Murmurs of dissent from within

by seah chiang nee

Voices speak up in increasing numbers and volume in a more relaxed political era after Lee.

FOR 10 years, one of a handful of civil servants who helped Lee Kuan Yew build today’s Singapore had been speaking bluntly about major issues that bothered him – and probably other Singaporeans.

In his latest round, Ngiam Tong Dow – whose government career spanned 40 years – criticised elitism in high places and ultra-high ministerial wages which apparently struck some raw nerves.

The unprecedented frankness of the former government insider, one of a growing number who turned critics, was believed to be a tad too much even in a more relaxed post-Lee political era.

A day later, the long-time ex-permanent secretary retracted his statement that ministers were currently afraid of speaking up in Cabinet because of their high salaries.

He said it was “illogical” and unfair”.

He also withdrew comments that ministers are elitist, adding that he had spoken without realising that many had, in fact, come from humble backgrounds.

It is not known whether the respected Ngiam, aged 76, was pressurised to do so or whether he had done it on his own.

At any rate, this was the first time that he had to withdraw critical remarks made against the government that he once served.

This stance began in 2003, a year before Prime Minister Lee took office, so it was evidently not aimed at his personal leadership.

“I retired from the civil service in 1999. Since then I have not attended any Cabinet meetings, and have never seen one chaired by PM Lee Hsien Loong,” Ngiam clarified.

He had earlier said that things in Singapore began going downhill when “we started to raise ministers’ salaries, not pegging them to national salary but aligning them to the top 10.

His first candid remarks 10 years ago surprised Singaporeans when he hit out at a particular brand of Singapore elite arrogance creeping in.

“Some civil servants behave like they have a mandate from the emperor. We think we are little Lee Kuan Yews.”

In one interview, he said Singapore had been on auto-pilot for so long and becoming less competitive.

Asked why, Ngiam replied: “I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda.”

His was by no means the solitary voice among prominent government or academic figures to voice dissent, but he has been the most persistent.

Several have in fact joined opposition parties and contested in elections.

Others merely voiced their disenchantment about the way that Singapore is being run.

This was generally accepted as inevitable with the political exit of Singapore’s strongman and founding leader.

The current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is less authoritarian.

Pushed by a more vocal Internet-savvy generation, he has been loosening some strings.

“It’s a signal! Speak, speak your voice, be heard, take responsibility for your views and opinions,” Lee said after he assumed office in 2004.

The message was repeated in 2011 when he exempted indoor meetings from licensing requirements.

“We have opened up over the years. I think we can go further.”

In the past few years, a trickle of establishment economists and intellectuals began to speak up against excessive immigration and inequalities in society, albeit in modest language.

An international lawyer, professor, and diplomat Tommy Koh was the latest to add his voice to the small chorus, speaking up for the needy and condemning the widening gap between the rich and the poor as “socially unconscionable”.

While a Cabinet minister demanded workers to work “cheaper, faster”, the prominent, soft-spoken professor said that Singapore workers had long been underpaid.

Last year, the former state economic adviser, Prof Lim Chong Yah, had a dramatic proposal to narrow the economic gap – raising low-level salaries by 50% over three years and freezing top-end incomes for a similar period. Predictably, it was turned down.

This had rarely happened during Lee Kuan Yew’s “iron fist” rule.

The reason appears to run deeper than a sudden new-found courage or a propensity to tell off the PAP on policy directions.

Some critics included party supporters who may feel compelled to take a stand now for fear that the problems will become even more serious and lead to the demise of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Another surprising critic was Yeoh Lam Keong, former chief economist at the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) headed by Lee Kuan Yew.

Yeoh appealed for the immigration policy to be reversed. “What we need to do is to be much more stringent on admitting such unskilled labour. We’ve really got no excuse to be so relaxed about this kind of immigration.”

On its overall policy, Yeoh called for the government to return to its roots to meet and serve the needs of ordinary citizens over public housing, education, healthcare and other services.

Serious-minded bloggers generally praise these elites for speaking up, although belatedly, and wish more would do so.

Prominent commentator Chua Chin Leng said that although they were financially secure, they could have chosen to remain in the comfort of their cocoons “shielded from all the noise, all the inequalities”.

Yet, they have chosen to brave the storm. Why? Chua said: “It must be a matter of conscience, of a sense of justice.”

Hence when Ngiam Tong Dow retracted his heartfelt comments, some netizens were disappointed. A few criticised him for not standing his ground.

Surprisingly, however, quite a few expressed sympathy and understanding for his action.

Wo Min Bai commented: “Mr Ngiam can retract, but the people feel him. He speaks the language of the masses and there is no turning away from that.”

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剪自:i周刊,No.847, 95页,2014年1月 23日。

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曾幾何時,在醫院,在公園,推着老人輪椅的是一個個膚色黝黑的女子?曾幾何時,學校門口,接送上下學的不是爸爸媽媽,而是小朋友口中的瑪利亞,或者Auntie Lisa?

















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NYT newspaper clipping: Ducking Grief

Ducking Grief

Katherine Streeter
Published: October 22, 2013

In the months following my daughter’s death, there were times when I left my house that I could barely breathe.

My pain and grief were reflected in the faces of friends. In the presence of others I teetered on the brink of being overwhelmed. Where once I had enjoyed shopping and running errands, these activities now jeopardized my fragile attempt to hold myself together. Home was the only safe place. But, of course, in time one must go out.

Tentatively, I learned to duck and to weave my way through life. If I was in the grocery store and saw a neighbor or someone from my children’s school in the cereal aisle, I would rush down another aisle. Then, if I saw the person again two aisles over, I would head for the deli section. If I was clearly cornered, with no possible retreat, I would bend and pick up whatever item was close at hand, perhaps a can of green beans, and appear to be engrossed in its label. I did my best to make myself unapproachable. If that didn’t work I sometimes abandoned my cart mid-aisle and darted for my car. My husband would have to do the food shopping that week.

Avoidance wasn’t always possible. I was standing in my driveway collecting the newspaper when a neighbor approached. She took a deep breath and said: “Kerry, how are you? I don’t know how you survive. I really don’t. I know I couldn’t.” Somehow her words left me feeling strangely accused, as if she were saying, “How can you be standing here, surviving at all?” If my grief was truly devastating, she seemed to suggest, I would not be standing. I would be forever prostrate in bed, inconsolable.

Sometimes no response is as painful as the wrong one. At a school play, a mother greeted me with a broad smile, as if the world was no different than before my daughter’s death, and began to chat brightly. She probably imagined she was protecting me by steering our talk to safer ground, like our new principal or the new restaurant in town featuring mussels. I know intuitively, however, that it is not me she is seeking to protect: what she is trying to protect is her belief that she dwells in a world where children are safe, where untoward tragedies do not occur.

Then there are the times when I am not sure if the person I have run into knows. What am I to do then? Two months after Sarah’s death I saw a couple at a neighbor’s get-together. They greeted me warmly. The wife asked, “How are you?” The husband chimed in, “Yeah, what have you been up to lately?” I am at a complete loss for words. Do they not know about Sarah? They must have heard, I think. I have no “news” to share. The only thing I have been “up to” is grieving. If they did not know, my words would shock them. If they did know, what could they possibly think I “have been up to?” With nothing to say, I make my way through the party and head home. I phone a friend to tell her of my encounter. She responds: “Kerry, of course they know. Don’t you remember? They were at the memorial service.”

The encounters I dread most occur when escape is impossible. Like the time I took a picture to be framed and suddenly the man helping me said: “Oh, wait, now I know why I recognize you. Your daughter was with my Jane in elementary school, wasn’t she? Um, it’s Sarah, right?” He seems so pleased to remember. “Yes,” I answer as that familiar crushing feeling returns to my chest. I slide over to another wall, averting my eyes. Following closely behind he asks, “So what has she been doing?” My face crumbles as I begin to weep. Almost as quickly, I see the anguish spread across his face. “Oh, my God,” he said. “I am so sorry. I had heard about Sarah. How could I forget? I am so, so sorry. How could I be so stupid?” He berates himself for being thoughtless, then repeatedly apologizes, trying to comfort me. Devastated, I just flee.

Not all interactions make me want to run away. One Saturday night a few months after Sarah died, my husband and I ventured downtown for tapas. Unexpectedly, I ran into Lin, my former dance teacher, whom I hadn’t seen in several years. Lin and her husband are leaving the restaurant just as we arrive. I am trapped. I steel myself for her approach. But she neither avoids me, nor makes light conversation. Instead, she walks right up, looks me straight in the eyes, and gives me a very long, tight hug. Then she walks on. Not a word uttered. Nothing is required of me. I slowly exhale. I couldn’t have told Lin what I needed, but somehow, she has gotten it exactly right.

Seven years ago in August, my beautiful Sarah, hospitalized after a four-year battle with bipolar illness, took her life. It began at 13; the disease gave her no rest. Watching my firstborn suffer with such despair and pain became my waking nightmare. Confused and weary, she once wrote these words:

“It’s hard to be happy when you’re 17 and bipolar. Every state is fragile and every emotion is fleeting. I’m happiest when I realize I am not depressed. After school, I’ll walk down the street and notice I’m skipping, stopping to pick a dandelion. I’ll wriggle my toes in the mud and grin. When I realize I’m happy, I’m thrilled. I know that the feeling does not last. I know that as soon as there’s a sad song on the radio, I’ll feel hopeless again. When I get sad it’s not a normal sad, it’s like drowning. Little moments are important to me because that is all my life is, a series of little moments.”

Now, whenever I glimpse a child with Sarah’s startling blue eyes, I feel a sickening thump in my chest. Still, I rise every morning and live my life. I act nearly normal. I embrace my work, my husband and my three surviving children. Loss brought me to writing and painting. Mine is a life, filled with such little moments — at times joyful, at other times sorrowful. Not as odd a combination as some might think. They coexist within me, pleasure and sorrow, shaping who I am and how I see the world.

K.A. Leddy is at work on a memoir, “Ghostmother.”

Previous My Story essays can be found here.

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NYT OPINION Is Music the Key to Success?

Is Music the Key to Success?
Published: October 12, 2013

CONDOLEEZZA RICE trained to be a concert pianist. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a professional clarinet and saxophone player. The hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner is a pianist who took classes at Juilliard.

Multiple studies link music study to academic achievement. But what is it about serious music training that seems to correlate with outsize success in other fields?

The connection isn’t a coincidence. I know because I asked. I put the question to top-flight professionals in industries from tech to finance to media, all of whom had serious (if often little-known) past lives as musicians. Almost all made a connection between their music training and their professional achievements.

The phenomenon extends beyond the math-music association. Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking. And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities: Collaboration. The ability to listen. A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously.

Will your school music program turn your kid into a Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft (guitar)? Or a Woody Allen (clarinet)? Probably not. These are singular achievers. But the way these and other visionaries I spoke to process music is intriguing. As is the way many of them apply music’s lessons of focus and discipline into new ways of thinking and communicating — even problem solving.

Look carefully and you’ll find musicians at the top of almost any industry. Woody Allen performs weekly with a jazz band. The television broadcaster Paula Zahn (cello) and the NBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd (French horn) attended college on music scholarships; NBC’s Andrea Mitchell trained to become a professional violinist. Both Microsoft’s Mr. Allen and the venture capitalist Roger McNamee have rock bands. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, played saxophone in high school. Steven Spielberg is a clarinetist and son of a pianist. The former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn has played cello at Carnegie Hall.

“It’s not a coincidence,” says Mr. Greenspan, who gave up jazz clarinet but still dabbles at the baby grand in his living room. “I can tell you as a statistician, the probability that that is mere chance is extremely small.” The cautious former Fed chief adds, “That’s all that you can judge about the facts. The crucial question is: why does that connection exist?”

Paul Allen offers an answer. He says music “reinforces your confidence in the ability to create.” Mr. Allen began playing the violin at age 7 and switched to the guitar as a teenager. Even in the early days of Microsoft, he would pick up his guitar at the end of marathon days of programming. The music was the emotional analog to his day job, with each channeling a different type of creative impulse. In both, he says, “something is pushing you to look beyond what currently exists and express yourself in a new way.”

Mr. Todd says there is a connection between years of practice and competition and what he calls the “drive for perfection.” The veteran advertising executive Steve Hayden credits his background as a cellist for his most famous work, the Apple “1984” commercial depicting rebellion against a dictator. “I was thinking of Stravinsky when I came up with that idea,” he says. He adds that his cello performance background helps him work collaboratively: “Ensemble playing trains you, quite literally, to play well with others, to know when to solo and when to follow.”

For many of the high achievers I spoke with, music functions as a “hidden language,” as Mr. Wolfensohn calls it, one that enhances the ability to connect disparate or even contradictory ideas. When he ran the World Bank, Mr. Wolfensohn traveled to more than 100 countries, often taking in local performances (and occasionally joining in on a borrowed cello), which helped him understand “the culture of people, as distinct from their balance sheet.”

It’s in that context that the much-discussed connection between math and music resonates most. Both are at heart modes of expression. Bruce Kovner, the founder of the hedge fund Caxton Associates and chairman of the board of Juilliard, says he sees similarities between his piano playing and investing strategy; as he says, both “relate to pattern recognition, and some people extend these paradigms across different senses.”

Mr. Kovner and the concert pianist Robert Taub both describe a sort of synesthesia — they perceive patterns in a three-dimensional way. Mr. Taub, who gained fame for his Beethoven recordings and has since founded a music software company, MuseAmi, says that when he performs, he can “visualize all of the notes and their interrelationships,” a skill that translates intellectually into making “multiple connections in multiple spheres.”

For others I spoke to, their passion for music is more notable than their talent. Woody Allen told me bluntly, “I’m not an accomplished musician. I get total traction from the fact that I’m in movies.”

Mr. Allen sees music as a diversion, unconnected to his day job. He likens himself to “a weekend tennis player who comes in once a week to play. I don’t have a particularly good ear at all or a particularly good sense of timing. In comedy, I’ve got a good instinct for rhythm. In music, I don’t, really.”

Still, he practices the clarinet at least half an hour every day, because wind players will lose their embouchure (mouth position) if they don’t: “If you want to play at all you have to practice. I have to practice every single day to be as bad as I am.” He performs regularly, even touring internationally with his New Orleans jazz band. “I never thought I would be playing in concert halls of the world to 5,000, 6,000 people,” he says. “I will say, quite unexpectedly, it enriched my life tremendously.”

Music provides balance, explains Mr. Wolfensohn, who began cello lessons as an adult. “You aren’t trying to win any races or be the leader of this or the leader of that. You’re enjoying it because of the satisfaction and joy you get out of music, which is totally unrelated to your professional status.”

For Roger McNamee, whose Elevation Partners is perhaps best known for its early investment in Facebook, “music and technology have converged,” he says. He became expert on Facebook by using it to promote his band, Moonalice, and now is focusing on video by live-streaming its concerts. He says musicians and top professionals share “the almost desperate need to dive deep.” This capacity to obsess seems to unite top performers in music and other fields.

Ms. Zahn remembers spending up to four hours a day “holed up in cramped practice rooms trying to master a phrase” on her cello. Mr. Todd, now 41, recounted in detail the solo audition at age 17 when he got the second-highest mark rather than the highest mark — though he still was principal horn in Florida’s All-State Orchestra.

“I’ve always believed the reason I’ve gotten ahead is by outworking other people,” he says. It’s a skill learned by “playing that solo one more time, working on that one little section one more time,” and it translates into “working on something over and over again, or double-checking or triple-checking.” He adds, “There’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better. You see the results.”

That’s an observation worth remembering at a time when music as a serious pursuit — and music education — is in decline in this country.

Consider the qualities these high achievers say music has sharpened: collaboration, creativity, discipline and the capacity to reconcile conflicting ideas. All are qualities notably absent from public life. Music may not make you a genius, or rich, or even a better person. But it helps train you to think differently, to process different points of view — and most important, to take pleasure in listening.

Joanne Lipman is a co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of the book “Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations.”

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Remember ~ 記得

Remember, once upon a time, blogging is a daily affair.
Remember, once upon a time, blogging is escape route.

Now, it might not be because life is getting busier that I forget to blog.
Now, it might not be because I am able to face up with realities of life that I forget to blog.

It might be because I am starting to be afraid of the shadowing in darkness,
that someone is quietly observing and seeing through me.

It should be the lack of confidence on my part.







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Shy ~ 害羞 

Yes, I still remember that I have this blog. And yes, whoever you are who is still accessing and reading this blog, I am still paying the bills to maintain this blog and the domain name. Yes, times might not be financially stable for me at this moment but I am not looking at giving up this vital piece of me… yet.

Just the other day, a friend buzzed me suddenly and went, “Oh! You are passingsights!” and I froze.

Yes,  it is that scary to me.

So, please, do not give me such heart attack.

Random Update. Yup, I am still alive. Yeah.






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