June 24, 2017


Reliability (WOTD)
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Tan Chu Chze

TRAIN breakdowns break our trust in the system. The Ministry of Transport knows this, and is on the move. Yesterday’s (April 12) parliamentary debates saw progress in addressing the problem of trains breaking down too much… or in G-speak, ‘rail reliability’.

That said, ‘reliability’ is actually not a very straightforward idea. Worse still it is not something easily achieved. Sure, we are familiar with the word and use it often. But, it actually brings together a whole lot of different ideas.

In fact, that is the original concept of ‘reliability’. In its early use, the root ‘rely’ meant ‘to gather or assemble’. ‘Reliability’ is thus the product of assembling parts and things together. What things exactly? Let’s break it down.

The dictionary defines ‘reliability’ as being “consistently good in quality or performance; able to be trusted”. Here we can already see two ideas being fixed together: consistent performance, and trustworthiness. We think of these two notions as somewhat the same – if not flip sides of one idea – when really they are not.

Consistent performance is easily measurable. Following this we can derive a specific definition for ‘reliability’: that is, having stable and consistent results. Or in other words, a predictable outcome. If for the past 20 years your train to work arrives at your station at exactly 7am every morning, then your train system is reliable. It consistently produces the same result all the time.

The same applies for a train system that always fails. If you have never experienced your train arriving to your station on time, then your train system is (technically speaking) still reliable. It also consistently produces the same result – just that this result may not be the one you want.

This is where the other part of ‘reliability’s meaning comes to play. For a more complete sense of ‘reliability’, there must be some feeling of trust in relation to the predictable results.

This aspect, though, is not so easy to measure. How do you quantify a person’s confidence in a result or outcome? How do you capture an entire society’s faith in something like a train system’s performance? Or what happens when your train has an occasional but major breakdown?

Herein lies the difficulty with phrases like ‘rail reliability’: it is a term easily mistaken for measuring one aspect of ‘reliability’ when it was designed for the other. Take a close look at how it is defined by the Land Transport Authority (LTA):

‘Rail reliability’ is measured by “the average distance travelled by trains during the time between rail delays” – excluding delays less than five minutes long and delays caused by “external factors”.

Yeah it’s a bit dense right? Basically ‘rail reliability’ is a measure of how far trains travel before having a significant delay. According to the current statistics, we can expect about one delay every 133,000km travelled by all the trains in the system. Another way of looking at it is that you can commute on all the MRT lines end-to-end about 870 times before you will experience one longer-than-five-minutes-non-externally-caused delay.

The Straits Times was on the mark in noting that these measurements do not translate to a sense of trust among commuters. Despite the improvements in rail reliability numbers, there seems to be a regression in rail reliability feelings

And how do these sentiments fare vis-a-vis further improvements toward rail reliability? And only the measurable kind? Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan just announced yesterday a new target average of 200,000km before a delay, plans for of new technologies to be implemented, and even a Rail Academy to train engineers. Clearly, the ministry is doing its part to improve rail reliability. And you can trust that these promises will be kept especially by a minister who has proven himself reliable.

The question is: will all this effort calm the beast of a disgruntled patronage? Will we be able to rely on these measures to put together the bits and pieces of ‘rail reliability’?

Perhaps the “good and consistent” results we are looking for will take more patience than we have right now. Besides, the Ministry’s current measures can only be proven later in the journey. The best we can do is trust that they point in the right direction.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Illustration by Sean Chong

by Tan Chu Chze

SINGAPORE’S workforce is also a life force. Our words about work keep us – as persons, and as a people – alive: inflation, growth, trade, and interest rates affect employment, salary, dividends and bonuses.

It is within this body of vocabulary that Singapore has given life to a new word: “manpower-lean”. In fact, Singapore is the only nation to consistently use the term for three years running now.

“Manpower-lean” was born in a difficult time. Back in 2013, anxieties about employment of non-Singaporeans were peaking. It was in addressing this issue that then-acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin delivered the word-child:

“We know that local workers are in short supply especially for rank-and-file jobs; so therefore it is not just about reducing the dependence on foreign labour, we should seek to restructure ourselves to be a manpower-lean economy as well.”

And like a baby’s first breath, a new idea painfully but necessarily seared through the lungs of our economy. Ever since then, “manpower-lean” has matured into an integral part of the Ministry of Manpower’s vocabulary.

“Manpower-lean” imagines the workforce as the flesh of a body, which can come in many forms: thin and scrawny, flabby and blubbery, muscular and bulky, etc. In Singapore, we want our labour muscles “lean”. Our workforce has to be fit and healthy – naturally strong, high in energy, low in fat. Just like grass-fed beef and not wagyu. We don’t want fatty bits of employees who are all potential, but no action. Neither do we need large, powerful muscles of staffing with capacity to do more work than is available.

We want a functional and efficient body type. Minimal mass for maximal output. No excess.

Similarly, the economic dream encapsulated by “manpower-lean” is for a compact workforce; it is dense but not large, yet robust enough to carry its own weight and then some. This is the same notion of “lean” that drives Lean Manufacturing, a philosophy that aims to systematically eliminate ‘waste’ derived from inconsistency and excess in work distribution.

Unfortunately this economic restructuring also comes at a cost. Like any program designed to make fit of flab, it takes lots of effort, discipline, and a severe lack of ice cream. Translated back to employment jargon, this means each of us has to work more efficiently and effectively. (Cue groaning.) Can technology be harnessed so that I can accomplish two person’s jobs instead of one? Maybe further education or job redesign should be considered as well. Employers can even consult The Lean Transformation Innovation Centre – which I suppose is the employment equivalent of a gym with fitness instructors.

Regardless of the means, the goal is the same. How can we, as a workforce, do better with what we have… or even less? How do we attain beautiful biceps of productivity and rock-solid abs of industry?

As any fitspirational meme would tell you, that will not be easy. It will probably be tough, and uncomfortable, and you will crave french fries and char kway teow. But stick it out and stay willpower-strong – take things a step at a time – one day, we’ll be manpower-lean.


Featured Image by Sean Chong.

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WOTD Alliance

by Tan Chu Chze

IT HAS been two weeks since Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s battle cry. What started out as a rallying call to form an ‘alliance’ has slowly morphed into a campaign — first dubbed “Citizen’s Declaration”, now tempered to “Save Malaysia”. From whom? The scandal-riddled Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak. For the sake for Malaysia’s reputation, Dr Mahathir feels it is time Mr Najib stepped down.

While that position seems reasonable enough to take, what’s curious is how Dr Mahathir has pursued this goal. What was the deal with the alliance? It definitely got our heads scratching. But our reservations are also shared by the MSM. Nobody seems to take this alliance seriously. It has been referred to as a “loose alliance“, “broad alliance” and even “rainbow alliance“.

On one hand, it’s largely due to the unlikely union of foes: Dr Mahathir, (previously) of the ruling party UMNO, teamed up with the Opposition. Then again, that shows how badly he wants Najib out. So why does this alliance feel out of alignment? Perhaps one wonders why it should be called an alliance at all?

An alliance is a union or an association formed for mutual benefit, or at least to achieve some common goal. Ousting Najib from cabinet is clearly on the agenda. But the devil is in the details. The origins of ‘alliance’ doesn’t refer to any old union — it actually means “the bond of marriage”. Mind you, “marriage” in this context refers to political marriages in 14th century France, so it has nothing to do with true love between two individuals. It was all about uniting ruling houses or noble families so that wealth and power could be contained among the aristocracy.

The key idea that carries over to our current understanding of ‘alliance’ is that individuals do not form alliances. Only political groups do, like families, companies, political parties, or even states. This is probably what makes Dr Mahathir’s ‘alliance’ appear particularly out of place: he is rallying a union all by his lonesome self, without any support from the party he supposedly represents.

Putting all this back into the aristocratic French context, Dr Mahathir is akin to a runaway bride who is eloping with her rich, French family’s worst fear — a bourgeois. Bride and groom sign a petition, hoping to upset the maiden’s family enough to emasculate them. Aristocrat family puts their foot down. “No,” they say. “This utter impropriety. Our family will not be shamed.”

Dr Mahathir and the Opposition persist in their unlawful union. What will they do next? Will they ever see the light of their happily ever after?


Featured image by Sean Chong

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Car Free Sunday
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Tan Chu Chze

WHO would have thought Singapore would ever see the day where people are as excited about Car-Free Sunday as they would be for a free car?

If you missed out on the excitement, Feb 28 was Singapore’s very first Car-Free Sunday. The roads in the Civic District and parts of the Central Business District (CBD) were closed. Pedestrians, joggers and cyclists flocked from all corners of Singapore to the temporary car-free zones to celebrate the country’s virgin experience of legal jaywalking.

Needless to say, it was well received. You can check out some photos of the event here.

Car-Free Sunday was conceived as part of Singapore’s new car-lite movement. The goal? To reduce car use. As it turns out, language plays an important role in this campaign, particularly in reshaping the public’s view on cars.

‘Car-free’ is exactly one of those linguistic vehicles.

Why use the term ‘car-free’? There are probably many ways of describing a day without cars, such as “No Car Day”. That would have been sufficiently clear and simple. But where’s the fun in being so plain with the intentions of such an event?

Let me illustrate with an example. Consider the ways we express the absence of ‘care’. We have at least three distinct choices: ‘don’t care’, ‘careless’ and ‘carefree’. Although all three sayings are about “not having a care”, they communicate vastly different connotations.

‘Don’t care’ is quite specific in implying the refusal of care; Where there could be care, it is deliberately withheld. Contrast that to ‘careless’, which means the lack of care. The word carries the implication that there should be more care, and that was found wanting.

Lastly, ‘carefree’ is the liberation from care. While ‘care’ – in the previous two phrases – is conceived as a positive thing gone missing, ‘carefree’ suggests that care is a bothersome thing to get rid of. Thus, you are better off not caring.

Like so, the rhetoric that is played in ‘car-free’ creates the impression that ‘car-freedom’ is a form of relief. No, it’s not that self-driving cars have attained consciousness and liberation rights. Rather, ‘car-free’ blends two ideas together: that the ease of traffic on the road is somehow the same relief drivers might feel from their cars.

How true is it? That is for people who own cars to decide.

But for the rest of us folks without a car, relief might come in the form of freedom from a motorised financial burden. Then, every day is car-free day.


Featured image by Sean Chong

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WOTD: Middle Ground
Designed by Sean Chong

by Tan Chu Chze

EVER since The Middle Ground first launched in June 2015, there has been one central question that we often receive: Where do we stand? Where is “The Middle Ground”?

To answer that question most objectively, I would have to say somewhere in Commonwealth. That’s where our office is currently located.

However, that of course doesn’t answer to the intent of the question: What is our political positioning? Are we “pro-PAP” or “pro-Opposition”? Going by the comments we get – a little bit of both, yet also not quite either.

Bertha, in her introduction to the Middle Ground, calls it “the space between two extremes”. That follows closely from dictionary definitions of “middle”, which specifies it as an intermediate point that is equal distance to two extremities. In other words, the “middle ground” is exactly about not taking sides.

At the same time, the “middle ground” is a much richer place than simply being “not extreme”, so to speak. The way we use word “middle” takes on quite a wide and diverse range of references, thus creating a space that is impossible to pinpoint. So really, the question that should be asked is “What are we in the middle of?

Being busy people, we are usually in the middle of something. But at other times, we also occupy other middles. Here are some of the metaphors of “middle” that we rely on in everyday language:

Here we can imagine a “middle” within a journey. There is a distinct “start” and “end” which are connected like a straight line between two dots. This particular middle conveys a sense of being “on the way” where there is a progression from beginning to end. That is how we generate ideas like “mid-life”, “middle age”, and the “Middle Ages”. What is left implicit in this idea of “middle” is a notion of change. There is growth from past to future, youth to maturity, old to new. “Middle” encompasses the journey in between.

This sense of “middle” is similar to the journey metaphor of “middle'”. The major difference is that a journey is continuous, while a sequence has discrete units arranged in order. So if we think of a journey as comprising start-middle-end, then a sequence has a first-middle-last relationship. It’s how we get “middle children” with “middle names” and “middle fingers”. Sometimes we also use this concept to describe value judgements like “best” and “worst”, so middle’ comes to denote the “ordinary” and “normal”.

“Middle” not only represents the length between two end points, but also length itself. This sense of ‘middle’ is contrasted against notions of “long” and “short”, “big” and “small” to create ideas like “middle distance”, or “middle-sized”. The key idea that holds this sense of “middle” together is quantity. “Middle” is the amount that is between “a lot” and “a little”, and sometimes even “too much” and “too little”. That’s where the ‘middle’ comes in to compromise or compensate, and produce something moderate.

Probably the most prominent sense of “middle” relies on the idea of orientation. Throwback to Math or Physics class, orientation is usually conceived in three dimensions. In more familiar terms, it’s up-down, left-right and front-back.

The “middle” within the up-down axis is the patty inside the burger. It has something above, and something below. For example, we use this idea when talking about “upper class”, “higher socio-economic status”, or “top management”. At the bottom are the opposites, “low brow”, “subpar” and “inferior”. And sandwiched in between the highs and lows, uppers and lowers, ups and downs is the sexy midsection.

“Middles” can also spread to the sides. When it does, “middle” is circumscribed by “left-right” and “East-West” notions. From there, we develop our concepts of “Middle-East”, “middle ear” and the “middle road” that may or may not lead to “Middle Earth”. Interestingly, both “middle ear” and “middle road” connote a sense of a “third object” in what normally appears in binary. This “third option” could serve as a common ground, like the “political middle” – or a line of separation, like Middle Road which separated colonist from locals during British Singapore.

Finally, the last “middle” literally describes the space behind the front, and before the back. It’s the ambiguous space between the “foreground” and “background” – a middleman between the front line and backend.

We don’t often think much of this “middle”, but it is an important one. While details in the fore catch our notice, and the big picture in the back provides contextual support, it is the “middle ground” that helps us to connect all the dots. (Hehe. See what I did there?) The “middle” is an important, but also often taken-for-granted space.

So which is our middle, you might still ask?

Well, there is no fixed middle. The reality is that ‘middle’ is a word without neat, clean-cut meanings, and more often than not we’re middling multiple ‘middles’. Yes, I know it can be muddling. But that also means the middle ground is constantly changing and growing, and hence, so are we.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Tan Chu Chze

RADICALS and radishes have a lot in common. Both words literally have the same root, ‘radix’, which in Latin means “of or having roots”. While radishes have remained a root, ‘radical’ evolved to describe a “change from the root” – a massive, fundamental, and extreme change, which is completely different from a slight refresh.

Both radicals and radishes are also not well liked. Radicals seek to disrupt the comfy status quo. We no like. Radishes, on the other hand, is rabbit food. We also no like.

The two rad- words also share an aura of mystery. For radishes, it comes in the form of chai tow kway. Or in its anglicised name, fried carrot cake. There is something dubious, I presume, in how the name of the dish was translated: Why is it called ‘carrot cake’ if it contains not a shred of carrot?

To make matters confusing, ang mohs have another kind of carrot cake – one which actually incorporates carrots. Does that mean that chai tow kway is merely an impostor carrot cake?

As tasty as its substance, fried carrot cake is not true to its name. Why is that so? And who is responsible for that misnomer? Why don’t we change it?

If only we knew.

The issue with ‘radical’ is slightly more subtle. The question mostly arises from its verb form: ‘radicalise’. It means “to cause a person to become an advocate of radical change” either politically, socially or religiously. To radicalise is to unearth and pull out the radish of a person’s belief system, and put in its place a turnip.

However, as 27 Bangladeshis (amongst many other emerging radicals around the world) have shown us recently, this idea of radicalisation itself needs to be uprooted. These individuals were ‘self-radicalised’ – that means they chose and induced their own radicalisation. The very fact that we have to articulate the ‘self’ in ‘self-radicalisation’ is quite telling:

Radicalisation is simply not something you do to yourself. Or so we’d like to believe. It is brainwashing, evil trickery, the steeping of minds in lies and propaganda. No discerning person would do such bad, bad things to themselves. It takes somebody else, someone deviant and wicked and powerful to tug at your radish. Nobody pulls their own radish.

Obviously, that no longer holds true.

Thus, the recent unfolding of the terrorist narrative presents us with a jarring question – one that is captured in the word ‘self-radicalise’: How can anyone, of their own free will, of their own initiative, choose to do something so terrible to themselves and even worse to others?

And the most frightening thing: we don’t know.


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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by Tan Chu Chze

EWWW. No. Eh? Uhh?

Chances are, one of those noises was your initial reaction to the christening of Singapore’s newest junior college (JC): Eunoia.

Some hate it, others are more undecided. Many want the name euthanised and buried. Alternative suggestions are already in abundance.

But before we continue to eulogise the name of a school not yet born, here are five things about ‘eunoia’ that make it an unusual choice:

1. Appearance

One of the unique features of this word is that it is spelt using all five vowel letters of English. Not only this, but they are all placed closely together.

It’s not often that you see clusters like ‘oia’ in other English words, which is precisely why it (still) looks Greek. There’s only one word shorter than ‘eunoia’ with the five vowels – it’s ‘iuoea’.

2. Sound

Thanks to its unique spelling, ‘eunoia’ also has our jaws turning in unfamiliar directions. And to our ears, ‘eunoia’, doesn’t ring with euphony. It’ll probably take a while for us to get used to saying and hearing this unusual string of vowels.

But what didn’t take long was for the online community to birth an onslaught of puns. By now I’m sure you would know at least 10. If you aren’t tired of them yet, here’s our take on ‘eunoia’.

3. Meaning

You would probably know by now that ‘eunoia’ means “beautiful thinking”. That itself is actually quite a beautiful thought.

We tend to think of thinking as quite functional: decision making, analysis, evaluation, all serve particular purposes. However, ‘eunoia’ suggests that thinking can be appreciated in its own right: thinking can be beautiful. That’s something we could ponder… beautifully.

4. Usage

This probably lies at the heart of why we find this word so strange: we don’t see it often at all. The most prominent encounter with ‘eunoia’ would probably be a poetry book title at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. Coincidence much?

Even so, it’s not a word we use in everyday speech and text. And that’s a worthy question to ask: How do we use ‘eunoia’?

“What I like best about her is her eunoia. Her mind is damn chio.”

Seems excessive, doesn’t it? Especially considering most people would not likely understand what it means, at least until now. And even if they did, it is unlikely that we would meet many situations where we would have to use ‘eunoia’ at all.

5. Context

So then, given all that is strange about ‘eunoia’, why use it? And in particular, to name a school?

A look at the names of the existing JCs show that ‘Eunoia Junior College’ breaks a trend.

Most of our JCs have rather pragmatic names. The bulk of them are named after their location e.g. Serangoon, Tampines, Jurong, Yishun, Pioneer. I suppose that helps us remember where these schools are.

There are those named with a patriotic ring – National, Raffles, and Temasek… And then of course, those named after their ethnic or religious affiliations i.e. Catholic, Saint Andrew’s, Hwa Chong, and Anglo Chinese. All these names are commemorative – they remind us of who we are and where we come from.

None of these names relate to the function, qualities, goals, or aspirations of a school. Which make JC names like Innova and Meridian a bit off. Following this line of thought, naming the new JC something like Mt Sinai Junior College, or Lee Kuan Yew Junior College seems trivial.

Thus, it is actually really weird that the Ministry of Education (MOE) should name a school after an action like “thinking”. Worse still, thinking that is “beautiful”, and using a word that appears unique and distinctive. Could it be that these are qualities that MOE hopes for this JC’s future students?

Maybe we have been too quick to judge the sound of this JC’s name. But if there is one thing that is clear, it’s a change in the way MOE is choosing its school names.

Hopefully, it is backed by an abundance of eunoia.


Featured image Exercise Plays Vital Role Maintaining Brain Health by Flickr user A Health BlogCC BY-SA 2.0.

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Merlion and singlish phrases

by Felix Cheong

What’s a year-end roundup without its buzzwords? From Pioneer Generation to kampong spirit, 2015 gave us more than its fair share of lingo that tickled us and kept us talking. I had the tough task of picking the top three and spinning comic stories out of them.


1. Chut pattern


Image by TMG.

For the life of him, Mr Pioneer Goh couldn’t understand what all the fuss over tai-chi was about. He had, of course, seen the senior citizens downstairs his block, lined up like a parade of greying soldiers in the basketball court, bright and early like the sun.

The intermittent repetition of “Who, see” often made him laugh out loud. “You move so slow. You call that exercise ah?” he said to his wife when she returned home, drenched from her hour-long tai-chi.

Mrs Goh, exasperated with his excuses not to join him, retorted, “You want to move fast, you chut your own pattern lah!”

The next day, Mr Goh rose early and rose to the challenge. He would show his wife he was still young at heart. Taking a spot in the field, a stone’s throw from the “Who, see” crowd so they could see him, he chut his own pattern. In big waves and small, with arms and legs in all directions, taking in the whole history of martial arts films from Bruce Lee to Jet Li.

It would take Mr Pioneer Goh three days in hospital to recover from sore limbs and a sprained back. But there was no medicine for his bruised ego.


2. Ownself check ownself

Reflected Chess pieces by Adrian Askew, CC BY 2.0.

It wasn’t long before Mr Pioneer Goh ran out of chess mates. The ones who could match him, move for move, square by square, were taking a long hiatus from the game, inside their columbarium niches.

This past year alone, even as everyone in Singapore cheered the SG50 celebrations, he had to attend the wake of five childhood friends. The more he thought about it, the more he awoke to why it was called “a wake”.

Still, day after day, Mr Goh continued going downstairs, purposefully lining up the pieces on the board at the void deck. He resorted to playing chess against himself.

Mrs Goh, who had no interest in the game, asked, “How you win like that?”

Mr Goh, still pondering his next move against himself, didn’t look up. He simply said, “Ownself check ownself.”


3. Stunned like vegetable

Screenshot from YouTube video.
Screenshot from YouTube video.

Mr Pioneer Goh didn’t mind his wife being a backseat driver – as long as she did it in someone else’s car. And not when he had already installed a GPS and gotten used to its crisp American voice that reminded him sometimes of Marilyn Monroe.

“I tell you how many times already. Left, left, left. You deaf like potato ah?” Mrs Goh said.

Lately, she had taken to comparing things to vegetables. After attending a Ministry of Health seminar on healthy eating, she decided to go all out vegetarian.

“But GPS said go straight,” Mr Goh said.

“You married me or that tomato GPS?” Mrs Goh retorted.

Mr Goh sighed as he gripped the steering wheel and picked up speed. Luckily, traffic at this hour wasn’t too bad.

“Turn right, turn right here!” Mrs Goh suddenly shrieked, pointing at the turning he had just missed. Right at the same moment, Marilyn, cool as cucumber, said, “Go straight fifty metres.”

In that confusion, something had to give. And it turned out to be the car, which Mr Goh drove into a drain by the side of the road.

“You have arrived at your destination,” Marilyn said. Mr Goh quickly turned it off. “Are you ok?” he said, turning to his wife.

Mrs Goh, rubbing a bump on her forehead, screamed, “See lah? Every time you listen to that ang moh woman, you look stunned like vegetable!”


Featured image by TMG.

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Christmas tree and decoration in a living room. Image sourced from Flickr user: JD Hancock
In the wee hours of the morning on December 25, I attempted to capture the feeling of Christmas in our new home. It has been a hectic but happy time with changes great and small.I’m grateful to all of you who supported my family in our many challenges this year.And I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.

by Tan Chu Chze

THE meaning of Christmas is familiar enough not to require explanation: it’s Jesus’ birthday party. Literally. ‘Christmas’ is a shortening of “Christ’s mass”. By “mass”, you can guess this celebration is religious and held at a church.

And no, Christmas isn’t Jesus’ actual birth date, as far as we can tell. Just that December 25 happens to be a symbolic day to celebrate it.

Yet despite Christmas having strong connections to Christianity, its practice is decreasingly so.

Hold your reindeers, let me explain.

You only have to notice how Christmas is celebrated here in Singapore. First, remember that there are four major festivities observed: Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali, and Christmas. Each of these events correspond bluntly to the four racial-religious groupings – Chinese, Malays, Indians and Others.

As a way of establishing these connections, a site representing each heritage is elaborately decorated during their festivity. Chinatown is decorated on the Lunar New Year; Geylang Serai has a makeover during Hari Raya; Little India during Diwali. And which cultural site is the mainstay of Christmas?

Orchard Road.

That’s not all. Even the Christmas symbols and practices are adopted differently. Instead of fairy lights and stockings to dress the home, our malls are lighted up. So much so that they compete for ‘best dressed’ mall.

Christmas trees are an obsession. They are opulent, larger than life, and everywhere. Suitable for taking selfies against .

We even have Santa Claus. Instead of Dads dressing up, it’s the delivery man, bearing online shopping. Maybe you might find them at the malls too.

It pays to take note of what isn’t borrowed so openly. On Orchard Road you would hardly find any explicit images of the cross, Mother Mary, or baby Jesus. Or in other words, any image that might make Christmas seem remotely Christian-y.

What seems essential to our celebration of Christmas is thus not religious, but a certain “mood”. It is an atmosphere induced not just by profuse use of mistletoes and LED lights, but also an endless loop of carols and jingles; the smell of fir trees; the barrage of seasonal concerts and performances, exclusive dining offers, Starbucks’ Christmas drinks, and shopping sales.

Everyone is in on the season of buying. Even MSM. Check out their projection of sale revenues, shopping trends, and financial advice.

It is indeed a season to be jolly. Let us embrace the Joy of Giving… our money away.

Merry Christmas.


Featured image Merry Christmas 2013! by Flickr user JD HancockCC BY 2.0. 

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Graphic of a business man climbing the stairs to greater heights.

by Tan Chu Chze

THE DBS Academy was officially opened last week. At the event, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam praised the academy in his speech for embracing an “upstart culture”. As newsy as that buzz phrase sounds, it’s actually a bit of a puzzle. It seems DPM Tharman coined it himself. No one else (that Google could find) had used this phrase before. At least not the way he did.

So how do we make sense of ‘upstart culture’? And why not just stick to “culture of experimentation and building” as given by the Prime Minister’s Office?

Different papers cited different aspects of what an ‘upstart culture’ should comprise. For Business Times and TODAY it was “use of technology” and “digital skills and mindsets”. Meanwhile, ST picked up on “porosity of borders” both within and outside an organisation that “allows ideas to come in and out”.

And what exactly is so ‘upstarty’ about these? Not much, actually. Looking at anyone’s Facebook news feed would show you no lack in “digital skills and mindsets” nor “porosity of borders”. And yet not every Facebook user qualifies to be an ‘upstart’. For that, we have to look at the meaning of ‘upstart’.

An ‘upstart’ is a person who had quickly and suddenly risen the ranks, usually within a business setting. Regarding its connotation, the dictionaries are not so up to date. They define ‘upstart’ as largely derogatory, suggesting the said person is arrogant, pretentious, or lacking the social skills and acceptance for their new, lofty position. They are the kay kiang garang soldier that nobody likes – which it totally the opposite of what DPM Tharman refers to.

More current usage of ‘upstart’ is much more positive. Instead of calling upstarts brash, they are now seen as young and vibrant. And whatever made them appear socially inept and rebellious is now acknowledged as innovative, entrepreneurial, and daring.

Upstarts upstage their rivals and upturn the norm – which may be upsetting to colleagues and competitors, but is also very desirable in our current economy. That is, a market in which the big fish can “have their meals taken away” by upstarts in their start-ups. Just look at AirBnb or Uber – given the right ideas applied with the right digital tools, starting a successful business is anyone’s game.

In fact, a number of start-ups have gained such immense success that is has become almost cool to be an upstart like Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. And their secret? Being disruptive to status quos and traditions (think “disruptive innovation”), thinking “outside the box”, or in DPM Tharman’s words, an “upstart culture”.

It is in this spirit that DPM Tharman recommends businesses to develop: use technology and new ideas to disrupt current norms and develop cheaper and better services and products – and more importantly, before our competitors do it first. In short, employees should think like upstarts, and companies behave like start-ups: ‘disrupt or be disrupted’.

Which leaves us with one final piece to the puzzle. As part of being unconventional, upstarts are often characterised by their lack of or even resistance to institutionalised education. So then, how does an ‘upstart culture’ develop in an academy?


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