April 29, 2017

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by Suhaile Md

Suhaile attended the last two More Than Just Series of Dinner conversations on race. One of the underlying questions participants grappled with was this: Is there always a clear line between what’s racist and what’s not? The discussions in the dinner itself did not cover race-based jokes. So here’s a short reflection on situations in which race-based jokes, in his opinion, are acceptable.

I ONCE had a stranger do the “indian head shake” barely five minutes into our conversation. He changed his accent too for added effect. A lame attempt at humour that hardened the ice rather than break it.

To be fair, I had cracked a few self-deprecating jokes on stage during a presentation earlier. But the jokes were not racial. Perhaps my self-deprecation led him to believe that I’m not “the sensitive sort”, as some like to say when their racial jokes fall flat.

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Truth to tell, my friends and I – of various races – frequently engage in race-based jokes that would well, embarrass others outside the group. But they are very close friends. I could never fathom why some people thought it ok to walk up to a stranger and make such “jokes”.

When I ask them, they usually reply, “but my Indian friend is ok with it leh, so not racist what, why you so sensitive?” Or they say: “But X can make such jokes why I cannot?”

Ah, well, context my friends. Context is everything.

Look at race-based jokes like you would butt-slaps. That’s right, the childish, nonsensical game some kids engage in: “HAHA I HIT YOUR BACKSIDE!”

With that analogy in mind, here’s a quick guide (and please don’t kill me if you disagree).
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a. Do it to a stranger and it’s criminal.

b. Not all friends are cool with it no matter how close you are. Respect that.

c. It’s never appropriate in formal settings, even if you’re the best of friends.

d. Never use it as a weapon no matter how justifiably upset and angry you are. It’s humiliating.

e. Also, please don’t try it out with people you’ve barely met.

f. Don’t dish it out if you’re not comfortable being at the receiving end.

g. Too much of it gets tiring very fast.

h. Not everyone understands this sort of… friendly banter. And not understanding it doesn’t mean they are “too sensitive”. So don’t be a jerk about it.

i. Being cool with it between friends does not make one a sadomasochist (or in the case of race, self-hating “insert race”)

j. You need to be really close friends to even consider it… and these friends are often the first to rush to your aid when sh*t hits the fan.

k. When in doubt, just don’t.

 

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by Suhaile Md

This is the second of three articles on More Than Just, a closed-door series of three dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Participants attend all three sessions and were chosen to reflect the diversity of Singapore. Names are withheld for confidentiality, to provide a safe, open space, for honest conversations. Read the first article here.
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DAY two (Mar 31) of the dinner series and the stories streamed out. Of racism, in racially harmonious Singapore. Some spoke of the casual cruelty that springs from ignorance. Others lamented the broader sense of discrimination that permeates society at large.

But underlying it all, was the question: When is it racist, really?

A 28-year-old Indian male participant mentioned during the large group discussion that stereotypes do have some basis in reality, or “nuggets of truth so to speak”. He said, for example, that he found the various races can smell different. He thinks it’s due to cultural factors like diet for example. Not bad, just different.

So, when a child asks: ”Why you smell like that?”, it might just be innocent curiosity on the child’s part and the child just does not have the language or maturity to phrase it politely. Likewise for other observations, such as “why you so black?” or “why you so hairy?”.

In response, an Indian lady recalled the time in primary one when a Chinese boy refused to hold her hand. It’s something young students do when they line up during school assembly. “He said I was black… and I don’t think he meant it maliciously but it definitely affected me you know.”

He said I was black… and I don’t think he meant it maliciously but it definitely affected me you know.

Just like it affected her when “someone said my hair was so oily you could fry a fish”. And it definitely “affected me in secondary school when my classmates all spoke Mandarin, and for no reason of my own I was excluded from people with whom I could engage with”.

She said she doesn’t “attribute any malice to any of these episodes” but she wishes she was able to make her former classmates “understand that it hurts”. It’s cruel how casually ignorant questions cut.

The lady was hurt as a child because of her race. But by her own account, she did not think it was malicious. Would it be fair to call her former school mates racist? Well, the intentions may not have been racist, but the outcome certainly was.

On hearing the Indian lady’s story, a Chinese lady added: “Race really played a really big part in choosing a primary school for my daughter.”

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Why race matters in school choice

The Chinese lady is married to an Indian man. Their daughter has darker skin. Even though her daughter can “speak really good Mandarin”, the Chinese kids at the playground “just don’t talk to her at all and exclude her”.

When it was time to choose a school, the mother had three choices, a top Chinese school which was her alma-mater, a neighbourhood school nearby, and a convent school.

Following the advice of most people, she was thinking of either the top school or the school next door, “until a Eurasian mother came and talked to me and said… you want to put her in a Chinese school, you know she’s going to be so excluded from everything?”

You want to put her in a Chinese school, you know she’s going to be so excluded from everything?

Likewise for the neighbourhood school because she lived “in a new estate… with many new citizens from China and Malay(sian) Chinese.” Given her daughter’s experience at the playground, she realised it might play out the same way at school.

So she followed the advice of the Eurasian mother who had said: “Send her to convent, she’ll mix, she’ll blend in there with everybody.”

The Chinese mother’s sharing led to a discussion on how individual experiences might build up to society-wide stereotypes and consequently racial discrimination.

When a Mandarin speaking yet-not-Chinese-looking child is at risk of being ostracised on account of skin tone, what more the other races?

Furthermore, as another participant mentioned, his secondary school, a top Independent school, only had a handful of Malay students in the whole cohort of about 400. Let alone Special Assistant Plan (SAP) schools which only offers Mandarin as a second language. Are such schools racist? Do they end up allowing stereotypes to foment due to a lack of exposure to citizens of other races?

As a Eurasian man in his 40s put it, racial differences are visible. “You can see what the guy looks like but you don’t know his” background or who he is. This can lead to viewing everything through a racial lens.
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When race becomes the only lens

The Eurasian participant brought up the example of the radio DJs who got into trouble a few months back. They were discussing a survey on the sleep patterns of Singaporeans. In the process, they made remarks that stereotyped certain races. They were subsequently fined by the G.

Said the participant: “They split (survey results) it according to racial lines. What is that teaching you? How is race even relevant? Let’s talk about what kind of jobs they are doing, which neighbourhoods are they living in, how are they getting to work, those are things that will teach you things that are useful that you can turn into policy or constructive discussion.

“At a certain point, even mentioning race itself becomes racist because if race has nothing to do with something, why are you even bringing it into conversation?”

At a certain point, even mentioning race itself becomes racist because if race has nothing to do with something, why are you even bringing it into conversation?

Expanding on his point, other participants said that the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) categorisations in Singapore forces a racial lens on everything even if there’s no need to.

However, a Malay social service practitioner in his mid-30s felt there may be a “need to compartmentalise according to racial groups because members of a “particular community would know what works best… what will be culturally sensitive, what will not.”

That said, he added, after a certain point it blinds us. “Race is just a lens that we put on.” What about viewing the issues through another lens, like class?

Race is just a lens that we put on.

In his work, he found that a Chinese boy from a single parent household living in a rented flat has much more in common with the Malay boy with a similar background, than he did with other Chinese kids with more stable families.

At this juncture, a Chinese participant asked the Malay social service practitioner if he thought too much focus on race “hides all the other factors which are more important”.

“Definitely”, he replied.
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Ghosts of policies past

For example, on the issue of drug abuse, when the social service practitioner visited prisons, he said, “for every one Chinese inmate I see, I see four or five Malays”. That’s a fact, “a reality my community is compounded with, but again we need to stop saying” it’s a Malay problem. It’s wrong to just attribute it to race.

Back in the 70s, a whole generation of Malay men were left in limbo because they were not enlisted for National Service (NS). Many of them could not find a job because they were not officially discharged from their NS obligation. Employers did not want to take the risk of hiring them. It was safer to hire someone who completed their NS.

“He can’t get a job, he just waits, NS never comes, nobody calls him, puts him in a difficult situation…” and that’s a contributing factor for the drug abuse cases. It’s a challenge the Malay Muslim community is dealing with.

This has an effect over generations, and we’re still feeling it now. Yet when the drug problem is discussed, it perpetuates stereotypes by focussing on race.

He added: “I’m not just saying this, this is actually based on academic literature I studied back in my tertiary days (as a sociology major). There are so many other structures that either work for you or against you.”

Another structural issue that came up during the discussions was on how Singapore’s elites might have blind spots when it comes to race.

Most participants, both Chinese and non-Chinese, acknowledged that a lot of top schools seem to have under-representation of minority races.

The trouble is, a participant mused, many top students and scholars come from the above mentioned top schools. They then proceed into the Military for example where it’s a predominantly Chinese background. Many parts of the Armed Forces – Army, Navy and Air Force – have little to no Malay Muslim representation especially. So it’s likely that many of these top leaders have little to no exposure interacting with minorities since their school days.

Yet, these same military leaders from lieutenant-colonels and above are channeled into various parts of the civil service or state affiliated companies where they influence policy making decisions.

Have they had the opportunity to examine pre-conceived and unchallenged stereotypes that might have calcified from their school days? Based on the stories shared, many minorities had schoolmates who had no racist intent, yet the outcomes of their actions were racist nonetheless. Maybe this is something that needs to be addressed.

 

TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.

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by Mahita Vas

IN OCTOBER 2015, my husband and I contacted one of the participating insurance agencies about signing up for the Integrated Shield Plan (IP). We were keen on a better coverage than what was offered on our MediShield Life plans. Within days, we heard that my husband’s application had been approved. Mine was rejected, but the agent said she would appeal. Less than a week later, I was told the appeal was also rejected. No other option was offered.

I tried all the other agencies. At that time there were five – AIA, Aviva, Great Eastern, NTUC Income and Prudential. I was rejected by all of them. Great Eastern told me not to bother applying because my application would definitely be rejected.

Disheartened, I pointed out that I was fit and healthy. I exercised regularly and was careful about what I ate. Neither a smoker nor a drinker. Minimum eight hours sleep. But the answers were all the same – nope. Not approved.

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All because I share one thing in common with these people – Catherine Zeta-Jones, Graham Greene, Winston Churchill, Nina Simone, Lee Joon, Demi Lovato, Carrie Fisher and Eason Chan. The list goes on: Mel Gibson, Stephen Fry, Edgar Allan Poe, Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Amy Winehouse, Vincent Van Gogh, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig van Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale. The list does go on but I’ll stop here.

They are amongst the greatest artists, musicians, performers, writers and thinkers who ever lived. I cannot, dare not, compare myself to any of these leaders in their respective fields, being nowhere nearly as accomplished as any of them. Great as their achievements have been, they are also, first and foremost, people. Just like me. And like about 2 per cent of the world’s population, including Singapore’s.

People with a dreadful illness once known as manic depressive illness, now known as bipolar disorder. An illness marked by extreme mood swings, where patients go from feeling overly happy to feeling empty. Bipolar disorder is indiscriminate, incurable and requires lifelong medication. With diligent medication and visits to the doctor, it is possible for patients to function as normally as anyone.

When I appealed to the insurance companies, I provided them with a doctor’s report from the Institute of Mental Health, which stated that I was compliant with medication and in full remission. Still, my appeals were rejected. I questioned the discrimination – after all, they could simply provide exclusions for any psychiatric treatment or injuries arising from my condition, for instance, injuries sustained in a failed suicide attempt. Some of the agencies raised the issue of two other minor and common ailments but when challenged, agreed that without bipolar disorder, I would get an IP with exclusions for those ailments. The rejection was blamed squarely on bipolar disorder.

Discrimination forces people to keep fighting for equitable treatment. So, on a friend’s advice, I went to see my MP at a Meet-The-People Session armed with an appeal letter, along with all the rejection letters. I didn’t get to meet my MP but his team of volunteers who looked into my case were very helpful. They said it was unlikely that any of the international agencies would bother about a letter from an MP, and advised focusing on NTUC Income as it was my best chance. I left feeling hopeful because my MP was none other than Minister Chan Chun Sing.

Several weeks later, I received a letter which said this, among the usual official phrases:

“We hope you understand that it is our duty to underwrite each case according to our underwriting guidelines consistently so as to be fair to the others who contribute to the risk pool.”

Please help me understand how I could be at a greater risk than someone who drinks and smokes heavily and may even be obese? Risk of what, exactly?

Followed by this:

“Moving forward, we are willing to assess your coverage in future, when you have fully recovered and have been discharged from your follow up for your bipolar disorder condition without the need for medication.”

Brilliant. The day I am discharged from my follow up, when I no longer need medication, will be the day I die. Bipolar disorder is incurable.

Mental illness has no known comorbidity with physical illness. By rejecting my application and appeals, these insurance companies are deliberately denying me coverage for illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, all of which have no relation to my mental state.

I made a random check with the overseas offices of two of the international insurance agencies which rejected my application. All offered critical illness plans for psychiatric patients, though with exclusions. Some plans offered supplementary coverage for psychiatric care. So why exclude psychiatric patients in Singapore? Because they can?

If I could bring Isaac Newton, Beethoven or Charles Dickens back to this future, living in Singapore and requiring an IP, I wonder if these companies would deny them coverage.

I also wonder why NTUC Income thought it fit to use me, specifically my condition, on their first Future Peek campaign, and yet think I am unworthy of their insurance policy. Use my condition for marketing but spit me out when I want to buy an IP. Such hypocrisy.

NTUC Income’s website states “Insurance Made Simple, Made Honest, Made Different” and with great emphasis, “People. First”.  I wonder what they really mean by those claims.

 

Mahita Vas is the author of ‘Praying To The Goddess Of Mercy: A Memoir Of Mood Swings’. She spends her time on advocating mental health issues and pursuing personal interests including reading and writing.

 

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by Ong Lip Hua
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THE trends are clear: We’re headed for a future where full-time employment is going to be a smaller slice of the pie, and where skills, both hard and soft, will bear more fruit over a career than the qualification you graduate with.
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A recent JobsDB report on how more than 10,000 respondents from seven Asian countries think that promotions are based mostly on your “supervisor liking you” and “leadership ability” tells of the need for soft skills in all types of employment. Job performance was also high up on the list from both employee and employer perspectives, especially in Singapore.
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Most Singaporean parents see studying and academics as their children’s job specialisation and invest heavily to this end. In some families, other childhood experiences, even basic life-skills like housekeeping, cooking and carrying your own bag, are subcontracted to a maid, grandparent or parent, who picks up after the kids. In exchange, the children are expected to deliver stellar academic results in school.
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And while good grades might set you up for a good start in a career, at what point does sacrificing other areas of development in favour of better grades begin to hurt a person? Would it make sense then to gear our children’s education so specifically towards grades?
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This approach has been hotly debated for the last few years, even as the G has begun to call for change through initiatives like Skillsfuture.
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It reminds me of how Major Motoko Kusanagi, in the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie, described the diversity of her team in a high-tech future: “If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: Over-specialise, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.”
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But what future are we preparing our children for? Would stellar but narrow academic performances be sufficient, or even give a competitive edge as we think it would? Would it be good for the individual and for society, or do we court Kusanagi’s “slow death”?
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HRinasia cited a February 2016 Willis Towers Watson 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study that measured employers in Singapore expecting a three per cent drop in full time employment over the next three years, and a 59 per cent increase in contingent workers in Singapore, compared to 25 per cent globally, over the same three year period. NTUC expects the 200,000-strong freelancer pool to grow in the years to come. These reports seem to say that our children have to be prepared for periods of non-full time employment.
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This points to the need to have a trade skill to participate in the contingent economy. The need to “bid” and “win” contracts would also require large doses of communication and inter-personal skills for effective networking. Yet these skills are not properly taught in the classroom, and perhaps they can never be.
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When Australia, one of the world’s education powerhouses, finds that skills are insufficient in its education system and that collaboration is increasingly more important than competition, we need to take heed.
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While tuition centres are abundant in Singapore, information on non-academic training, both in schools and by private trainers, is scarce. It is perhaps due to the lack of awareness and hence demand (and budget) that such services remain either a peripheral or the domain of the more well-off.
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But the real solution is simpler – help our kids balance their in-school learning with real-life application: temporary and part-time jobs, apprenticeships and internships, non-curricular activities and engagements and hands-on work at home. Make more holistic university choices and take in basic lessons from the army like making your bed in the morning.
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Ong Lip Hua was in University Admissions for a decade and being passionate about the career of students he admits, decided to pursue a career in HR Recruitment. He was a minor partner in a recruitment firm before going in-house. He is still crazy about providing education and career advice.
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by Bertha Henson

SO THE G is thinking about what to do about “fake” news. I am flustered. How heavy a hand will it take? What happened to the “light touch” approach? I can hear people screaming about why I am supporting fake news. I’m not. I don’t think the word “fake” and “news” even go together.

Do we have a big fake news problem here? How big is the problem? Some anti-establishment people will say news in the Mainstream Media (MSM) is all fake, because it’s calculated to make the G look good in the headlines and in the telling of the story. The thing is, even if the stories are complimentary, they aren’t based on false information and you would have to trust that the MSM has all the information it needs to make a judgement call.

I think governments around the world like to look good. They get angry at being caught out on a lie, failed promises and botched programmes. Every government would like its media to be its propaganda machine. The test is whether the people will regard the media as such and ditch it altogether as untrustworthy. Woe is the government which puts such a tight rein on the media that even its most important messages cannot reach its intended audience.

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Fake news sites, or sites that have some fake news, used to be dominated by those who have political agendas. Increasingly, the industry has turned in good money too. Witness The Real Singapore’s (TRS) rise and demise.

I am not sorry for TRS but have always wondered if the Sedition Act was the only tool available to bring the site down. The Class Licence Act was only invoked after the heavier legal weapon was wielded. In its review, I’m hoping that the Ministry of Law won’t take the easy way out and suggest legislation to crack down on “fake news”. I say this because there are other tools which can be applied first – and are sometimes applied. For the individual, it is the Protection from Harassment Act and defamation laws. In Singapore, however, it seems that the review is to protect the interest of the State after its failure to utilise the Protection from Harassment Act.

Of course, the interest will be defined as the preservation of law and order and social harmony concerns. The phrase is “right of reply”.

I suggest that the G looks at all the weapons in its arsenal before resorting to drafting a Bill for a speedy route through Parliament.

My question is: Is the G already doing enough to put its point of view across in the first place? Does it give enough information so that people wouldn’t fill the gaps with speculative comment? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that the PUB price hike could have been explained better. So too the disastrous and out-of-touch move to call a permanent exhibition, Syonan Gallery.

Which brings me to one of the weapons which the G has said would counter misinformation and gossip: The Factually website. Launched in 2012, way before other governments around the world introduced their own channels, it is now a shambles.

The “trending articles” are old articles which people are still reading, like what is Zika, probably because of its re-emergence, which the website doesn’t explain. Quite a few old issues re-surface because they become current, like why GST is imposed on waterborne tax. This is probably because of the impending price rise – which the website doesn’t explain.

There is a piece on “Why are electricity tariffs rising?”, dated July 2016, when every household knows it has gone up again on April 1. The U-save rebates are therefore dated, which is a pity given that the G had announced a rise in the last Budget. Sometimes, the G doesn’t know how to help itself.

Factually’s “news” section is a hotch-potch of articles that are lifted from MSM, which only propagates the perception that they are G mouthpieces. Increasingly, there are re-writes of press releases, supposedly by Ministry of Communications and Information staffers and FAQs on policies which the ministries put up as annexes to the media in the hope that they will be published.

There are some attempts to debunk “fake news” and name the perpetrators but in the main, it’s more a regurgitation of G policy than a head-on clash. The biggest take-down was during the haze or when sites and bloggers were named.

The most recent posts of such kind had to do with remarks attributed to Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in October 2016.

States Times Review (STR) article “Law Minister K Shanmugam: Eurasian Singaporeans are Indians” is a disgraceful fabrication. The Minister never said any of the things STR attributes to him. Indeed, he never said anything about Eurasians nor were there any questions posed to him about Eurasians at the IPS conference. It is malicious of STR to spread such vicious falsehoods, calculated to sow discord among our different ethnic groups. The Government will review STR’s post and decide whether to take further action against STR.

STR gave its response on its own website.

Editor’s note:
States Times Review report news without fear or favour, and will not entertain the Lawless Minister. States Times Review operates under laws of the Australia government, K Shanmugam is welcome to sue us under the Australian judiciary. As a Law Minister, resorting to police reports and lawsuit threats as the first response to criticisms speaks volume about the sad state of political affairs in Singapore.

Sometimes, it’s oblique, like this one before the September 2015 General Elections.

There have been claims on some online websites that the Government will raise the GST after the forthcoming General Elections to fund increased spending planned in the next term of government. There is no basis to these claims, and they are inconsistent with what the Government has recently stated.

In the 2015 Budget Statement in February, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam stated that the revenue measures the government had already undertaken will provide sufficiently for the increased spending planned for the rest of this decade.

Given that this is on the Factually website, it’s going to be tough for the G to change its mind…

Why doesn’t the G confront fake news perpetrators directly, like Snopes or PolitiFact, especially when policies have been distorted?

My view is that the G has to show that it has done more to resist the fake news plague before it embarks on something heavy-handed.

MPs have been a disappointment. No question was asked of the minister in the last sitting earlier this month when he spoke of the review. Last month, there was one question from Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, who wanted to know how the webpage selects falsehoods to respond to.

Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said the site aims to clarify “widespread or common misperceptions of government policy, or incorrect assertions on matters of public concern that can harm Singapore’s social fabric”. It was concerned with facts, not opinions, he added.

Going by Factually, we’re doing pretty well on the fake news front. The G has very little fake news to debunk. Which makes you wonder why a review is even needed.

 

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Pokemon catchers along Orchard Road.
Pokemon catchers along Orchard Road on Sunday (Photo: Sean Chong/TMG)

by Bertha Henson

I am getting old(er), so I don’t recall how many times I have seen plans to re-fresh and re-vitalise Orchard Road. An undergraduate doing her thesis on pop culture asked me last week about Swing Singapore, which was decades ago but which I still remember as a teenager. I was there! It was boring, walking the pedestrian-only road with deejays doing their best to hype the crowd. Except that everybody was just waiting for something to happen – rather than make it happen.

The plans to revitalise Orchard Road sounds fun, but it’s really more of the same thing as in past plans. Allowing more pedestrians and activities (buskers still need a licence no?) and festivals at open places, making Orchard Road pedestrian-friendly – which actually is if you consider the sidewalks are extremely wide, even without the suggestion to close off one lane. Have you ever had trouble walking along Orchard Road?

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We’re told there will be a Design Incubator, which sounds like a term that should remain in one-North or Science Park, showcasing local talent. Should we get excited about having scramble crossings?

It seems to me we are putting cart before horse and exploring ideas without understanding why Orchard Road is the way it is now – and what is it now, exactly?

What are we concerned about? That tourists are staying away from the street? Or locals giving it a miss? That there’s a parking problem? That retailers are complaining about lack of business? Even if the G goes about laying the infrastructure (and take away all the green lungs in the area), what’s the bet that people will come?

Don’t we recall the hype that accompanied the openings of ION Orchard, 311@Somerset, Knightsbridge, Orchard Central and Orchard Gateway? Have we considered that the road is too malled-up with stores that are too fancy and high-priced – that is, if we are thinking about getting locals down.

In any case, locals are well-served by the strategically-placed suburban malls. Neighbourhood centres are bustling with plenty of activities organised by town councils and commercial operators. Why go to Orchard Road? For high-class dining and high-price boutiques?

If it’s the high-priced parking that’s the problem, then there are at least three MRT stations there, so is the solution really to get everyone to go car-lite if they want to go there? If people are still attached to their cars especially if they’re shopping. Again, this is only if we’re thinking about local participation.

If the idea is to court foreign tourists, then what sort of effort have been made to ask them for their views on Orchard Road? Why have a plan which is without their feedback? Surely, we can’t be conjuring things from our imagination rather than based on information. If Orchard Road is losing out as a shopping destination, what else would tourists be looking for? Plenty of happenings everyday and night?

I took at look at Orchard Road’s website for events this month. There is Fiesta on a Great Street, from April 21 to 23 and we’re called upon to “ feast on local favourites and new gourmet classics presented by Baker’s Oven Patisseries, Café O, Good Chance Restaurant, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, Potluck and Rice Bowl”. It doesn’t say if the fare is discounted but 20 per cent of proceeds go to the Singapore Red Cross. So, it looks like a charity programme. You can also pay $29.21 to attend a masterclass with five chefs. Don’t know how this adds to vibrancy. There will be “local acts”, but don’t know who or where they will play.

Maybe everybody’s preparing to hype the Great Singapore Sale (GSS), which over the years, is beginning to look more like attempts to get in the Chinese tourists. The GSS, which used to be an Orchard Road staple, extends to heartland shops too although you see fewer taking part, so why go to Orchard Road?

Okay, maybe Orchard Road is supposed to be a place to jalan-jalan, window shop and look at the myriad complexions and modes of dressing of the people who are there. I, for one, find the activity entertaining. But it also makes me feel like a fish out of water – most of them don’t look like me. So is Orchard Road really for foreigners because I have no reason to be there except to shop at Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City. I’d rather sit in a coffeeshop or a café in the heartlands – and feel at home. Our foreign workers probably feel more at home in Orchard Road if you go by the congregations that mass in open spaces having picnics on weekends.

This is really odd because in big cities, the foreign tourist sees more locals at their prime spots than their own kind. It’s part of the tourist experience to able to see locals doing their own thing, so to speak.

As I said, maybe I am getting old(er). I didn’t see Orchard Road in the same blasé light when I was a teenager. Then again, I have it on good authority that teenagers now have so many more places to flock to than in my time.

All I am asking is whether we’ve taken a hard look at why Orchard Road is the way it is, before moving on to grand plans which require construction and hoardings. Take away words like “revitalise”, “rejuvenate” and “refresh”, and ask why is Orchard Road so dead first.

 

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by Danielle Lim

‘I look at him sitting at the table, between the certificates on his left and the ashes on his right, between the past on his left and the present on his right, between success on his left and brokenness on his right, between the hope of a bright future, on his left, and the courage to keep going, on his right. My uncle. An ordinary man. Some would say an unsuccessful man. Many would say, a mad man. But for me, I will remember him with his smile and the small, beautiful sounds he has echoed into my life.’
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TWENTY-FOUR years ago, I looked at my uncle as I wrestled with the predicament that his mental illness had put him, and our family, in. The lines above, taken from my memoir, ‘The Sound of SCH’, depict the struggle to make sense of his life after he developed schizophrenia.

When my uncle had a mental breakdown in the 1960s, my grandparents had no idea that he had become unwell. Even when diagnosed much later, treatment at Woodbridge Hospital (the former Institute of Mental Health) was rejected by my grandmother. My mother became his caregiver for the next thirty years, and I spent my growing years watching the loneliness that defined his life, as well as the despair that the circumstances often brought to my mother.

Awareness, treatment and support are better today than during my uncle’s time. Still, the challenges that come when a person crosses from being mentally well to unwell are very daunting. If a word can be associated with this baffling class of illnesses, then that word, to me, is “silence” – the silent onset of illness, the silent suffering of the one afflicted, and the silent despair that family members endure.

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The Silent Onset of Illness

Unlike many forms of physical illnesses, mental illness cannot be seen. The changes in the brain and mind, while often occurring over a period of time, also often occur insidiously. If cancer is called “the silent killer”, perhaps mental illness can be called “the silent destroyer”.

Diagnosis of mental illnesses can be difficult. Psychiatrists I have spoken to have shared that because the human brain is so complex – with a hundred billion neurons and several hundred thousand synapses per neuron – two people with schizophrenia can present with vastly different behaviours and symptoms. There isn’t a precise “test” that doctors can administer to measure the “level” of mental well-being, unlike how we can take a blood sample to measure levels of cholesterol or haemoglobin.

It is usually through changes in behaviour that family or friends start wondering if something is amiss. Yet the amorphous nature of such illnesses often means that the whole process of ascertaining what exactly is amiss can take a while.

 

The Silent Walk Alone

My uncle’s illness took a long time to be discovered when it struck him in his twenties. His life changed completely – he lost his job and friends, became a sweeper, and spent the next thirty years living a lonely life. Yet, he never complained, and was never violent.

Whilst studies show that around 90 per cent of those with mental illnesses do not become violent, there is a general perception that mental illness is associated with violence. There have been steps forward in how mental illness is viewed and treated, and in how recovering patients are supported in their efforts to reintegrate into society. Even so, it may be difficult for us to imagine what it is like to walk the path of a patient.

A doctor once told me that mental illness is the only illness where suicide rates go up when medication starts becoming effective. Therein lies the irony, that when patients become well enough to realise they have a mental illness, they find it such an unbearable sentence that they would rather end their lives.

Schizophrenia strikes about one in a hundred people. Every day, a child is born in Singapore who will suffer from schizophrenia, and the onset of illness is usually between the ages 15 and 30. In other words, it strikes young. I once had a student who was doing well in her studies but who often missed classes, the reasons for which I was not told. I only found out much later about her struggle with mental illness. She probably did not want the people around her to know of her condition. Sadly, such silence typically surrounds the response to having a mental illness.

I know of many who have recovered and who now lead meaningful lives. Recovery is possible, especially with early treatment, and with support from loved ones and the community. Family members, in turn, need support.

 

The Silent Despair of Loved Ones

As Professor Chong Siow Ann mentions in his article “Mental illness: Caregivers are forgotten collateral damage” (The Straits Times, 29 November 2014), the burden of the illness falls not only on the patient, but also on the caregiver and family members. Treatment and recovery can be a long, difficult and uncertain process. The helplessness, anxiety and caregiver stress of loved ones are often overlooked.

Acceptance of the diagnosis is itself difficult. Perhaps because there is still an entrenched social stigma associated with such illnesses, coming to terms with the diagnosis involves an intense inner struggle. How does one accept that one’s spouse or sibling or child is not “normal” and may be seen as “crazy” or “mad” by people around?

After reading my book, a friend told me that her brother had schizophrenia, and that he took his life years ago. She then said, “Please keep this a secret.”

Organisations such as the Caregivers Alliance have been set up to support caregivers of those with mental illness. Such support can make all the difference in enabling caregivers to push on. Many caregivers themselves become depressed, buckling under the weight they have to carry.

My mother did not have such support as she took care of my uncle for over thirty years. At one point, she had to take anti-depressants. I admire her for what she has done, and I salute all caregivers.

Those with mental illness and their loved ones walk a very difficult path. If we can dispel some of the silence surrounding mental illness, perhaps they can stumble a little less on their journey.

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Danielle Lim is the author of ‘The Sound of SCH: a mental breakdown, a life journey’, a memoir which won the Singapore Literature Prize (non-fiction) 2016.

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This article is part of a series to shed light on mental illnesses. Read the other piece here:

Taking the Myth out of “Mental” Illnesses

 

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by Marcus Tan

“MENTAL” illness, for want of a more accurate and less derogatory adjective that allows us to better conceptualise the nature of these conditions, is as old as mankind.

For much of human history, psychiatric conditions were often considered to have supernatural or paranormal origins. Those afflicted were thought to be under the influence of black magic or possessed by evil spirits. Many treatments before the 17th century were based on occult practices that often led to their recipients in a worse off state. As early as the 8th century, the first psychiatric treatment facilities were set up. However, these institutions served more the purpose of containment or confinement. They offered little more than space to contain persons’ behaviours. Treatment, if any, was empirical by large and seldom based on robust medical evidence.

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Psychiatry, as a discipline in medicine, was proposed in 1808 by Professor Johann Christian Riel, a German physician. The word psychiatry itself derives from the two greek words psyche, meaning soul or mind, and iatros, meaning physician. From then, systematic effort, utilising scientific methods was undertaken to study disorders of human behaviour. This pivotal move heralded the development of modern psychiatry. More humane therapies and focus on public education soon followed.

Despite so, there remains much more to be achieved.

Misconceptions about psychiatric conditions and their treatments continue to abound. These range from notions that people with these conditions are “crazy”, “odd”, “bad” or “weak minded” to them never getting well. Despite advancements in treatment, psychotropic medications and even psychotherapy continue to be very much maligned. Medications do not alter personality or rob a person of his / her identity. Apart from a small handful of situations, one cannot be compelled to receive treatment. Psychotherapy is more than “just talk”. Conversation is but an avenue through which rapport is built so treatment can be effected.


What is Psychiatry?

Psychiatry is one of the most, if not the most, misunderstood fields in Medicine. There are few disciplines that have attracted as much controversy.

Misinformation and the consequent misunderstandings about Psychiatry have resulted in the stigmatisation of its receivers of care, the care providers and its practice. More importantly, this stigma has led to apprehension towards help seeking and delay in treatment. Unnecessary, avoidable prolongation of personal physical and emotional distress aside, the individual’s social and occupational functioning are not spared too. With compromised coping abilities, the person can find him/herself overwhelmed by his/her circumstances. These circumstances can be predisposing, precipitating or perpetuating factors that contribute to the origin(s) of illness, which is often multifactorial.

With the world moving at an ever-accelerating pace, most of us already struggle to keep up and can ill afford “down time”. The individual with lesser than usual functional capacity to cope can find him/herself stranded and lost. Unhealthy compensatory or self-help behaviours e.g. harmful addictions or recreational drug use can occur. These behaviours, while offering short term escape, certainly do not help improve the situation in the longer term. A sense of loss of control ensues and ultimately worsens the distress experienced.

Despite emphasis on early help seeking, it is not uncommon in day-to-day clinical practice to have persons come forth to seek help only after long periods of being ill. By this time, it is not unusual for the individual to find that his/her work, relationships, and life have suffered appreciably. These individuals let on that they perceive themselves as “weak minded” and feel shame or even become guilt-ridden in their help seeking. It should not have to be so.

Being distressed is not a sign of weakness. As it has been aptly put, distress occurs only when one has been too strong for too long a time. Only when one has put in his/her best effort, can he/her become exhausted.

Occasional media reporting that sensationalises public displays of behavioural aberrations or suggests an association between criminal or offensive acts and psychiatric conditions do not help. While it is convenient to attribute these behaviours or acts to psychiatric conditions, in reality, these are more related to poorly controlled or untreated symptoms, which arise out of delay in seeking treatment, if there indeed is a presence of an illness in these cases. Ironically, it is not the condition, but the lack of treatment that has led to the outcome. Suffice to say, this misinformation that leads to wrongful association must stop.

Modern Psychiatry

With the advent of technological advances in the 20th  and 21st centuries, physicians have been able to achieve a clearer understanding of the disease process behind some psychiatric conditions and the complex interactions between an individual’s environment and innate factors that result in symptom production. These advances, which include higher resolution brain scans and functional imaging, have also aided the development of medical therapies, while far from ideal, that are safer, more targeted and effective.

At present, it is agreed that a combination of medical, psychological and social therapies are indicated for the treatment of most psychiatric conditions to achieve the best outcomes.

Hence, how do we define modern psychiatry?

Psychiatry is the branch of medicine which is concerned with the understanding, assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disorders of emotions, behaviour, perceptions and thinking. These disorders predominantly present with behavioural symptoms that occur due to a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social factors. It should not be construed simply as a disease of the mind and/or brain. Treatment is tailored and focused on the person, at times the significant others, within the context of their environment.

We hope that through the course of this series, we can help provide insight into the work healthcare workers do for psychiatric conditions, how assessment is carried out and common psychiatric conditions and their treatments. It is hoped that this information will help bring about better understanding of Psychiatry and promote prompt help seeking. Perhaps you will find out too that psychiatric conditions are not so different from other medical conditions managed by our colleagues in other disciplines.

 

Dr Marcus Tan is a psychiatrist with 18 years of experience in clinical practice in both public and private healthcare. Together with his partners, he runs Singapore’s longest standing community private psychiatric clinic in the heartlands. He also volunteers with the Singapore Armed Forces and serves as a medical assessor on the Medical Board of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. He believes strongly in mental health literacy and sees it as key to improving awareness and decreasing stigma towards psychiatric conditions and persons with them. 

 

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Bertha in coffee shop

by Bertha Henson

IT BEING the season of Lent, I am going to confess to a sinful act of omission: I stood by while bullying took place. My excuse is that I was restrained by my mother, who shot me a “don’t you dare interfere!” look. So, both of us pretended that we didn’t see or hear what was taking place five metres away from us. Now, this isn’t about a big boy bullying a smaller one or a gang of girls beating up one of their own. This was a maid employer-versus-maid scene taking place in a maid agency.

It’s all too common to see maids “returned” to their agencies because their employers are dissatisfied with their work. The maids are the ones who are teary-eyed with a big suitcase standing in one corner while Mom harangues her or the maid agent.

I have never got used to such sights but this one I witnessed last week took the cake. The screaming Mom emptied out the maid’s suitcase onto the floor. Clothes, slippers, toiletries and underwear spilled out. Her purse was unzipped and coins poured out. The Mom was presumably checking if the maid was taking away anything that was not hers. I thought to myself that she could have done that at home while the maid was packing up.

There were other maids in the shop, waiting for placements, looking on. They kept an absolute silence. As did the maid agents who looked to be in despair over Mom’s antics. And you know what? The Mom had brought her son who looks to be no more than six years old. While she was screaming away, he busied himself eating his packed lunch of chicken rice. But he got up to pick up the coins that had been thrown all over the floor, stacking up the 10 cents and 20 cents for the maid to return to her purse.

I am not sure what the problem was but it had to do with the maid complaining about not getting her eight hours of rest and the Mom responding that she can’t help it if the maid can’t sleep when she’s supposed to. It also had to do with the maid talking back, referring to a Ministry of Manpower booklet on maid rights. Of course, the maid said nothing in the shop. Her face was set in stone in a formidable attempt at self-control but which she quite quickly lost…

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The maid agent who was talking to the two of us made a concerted attempt to engage our attention during the kerfuffle. It wasn’t very successful. Our ears were otherwise engaged even though we kept our eyes on him.

The maid re-packed her belongings and the Mom proceeded to discuss arrangements with the maid agent, who looked like she’d rather be elsewhere. Then she was off, with son in tow.

It was only then that I burst out in consternation at the humiliation I had witnessed.
Was the Mom trying to show who’s boss? Was she showing her son how a maid should be treated? Didn’t she feel any embarrassment at being such a public spectacle? What a disgraceful human being!

The maid agents agreed that the Mom was “too much” but said there was little they could do with the “customer”.

Whatever wrong the maid had done, no one deserved such a public shaming. I think of her pitiful belongings spread out on the floor and the little boy who was doing his best not to draw attention to himself. I think of how frightened the row of maids must be. What if their next employee was a carbon copy of this particular Mom?

The law isn’t equipped to deal with maid employers who don’t know how to behave like decent human beings. It’s only equipped to deal with those who pinch, punch, slap, scald and starve their maids. I am not asking for the law to intervene in the confines of a home; that would be an invasion of privacy. I am musing aloud at the sort of arrogance some people have and the power they think they wield when they are given the charge of another person’s life.

What would that particular Mom think if her own employer at work dismissed her and swept her belongings from her desk to the floor in full view of her co-workers? I don’t think anyone would stand for such treatment. Even if the victim kept silent, there’s a chance that the co-workers would speak up for her or lodge a quiet complaint to “upstairs”. But we’re talking about foreign maids here who are trying to make a living away from their families and friends.

I am compelled to write this because of the maid who was sentenced to four months jail for “ill-treating” her four year old charge. She had tried to retrieve a medical device from his throat, using her hand and tweezers, and didn’t inform her employers when she couldn’t.

I can just imagine the consternation of the parents when they found out that their boy, who has muscular atrophy and needs support ventilation and oxygen, had been gagging on the plug for hours and turning blue. I can also imagine the terror the maid was feeling about being found out, which would be sooner or later, and being sent packing.

The prosecution asked for 18 months jail term after she pleaded guilty earlier this month, a sentence which District Judge Low Wee Ping had described as “manifestly excessive”. He said that “the system” is at fault for allowing domestic helpers to perform “such medical work”.

“We employ maids too generally. We employ them as car washers, plumbers, house painters, medical caregivers… when we shouldn’t be. And when they do something wrong, we point our (fingers) at them.”

Noting that she had no legal representation, he asked if there was a lawyer in the courtroom who could do the job. Lawyer Mahmood Gaznavi stood up to the plate.

In a later hearing for sentencing on Thursday, Mr Gaznavi described the case as “akin to a specialist carpenter asked to perform complicated mechanical works. She is a person of no skills, let alone skills required to nurse a child who is bedridden.” The maid had two days of instruction on the medical device to suck phlegm from the boy’s throat.

“The accused did not commit the offence out of malice, but out of overzealous attempts to correct an initial act gone wrong,” he said. He distinguished her case from others in which children are deliberately and repeatedly abused by their caregivers.

The prosecution is appealing against the sentence, so not much more can be said about the case. But it’s worth noting that maids cannot be the Jill-of-all-trades in the household. More importantly, they must be treated as human beings who have similar fears and anxieties and who should be accorded the same dignity we expect for ourselves.

People would say that the maid should have told the parents immediately about what happened instead of quaking in silence, just like how I should have intervened in the bullying case.

It’s not comparable, I know.

Except for Mr Gaznavi, nobody behaved very well in this article. My apologies to all maids for the terrible behavior of that particular Mom. Rest assured that not all employers are like her. And dare I say that in the court case, justice was tempered by mercy.

 

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police car, law and order

by Daniel Yap

THE Singapore Police Force has come under fire of late for how its officers followed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and arrested a 74-year-old woman for her summons over a Town Council fine. The Singapore Prison Service (often and easily confused with the Police) then bound her hand-and-foot to transfer her from custody to a cell.

SOP again, and surely excessive for a geriatric with no criminal past, wanted for putting potted plants in the wrong place. But rules are rules.

But are SOPs rules? Not really. In the army, it is military law that governs us, and then every unit has its standing orders – formally given down the chain of command. An SOP, on the other hand, is simply a set of default reactions and decisions we use when faced with common situations.

Here’s where Robocop steps in to be the hero we deserve, but not the one we really need right now (or is that someone else?). The parable of the police-man-made-machine, and I’m talking about the glorious artistry of the 1987 film, is pit against not just all manner of criminality and pseudo-criminality, but held in contrast against ED-209, the completely robotic but massively powerful law enforcement droid.

ED-209 only reacts to rules and set-in-stone procedures, but Robocop, with the frailty and power of a human mind and emotion, is the hero that saves the day. Our everyday heroes at the Police need to be able to apply Robocop’s humanity, lest they be seen as the cold, marginally vile, by-the-book-only ED-209.

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An SOP is a great thing. Like Robocop’s “prime directives”, it saves us the trouble of having to hum and haw excessively over each case. Like Robocop’s targeting computer, it helps speed up our reaction time and decision-making. Like Robocop’s armour plating, it is something to fall back to when things get too complicated or too risky. But SOPs can’t possibly cover every contingency. Things can still go wrong.

Following SOPs does mitigate our actions when things go wrong, but it does not mean that what we did wasn’t wrong. It acts as a reasonable explanation for our chosen actions, but doesn’t absolve us from responsibility.

In other words, the thinking person is not slave to his or her SOPs, and commanders should not teach their charges to become slaves to an SOP. Everyone at all levels of an organisation should be told to think for themselves and then take responsibility for their own decisions.

An SOP is supposed to be a tool that enhances the thinking officer’s effectiveness, not a crutch for mindlessness or a machine to set in motion and forget about. That would make us no better than robots, and in today’s technological world, we really need to differentiate between man and machine, lest our jobs be on the line.

So henceforth let, “we followed procedures” never again be an excuse for not engaging the brain, or doing things with a heart. We’ve got to ask ourselves: what would Robocop do?

 

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