Monday, December 14, 2009

Singaporean children can be really ill-mannered

Last weekend I went on an amazing fishing trip to a Kelong off of Sibu island, Malaysia. The premise of the trip was this: we traveled 5 hours by bus from Singapore to a jetty in Sibu, and then took a 45 minute ferry to a football-field sized platform constructed 3 km away from the nearest island (Sibu island). We then spent the next 36 hours living on the platform and fishing for hundreds of small fish called Kunin, while eating extremely fresh seafood prepared by local chefs on the platform. It was one of the most amazing weekends of my life.

For more pictures, see

I went on this trip with several other staff members from my school, Ngee Ann Poly. This was my first chance to interact with some of my colleagues in an informal atmosphere, and many of them had also brought their families along with them. I learned more about their children than I ever wanted to know from this trip.

At the first meal that we all sat down to together, I was at a table with fellow PiAer Dan, two colleagues, and four children aged 8-11. The entire meal, I basically sat there aghast as the children virtually claimed the best and most of anything set out on the table for us to eat, with absolutely no regards for the presence of anyone else at the table. One child in particular kept saying, "Let me have the best piece of fish Daddy! I deserve the best and I don't care about anyone else, especially these Ang Mors!" (Ang Mor is a derogatory term for a caucasian, it translates literally as "Red Hair" and is an obvious reference to the lighter complexion of Westerners.) But the most shocking part of this interchange was that there was no semblance of discipline or lecturing from the parents - they kept succumbing to their children's every whim, fueling their selfish and inconsiderate behavior.

Part of the basis for this self-centered behavior in the young children, I believe, stems from the social framework of the Singaporean household. It is considered the norm here to have a maid in the house (and unfortunately, these maids are always Filipino, Indonesian, or Burmese, giving these three nationalities a greatly diminished stature in Singaporean society. There are countless shops in every mall advertising the "pureness" of their maids' heritage, as these groups are virtually locked into only this role in society.) Therefore, children grow up with the mindset that there will always be someone to wait on them and perform menial tasks for them.

Over the course of the whole weekend, I saw numerous examples of these young children's selfish behavior: from the child that watched cartoons on the lone TV until 2am on full blast, while 150 other people were trying to sleep, to the child who exclaimed upon entering the speedboat "Daddy we need to have someone dry off our seats for us so we can sit!" to the boy who disobeyed his father's request to not eat more than 2 pieces of a 10 piece chicken meal for 8 people... he proceeded to eat 4 pieces, as I sat and watched and received no chicken. And yet, there was no discipline or scolding from the parents at any point during the weekend. It was unreal.

The weirdest part, though, is that my students, only 5-6 years older (17-18 years of age), are some of the most well-behaved and considerate young adults I have met. They thank me after every class I hold with them and after every quiz or exam I administer, and they often walk/run fifty feet out of their way just to come up to me to exclaim "Hi Mr. Zoller!" and run away. So somewhere between these two age groups, an enormous metamorphosis must take place. I just don't know what instigates it, because I certainly haven't seen the directions coming from the parents or household system.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Worm tea, black garlic, and tiger balm: TCM 2009

So are you getting sick of the constant flux of three letter acronyms, or TLA's, as they're called here? Almost anything that's labeled with three words is shortened to a TLA in Singapore; it makes for a very confusing conversation with someone if you have no idea what they're talking about. Regardless, this past weekend, I attended a two-day conference on TCM or Traditional Chinese Medicine.

I heard about the conference through my staff email, and after seeing that it would be a two day exhibition on traditional herbs, roots, and animal products used in Chinese Medicine throughout SE Asia, with presenters from the ministry of health from each of the major countries in the region, I was hooked. As a future doctor (I hope!), this topic is extremely interesting to me, because I find it fascinating to see how medicine operates in different cultures. What made the conference even more appealing to me was that my school agreed to pay the registration fee ($150), and it was going to be held almost entirely in Mandarin with translators speaking through headsets... very U.N.-esque.

Anyway, on Friday I was able to leave work at noon for the conference, and headed down to the largest convention center in Singapore, the Suntec Singapore International Convention Center. This place was enormous - it was floor after floor of wide open space filled with various events, shows, presentations, and conferences. And on the bottom floor... an enormous hawker center (of course, because Singaporean culture revolves around food. Which I love.)

When I walked into the TCM conference on Friday, I immediately noticed that I was the only white person in the room. And so did all the photographers. I arrived thirty minutes before the talks were scheduled to begin, so I wandered around some of the exhibits, where I was able to sample cordyceps tea (a tea brewed from a worm grown at 4000m in Tibet, priced at $100/g), black garlic (normal garlic treated with herbs and processes until it is black, soft, and sweet, priced at $12/head), and tiger balm (the omnipresent miracle cream in Singapore, it cures everything from mosquito bites to flatulence to muscle aches). All the while, there must have been over 50 pictures taken of me by the photographers, as I was clearly unique to their conference.

Once the conference began, I moved into the presentation room with all of the other industry members and trade workers who actually belonged there. I was passed my headset, and quickly put it on as the first presenters began delivering their talks in Mandarin. The translations were actually quite decent, and it was fairly easy to follow the talks along with the presentation slides (which were often half English/half Mandarin, but not always). But I learned some pretty interesting things from this conference on TCM:

- TCM has been used for thousands of years throughout SE Asia and Asia in general, with the traditional prescriptions being passed down from generation to generation
- Only in recent years have there been implementations of regulations on the use of TCM, and actually TCM in many countries is approaching the same level of legislation and regulation as for mainstream medicine
- Recent research on TCM has grown to the point that specific scientific breakthroughs, like targeted capsules and microsphers, are being applied to TCM in much the same way as mainstream medicine

But even with these "mainstream" advances applied to TCM, TCM has still not garnered widespread political support, even in SE Asia. Many of the speakers still focused their presentations on defending TCM against mainstream medicine, while trying to prove the benefits and advantages of TCM over mainstream medicine. Much of these defensive arguments probably arose from the following, disturbingly apparent, fact:

In the English speaking population of Singapore, up to 61% of the population will choose a TCM doctor before a mainstream doctor. So there is a huge market for TCM in Singapore, as well as in SE Asia in general. HOWEVER, Singaporean businesses require MC or Medical Certificate for any sick day taken - but ONLY from mainstream doctors. So even though the great majority of its citizens prefer to utilize TCM doctors to treat sicknesses, they are still required by the government to visit a mainstream doctor if they don't want to get in trouble at work. This simple fact cripples the TCM industry against its mainstream competitors, even though much of the patient population choose TCM over mainstream medicine.

What does the future hold for TCM in SE Asia? TCM suppliers of ASEAN, or the Association of SE Asian Nations, are currently focused on forming a unified TCM distribution group to increase their market size (from small country-based fragments to >500 million patients), which would siginificantly increase the political and social support for TCM. Who knows, maybe in the near future applications from TCM will find their way into Western medicine...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Observations on the Singaporean education system

I figured I would take the time to write down some of my recent observations on the Singaporean education system, at least as far as I have experienced it. I had two very powerful interactions with my students this past week: first, one group of students interviewed me for their project on "Cultural Awareness" for a separate class; and second, I lead a class-ful of presentations on controversial topics in Cell Biology. Both of these gave me very interesting insights into the minds of my students, particularly with regards to how and what they're taught throughout their lives. What I found out is that they seem to be very sheltered and narrow minded, if just from my observations.

First, the interview. A group of my students approached me last week asking if they could ask me some questions for their project from another class, involving cultural awareness. I agreed, and we set up a time. Basically, the "interview" unfolded as more of a test of my knowledge of Singaporean culture, as their questions included, "Do you know five Singlish phrases?" "What are the respective colors of each of the three ethnic groups in Singapore?" "What are the aspects of Singaporean culture that are most different from America?" and "What can Singapore improve upon?"

The last two questions were the most difficult for me to answer, as Singapore is very particular about it's "freedom of speech." Criticism of the government and of the way things are run is almost non-existent in Singaporean culture, so it was important that I watch what I say. Regardless, I spoke at length with the students about one of most glaring differences I've so far encountered, which has to do with the education system.

In America, as most of the people who are reading this will know, your education is your own. You are free to choose your major or your path based on your interests, your strengths, and your desires. If someone or something tries to influence your future decisions (ie your parents, your peers, your advisers) so be it, but ultimately, you have complete control over your future. Not so much in Singapore.

When I spoke about this aspect of American culture with my students, they were shocked (and rightly so). In Singapore, the educational matrix is very highly regulated, even at the level of the individual student. Students are locked into a rigid track from an early age (about 12) based on a set of test scores, which virtually predicts their entire future. What's more, the MOE (Ministry of Education) releases a list of needed industry workers each year to the various JC's and Polytechnics (the just-before-university schools), and this list is what these schools base their entrance criteria and enrollment size upon - not upon school resources or students' capabilities, but upon the future needs of Singapore's industry.

With that in mind, Singaporean students are generally groomed into a certain field early on in their education, and there is very little flexibility to adjust one's path once they're set into a track. My students were downright shocked to hear about the flexibility available to students in America, with how they could change their major seven times (ie me) and with how much freedom they have to control their own future. I was shocked to see how shocked they were - it was a bit disconcerting to see so many hundreds of thousands of students locked into such a rigid education system.

Second, I had an even more disconcerting observation during my students' presentations on ethical controversies in Cell Biology this past week. The topics they had to present on included stem cell research, cloning, genetic testing, and artificial life forms. They were required to field questions from the rest of the class for 3-5 minutes following their presentation (of course none of the students asked any questions) so I challenged each of the groups with some thought-provoking questions. (Or at least that's what I had expected).

I tried to probe into the students' ability to grapple with dense ethical dilemmas, so for example, I asked the stem cell research group to discuss the ethical limitations on stem cell research, particularly with relevance to embryonic stem cells (which requires the destruction of an embryo in order to obtain viable cell lines for research). This is an ongoing controversial topic in the world of biology, and I was interested to see how my students had been educated on this topic, and on all of the controversial topics, and how they would be able to discuss both sides.

Unfortunately, their responses were very much pre-programmed responses. Rather than intelligently diverging into the pro's and con's of each side, and weighing the costs and benefits of a variety of arguments, each student group spewed out what seemed to me to be an engrained answer. Each student seemed to have a very narrow minded view of science, one that was completely detached from the culture and society growing around it. They all spoke of the "necessary sacrifice to destroy an embryo, because all science requires sacrifice" without comprehending the human side of the argument; or the "necessity to have genetic testing done on everyone, because the knowledge would be so beneficial" without discussing the psychological and emotional impact widespread genetic testing could have.

It was kind of disturbing to me that they almost had no comprehension of the duality of many of these issues, and it seemed that they were almost brainwashed into pursuing the religion of science without being able to assess its impact on the world around them. Through these two interactions with my students, it seems to me that one of the difficulties inherent in the Singaporean education system is that it leads to narrow minded, inflexible learning; this is not a beneficial quality to distill upon hundreds of thousands of fresh minds each year.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nusa Dua ialah tompat surf yang paling bagus

Only three weeks after my jalan from Bali, I embarked on part dua of my adventures at the Bukit. I had the single best surf session of my life, hence the title to this entry: "Nusa Dua is the best surf ever," in Bahasa Indonesia (the language of Indonesia).

Three weeks ago, I went to Bali with only one other person; it was a trip in which we got to call all of the shots and we got to decide what we wanted to do, when we wanted to do it. For this most recent trip, however, I had booked the travel details at the bequest of one of coworkers... through a travel agent. At the time when my coworker invited me and several other of the IFs on the trip, I had jumped at the opportunity to plan a 3 day weekend in the surf capital of the world; during the days leading up to the completely pre-arranged, travel agent-sponsored, every detail already paid for luxury-fest, however, I was not so excited. Part of the excitement for me being in Asia has been and is the opportunity to explore new adventures every day, and I bring this attitude to each of my travels around this part of the globe. Therefore, boarding the plane for Bali, I decided to completely ditch all of the travel agent's pre-arranged plans for us and do my own thing the whole weekend: surf and explore.

On day 1, after landing, the rest of the group embarked for their full day tour led by a tour guide with 15 other tourists while they toured a volcano as part of their tour package (notice how many times I used the word tour. I really do not like guided tours). I, on the other hand, decided to skip out on the pre-arranged bs which would have driven me into psychosis, and decided to return to Uluwatu to surf for the first day. This time around, I knew the lay of the land, and was able to bargain for a surf board for much cheaper (10 USD for the day). Uluwatu turned out to be smaller and a little mushy on Friday, but it was still a fun surf session nonetheless. Afterwards, I sat at a bar overlooking the cliffs and temples of Uluwatu and watched a beautiful sunset over the coral reefs with a Bintang bisar (large Bintang) in hand, while listening to the sounds of Bob Marley and Bahasa chatter in the background... it was really one of the most relaxing, satisfying, and completely rewarding moments of my life.

On day 2, I decided to check out a new surf spot that I had talked about with some surf travelers in passing. I had heard about this break called Nusa Dua (which literally means Island 2, on the East Coast of Bali), which was about a 40 minute drive from where I was staying in Kuta. It was supposed to be an epic right-hander reef break about 1.5 km from shore, and you needed to hire a fisherman to get you out to the break. I left my hotel at 6 in the morning for a ride over to the beach, after securing a new board for the next 2 days (15 USD for a 6'2" squash tail in pristine condition). Arriving at the beach in Nusa Dua, which was a very touristy, built-up resort town, the first thing I noticed was the waves. At 1.5 km in the distance. Even at that distance, I could tell it was big. You could barely make out the specs weaving up and down the faces of the waves, but you could feel and hear the power of the waves. I excitedly prepared my board and self for the sure-to-be scary session, and headed over to the group of fishing boats moored just off the beach, waiting to take surfers out to the break.

I forked over the 30,000 rupiah (~3 USD) for the passage out to the break, and then sat down to wait for the journey to begin. The boat took us out a deep channel that skirted the reef and allowed us safe passage to the back side of the break, where we would not be hit by incoming sets. When the boat stopped about 100 meters beyond the break, I jumped into the crystal clear water with my 3 boat companions, and we all paddled over the line-up, where about 40 other surfers were floating. As I paddled nearer to the lineup, I could feel the size and energy of the swell - even though no set was currently coming through, I could tell that it was big. And powerful.

I asked the first guy I paddled over to in the lineup to tell me some advice about the break. He told me, "It's fast. And powerful. And the tide's starting to go out, so that means it's about to get shallow on the inside. Don't take your waves too too long, or you'll get caught on dry reef." Man I wish I had listened to that last part a little more carefully.

When the first set rolled through, I finally saw how powerful these waves were. Eight to ten foot sets were rolling through, with the occasional twelve foot bomb. They were lining up for perfect rights that extended for almost 200 meters down the line, and it was a beautifully smooth drop-in. For 2 hours, I tore apart right after luxuriously long right, and had some of the most amazingly fast rides of my life. Then I started paddling into one wave that looked like it was lining up forever. As I dropped in to the face, I heard some locals hooting and cheering for me; it was a sick wave. I lost all inhibition and charged down the face for a good 300 meters, almost 30 seconds of wave riding. Suddenly, though, I looked down, and all I saw was reef. The water was not more than one foot deep, and the wave had started to close out on me. I was forced to push out in front of the white water, and was unable to safely pop off the back of the wave. I was now riding the wave directly towards shore with a 10 foot wall of white water rapidly catching up to me. My only option was to jump backwards off the board and lay as flat in the tumbling madness as I could, hoping to not get caught in the reef.

For two to three seconds, I safely washed around in the whitewater; then, I felt rock bottom. I bounced off of the reef a good 3 or 4 times before the wave finally finished having its way with me. I luckily only suffered a couple minor scratches on my foot and leg, as the section of reef I had hit was fairly smooth. Still, I was worried about reef rash, as coral is filled with S. aureus, the bacteria responsible for staph infections. (I later found some antibiotic lotion for the cuts - don't worry). But I wasn't out of the woods yet. I was now caught way inside, trying to float over 1 foot of water and reef, with 8-10 foot walls of whitewater still charging down at me. I basically had to lie as flat as possible next to my board as each successive wave hit me, hoping to not get thrown vertically into the reef. Luckily, I escaped three waves before I was able to get back on my board and scramble for deeper water.

Once out in the line-up, I took a couple minutes to catch my breath and let my adrenaline subside. Then, I proceeded to charge down some brilliant righthanders for another hour before my fishing boat pickup. All in all, Nusa Dua ialah tompat surf yang paling bagus.

On day 3, I headed over to Kuta Reef for my final surf session. Like Nusa Dua, I needed to hire a fishing boat (for 50,000 rupiah round trip) to take me out to the break. Unlike Nusa Dua, Kuta Reef was much mellower, but still barreling. Kuta Reef was about 3-4 foot, with the occasional 5 foot on-set wave, breaking in beautifully fun little barrels. I spent a solid 4 hours just playing and enjoying life on those fun little lefts and rights, and especially compared to the adrenaline-filled thrills of Nusa Dua, I definitely enjoyed the more relaxing but still absolutely amazing surf of Kuta Reef.

For lunch later that day I had Indonesian roast pork, which is an amazing meal: deliciously tender strips of pork, soaked in a light chili sauce with a side of white rice and crispy pig skin. Washed down with a Bintang, it was one of the better meals of the weekend.

I was so glad at the end of the trip that I ditched all of the pre-arranged travel agent crap. Even though I probably lost about 100 sing dollars worth of services I skipped out on, being able to do my own thing and explore the island as I wanted was so much more valuable to me. Bali is known as one of the best surf locations in the world; so far, it has lived up to its reputation.