idea-expression dichotomy

The Freedom of Expression, the Constriction of Ideas

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is it worth $1million dollars?

Was watching America's Got Talent recently and this amazing group made totally of family members called Celtic Spring came on, with tap dancing while playing the violin as their specialty. Make no mistake, these guys really were very talented. However, at the end, Pierce the judge commented that if they really wanted to win the million dollar prize, they should ditch their mum and dad and youngest kid brother, who were more of a side show than anything. If all sentimentality were cast aside, and one were thinking purely about how to package potential celebrities, Pierce would likely be right. From a performance point of view, they didn't appear to be strong enough and seemed to affect the tightness of the group as a whole.

But this seemingly innocuous comment riled the audience and was met with vehement rejection from the family. This really stuck in my mind. In a day and age when we deplore the loss of the family unit and identity in America, here is a family that says they would stick together as a family no matter what, even if it costs them the winning prize. They said "Our mum and dad are the backbone of the group...we love them." What was even more fascinating was to hear someone like David Hasselhoff, who might across as vain and perhaps less conservative than Pierce, make perhaps the most profound statement of the night, and perhaps even for the whole of the American society, "It's not worth the million dollars"... How true! It is rare enough to find a family that stays together, and here you have a gifted family that actually plays together and genuinely enjoys each others company. To break the family up, even if only in the performance sense and just to put on a show for the audience, just for that million dollars, was not even something to be considered as far as Celtic Spring were concerned. If we had a million more families like that in America, it would be the Godliest nation in the world.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Life...or lack thereof

I read with great interest today's Today article by Murali Sharma on "The Story of Workhorse Albert's Life - or Lack of One".

As I read about Albert, a 32-year old driving s snazzy car, I thought, hey, here was a guy who sounded like me. I am a 31-year old lawyer and drive what some friends consider to be a snazzy car as well. As my eyes moved further down the article, they widened as I read about how Albert draws a five-figure salary, and I went, man, I don't earn that kinda money! (I am conveniently assuming of course that his five-figure salary was sans bonus).

What really caught my attention however were the following lines: "He works long hours. Like his colleagues, he reports by 8am and only gets home at 10pm, sometimes later." To be absolutely honest, my off-the-cuff reaction was: "this guy is so lucky! He gets to reach home by 10pm!?!"

And therein lies the warped nature of our working lives. A recent dialogue with a close friend remains firmly etched in my mind. He had invited me to his home for dinner on a weekday at 6.45pm. I found myself stumped and asking when was the last time I had dinner at 6.45pm and I realised it was probably in my lower secondary school years when I lived a mere 3 bus stops away from school and managed to rush home in time for the 6.45pm Chinese drama serials on Channel 8 after the flag lowering ceremony....oh yes, dinner included of course. Almost 20 years later, that memory of a whole family sitting down together on a daily basis for a nice homecooked meal with the sun setting in the background (and not already halfway round the globe) is such a distant fading picture that it takes several crankings of the ol' brain to conjure up.

In my early years of working life, Burger King was the staple for dinner and we, unlike most other pesky handouts of leaflets & pamphlets that we get bombarded with, actually looked forward to collecting the discount vouchers given out by employees. By no means were we earning a pittance by society's standards, even though our hourly wage at one point was less than that of a McDonalds part-timer due to the sheer number of hours we worked. But in some perverse way, the discount vouchers just brightened our day and made it seem a little more bearable.

And so bewildered, I asked my friend, a fellow lawyer with a job no more cushy than mine, how he managed to be home by 6.45pm for dinner, to which he replied that it was just a routine he had. Even in his earlier years when we toiled for the same firm, he, by his own reckoning, needed to eat by 7 to 8pm latest, after which he would trudge back to the office to continue working into the wee hours. I mulled over it for a moment and realised that I too had a routine. I was at work by 9 or 10am latest everyday, would break only for lunch and then continue working till at least 11pm. Head home for dinner at 12am and sleep by 2am. And those were what I considered the good days. For many a times I had dragged my weary body out of the office in the wee hours of the morning, relieved to be finally getting some fresh air, only to find in the distance that even the garish lights along Boat Quay had called it a day. That to me was just dramatic irony. If even the nightspots had closed for the night, it must be really really late.

I am grateful that I do not have bosses from hell like Albert does, which is probably one reason that keeps me going. Our parents who hailed from a generation that helped to transform Singapore into what it is today find it difficult to comprehend working life as it is now. After all, when I first started working, faxes were de rigeur for written communication as most businesses still viewed emails with distrust and even the law had not evolved then to consider whether contractual agreements by way of email could be upheld in a court of law. We used to greet incomplete faxes with glee as it usually meant that we couldn't continue working. In the brief 5 to 6 years since then, faxes belong to the museum and BlackBerries have become the constant thorn in everyone's side, a perpetual reminder that your life and time is not your own.

I used to wonder if it was only us lawyers who worked such insane hours just to pander to client's whims and fanices. On the off chance that I caught up with friends and other professionals, I found that I was often proven wrong. It seems to be endemic to our society. I don't think it is something that the Government can resolve. Society has changed. The modern world has changed. Reality is such that if you do not provide better and faster service, someone else will. I have clients who are sometimes grateful that I pulled all-nighters for them and in the same breath expect me to turn things around overnight. Expectations have changed.

I suppose the only way things might change is if massive numbers of people start collapsing and dying from stress and overwork or a giant meteorite blasts us all back to the days of agrarian societies. Until then, I join Albert, a bachelor with no time to socialise, along with the hordes of others on the same boat, sailing down the Singapore river of 'success', past a Boat Quay that has fallen silent for the night.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Was watching the Premier League Highlights earlier when the commentator, in a fit of excitement, while describing how the linesman had accurately caught a Liverpool player offside in a tight call, said "GREAT OFFICIALING!".

I found my eyebrows raised & furrowed immediately with a "Hmm??"

Well, just one of those... occupational hazard perhaps...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I once said that?

Have been thinking recently about something, such that it's become almost a curious fascination - Somewhere along the way, someone would have said something, perhaps a one-liner that was so seemingly non-descript, yet it somehow stayed with you all your life. And somehow, you either live your life now changed by the philosophy espoused in that statement, or it's something that you remember so well. And you can always associate or link it back to the person who once uttered those wise sayings...or in most cases, simply blurted them out.

I'm not referring to heroic proclamations like "You can take away my life, but you can never take away my FREEEEDDDOOOOMMMMMM!!!" by a statuesque-like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. I'm thinking of the really day-to-day statements made by people around you, statements that brush past most people like busy commuters scurrying out of Raffles Place MRT station at 8.55am.

Like I remember to this day a simple remark Chong made years back when I was sick - "Vitamin C has to be taken in the morning, cos it can't be absorbed by the body at night". Yes, it's a non-event I know, yet somehow that always stuck with me my whole life, because I never knew such a medical principle before that! And so to this day, I consciously try to take my vitamins in the morning, perhaps as a sub-conscious acknowledgement of a significant statement once made to me.

They come in versions less refined as well, such as Yvonne's "zui piao liang de nu ren da pian ye shi chou de", which loosely translated, means that even the most gorgeous of women stink when they pass motion. Startlingly crude, especially when we were only 19 with raging hormones when we first heard it, yet refreshingly real. Of course it is something we don't speak about, in the exercise of proper graces, yet doesn't it just bring you back down to reality, especially when you're oohing and aahing and gushing about the drop-dead gorgeous babe who just waltzed past you? Yes, the statement was deliberately made with that intention, to knock some sense of reality back into the glazed-out eyes of smitten guys and knock out any remaining sense of wonderment at the beauty of the female species which men adore, but still brings such a smile whenever it slips back into your mind in a sinister and unsuspecting fashion.

There are sombre ones as well, such as the line Juliette always fell back on during our passionate discussions in the past, usually revolving around me trying to help her too much - "I have to carry my own cross". For years, I never fully understood such a statement. It didn't make sense to me. What was wrong with trying to help someone carry their cross? Even Jesus had Simon of Cyrene to help carry THE CROSS (which has since been the instrument of salvation for all mankind) when he was no longer physically able to after all the beating. Wouldn't it help for someone to share your burdens? I gradually learnt that all she was pleading for was for me to allow her to make her own mistakes, and grown and learn from them. And it made sense. Now, I sometimes find myself repeating the same phrase when counselling others.

And so, such innocuous statements which seem to fall by the wayside, consciously or unconsciously take root inside us, and grow with us to make us who we are. I'm sure everyone has a similar tale to tell. Wouldn't it be something if this became a phenomenon, kinda like Postsecrets, and everyone started sending in and sharing the statements from people that left an indelible mark in their lives?

And one day years later when even memories begin to fail, we can flash that toothlesss grin as we remind our friends of the statements they shared at a place in time, and throw our heads back in laughter at the incredulous look on their faces as they say again "I once said that?".

Monday, July 10, 2006

Square One

9 July 2006. Was taking a walk along the canal, my usual time of solitude with God. Thought to myself - what have I achieved with my life? Here I was, 30 years 1 month and 1 day old. In terms of career, it feels like starting all over again at pupillage stage with the return to the legal fold, in an alien job scope. In terms of relationships, as I contemplate friends who've not only gotten married but for many, have even started families of their own, I also seem to have lost everything that I used to have. Even in terms of my walk with God and my ministries, all in all, it seems like going back to square one in everything.

Which, put in perspective, is a good thing. Square One is a fresh start. It is a new beginning in everything, and brings hope, giving a forward focus.

I decided the first thing I needed to do was to know God all over again. And so I asked Him, rather bluntly, who He was and what was He like. And this is what He replied:

I am righteous and upright. I love, and I pour out my love lavishly on those who love me. I honour those who honour my name. I am just. I will be your vengeance against your enemies.

And I followed up by asking - what do you wish to see in this world?

And He said:

I want to see righteousness and justice. I want to see integrity. I want to see kindness for fellow men in my name. I want to see faithfulness and reliance on me. I want to see a pure heart and clean hands. For the pure in heart will see God.

And how should we love You?

By loving the people around you, through the acts of sacrifice and kindness. That which you do for the least of these, you do for me.

Square One is a good place to be, a good place to meet God.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Courteous Disagreements

I read with amusement, I think last Friday, about a Sec 2 boy who hurt his pal with a fork in a spat at the school canteen. According to an eyewitness, the culprit with the fork "looked shocked, but he did take both plates and cutlery to the collection point before going to the sick bay" to apologise to his friend.

Hmm... so much for politeness in violence. Wonder what it says about the state of our education system.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Camel through the eye of a needle

The article below is an amazing one, written with such boldness, insight, wisdom, clarity and persuasiveness by someone very much in the public eye. Am truly struck by it.

A very bold article by Marina Mahathir ( The Star )
Wednesday May 3, 2006


A FRIEND was relating how after her daughter had read the Da Vinci Code, she had wanted to read the Bible. Which is not in itself a bad thing except that she was concerned that an impressionable young mind would not be able to differentiate fact from fiction. Also it seemed that perhaps what was needed is a Da Vinci Code-type book for Muslims to spark off the same level of interest in young people in their own religion.

Except that if anyone tried to write a similar thriller based around Islam, they'd be hounded and pilloried and threatened with death, thousands would riot in protest and people who would never have been able to read the book either because they are illiterate or can't afford it would have died.

Such is the difference between our religions. While there are many Christians who are upset about the book and movie, they are countering it with seminars and other educational events to balance what is being said in the book, even if the book is only fiction. There have not been Da Vinci Code-related riots or deaths thus far. Which speaks volumes for the adherents of the faith.

It would be nice if everyone could brush off similar challenges and say "we are strong enough to withstand any attack". Even if a book or a movie becomes a runaway hit, compared to the total number of any faith's followers, the numbers sold can never match it. Books are by nature, in a world where illiteracy is still common, a luxury item. As are American movies, no matter what arguments people make about cultural imperialism.

I remember when there were riots over Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses, President Benazir Bhutto commented wryly that the people who were dying over the book were those who would never have read it, or possibly even heard of it if someone hadn't whipped them into a frenzy. A similar situation arose with the cartoons. As insensitive as they were, they were still not worth dying over.

The point is that people's impressions of a religion are often related to the behaviour of its adherents. Some religions are thought of as simply kooky because its followers behave strangely. Some are viewed as benign and peaceful because its followers resolutely will not harm a fly.

But when people, supposedly in the name of religion, riot, burn and kill, it can't help but give the impression of a religion that advocates this, no matter how much we point out that nowhere in religious texts itself does it say you should do this. And unfortunately we get the whole spectrum, from men who publicly insult women on a daily basis without censure to the real crazies.

Recently in New York I had to suffer the embarrassment of having to listen to a Muslim man say to a non-Muslim woman at a forum, "Don't mess with Muslims, we have nuclear weapons!" There I was trying to dispel stereotypes about violence-prone Muslims and in one fell swoop, this nutcase confirmed every stereotype there was.

I think the only people who can dispel stereotypes about Muslims are women. While there are certainly some conservative women, even when these speak out they will naturally change perceptions because in a world where Muslim women are perceived to be perpetually hidden behind curtains, their sheer presence and articulateness will be noticed. What more if they are able to argue rationally in a calm manner.

Thus far there have been very few Muslim men in the international media who give a good impression. We might argue that the Western media selects who they interview in order to perpetuate stereotypes, which is true and that is a problem for all of us. A man or woman who looks like the archetypal wild-eyed conservative is far more telegenic than someone who looks like
everyone else. Channel surfers are far more likely to stop at the sight of someone they think of as alien to their culture than if they see someone too similar to them. To stop this means having to make a concerted effort to come together as one community and decide on a sophisticated media strategy. But sadly coming together as one united community is a challenge
in itself.

If we do manage as a global community to change other people's perceptions of us, the benefits would be many. Our own people might think more kindly of each other so peace would reign within. And because within ourselves, we respect diversity, we can do the same with others. Then peace would truly have a chance.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Chernobyl - Complacencies of Life

This is one of the most heart-wrenching things I've ever seen. I must admit that I never quite knew enough about the Chernobyl disaster.
The pictures are horrific, really horrific. But what the photojournalist said is very true - we looking at the photos think it's bad, that it's monstrous...think of how the parents of the kids feel?

Just as complacency led to this unnecessary disaster that resonates with its after-effects to this day, these photos just wake you up from the complacency of life.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


Photo by Mircea Bezergheanu

"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
An eternity in an hour."
William Blake

This is my favourite verse of all time.

Timeout from Life

Leafing through my old diaries, I found an entry from 26 Feb 1998 (yes, it's that long ago). It's a mini piece of prose from Edward Wilson. Am as struck by it now as I was then.

"A happy life is not built up of tours abroad and pleasant holidays, but of little clumps of violets noticed by the roadside, hidden away almost so that only those can see them who have God's peace and love in their hearts; in one long continuous chain of little joys, little whispers from the spiritual world, and little gleams of sunshine on our daily work."

Edward Wilson

That really encapsulates my life & world view. And I thank God for gifting me with the ability to notice the little clumps of violets in life that often go unnoticed by others.