June 25, 2017


Bringing Up The Readers
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Felix Cheong

“YOU can punish me anyway you want, but don’t take away my books!” cried my son, then nine-turning-14 and testing the limits of my patience.

This incident happened more than a decade ago. For the life of me, I can’t recall why he was being punished. All I can remember, with some amusement, was his teary response. And I knew, there and then, I had brought up a reader. (Cunningly, he got around the embargo by visiting the library.)

We know reading matters, of course. But how do you nurture a reader? How do you encourage a child to love reading as a pastime, an end in itself and not merely a means to pass exams? There are no hard and fast rules – and certainly no shortcuts – but here are eight takeaways from my own experience as a parent:

1. Be a reader yourself

Lead, or in this case, read by example. Your child has to see that you and your spouse are book lovers. Read the papers at the dining table. Read a novel in bed before lights out. Read cereal boxes aloud. Read.

Why? Because what children see, children do. Literacy is not just the ability to read but also the capacity, the appetite, for reading.

Surround your child with books. Move the furniture around so there’s always reading material within sneezing distance.

2. Start early, start simple

Like preparing for the next General Elections, it’s never too late to start early. Get your child used to the written word, the sound of words, the pleasure in reading to each other and to yourself.

I started reading to my son when he was still in his mommy’s tummy! Talk about kiasu. By the time he was out and about, a small bundle of tears, I had already amassed a small library of saliva-resistant books – from touchy-feely books (they come with textured surfaces like feather and rubber), to simple ABC and counting books.

Begin with such simple fare – when he’s probably around nine months old – then step up to easy-peasy narratives with big, colourful illustrations.

3. Set a routine

Children, like the civil service, love routines. So set aside a time every evening, say an hour before bedtime, for reading. It helps calm your child down, let the sugar in his blood run its course. Read the same book every night till he can repeat the lines like the National Pledge. Then move on to the next book. Repeat.

4. Act it out

It will not do to simply read the lines mechanically, like Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee at the 2011 General Elections.

Act out the story, with gestures and voice. Make it come alive, the way old-fashioned storytellers used to do it. For a story is not just words but a piece of imagination with characters and moving parts.

5. Follow his lead

As he grows and gets a handle on the world, your child will develop his own quirks and interests. So the books you buy/beg/borrow/steal have to move in tandem.

For example, my son (he’s 21 now) went through a phase when he was into dumper trucks and all manner of construction vehicles. So I bought books like Bob the Builder, sticker books and even jigsaw puzzles with this theme.

Learn from him as much he learns from you.

6. Offer a mixed palate

Conversely, you should also offer your child books of various genres. As his vocabulary picks up and he’s able to grapple with longer and more complex stories (usually about three to four years old), start reading him books with more text and fewer pictures.

For instance, I introduced my son to Roald Dahl’s classic, James and the Giant Peach, when he was about four. First, through an abridged version, which was based on the animated film; then the film itself and finally, once he was familiar with the plot, the original novel.

In fact, I remember we even had several conversations about how the various versions were different from the original book. It was a good way to teach him compare-contrast skills (which he put to good use in scoring an A for his ‘A’ Levels Literature).

7. Guide him in reading it himself

The toughest part of the journey, the hump which will probably take longest to get over, is teaching your child to read. Being able to recognise the alphabet is one thing. Most children should be able to do this by the time they’re one to two. But the higher-level skill is to be able to connect the letters, in a gazillion number of ways, to form words.

I taught my son to read, when he was about four, by making up sentences with similar phonemes and writing them on cards. For instance, “The fat cat sat on a mat”. This, I repeated night after night, after our usual bedtime reading.

And, just to check he wasn’t merely reciting from memory, I varied the sentence on a separate card, “The cat on the mat sat fat”.

He struggled for a while but eventually, got the hang of it. This was my cue to raise the stakes and I tried other phonemes. Within a year, he was reading on his own (but still wanted me to read to him as part of his bedtime routine).

8. Reward him

To encourage him to keep reading, I applied the G’s method of piling on incentives. Each time my son successfully “mastered” a card (and the sentences became longer, with more variations, like a Dr Seuss story), he would be rewarded with a stamp on a homemade loyalty card. Ten stamps, and he would be rewarded with a Star Wars Lego set of his choice (but only within $20). Or he could accumulate more stars in exchange for a more expensive Lego set (30 stamps for $50).

In this way, he eventually picked up reading on his own. He’s not looked back since.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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A Nation of Social Climbers
Illustration by Guet Gee Pang

by Felix Cheong

WHEN social climbing was first mooted as an inter-school sport three years ago, few reckoned it would catch on. Even though social climbing, much like rock climbing, involved fitness, wit and grit (not necessarily in that order), no one thought there would be anything more than a passing interest.

But once the White Paper started getting around, the elite schools on the island (to name them would’ve robbed them of their elitism) sat up and took notice. They read it line by line, between the lines and even lined up to read it again.

Social climbing as a sport? Hey, why not? If chess could be a CCA and all students did was sit around a board, why not a sport that taught students to sit on a board? This would be the schools’ unique selling point, to separate the wheat from the chaff, the “we” from the daft.

The sport would involve testing students’ skills in socialite small talk, manipulating old boys’ networks, a round of golf with business talk, smooching up to the boss and giving instructions to underlings with an optional dose of condescension.

But with top ministry officials keeping the names of top PSLE scorers top secret, where would they find their social climbing students?

“I know this business of not naming top scorers is meant to reduce stress,” said one principal.
“But look at the English Premier League. They name their top scorers every season! No problem, right? Where got stress?”

Another principal preferred to look at it geographically. “We have a small hill called Mount Faber, even though it’s not remotely anything like a mountain,” she said, jabbing a map so hard the little red dot disappeared under her thumb. “Isn’t that social climbing? And remember back in the 1990s, the Government said we should aspire to the Swiss standard of living. Isn’t that social climbing?”

After much hand-clinging and handwringing, a hush-hush emergency meeting took place between principals of elite schools and officials (who were either alumni or wished they were). A flurry of red tape chasing paper chasing red tape chasing paper followed.

Within a year, five planeloads of teenage students from China, India and, for the sake of Asean solidarity, Indonesia and Vietnam, touched down at Changi Airport. Armed with scholarships and enough Singlish to order chicken rice, these aspirational athletes would be evenly distributed – by way of ballot – among the top schools.

And so it wasn’t long before social climbing became accepted as part and parcel of the inter-school rivalry. Elite school #1 would slug it out with elite school #2, elite school #3 with elite school #4, and so on, till everyone had a go at the title of Crème de la Crème.

It was no longer necessary to pretend that we were a society that followed meritocracy so religiously that it was sacrilegious to declare otherwise.


Featured image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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by Felix Cheong

HOW long more of this?

Four hours inching up the line, Mrs KS Tan could feel her varicose veins hardening. So this was what those si geena queuing overnight for Hello Kitty toys must be feeling!

Sigh. The things she had to do for a piece of real estate.

She glanced down at the legs of the woman in front of her. No obvious signs of wear and tear. Sturdy as an ox in winter, ready for farm work. How did she do it?

Finally, Mrs KS Tan reached the end of the line. What greeted her was a brusque example of womanhood.

“What you want?” the woman, on the forested end of 50, snapped.

“A micro-mini Mickey Mouse apartment.”

“Ten or 12 sq m?”


The woman handed her a slip of paper with the number “44”.

“Balloting Room, to your right.”

Balloting? She had queued six hours just for a balloting number?

Mrs KS Tan took the slip and stormed into the next room, where more than 100 investors, their hands sore from constantly rubbing them with glee, were perched on their toes like vultures.

Suddenly, she felt hungry. Searching her bag, she chanced upon a couple of antacid tablets and chewed them. Even medicine tasted good when you were this hungry.

At the business end of the room, there was a buzz of activity as numbers were drawn, announced and greeted by whoops of Gordon Gecko delight.

How long more of this?

Another six hours later, as blisters bit into her soles and her stomach acid perforating holes, Mrs KS Tan distinctly heard, “44!” Her heart in her mouth, her mouth in her hand, she squeezed her way quickly through the crowd – only to be greeted by the same surly, sour-faced woman.

“Weren’t you in the last room?” Mrs KS Tan asked.

“I’ve been sitting here all my life. Show me your cheque,” she demanded without looking up.

Mrs KS Tan dug deep into her bag and produced the cheque book. The woman nodded.

“High or low floor?”


The woman tore off a slip of paper with the number “444” and handed it to Mrs KS Tan. Another number?

“Queue Room, to your left.”

Mrs KS Tan finally lost it. “How long more of this!” she screamed.

The woman looked her sullenly in the eye, like a civil servant trained not to emote on remote.

“To exit, turn right.”


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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by Felix Cheong

THERE is no future in nostalgia.
– Arthur Yap

Old is the new black,
Cafes, dead people and artefacts.

From hipsters to architects,
Everyone takes a crack

At rehashing the wheel,
Spun so trendy it feels almost real.

Across the country, the past,
Propped up in wheelchairs or casts,

Is traded en masse, en bloc,
In big parcels or small lots.

It must be dusty enough to be recent,
Not cobwebbed enough to cause embarrassment.

All that has been forgotten
Has a price tag and forgiven.

Like Peranakan chairs discarded down the hall,
Still a whiff of Grandpa and mothballs,

Must be rescued from the karung guni
Who would’ve carted it off for free.

Drink 1940s kopi at today’s inflation,
Add traditional kaya toast for authentication.

Take a retro tour for heritage’s sake,
Retrofitted to look somewhat vintage.

Play 1950s music that stirs no memories,
Because turntables are more real than MP3.

Looking back is all about the look,
The emptiness of now, the chic of nooks.

There may not be a future
In nostalgia. But it sure

As hell keeps the hard-sell
Register ringing, lets you shell

Out pittance for owning a piece
Of a past even as it flees.


Featured Image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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by Felix Cheong

FOREIGN like ping pong
Mixed like lontong
Hot like Geylang
Heartland like Jurong

Long like pee queue
Sticky like lor mee
Stuck like MRT
Sorry like Kong Hee

Cheap like JB
Missing like taxi
Saigang like army
Hair like Amos Yee

Bounce like COE
Ambush like ERP
Tense like PSLE
Kancheong like GCE

Come back like SDP
Waiting like WP
Helicopter like MP
Movable like GRC


Featured Image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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guet ghee

by Felix Cheong

THE Life of a Nomadic Opposition Politician

Why did you join RP?

They had a low entry barrier. No need for degree or scholar. A good place for an ambitious fellow like me to start.

So why did you resign from RP to join NSP?

I needed a bigger table to lay out my policy papers. Their acronym also got one more letter that sounds more credible.

But why did you resign from NSP to join SDP?

Like moving from three-room to five-room HDB, I’ve got to show I’ve got it made. Like all Singaporeans, I also need to upgrade.

A Matter of Perspective I

The opposition’s PSI (Parliament in Singapore Index) reading:

0-59 seats to PAP: Healthy
60-69 seats to PAP: Acceptable
70-74 seats to PAP: Moderate
75-79 seats to PAP: Unhealthy
80-84 seats to PAP: Hazardous
85-89 seats to PAP: Fatal

A Matter of Perspective II

The PAP’s PSI (Parliament in Singapore Index) reading:

0-59 seats to PAP: Fatal
60-69 seats to PAP: Fatal
70-74 seats to PAP: Moderate
75-79 seats to PAP: Hazardous
80-88 seats to PAP: Unhealthy
89 seats to PAP: Healthy

At the Election Rally

“We have the CPF, COE, ERP, ECP, SMRT, PA. Whatever alphabet soup you can think of, we have stirred it thoroughly, fished out a clever abbreviation and created a foolproof institution behind it.”

The Minister paused to allow the echo of his voice to catch up. He looked appreciatively around. The official estimate had put the crowd at 6,000 – but only if you double-counted. Plus, of course, there were the hundreds of party activists from other GRCs rallying behind the rally.

He took another deep breath. The nagging was all going according to plan. He checked his cue cards and his watch. There were nine more bullet points that still needed to be fired off. He had to pick up the pace.

“It has taken us 50 years to do this. Fifty years to get us to this point. Our system will not fail. We’ve planned everything, down to your last tax dollar. We have in place a fundamentally sound system. A fundamentally sound system. Do not break it…”

A dramatic silence ensued. The crowd, in different phases of sleep, looked up unexpectedly from their mobile phones. What seemed like a pause for effect soon grew into an uncomfortable dead-air silence. A baby yawned, setting off a Mexican wave of yawns through the crowd.

The minister was still talking – now at bullet point number ten – oblivious to the fact that beyond a few metres of the stage, his words were lost to the night.

His sound system had fundamentally broken down.


Featured Image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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by Felix Cheong

SINCE my MP-wannabe says he’s my servant –
And he’s certainly adamant
When he staked out his turf,
Swore he’s all out to serve –

I shall inspect his ‘O’ level cert
For any eugenic defect at birth.
I shall shine a torch into his ear channels
For any evidence of the PSC panel.

I shall feed him my household chores;
Make fleas flee my dog,
Peel potatoes, mope the mop,
Find out where my wife hid my tots.

I shall watch in awe –
After he’s dirtied his overalls –
At a kopitiam across the street,
As his designer broom gently sweeps.

I hope he does not take too long,
This domestic helper on a song.
I hope he does not let his bodyguards
Do the work for a laugh.

For every glass he drops,
He recites the pledge on the hop.
For every speck of dust remains,
He has to sing Majulah again.

I shall check on the work
And tell him what it’s worth.
I shall high-beam him in the eye,
Once he’s straightened up his tie:

“Are you harping and eager
For my vote now and five years later?
Do you still believe you’re my servant
Or is it all PR jargon?”


Featured Image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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by Felix Cheong

HOW your Ah Girl do for PSLE?

Like that lor. 200 plus. Never study, but still get 200 plus. If study harder, sure can get 300 plus!

Three hundred plus cannot lah! Only Prime Minister can score like that!

Really ah? Luckily we have a Prime Minister with good PSLE result! If not, cannot hold head high. Your Ah Boy how?

Also 200 plus. That one, quite playful. Whole day long want to play drum in school band. At home, also play. Chopsticks, pens, anything also can. Bang, bang, bang! So noisy. I tell him: You play drum, cannot make money. Maybe during Chinese New Year when you play for lion dance.

He can also play in funeral band mah. No need skill. Just dong dong chiang, half hour, then you get big angpao.

Maybe hor! Last month, my block already got six funerals. If one dong dong chiang can earn 100 dollars, then 600 dollars a month. Good money hor!

But 600 dollars not enough to live lah! Must get degree first. No degree, better go sweep floor or clean table at food court.

I hear on news cleaners now also can earn $1,000.

One thousand dollars, you go spa once a week, gone by end of month. That’s why I tell Ah Girl: I want you go to RGS, then to uni. She say she want to go SOTA to learn dance. I say: SOTA, your head! I want to throw sofa at you. She say she want to, what, “pursue passion”. I don’t know why now a day, ‘passion’ so important to young people.

Yah lor! When we younger, we got ‘passion’ or not to be housewife? No, right?

That’s why I tell Ah Girl: ‘Passion’ make no money. Tomorrow, I go market buy you a big basket of passion fruit, throw it downstairs. You go and ‘pursue’ all the passion you want!

Just tell her lor, our Prime Minister never ‘pursue passion’. That’s why can become Prime Minister.


Featured Image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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by Felix Cheong

DON’T you love the taxi uncle who somehow stops
For every light, granny and fork.
He tours every traffic jam in the city,
Your heart, like the meter, skips inexorably.
His shift is long, the hours trail,
Why not measure them out like a snail?

Don’t you love the taxi uncle who never waits,
Like years gathering speed around his waist.
He weaves traffic like a drunken tailor,
Makes you blush like a multilingual sailor.
He takes you home within an inch of your soul,
Give or even take a few toes.

Don’t you love the taxi uncle who never fails
To marinate politics in his tales.
Any MP worth a crap, itch, pinch or salt
Meets his maker in a verbal assault.
His opinion must be as damning as God’s,
For you, before his wisdom, can only nod.

Don’t you love them all,
The ones that tailgate, high-gate and stonewall,
The ones whose horn rages in Code Morse,
And some, like Mondays, just get you lost.
The city just feels smaller without these cabbies
And, without a doubt, far less homely.


Featured Image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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By Felix Cheong

CONTESTANT number 69, tell us something about yourself!

My name is Mixxy Mah. I am a multiracial Singaporean and a global citizen.

Multiracial? You look very Chinese to me, Mixxy!

My father is Hakka and my mother is Cantonese. So I am a Hakkanese.

How interesting, Mixxy! I have never met a Hakkanese!

My boyfriend is currently a Hokkien. He has not made up his mind yet if he will remain one. He says he will decide when he turns 21. But we already plan to have five children and if he remains Hokkien, they will all be Hokkanese.

That is what we need in Singapore, more Hokkanese children! You also say you are a global citizen, Mixxy. You travel a lot?

I was born in Manila Street and grew up in Penang Lane. I studied at Canberra Primary and Secondary School and now I work at Hong Kong Street.

That explains why you sound like a Filipino raised in Malaysia but studied in Australia and now speak English with a Hong Kong twang! So you speak many languages, Mixxy?

I only learned two languages in school, Chinese and Singlish.

That is more than enough for national television! I understand for the talent showcase, you will treat us to a special demonstration?

I will recite the pledge alternately in Singlish and English, with a simultaneous translation in sign language.

Thank you, Mixxy! That will be a first on national television, folks! Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause please, contestant number 69 for Miss Singapore Core 2016!


Featured Image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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