too. 


Featured image 11 – お母さん, UFO だよ! by Flickr user Seika. (CC BY 2.0). 

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