Culture Local News Sex & Gender Singapore Youth

Reason why band of teachers started petition in support of transgender students

As part of an earlier story on the increasing use of online petitions as a tool for civic action in Singapore, TheHomeGround Asia spoke with Friendly People SG, which had started a petition titled Statement of Support for Transgender Students, earlier this year. Consisting of teachers and social workers, the informal group had banded together to show its support for transgender students in response to the alleged discrimination of transgender student Ashlee, whose story went viral, in January. A Friendly People SG member, who is also a teacher at a post-secondary institution, tells TheHomeGround Asia why this group of civil servants decided to speak out, despite the risks.

‘Statement of Support for Transgender Students by Teachers, Counsellors, Social Workers, Community & Youth Workers in Singapore’ displays boldly on the top of the petition page, organised by community group Friendly People SG.

It was initiated in January after Ashlee, a transgender female student, had alleged that the public pre-university centre institution she was attending had told her that she could only attend classes if she cut her hair, and wore the uniform for male students. The institution had, according to Ashlee, threatened to expel her. In the statement that went viral, she had also accused the Ministry of Education (MOE) for stopping her from receiving the hormone replacement therapy that was needed, which MOE has since denied.

When the statement was first released, it was signed by over 300 teachers and civil servants. According to its last update in February, the petition had garnered some 685 individual and group signatories, including from teachers, counsellors, social workers, school leaders, school nurses, MOE officers and psychologists.  

Community group Friendly People SG started a petition in January in support of transgender students. It has so far been signed by more than 600 signatories. (Photo source: Friendly People SG)

A Friendly People SG member and teacher at a post-secondary institution, who only wants to be known as ‘R’, feels that as an educator, she should practise what she preaches, and stand up for what is, in her mind, right. 

In an interview with TheHomeGround Asia, R explains what the petition has achieved, so far, and what motivated Friendly People SG to create it and issue a public statement, in the first place.  

(NOTE: The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

R: A group of teachers and social workers were distressed when we read about a transgender student’s experience of discrimination at her school, including claims that the Ministry of Education and her school had interfered to stop her from receiving the hormone therapy that her doctor advised. 

However, civil servants are generally not allowed to speak to the media without authorisation. Raising awareness about issues is especially difficult for teachers who work in unsupportive school environments. Under these environments, we have no power or channel internally to voice our opinions in support of transgender students. It may also jeopardise our jobs or have our professional abilities called into question. 

According to R, a teacher’s duty is to protect and care for all the young people they teach, counsel and guide. (Photo source: National Education Association)

Nevertheless, we believe that it is our professional duty to protect and care for all the young people we teach, counsel and guide. This is why over 300 of us teachers and social workers formed the Friendly People SG. We decided to write a public statement, Statement of Support for Transgender Students, calling on the Ministry to implement and communicate a clear policy on supporting transgender students at schools, in line with advice from healthcare professionals, and in consultation with the respective students and their families. It was sent on 29 January 2021 to: [then] Minister for Education Lawrence Wong; Second Minister for Education, Mohd Maliki Bin Osman; as well as Ministers of State for Education, Sun Xueling and Gan Siow Huang. 

Ours is a statement and not just a petition, as we intended not just to ‘petition the authorities’, but to also make a stand and hopefully persuade the wider public to be supportive of transgender students, as well. 

THG: What are your thoughts that petitions are the digital movements of physical protests and demonstrations? 

R: In my view, petitions, statements, protests and demonstrations may call for similar ends, but they are quite different in substance. While petitions and statements allow for more people to participate in a safer manner, which is perhaps ‘more palatable’ in the eyes of both participants and public, it is also easily ignored by authorities and the public. Until now, we have not received any direct response from MOE. 

A peaceful protest held outside the Ministry of Education’s building on 27 January. The group called for better treatment of transgender students in the education system. (Photo source: Ng Yi-Sheng / Facebook)

An in-person protest has a visual physicality that cannot be easily ignored. For example, the MOE protestors against transphobia on 26 January have given us a powerful image of rainbow flags. The nation will indelibly be marked by the protestors outside the MOE building. The image of them being arrested by the police also cannot be erased. They are still under investigation, and we will have to see how repressive (or not) the State and law will be to them. There is something so moving about the fact that people would put themselves in danger, risking arrest and jail, to make a point. 

THG: What did you hope to achieve through this petition? Has it achieved the goals you set out?

R: As far as I am aware, this is the first time that education and social service professionals in Singapore have taken a stand collectively on any issue, and certainly it is the first time this group of professionals are speaking up for transgender students. In broad terms, we wanted to tell students that there are teachers and social service professionals out there who support them. We hope this aim has been somewhat achieved. 

Friendly People SG has called on the Education Ministry to implement and communicate a clear policy on supporting transgender students in schools. (Photo source: The American Federation of Teachers)

However, our other aims have not really been achieved. In the statement, we called on MOE to do the following:

  1. Implement and communicate a clear policy on supporting transgender students at schools, in line with advice from healthcare professionals, and in consultation with the respective students and their families.
  2. Equip schools to create a safe school environment for all students, including transgender students.  

On 1 February, Minister Lawrence Wong said in Parliament that “schools can exercise flexibility and work out practical arrangements for students diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and undergoing hormone therapy if they face difficulties with certain school rules”. MOE also stated that it would work closely with the Ministry of Health’s healthcare professionals and respect professional advice given. 

While these statements by MOE are positive steps, the question is how such policies are implemented in the schools, and the extent to which realities match these aspirations.

Even if it is true that the Ministry does not have an explicit policy that actively intervenes in transgender students’ medical procedures. Many argue that there needs to be a clear anti-discrimination policy communicated to all schools, and concrete steps taken to ensure this, so that students are not subjected to school leaders’ personal prejudices or beliefs in the name of ‘flexibility’.

As Ashlee pointed out, while flexibility is good, it means that the school could still bar her from lessons in school, that is, giving her no access to hands-on practice for science practicals project work, or co-curricular activities, which is what she wanted

I also personally have not heard of any schools taking concrete steps to train or equip their staff in helping and supporting transgender students.

This is the experience of one MOE teacher: ‘I don’t know how it is in other schools. However, for my school, we are told to report concerns to do with gender identity immediately.’

However, beyond that, as far as I know, teachers in my school have not been trained to handle those issues with empathy (issues related to transgender students, gender identity, bathroom or uniform choices). After the recent case involving the transgender student, some teachers in my school suggested to our principal that we have a staff conversation about this issue – to share our views and discuss how we can, as a school, better support such students. The principal denied this request and simply instructed us that should students express gender identity issues, we should refer it to him directly. After the statement went public, there was still no change in my school.

A dialogue between and among students and teachers is the first step in effecting change in schools. (Photo source: Canva)

THG: Online petitions and physical protests both have their costs. Would you say they are safer, or more dangerous than physical protests, considering how fast fake news, mob mentality and cancel culture spread virtually? 

R: There is definitely the danger that online petitions could be a cover for online bullying or doxxing of individuals.

For our statement, our main issue to grapple with was one of credibility and accountability, because while it was a statement to be signed by education and social service professionals only, if it went online, technically anyone else could sign it. 

That’s why we decided to add in another step to improve our credibility. We got people to sign up via a Google form where they had to indicate their profession twice. There were some troll entries that we deleted. I think this added step helped us to put together a genuine list of signatories, and I’m glad that it was recognised in the mainstream media

Ideally we would have liked to collect more signatures and include our names in it. That would be even more credible. But it is a sad state of affairs that if we wish to keep our jobs, we cannot speak up openly in Singapore about such matters of discrimination and equality. 

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Culture Home & Family Local Singapore Things to do Youth

Where to volunteer for a more inclusive society

Many communities have been affected by Covid-19. Some have been more visible than others, such as hawkers and migrant workers. Today, TheHomeGround Asia highlights communities with needs that should share some of that spotlight. They are the elderly living alone, low-income families and children, the homeless and persons with disabilities.

When we saw dine-in restrictions clamp down on those upholding the life of Singapore’s food heritage and culture, residents mobilised to support local hawkers whose sales took a hit.

Whether through group buys, @SaveTheHawkersBot telegram bot, or @wheretodapao Instagram page drawing attention to digitally illiterate elderly hawkers, there has been an outpouring of support for local hawkers.

When the pandemic laid bare the severe overcrowding of migrant workers in dormitories last April, many hands were also drawn to help, whether through fundraising or initiatives such as TranslateForSG bridging communication barriers between migrant workers and healthcare staff.

Local hawkers and migrant workers are some communities that have been particularly visible during the rollercoaster ride of a pandemic. But there are many others who should not be overlooked too.

They are the elderly living alone, low-income families and children, the homeless and persons with disabilities (PWDs), amongst many other groups. However, many voluntary welfare organisations serving these communities are facing manpower crunches in a time when demand for services has increased.

Join Lion Befrienders, ReadAble, New Hope Community Services and SPD, among many other welfare organisations, in a step towards a more inclusive society. 

Buddy up with lonely elderly

When befriending and home visits ceased at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak last April, social isolation amongst the elderly was never more urgent and real. 

Covid-19 was not the only health threat for seniors. Mental health conditions turned out to be too. Last year, suicide cases in the age group above 60 years old recorded the largest increase of 26 per cent, the highest since 1991.

A working paper by Singapore Management University on the psychological well-being of older adults during the pandemic, found a significant dip in average life satisfaction amongst seniors during the circuit breaker period. Seniors who were living alone also experienced greater social isolation and lower life satisfaction than elders who resided with someone else. 

In 2020, the number of seniors aged above 65 years old living alone stood at 63,000, and married couples without children stood at 89,000. With a greying population and longer life expectancy, the number of seniors finding themselves with fewer others to depend on in their social circle will only increase.

Social isolation is not a voluntary outcome anyone wishes for, but the result of shrinking social circles from the loss of family and mobility issues with age. You can be the one to spend time with older adults at risk of isolation to age with dignity in their golden years.

How? Buddy up with seniors at risk of social isolation in the community, or provide a homely amiable space at senior activity centres (SAC). Find opportunities abound with Lion Befrienders, who told ChannelNewsAsia that they are lacking and looking for regular volunteers committed for at least six months. Befrienders have to be at least 18 years old and able to commit weekly home visits for the long-term, in order to earn trust and build relationships with older adults.

To add vibrancy to activities offered at senior activity centres, Lion Befrienders organised a cultural exchange for seniors at Mei Ling Senior Activity Centre with students from Suzhou, China. (Photo source: Lion Befrienders / Facebook)

Be the catalyst breaking the poverty cycle for low-income children and families

We heard many instances of pay cuts, no-pay leave and record high unemployment rate during the pandemic. Particularly for low-income families, the pandemic has been financially devastating.

Between April and September 2020, Beyond Social Services saw the median household income of applicants to their Covid-19 Family Assistance Fund decline from S$1,600 to S$500 (US$1,178 to US$368), and household incomes drop to zero for 35 per cent of applicants.

Material aid ranging from money, food packages to laptops for home-based learning were quickly distributed during the pandemic. As essential as these items are to tide through present challenges, it is equally vital for low-income families to be able to emerge from chronic financial precarity.

Education is one way of opening up better occupational prospects. However, children from low-income backgrounds are found to have high failing rates for primary school subjects.

Care about youths of the next generation and closing the gap between haves and have-nots?

ReadAble runs training sessions to equip volunteers with skills in behaviour management to socio-emotional development when interacting with kids. (Photo source: ReadAble / Facebook)

ReadAble is one voluntary organisation dedicated to the cause of empowerment through education, where you can help. Through weekly reading and language art classes, ReadAble supports children and youth living in the Chin Swee area, as well as migrant mothers who speak English as a second language in building and strengthening literacy. They are currently looking for volunteer teachers with experience in early childhood education, volunteers to support organisation operations, and more. Note that volunteers are required to commit for a minimum of six months, and ground experience is required for some roles.  

Rebuild life with the homeless

When the pandemic unfolded last year, the surge in demand for shelters, including Malaysians stranded here without residence following Malaysia’s Movement Control Order, last March, pushed rough sleeping into the limelight.

Prior to the pandemic, the first measure of the extent of street rough sleeping in 2019 revealed as many as 1,000 homeless persons living in our midst, all around Singapore. Homelessness is often a chronic issue lasting for years, and many rough sleepers do not easily fit the stereotypes.

Many are in fact employed but low wages make for unaffordable housing. Other key reasons for homelessness include family disputes and health issues. While the landmark study found the majority of homeless people to be older Chinese men, younger folks and families struggling with homelessness exist too. 

How can you help? By leading activities on life skills such as financial planning and goal setting, or simply lending a listening ear, find yourself in a position to give hope to homeless families, youths at risk and ex-offenders temporarily sheltered by New Hope Community Services (NCHS). NCHS is also fundraising for Gift a Meal of New Hope, an initiative providing free meals to shelter residents. A S$10 donation is enough to solve a days’ worth of food, or three meals for one shelter resident!

Volunteers pitch in for shelter residents’ move from a temporary shelter set up during the circuit breaker by the Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers Network (PEERS), to a shelter set up by New Hope Community Services, at Transit Point@ 1 Spooner. (Photo source: New Hope Community Services / Facebook)

Unsure of how to help persons in your neighbourhood you suspect to be homeless? Here are tips from Homeless Hearts of Singapore, who are also offering volunteer opportunities in various roles from befriending, recce missions, media advocacy to sheltering.

Build an inclusive society for persons with disabilities

For this year’s President’s Challenge, President Halimah Yacob laid emphasis on empowering persons with disabilities (PWDs), urging for the employment of PWDs to be regarded as a “national issue” rather than as the purview of welfare organisations. 

While approximately three per cent of the resident population has some form of disability, PWDs made up just 0.55 per cent of the resident labour force in 2016.

Writing to the Straits Times Forum, Reena Rajasvari who is blind delineated how PWDs are facing greater challenges than before due to Covid-19. Difficulties finding jobs and making a decent living, which are long-standing concerns since before the pandemic, has only been aggravated post-Covid-19. PWDs are unable to benefit from upskilling courses funded by SkillsFuture, as most are geared towards those without disabilities..

While businesses hold the key to inclusive hiring practices, we can do our part through advocacy, as well as contributing to welfare organisations serving PWDs.

SPD, serving people with physical, sensory and learning disabilities, not only offers early intervention programmes for the young. SPD also offers employment support and training for adults. Through admin support, befriending, event support and more, there are many ways you can get involved with SPD. A detailed list of volunteer help currently needed can be found here

SPD’s Sheltered Workshop supports vocational training for persons with disabilities, in areas ranging from data entry, packaging and tagging of products, to hand stitching and crafting leather products. (Photo source: SPD / Facebook)

The Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf) also supports the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing in their road to employment, by placing them with deaf-friendly employers and supporting their initial phase of employment. Regardless of your hearing ability, there is a place for you in their volunteer groups, such as in organising events with the SADeaf Igniters programme. SADeaf is also looking for volunteers to help out with administration, events support and fundraising efforts amongst others. Finance remains the biggest challenge SADeaf faces, so join their fundraising efforts, or donate some yourself!

With the return to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) restrictions this week, remember to check in with the organisations listed above for updated details on how you can help, to avoid disappointment! For a more inclusive society, keep a lookout for communities in need.

Join the conversations on TheHomeGround Asia’s Facebook and Instagram, and get the latest updates via Telegram.

Food Lifestyle Review

I scream, you scream, but there’s no cream in vegan ice cream

With Ben & Jerry’s revealing three new vegan flavours made of a unique binding body, sunflower butter, TheHomeGround Asia decides to pit its taste against other offerings available in Singapore’s supermarkets.

Deep, decadent, delightful. The idea of sitting at home, and nursing a tub of ice cream (or just a cup, for lesser beings) is one that is intricately linked to indulgence.

Something that isn’t necessarily associated with veganism.

And yet, here I am, seven tubs in (clearly I am no lesser being), and I am almost sold on the possibility of vegan ice cream being as good as the real thing. There are some hits and some misses, of course, but it’s really not that much different from how non-vegan ice creams may perform. 

And while certain more conventional flavours aren’t quite there in terms of replicating flavour and texture yet, there are some flavours that perform remarkably well in their vegan counterparts – dare I say, possibly even better than the non-vegan options.

So, in the name of science, I have dedicated much of my time and meals to feasting on ice cream. I also purposely chose non-fruit flavours because that would be cheating, since those flavours tend to not contain dairy or eggs anyway.

You’re welcome.

Ben & Jerry’s non-dairy sunflower butter flavours (Crème Brûlée Cookie and Mint Chocolate Cookie)

(Photo source: Ben & Jerry’s)

Approaching vegan substitutes for long-standing dessert or meal options is essentially problem solving. And while there have been popular substitutes already in place, the cream has not yet set in the vegan game, so to speak.

Although vegan efforts have been pioneered, by and large by smaller, independent creameries, it is no real surprise that ice cream big boys Ben & Jerry’s may have found an interesting alternative to the commonly used coconut milk, as a base for their vegan options.

Switching flavour channels to the subtle notes of sunflower butter, Ben & Jerry’s, instead of having the kick of coconut, have smartly navigated their route of exploration to pair that with Crème Brûlée Cookie, and Mint Chocolate Cookie.

Where the Crème Brûlée Cookie lacks in blatant creaminess, it makes up for in layered texture, generous amounts of salted caramel swirls that taste like Werther’s Original toffee, accompanied by chunks of brown sugar cookies that will leave you digging deeper into the pint for more. It might be a bit too much for those who do not particularly like caramel but the strong sensation of the flavour is a great choice to pair with the taste of the slightly nutty sunflower butter.

Conversely, the Mint Chocolate Cookie is strong on the sunflower butter’s scent and aroma. Surprisingly, though this does little to hamper the refreshing notes that the skilfully placed mint helps to overpower. The true achievement here is that the Mint Chocolate Cookie somehow overcomes the usual divisiveness met by other mint-flavoured ice cream (it’s just toothpaste-flavoured ice cream, people), and instead offers a light and refreshing experience.

Little Moons vegan Chocolate Mochi ice cream

(Photo source: Little Moons)

Little Moons’ foray onto this list is enhanced by how it technically sidesteps from being your typical ice cream offering. Little balls of deep, chocolatey ice cream is wrapped in a thin but resilient skin of mochi, dusted in cocoa powder – all working towards offering you the sensation of a bite, something that your everyday ice cream cannot offer.

For a non-cream product, Little Moons’ vegan option is surprisingly decadent, while offering an unprecedented balance between texture and flavour. Though the ice cream filling by itself doesn’t necessarily provide a well-rounded experience, fact is, it doesn’t need to. Contained in each bite-sized flour-wrapped serving is an independent burst of flavour and mouth-feel, making it worthy of a try by any chocolate lover.

Magnum non-dairy Sea Salt Caramel bar

(Photo source: Magnum & Abillion)

Magnum’s essentially made itself an icon of layered ice cream experiences – literally. Employing the fundamental basics of a rich, creamy interior encased in a shell of richer, chocolatey armour, Magnum ice creams are pretty much the definition of “good things come in chocolate packages.”

And while the basis of their modus operandi is not compromised in their vegan caramel-flavoured, sea salt-enhanced, chocolate-wrapped experiment on a stick, there is a little clash of these iconic flavour titans.

While neither flavour is overpowered by the other, the strength of both ends up working against the euphoria expected from every bite. While Magnum’s quality remains intact despite the vegan-friendly composition of the contents, the synchronicity of the dual-flavoured aspects just doesn’t come through.

But being as dedicated as I am to the mission of enjoying ice cream in all its glorious forms, the solution here seems to be experiencing the exterior and interior flavours independently of each other, alternating between biting off bits of the chocolate shell, and licking the flavourful star-of-the-show within.

Weis dairy-free Dark Chocolate ice cream

(Photo source: Weis and Abillion)

While on the one hand I would like to applaud the determination of every effort behind the creation of dairy-free ice cream, I am left, on the other hand, severely underwhelmed (if not completely put off) by certain formulas.

Weis’ Dairy Free Dark Chocolate is an example of the perpetuated stereotype of obviously artificially flavoured, excessively sweet, and almost medicinal-tasting vegan ice cream, which turns many off from even considering dairy-free options.

Thankfully, my dedication to science and you, our esteemed readers, compelled me to maintain my vegan ventures, or this entry may have frozen my efforts faster than any artificially composed cream substitute could. 

The Ice Cream & Cookie Co. dairy-free Onde Onde ice cream

(Photo source: The Ice-Cream & Cookie Co. and Abillion)

This local favourite-inspired entry is the ice cream equivalent of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Where the overpowering coconut flavour tends to be the source of many vegan ice creams’ downfalls, The Ice Cream & Cookie Co. circumvents the problem by leaning into a coconut-friendly option. Ondeh ondeh is a local favourite for a good reason: deep complex flavours, masked by a seemingly simple recipe, countered with layers of texture.

And thanks to its heavy reliance on coconut as a key ingredient, this ice cream flavour easily succeeds where so many others have failed. That said, there is a bit of an experiential curve to appreciating it, because it does taste artificial rather than authentic. 

That said, unlike the clawing aftertaste of artificial sweetness in many vegan dessert alternatives, this ice cream manages to, once again, avoid this being a problem by further leaning into its ondeh ondeh flavour profile. It allows the pandan-flavoured body to carry the sweetness without coating the tongue like powdered sugar.

The Original Oatly Chocolate Fudge ice cream

(Photo source: Oatly and Abillion)

A bit of an anomaly, the Chocolate Fudge ice cream by Original Oatly falls into a unique bracket on the vegan ice cream spectrum. With a surprisingly pleasant creaminess, it remains a serviceable option for those who have no particular issues with the still noticeable differences between dairy-free option and the traditional selection.

While this Oatly flavour does possess some of the more common traits of vegan ice cream, from an obvious sweetness to an oddly silken texture, it doesn’t quite go off the deep end of blatantly artificial ice cream flavours. Nevertheless, the experience is rounded off with a generous swirl of tasty fudge that could easily convince you that this is the real thing. It is neither too light, nor too cloying, as can be the issue with many artificially flavoured options, but does succumb to a very slight oily texture.

My only real issue would be it being on the wrong end of the price point, being a tad more expensive than even the Ben & Jerry’s options.

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Local News Science & Nature Singapore

Onwards to a future of sustainable fishing in Singapore

As demand for fishing increases and concerns of overfishing and pollution to Singapore’s waterways mount, where do the anglers stand on the issue? TheHomeGround Asia speaks with three local anglers to gather their perspectives on fishing for sport in Singapore, how they feel about current regulations (or the lack of), what they hope to see change, and how this change can be enacted. 

Rod loosely in hand, Jubel Punnoose Mathew, 19, scans the waters beneath the jetty at Pandan Reservoir, in western Singapore, with observant eyes. Occasionally, he stands back to cast the rod, the brightly coloured micro crankbait attached towards the end of the line flashing as it catches the sunlight. 

In the first 20 minutes of his session, he catches two peacock basses. After snapping a few quick photos, he releases them back into the water. 

This is a weekly affair for Mr Jubel, who has been fishing for the past five years, after his interest in the sport was first piqued at the tender age of 14. 

But, he says, fishing these days is more difficult than it used to be due to tightened regulations on where anglers can fish, coupled with an increase of recreational anglers in Singapore: “The legal grounds [available] are a bit absurd. The space they provide is too little for the amount of anglers there are.”

The jetty at Pandan Reservoir along Penjuru Road, is a popular fishing spot, despite its small size. (Photo source: Adhir Kirtikar / Wikimedia Commons)

When TheHomeGround Asia joined Mr Jubel for a short fishing session on the West Coast side of Pandan Reservoir, he shares that the small jetty located across the reservoir along Penjuru Road was already filled with five anglers on a weekday afternoon. 

Mr Jubel’s concerns are echoed by fellow angler Ng Jia An, 31, who has been a part of the local fishing community for nearly two decades, and served as a professional fishing guide in Papua New Guinea for eight years, before returning to Singapore because of the pandemic. 

Mr Ng says, “The Government has put in slight efforts to open up legal fishing grounds, but taking into consideration that the general public will be using these places, the fishing grounds are generally very shallow, easy to access, and safe to use.” 

But from an angler’s perspective, “When [a location] is easy to access and is shallow… There’s no fish.”

And while both Messrs Jubel and Ng acknowledge that such restrictions were implemented in view of public safety, to prevent potential accidents from happening when fishing in areas that are less secure, Mr Jubel says that such limitations could have implications on safety and the sport as well. 

Jubel Punnoose Mathew hopes that more legal fishing grounds can be made available for anglers. (Photo courtesy of Jubel Punnoose Mathew)

“Since we are using treble hooks and [other types of fishing equipment], when we cast, we might accidentally hook onto the person that’s behind,” he explains. Having limited spaces for anglers to fish might also cause a phenomenon known as ‘fishing pressure’, where fishes “just stop biting due to the amount of pressure that’s being put on that area.” 

He elaborates, “If the grounds were bigger, there’s more space for us [anglers] to fish, and the pressure wouldn’t be as concentrated.”

But besides constraints on where anglers can fish inland, extensive regulations surrounding proper fishing etiquette and sustainable fishing within Singapore’s waterways are still lacking. 

Current regulations surrounding fishing within Singapore

On current regulations, Malcolm Lim, 17, who has been fishing for seven years, says, “There is definitely room for improvement. Authorities can be more open and understanding of the hobby, and further review current legislation.”

At the moment, the only legislations applicable to inland fishing are designated sites, and the prohibition of live bait. These regulations are enforced by Singapore’s national water agency, PUB (Public Utilities Board), in order to ensure public safety and maintain the water quality in reservoirs, with those caught breaching the violations being subject to a fine of up to S$3,000 (US$2,202).

When it comes to the actual sport, PUB does lay out recommendations for responsible and considerate fishing practices. In July 2020, PUB had begun deploying special bins across the island to encourage proper disposal of used lines and hooks, in an attempt to prevent fishing gear from causing potential danger to passers by or becoming marine litter. 

On-the-ground organisations like Marine Stewards have also developed a set of guidelines to encourage sustainable fishing practices in Singapore, such as promoting catch-and-release, releasing juvenile, threatened, and endangered species, and keeping invasive ones. 

But, the National Parks Board highlights that mandating catch-and-release as a regulation would be challenging, due to various reasons like difficulties in enforcement and the survivability of fish who may be caught. 

Still, anglers like Mr Ng welcome expanded regulations and believe that much more can be done by authorities to better manage the fishing landscape locally. He provides the example of Australia, a case study he lauds as having “the best policy in the world.” 

“There, each angler that wants to go fishing within their states or province have to apply for a fishing permit, and the Government has set up a body overlooking it and ensuring that all these are in place,” he expounds. 

“Anglers who go fishing have to bring their permit. They get checked on, and they have got to clean the place up after they use it. There’s regulation on the fish sizes that they can take back for food.” 

Ng Jia An (left) believes that more can be done to better manage the local fishing landscape, citing Australia’s measures as a good example. (Photo courtesy of Ng Jia An)

The Government then uses the permit fees collected to run and improve the fishing programmes. For instance, in the state of New South Wales, money raised is placed into Recreational Fishing Trusts and goes towards projects such as refurbishing jetties, research for conservation programmes, or introducing facilities to help anglers, such as fish cleaning tables.

But with the lack of local regulations in place at the moment, anglers TheHomeGround Asia spoke to underscore the need for the community to bear the responsibility itself. 

Responsibility of anglers

“It is important for anglers to represent themselves positively, starting with practising good fishing etiquette,” Mr Lim says. “By having the general public view the fishing community positively, it will provide them with an incentive to support an improvement in the regulation of freshwater fishing.”

In a bid to push for better regulation of inland fishing in Singapore, Mr Lim surveyed 110 local anglers in early-July to understand their stance on various issues within the community. Results found that a whopping 88.5 per cent of respondents recognised a need for the community at-large to improve their fishing etiquette. 

Salient points raised include a need to “maintain the cleanliness of fishing areas, and being observant of surroundings when casting.” 

Anglers in the community also highlighted the need for public education on how to properly practise catch-and-release, and ensuring proper treatment of the catch to improve chances of survivability. 

The long-term sustainability of Singapore’s fish population also stands to gain when basic fishing etiquette is practised, emphasises Mr Jubel, who says, “If everybody does their part, follows the rules, doesn’t bring back everything [they catch], catch-and-release, the fish population can be quite decent.” 

Aside from maintaining a healthy fish population, Mr Lim allays worries that fishing might be detrimental to Singapore’s marine biodiversity: “Many members of the public believe that [freshwater] fishing has a negative impact on the environment in Singapore when in reality, there is not much of a difference, since we only target invasive species.” 

He clarifies that freshwater anglers primarily fish peacock basses, toman, and arowana – all of which are invasive species in Singapore’s waterways. 

Malcolm Lim clarifies that the common game fish being caught in Singapore’s reservoirs are arowana, toman, and peacock bass, all of which are invasive species in our waters. (Photo courtesy of Malcolm Lim)

For their own part, Messrs Ng, Lim, and Jubel are practising what they preach, and mainly practising catch-and-release, unless there are extenuating circumstances. Mr Jubel explains that he rarely brings home what he catches, unless his parents have asked him to. While Mr Lim says that he only brings fish back if it was severely injured and unlikely to survive after being released. 

“We are anglers,” states Mr Jubel. “We don’t fish for food, we fish for sport and to enjoy nature.” 

Equipment, as well, is something Mr Lim is mindful of; after an unfortunate experience while using a gaff hook (a rope tied to a giant hook, used to hoist fish up jetties that are high above the water) that accidentally killed a mother fish guarding its fry, Mr Lim has been deterred from using gaff hooks altogether. Instead, he now makes it a point to use alternative methods, such as nets to land fish from high ground, which increases the survivability of his catch. 

Presenting a united front

Aside from practising good etiquette, Messrs Lim and Jubel also highlight the need for all anglers to be considerate in public, so that the community is taken seriously. Says Mr Lim, “How the hobby is represented needs to be improved… Although it is much more common amongst youth, anglers often get into arguments with other members of the public when confronted for illegal fishing in boardwalks and city areas.” 

Mr Jubel agrees, “A lot of the younger generation, when they go illegal fishing and security comes and tells them, some of them will fight back. That’s not nice for us as the public will look at us like some kind of threat going around causing mayhem.” 

He adds, “It reflects badly on [the anglers] that actually do put in the effort to make fishing look good in Singapore, and do proper things like being mindful and respectful to the public.” 

If the fishing community in Singapore is keen for change to occur, Mr Ng argues that the community will need to come together as a united body: “At this stage, everyone wants to have a say and be heard in the fishing community…they don’t really see things eye to eye, all they want is the best for themselves, so it can be quite tricky.”

He continues, “When you stand united, and we have 50,000 anglers that are active and willing to voice out, the Government will have no choice but to actually start paying attention and providing a proper response.” 

“It’s an uphill battle,” he rues. “But there are a lot of people who are passionate about fishing. There are a lot of people that are trying.” 

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Culture Local News Singapore

What is the hoo-ha over racism, cultural insensitivity and cultural appropriation?

In the final feature in this series on racism, TheHomeGround Asia explores the issue of whether cultural insensitivity and appropriation constitute as racism, and is every act of folly a case of prejudice and discrimination. Have these terms become interchangeable, or are they conflated due to the evolution of racism or social ignorance? And how has the media contributed to this confusion.

Racism – the ugly monster that has been dividing Singapore. There seems to be an urgency to dissect this beast. According to an article published by Harvard University, at its root, “racism is ‘an ideology of racial domination’ in which the presumed biological or cultural superiority of one or more racial groups is used to justify, or prescribe the inferior treatment or social position(s) of other racial groups.” At its core, racism is “the differential treatment enacted by an individual, group, or organisation on individuals, based on assumptions of a group’s phenotypic, linguistic, or cultural differences”.

Gigi Hadid donning fake dreadlocks at a Marc Jacobs Fashion Show in 2016. (Photo source: The Daily Beast)

When it comes to milder forms of racism, the hot button issue of cultural insensitivity and cultural appropriation is all the rage too. 

Referencing working definitions by the City of New York, the former is “being [unaware] that cultural differences and similarities between people exist without assigning them a value – positive or negative, better or worse, right or wrong – and [these cultural differences] have an effect on values, learning and behaviour.”

As for cultural appropriation, while some may assert that it is an expression of admiration for a particular culture, critics say it minimises or trivialises a culture’s tradition or history. 

American historian and cultural theorist George Lipsitz describes cultural appropriation as “when an element of culture is adopted from a marginalised group without respect for its cultural meaning or significance, or with the purpose of exploiting the culture for economic or social gain.”

The grey area is whether the three issues are the same in all contexts, and the expressions necessarily offend or degrade in every instance?

The core difference between racism and cultural insensitivity

What started out as an infringement of privacy and intellectual property rights when a standee of a Malay couple’s wedding photo was used as Hari Raya Aidilfitri decorations at a Housing Board estate in Radin Mas constituency, evolved into an uproar over racism and cultural insensitivity. Sarah Bagharib, 30, was offended that her wedding photo was “caricatured for entertainment and amusement”, she says, when the People’s Association (PA) “blew it up and cut out our faces.” 

A standee of a Malay couple’s wedding photo used for Hari Raya Aidilfitri decorations became an uproar over racism and cultural insensitivity. (Photo source: sarahbagharib / Instagram)

On top of viewing the action as a “culturally insensitive” depiction of Hari Raya, Ms Sarah had called the incident “racist” as it “perpetuates the racist culture”. Hari Raya Aidilfitri, also known as Eid, is a celebration by Muslims to mark the end of fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Since the incident erupted, the PA has apologised. PA and Tanjong Pagar Town Council’s Chief Executive Director, Lim Hock Yu, also apologised to Ms Bagharib by e-mail. 

But the hardlined debate came down to not whether it was culturally insensitive or not, but whether it was considered racist. Tan Ern Ser, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore, says that while they are “obviously interrelated, racism is the broader concept characterised by its consequences for oppression and exploitation, while cultural insensitivity could be experienced as hurtful, mocking, and insulting to the cultural practices of others”. 

Jo Potter, a singer-songwriter based in Singapore who often has to be watchful that her music does not cross over into racism, shares these assertions: “Racism is prejudice and discrimination against a person or people on the basis of their ethnicity or religion, which is done with malice, intent, and utmost ignorance.” 

A letter by Hanafi Ahmad to the Straits Times on 19 June also opined that the incident was not racism. He qualifies the difference between “racism” and “cultural ignorance” as whether it haboured “malicious intent”, or was out of “sheer ignorance”. 

Labelling everything as racism can fan hatred and lead to a divisive culture. (Photo source: Vulture)

Mr Hanafi further warns that being quick to classify everything as being discriminatory towards a race or culture is “divisive, and stokes emotions and sentiments which could hurt our [Singapore’s] social fabric.” He also writes that such accusations will “trivialise real examples of racism that exist in our society.”

Assoc Prof Tan agrees with this point and believes “it is a case of invasion of privacy, using proprietary material without permission, and a culturally insensitive, but not [a] racist act.”

Ms Potter echoes these thoughts because to her, “cultural insensitivity is mostly due to ignorance. The difference is that insensitivity is usually done without intention.”

The use of the standee was hurtful, mocking, and insulting to the cultural practices of others, as noted by Assoc Prof Tan. But, some have argued that since it was not oppressing or exploiting the Malay culture or race, it cannot be deemed as racist.

The danger in lumping different issues together, according to Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, is instead of “[expanding] the space for agreement that [deepens] cross-cultural understanding, Singaporeans narrow it and “cause defensiveness and suspicion [and] instigate a ‘them vs us’ dynamic”. 

Cultural appropriation vs cultural appreciation

The tradition of wearing different racial costumes on Racial Harmony Day may come across as cultural appropriation instead of cultural appreciation. (Photo source: PCF Sparkletots Preschool)

There is another social issue related to racism – cultural appropriation. Whenever Racial Harmony Day rolls around in Singapore on 21 July, students in schools and even employees at work don traditional outfits that are not from their own ethnicity. This practice is meant to celebrate diversity and racial integration. 

The tradition, however, might come across as cultural appropriation instead of cultural appreciation, since wearing another cultural costume does not equate to understanding or appreciating a culture. According to Greenheart International, a non-profit organisation, cultural appreciation is when “someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective, and connect with others cross-culturally.”

Adele was swiftly cancelled for appropriating the Jamaican culture when she was not of that ethnicity. (Photo source: ADELE/INSTAGRAM)

The fine line lies in whether the society has multicultural integration and composition. Take for example in the case of Adele who posted a picture of herself in August 2020 wearing bantu knots and a Jamaican flag bikini top at the annual Notting Hill Carnival. She was swiftly cancelled for appropriating Jamaican culture when she was not of that ethnicity. Supporters and Caribbean netizens defended her as they acknowledged that UK is multicultural. Some of the comments included: ‘You are a product of multicultural Britain’ and ‘Thanks for honouring us and highlighting the powerful influence Jamaican culture has in the UK, and around the world!’ 

The argument for Adele was that she was born and raised in London, hence she would have interacted with people of Jamaican descent and grown up surrounded by their culture. In turn, she might have a greater understanding of the culture as she has integrated it into her life. Saurav Dutt, an Indian-born British novelist, declassified Adele’s outfit as cultural appropriation because that action “arises when people, anyone, takes aspects of another culture specifically to mock or disrespect them”. 

Ms Potter has the same understanding: “There is a copious amount of cultural appropriation in music for the sake of profit,” she says. For example, “if a White, middle class kid raps about a hard life, then it is extremely inauthentic.” If “I write about what I know, this preserves my integrity,” and my experience authenticates my lyrics, Ms Potter elaborates.

If someone like Adele was “enjoying something and being fascinated by it” then it “doesn’t mean you are appropriating it,” Mr Dutt tells Insider.

Similarly in Singapore. The nation has always been multiracial and multicultural even before its independence in 1965. Singaporeans understand the significance of other races’ holidays; traditional goodies and treats are sold at all supermarkets during racial or religious festivals; a diverse range of cuisines representing the make-up of Singapore’s citizens are ubiquitous at hawker centres. Thus, it has been argued that the wearing of costumes during Racial Harmony Day is an expression of the integration and appreciation, and not one of cultural appropriation associated with mockery or ignorance.

Why blurred lines and conflation of issues exist

The term cultural appropriation peaked in interest to 65 points in June 2021, more than double of that in June 2016 which only raked in 31 points. (Photo source: Google Trends)

According to a Google trend search on the term ‘cultural appropriation’, the interest peaked to 65 points in June 2021, more than double that in June 2016. 100 points represent the peak popularity for the term. 

While woke culture and social media have been praised for raising awareness of global crises and mobilising communities to band together, it has also been censured for the perpetuation of ignorance and opportunism in clickbait content. 

Nicolas Vanhove, 33 and founder of Tutoroo, argues that this is not caused by social media users, but by the media instead. Tutoroo, which is a Singapore-based language tutoring agency, was at the centre of a controversy involving an ad promoting the English language. First released in January 2019 on Facebook, it shows a man speaking in a British accent asking a woman of Chinese ethnicity for her number at a bar. As she proceeded to narrate her number, it sounded like she was saying ‘sex sex sex, free sex tonight’ when she meant ‘6663629’, which sounds similar when spoken in a thick accent.

Tutoroo’s ad depicts a Chinese woman mispronouncing ‘666 3629’ as ‘sex, sex, sex, free sex tonight’ and drew backlash for being racist and sexist. (Photo source: Tutoroo)

When it was released, Mr Vanhove says “we received [many] views and likes [and] there was not a single negative comment.” But when it was re-released on Twitter in January 2020, a journalist named Yuen Chan caught wind of it on the social media platform, and she said it was racist and sexist towards Asians and women. 

Media can be clickbait and may sensationalise hot social issues. (Photo source: Medium)

“To me, the media had a lot to do with the uproar of racism and discrimination over the ad. I felt the media caused public confusion and that is the problem – [the media] does not represent the people,” Mr Vanhove opines. He continues saying that because the “media is biased”, it can sway public opinion in perceiving “a fine line [had been] crossed” even if it was not. 

In this regard, Assoc Prof Tan warns that while “being ‘woke’ is a good thing, it can be taken to [the] extreme” when people “become too quick, almost hateful, in ‘cancelling’ others, and labelling them guilty of cultural insensitivity, cultural appropriation, or worse, racist.”

Read the first and second parts of this series on racism.

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Arts & Music Culture Local Sex & Gender Singapore

From Thamizhachi to Rasanai: Making visible Singaporean Tamil women

Brown Voices, Singapore’s first Indian playwrights collective, has produced two new projects for T:>Works’ Festival of Women N.O.W. (not ordinary work) 2021. For an In Conversation With live discussion, TheHomeGround Asia sits down with collaborators Vithya Subramaniam, Grace Kalaiselvi and Raj Thiagaras, to hear their thoughts behind these new works, and what they say about the Singaporean Tamil woman.

“Within, and in spite, of these structures of patriarchy, of hierarchy, Tamil women are very proud to be Tamil women.” – Vithya Subramaniam


The first work created for the N.O.W. Festival is Thamizhachi: A Digital Museum of Tamil Women Under Construction, conceptualised by curator-researcher Vithya Subramniam, and supported by the directorial work of Grace Kalaiselvi; Raj Thiagaras, who writes and translates; and intern Sai Lalitha Aiyer.

The digital museum was created after a series of consultative workshops with more than 20 self-identified, Singaporean Tamil women, who contributed objects and wrote accompanying notes for each item. The final set of 29 objects were “not simply selected on some notion of aesthetic or cultural ‘value’” writes Ms Vithya in the museum text, but instead “consciously refuse essentialised, homogenised, and/or tokenistic representations of the diverse ways of being a Singaporean Tamil woman.”

Twelve of the 29 objects chosen for the digital museum, including a pair of PE shorts, a safety pin and a biscuit tin. What do they each represent for Singaporean Tamil women? (Screenshot taken from museum website)

She notes, however, that each object alone is not enough to understand or represent a whole person, and that not everything in the museum applies to all Tamil women.

“When people visit the museum, it’s not just about seeing what objects have been listed, but it’s about reading personal notes from the participants themselves, about how this object has popped up in their lives and all these memories they have,” says Ms Vithya. “Fundamentally it’s about making human, to hear someone and to recognise their voice and notice their presence.”

Visit the digital museum to view the 29 objects, and on the Persons page, read about each participant and their “ways of being a Thamizhachi”.

Participants at the open call workshop that took place over three weeks and saw self-identified Singaporean Tamil women gather to share their diverse ways of being a Thamizhachi, through stories told via the objects they presented. (Photo courtesy of T:>Works)

The second is Rasanai: An Invitation to Appreciate, a multi-sensory, livestreamed performance directed and co-written by Ms Kalaiselvi, alongside co-writers Ms Vithya and Mr Thiagaras.

Ms Vithya explains that the subtitle ‘An Invitation to Appreciate’, is a call to the audience to notice and then appreciate the Tamil woman in her space, the way she already is.

“It’s not to only highlight special cases, or to only highlight something wonderful and grand as contributions, but to see the everyday ways of the Tamil woman as something already full,” she expounds. “To recognise her labour in mundane ways, and also in historical periods and episodes. That’s kind of the guiding principle, to see her hand at work all the time.”

Director and co-writer Ms Kalaiselvi says that Rasanai has seen a number of iterations since it was first written, evolving from a lecture performance to its current form: “It is still a historical exploration. But there’s a narrative that’s now pulled into it, so it’s become more of a play. There is a beautiful narrative story.”

In the process of creating the play, all three collaborators have had to draw a lot from their personal histories, says co-writer Mr Thiagaras: “It’s about personal family, and the struggles that are going on with self-identity, with relationships, with trying to remember, or the process of not trying to forget about things.”

Rasanai: An Invitation to Appreciate is a one-night-only, multi-sensorial livestreamed performance, revealing and reveling in the sounds and tastes, histories and practices of the often occluded hand of the Singaporean Tamil woman. (Screenshot from video courtesy of T:>Works)

He adds that it was also about looking at the Singaporean Tamil woman’s personal histories, and not just what has been written in textbooks or recorded by institutions.

“It’s our turn to reclaim these narratives and to link them back to our personal lives and say, ‘Either this makes sense, or this doesn’t make sense to me, and I will now make the choice,'” Mr Thiagaras elaborates. “Rasanai kind of encapsulates that very beautifully; in the personal stories that the characters are going through and the choices they are making in the act of remembering, or not forgetting.”

Tickets are available for the Rasanai performance at 7.30pm on 24 July. Consider taking the evening up a notch with the fundraiser dinner, which was created by MasterChef Singapore Season 2 contestant Vasunthara Ramasamy. Donations collected will be directed to four charitable causes, including T:>Care. The home-delivered, three-course meal can be ordered here.

Creators of Thamizhachi and Rasanai for T:>Works’ Festival of Women N.O.W.; (l-r) Vithya Subramaniam, Raj Thiagaras and Grace Kalaiselvi.

To watch the full-length discussion, click here. For some highlights from the hour-long conversation, watch the clips below.

Open-call to self-identified Singaporean Tamil women

Curating the objects 

Women’s lives under construction 

Recognising Tamil male privilege

Feeling invisible

Making visible the Singaporean Tamil woman, without excluding other races

Embodying the histories of the Singaporean Tamil woman

A multi-sensorial experience

Reveling in the occluded hand of the Singaporean Tamil woman

Gourmet meal to appreciate

Tying in with Festival of Women

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Asia Culture Home & Family International Lifestyle Local News Singapore Wellness Youth

Has ‘The Great Resignation’ boom reached Singapore’s shores?

The start of the pandemic has led to the transformation of work life as we know it, with the introduction of telecommuting as a precautionary measure. With these changes, how has the local workforce been affected, and have resignation rates risen as a result of Covid-19?

With an increase in workload due to the pandemic, Jerald Chan found himself working “insane” hours, handling up to 11 different projects at one point. 

Having worked in the communications industry for almost two years, the 26-year-old began to feel increasingly disillusioned with his job. Mr Chan questioned whether the work he was doing was aligned with his original intention of creating work that changed people’s perceptions. 

He started to consider leaving his role, citing a lack of work-life balance and financial incentive as key reasons for his departure. 

“My mental health was taking a toll. I was so unhappy. And I just looked so tired every day,” he recalls, adding that he felt disincentivised to continue with said job. “There was no logic behind working so hard. What’s the point, when there’s no work-life balance?” 

He took six months to mull over his decision, and credits the shift towards work-from-home arrangements for giving him the space to reconsider his personal goals. 

“[Working] from home was good for me. That was what gave me the mental space and time to actually think about what I wanted to achieve with the next phase of my life,” he says. 

But it was a week-long break from work during this time that gave him the push to resign.

“I really knew that I needed a break, a mental break [to] regroup my thoughts and everything,” he says, adding that he consulted trusted loved ones like his sister, for advice. “I realised even if I were to continue with my [previous role], a trade-off wasn’t worth it. It was more than possible to do something meaningful (at least to myself) within my own terms.” 

Finally tendering his resignation was a bittersweet process, one that brought an admixture of emotions. 

“All this stress [was] lifted off my shoulders. At the same time I was very emotional; I was very close with my colleagues,” he shares. 

Still, extreme relief was what he predominantly felt: “When I resigned, I actually teared up. My ex-boss and I were both crying. So it was very bittersweet.” 

Mr Chan went on to join the financial advisory sector, having decided that it was the right time to risk pivoting to a new industry. The rise in remote working arrangements also influenced his decision, as he realised that it was possible to “work and earn a keep remotely”. He started his new position as a financial consultant in April, and enjoys the flexibility that the role offers. 

Jerald Chan against a backdrop of MBS, resigning in a pandemic
After leaving the communications industry in January, Jerald Chan joined the financial advisory sector, and enjoys the flexibility that his new role offers. (Photo courtesy of Jerald Chan)

Why employees are resigning 

Mr Chan’s story is not unique. 

In spite of challenging job market conditions due to the pandemic, more employees across the world are considering their next move in the market. While resignation rates fell from 1.8 per cent in 2019 to 1.5 per cent in 2020, Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index, published earlier this year, indicates that 49 per cent of the local workforce were considering leaving their employers this year. 

This is aligned with global trends, as the same report which surveyed more than 30,000 people in 31 countries, found that 41 per cent of employees globally are likely to consider leaving their current employer within the next year, with nearly 50 per cent planning to make a major pivot or career transition.

Human resources (HR) practitioner Sam Neo, 34, attributes this trend to a change in mentality and actions of employees. Having worked in HR for nearly 11 years, he started his own venture, HR and branding consultancy firm People Mentality Inc, four years ago, and has since also founded storyteller incubator Stories of Asia.

He posits that employees were more unwilling to move due to the uncertainty of the pandemic’s impact on their respective fields for the first six to nine months of the pandemic, especially during a time when retrenchments were on the rise. 

But he has also noticed a lot more movement across different levels in the job market, after nine months to a year since the pandemic started.

“People are moving a lot more actively, because they realise that this [pandemic] is going to last, “ he suggests. Businesses too have rebounded from the initial impact of the pandemic, he adds, having adapted effectively to measures such as hybrid working arrangements. 

“This is where I think that the market has shifted from the point where people are just standing still, ‘wait and see’,” he says. “The fear is still there, [but] is becoming a bit more normalised and [people are] looking for new opportunities.” 

Sam Neo, founder of Stories of Asia, at their event Stories Night earlier this year
HR practitioner Sam Neo at his company Stories of Asia’s Stories Night, earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Sam Neo)

This was the case for Oscar Sim, who initially decided to continue working as a senior officer handling global trade operations in the financial sector, despite wanting to leave the industry. He attributes his hesitation to the uncertainty over the availability of jobs, as the pandemic had destabilised the global economy. 

“I told myself, maybe I can just wait out this pandemic. And when things stabilise, I’ll go out and find something that I’m more suited [to] or want to do,” he explains. 

But the 27-year-old left his role this year, after realising that the pandemic’s impact on the economy would be long-drawn. 

“Even if the pandemic does end, the economy’s not gonna recover overnight. There’s always gonna be an excuse to tell yourself [to] choose the safe option,” he says. 

Age was another key factor that pushed him to resign without a new job. 

“I’m still sort of young. So if I was going to take a risk, it will be now,” he explains. “Even in times of economic decline, there are still going to be opportunities out there.”

Oscar Sim resigning in a pandemic
Oscar Sim, 27, decided to leave the financial industry earlier this year, after realising that the pandemic’s impact on the economy would be long-lasting. (Photo courtesy of Oscar Sim)

The pandemic’s impact on employees

Fatigue and exhaustion are just some of the side-effects of the pandemic, with 58 per cent of Singapore’s workers reporting that they feel overworked, and 49 per cent claiming to feel exhausted, according to the Microsoft Work Trend Index.

For Mr Chan, working from home proved to be a boon and a source of stress, as the boundaries between work and leisure began to blur. While he enjoyed the flexibility that telecommuting afforded, providing space for other forms of leisure such as exercise, he found it increasingly difficult to detach himself from work. 

“I like the concept of working from home because it saves you a lot of time,” he says. “You can finish your work, go for a jog, don’t have to worry about the journey to [the] office and things like that.” 

But defining work-life boundaries became harder: “The greying of lines between my personal space and work takes its mental toll…  [You feel like] ‘Since I’m at work, and the laptop is there, might as well finish that task’,” he explains. “Whereas if you were working from an office, you might leave your laptop there, come back the next day to do [work].” He notes that the increased workload and fewer boundaries between leisure and work also reduced his morale.

Mr Neo concurs, explaining that employees are experiencing greater burnout and fatigue.

“I think fatigue and burnout; frequency and intensity have both increased,” he says. “One thing is the lack of travel or ways to unwind in Singapore. Where can we really go? Second part is that when it comes to remote working, hybrid working, people can’t truly disconnect.”

He adds that employers’ expectations may also contribute to employees becoming increasingly exhausted: “Certain employers also have expectations. ‘Since you’re home, why can’t you reply me?’ That kind of mindset. These cause a lot of fatigue and burnout.”

How the pandemic has affected expectations in the workplace

Mr Neo notes that employees’ and employers’ expectations have changed, especially with the rise of remote working arrangements. For instance, employees are more open to taking on roles from companies that are not local, while employers are keener to hire workers who are overseas. 

He also maintains that employees look for different requirements in new positions, such as a growing emphasis on empathy. And that some of the benefits associated with workspaces have also been less appealing to employees, given the shift towards hybrid and work-from-home arrangements. 

“Because of the pandemic, the focus on engagement has shifted from excitement to empathy,” he says. And it is increasingly is vital for employers to engage their employees in unique ways, by considering how to make employees feel seen, especially with the distance caused by remote working. 

“Do employees feel like their presence is being felt? We’re mostly remote, it can seem like they’re being forgotten very easily, as compared to in the office, you can stop and say ‘Hi’,” he explains. “People are getting disconnected… and they need that care and concern.” 

To bridge the distance, some have taken to sending care packages and initiating virtual happy hours as ways to connect with their colleagues. 

The pandemic has also given workers the space to re-evaluate their goals and careers, says Mr Neo. 

“More people are realising that work and career is not everything. A lot of people start having that kind of reflection,” he says. “That’s where some people take a step back and think ‘Maybe I don’t want this anymore’.”

Mr Chan says that there is a growing acceptance toward resigning, at least among those in their 20s: “[The] general sentiment is that it’s okay for you to explore something else and look after your own mental health.”

But he is quick to point out that the number of liabilities one has also plays a part in influencing this trend: “I know a few people who actually just made the decision to screw it and quit. But they are people around my age, where we might not have that much liability. Hence, it may make sense for us to quit,” he opines. 

Mr Chan has also noticed a change in attitude towards the notion of work-life balance. While before, individuals were encouraged to work hard and “hustle” in their younger years, he finds that others are now more open to prioritising a work-life balance. 

“After the pandemic people are more accepting, knowing that that mindset doesn’t fit everyone, and that it’s okay for you to want some form of work-life balance,” he observes. “And in terms of people’s priorities [in their careers], mental well-being would be a lot higher than other aspects in the past.” 

What to consider when leaving one’s job during a pandemic 

Ultimately, Mr Neo thinks that the answer to whether to resign during a pandemic, or not, depends on available opportunities, and a person’s needs. 

“Pandemic or not, it really boils down to whether there’s a great opportunity for you, [and] what’s your context,” he says, citing the example of young employees who may not have as many financial responsibilities as compared to those with children. While the former may be more open to exploring opportunities in more uncertain environments like startups, the latter may be more open to roles in larger companies that are perceived to be more stable. 

“If I’m married with a kid, will I go into a startup that’s uncertain? Probably not,” he says. “But if an MNC opportunity came during this period, where they’re going to pay me more, there’s an upside to it, why not? I wouldn’t care whether it’s a pandemic or not.”

Mr Chan advises employees to weigh their pros and cons for switching jobs, and to take a more logical approach to finding a solution that fits their needs. 

“There’s [no] one-size-fits-all solution. It really depends on your liabilities,” he elaborates. “If you have liabilities like [a] mortgage and loans to pay off, then you need a form of stable income. You want something before [you] even quit.”

Mr Sim admits that looking for new opportunities while being employed is “the wiser choice”, but that employees should also consider the impact of their jobs on their health. 

“If it’s detrimental to your mental or physical health, quitting and having no job is definitely not the end of the world,” he says. “If your job is so bad that you lose your motivation in life, I will say no job is worth it. There are more important things than working.” 

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Culture Local News Singapore

Social service sector going digital to better serve the social needs of communities

Lifestyle mobile application SDSC LIFE is the next step in Singapore’s social service sector’s ongoing efforts to leverage technology that better engages and supports target communities in Singapore, like persons with disabilities. TheHomeGround Asia speaks to the National Council of Social Service, Singapore Disability Sports Council Executive Director Kelly Fan, and national para powerlifter Nur Aini Mohamad Yasli, to find out how IT can better serve communities with needs.

The only female in Singapore’s national team of five para powerlifters, Nur Aini Mohamed Yasli, 29, signed up for a sharing session with other athletes through Singapore Disability Sports Council’s (SDSC) new lifestyle mobile application, SDSC LIFE. There, she listened to how other para athletes train and the challenges they face.

“As an athlete myself, it helps [knowing] that I’m not the only one feeling the struggle,” says Ms Aini, whose own training was given an extra burst of adrenaline after hearing about other athletes’ experiences.

SDSC LIFE was officially launched on 8 July to better serve the needs of persons with disabilities (PWDs). Standing for Lifelong Independence, Friendships and Empowerment (LIFE), the mobile application fills a gap in the service needs of PWDs, by making information on disability sports, inclusive fitness and wellness events more accessible.

In 2018, 51 per cent of PWDs living in Singapore participated in some form of sport, according to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY). That numbers at about 300,000 people, based on the estimated number of PWDs, in the same year. 

Given the national push to enable and encourage more PWDs to participate in some form of sport, whether personally or professionally, how has technology been leveraged to engage and support their needs? And how does digitalisation figure in social service agencies’ (SSAs) plans to shape better service provisions?

Digital technology is a key enabler

How does a mobile application enable sports participation? Ms Aini describes the interface of the app as being “very straightforward”. By amassing all pertinent information onto one platform, such as a short event description and suitable types of disability matching the event, the application saves her the trouble of scrolling and toggling through the SDSC Facebook page or website, for information she needs.

In other words, the mobile application acts as a one-stop portal for all the information PWDs might need, potentially lowering the barrier of entry for participating in sports.

SDSC LIFE serves as a one-stop resource hub for the latest disability sports, inclusive fitness and wellness events. (Screenshots courtesy of Singapore Disability Sports Council)

Kelly Fan, SDSC Executive Director, shares that many parents of children with disabilities have requested ways to encourage their children to be more active. She says that even if the intention is just to “make friends”, the SDSC LIFE app aims to make it easier for them to search for opportunities “to get out and about”, and “to network” with other people “to gain independence.”

Ms Fan adds that “sometimes, seeing is believing. Realising that there is something out there for you… you coming to take a look that this can be done” entices persons with disabilities to try their hand at sports.

Mother of a child with Down syndrome, Susan Yap, 57, served as a beta-tester for the application. Ms Yap echoes the same sentiment in her evaluation of the application: “Every child with disability is capable of doing sports, if they are given opportunities.”

With a few tweaks, the mobile application could also raise awareness among interested members of the public about para sports in Singapore. 

Ms Aini suggests that if para-athletes’ training grounds, currently only available to athletes on the application, are opened to other registered users, the “public can come and see our parasport not just during events, but also during training.”

Para powerlifter Nur Aini Mohamed Yasli says that the interface of Singapore Disability Sports Council’s LIFE mobile application is “very straightforward”. (Photo courtesy of Singapore Disability Sports Council)

Digital advances for a person-oriented social service sector

SDSC LIFE is one step towards digital solutions in the social service sector. Besides mobile technology, IT comes in other forms too. How is the social service sector at large leveraging IT to better deliver services? 

The National Council of Social Service (NCSS) tells TheHomeGround Asia that their initiative, the Social Service Navigator will be refreshed, next year. A one-stop portal for schemes and services offered by the Government and social service agencies (SSAs), the navigator enables NCSS to gauge service demands in the long term.

The Social Service Navigator is a web portal to search for services and identify service gaps. (Screenshot of the Social Service Navigator)

By sharing data on service demands with SSAs, this allows the “targeting of services to meet needs, enhancement of resource allocation,” and “generation of insights to improve program development” in an environment of evolving needs.

NCSS explains that such a digital platform fosters an ecosystem where different SSAs come together, and collaborate to improve different facets of the quality of life of service users.

But, digitalisation of the social service sector cannot be done without bridging the digital chasm between service provider and user.

While digital technology augments service capacity and outreach, “service users who need the most support often lack the technology, connectivity and digital literacy to access digital social services,” as stated in the Industry Digital Plan for Social Service (IDPSS) sector 2021–2024 by NCSS.  

Ultimately, the aim of bringing different SSAs together into an ecosystem, is to drive at achieving change at the systemic level for different service users, as written in the IDPSS. 

Through collaborations, therein lies better social service for children and youth, families, seniors, caregivers, PWDs and persons with mental health conditions.

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Culture Local People Singapore

Are the different perspectives and contexts of racism in Singapore at odds?

In the first part of our series on racism, we looked at its origins in Singapore; a country that has prided herself on being multiracial and having achieved racial harmony. But this idealistic bubble burst when racism reared its ugly head in a series of racial attacks on minorities. In response, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that he is “not so sure” anymore if Singapore is “moving in the right direction on racial tolerance and harmony”. But, what if different people have different views on racism, making it hard for Singapore to head in a united direction? In the second installment of the series, TheHomeGround Asia speaks to the four races of the CMIO model, and a sociologist to discover whether racism on an individual level aligns with that of a multicultural society. 

Cultural racism, unlike biological racism which is the discrimination on the basis of biological differences, is the discrimination against cultures – which includes norms, beliefs and attitudes. So while a multiracial society causes tension between races, a multicultural society causes tension between cultures. That is why intra-race racism can exist. Singapore, fortunately or unfortunately, is both. 

Cultural racism, unlike biological racism which is the discrimination on the basis of biological differences, is the discrimination against cultures – which includes norms, beliefs and attitudes.  (Photo source: Freepik)

Under this branch of racism, which is also known as ‘neo-racism’ or ‘differentialist racism’, there is a particular cultural-psychology framework: People inhabit cultural worlds that afford or promote particular racialised ways of processing and seeing the world; and people shape, produce, and maintain racialised contexts through their selected preferences, practices, and actions. 

Perceived or unintentional racism can arise from different views and understanding of what is considered offensive. Therefore, is understanding the different contexts and views of racism among different groups of people, or the conformity to a societal standard, the effective and right approach to managing racial harmony and tolerance? 

General vs targeted racism: Do they carry the same weight of offence? 

Acknowledging the presence of certain stereotypes, or even making certain jokes need not be racist, as long as the intention is not to exclude or deride others,” says Steve Teo, a 25-year-old PhD Biological Sciences student at the National University of Singapore (NUS). 

When asked why he does not find this definition problematic, he argues that recognising the “existence of stereotypes” is “acknowledging differences among races”, and not constituted as racism. 

“For example, I think that there is some truth to the stereotype that Chinese are greedy and stingy,” Mr Teo elaborates. “I would probably not mind someone from another race pointing that out, although it is generally safer to make fun of your own race.”

Seeing the humour in stereotypes in a sense undermines them and prevents people from taking stereotypes seriously. (Photo source: Freepik)

He then explains two reasons why an open and flexible perspective on stereotypes, and in a broader sense racism, can ironically be the practical way to manage racism. 

 “We should not be afraid to discuss our differences and make fun of ourselves and each other,” he opines. “Seeing the humour in [stereotypes] in a sense undermines them, and prevents us from taking stereotypes seriously.”

This begs the question of whether Mr Teo’s argument is an example of casual racism, or about the casual recognition of racial and cultural differences. Is the embrace of one another’s learned cultural norms and lived experiences the key to unlock misunderstandings, and open the door to deeper acceptance of differences, or is it shutting people out from true multiracialism and multiculturalism?

“Some people seem to think that any acknowledgement of differences is discrimination – it shouldn’t be,” he says. “Indeed, the very tenet of our CMIO system (even if we think many aspects can and should be overhauled) sees certain differences among races as mostly fundamental, and tries to arrange our socio-political structures around it, rather than try to eliminate all differences.” 

The Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others model is ‘the basis of a racialised mode of ethnic governance, which is based on the notion that separate management of racial groups ensures optimal functioning of society.’ 

Oversensitivity about identity, itself a defensive reaction in the face of standardisation, is aggravating insular attitudes based on the notion of nation and race. (Photo source: Scientific American)

In a publication titled Dimensions of Racism by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, it states that “oversensitivity about identity, itself a defensive reaction in the face of standardisation, is aggravating insular attitudes based on the notion of nation, community, group, race, religion, way of life and lifestyle.”

The problem of how this gives rise to new forms of racism is by refusing to recognise the ‘negative images of the “other” and that will ‘evolve in the cultural domain’. This causes a more severe repression of expression in people, which will in turn be manifested in “self-justification and their most radical forms of expression”. 

Acknowledging stereotypes, however, is conditional and “highly situational,” Mr Teo cautions. Localised contexts and personal intentions are the determining factors. 

Firstly, “among Singaporeans, our understanding of what constitutes a ‘racist remark’ could be different from that of a liberal Western context”. In other words, he thinks that these could be instances when people mention something related to race, without the nuances of pregnant racism.

Different cultural understandings does not excuse targeted racism though: “The intention and effect should not be to exclude or discriminate.” Mr Teo asserts. “If that stereotype is used to suggest that I am greedy and stingy, because I am Chinese, or if that stereotype is used to exclude me in some way, [then to me] that is racism.”

Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, agrees with this and puts it in perspective: “Cultural stereotypes [are different] from nuances. The latter comes across as objective characteristics peculiar to an ‘outgroup’; but in practice, it is our subjective perception of ‘other groups’ that could lead to racism,” he says.  

All forms of casual racism should not be accepted

Casual racism has been a tricky branch of racism to diagnose. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), “casual racism refers to conduct involving negative stereotypes or prejudices about people on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity, [such as in] jokes, off-handed comments, and exclusion of people from social situations on the basis of race.” 

The fine line between that and traditional racism is the “intention to cause offence or harm”. 

Casual racism is still racism. (Photo source: Redbubble)

Jose Raymond, 50, and Chief Strategy Officer at strategy and communications advisory firm SW Strategies agrees: “Racism in all forms is unacceptable,” he states. 

He was also the ex-Chairman of opposition political party Singapore People’s Party before retiring from politics, last December. 

“Casual racism has always existed in many forms, from racial slurs [to] stereotypes [about Indians], such as ‘Indians coming to catch naughty children’, among other instances,” Mr Raymond continues. He feels that a line needs to be drawn to say that even as a ‘joke’, or in ‘casual settings’, racism is not tolerated. 

Eurasian Tau Kaijun Bowyer, 19, who is pursuing a Diploma in Audio Engineering at LASALLE, shares these sentiments: “[I get] called ‘angmoh’ all the time. We live with [casual racism] now, but in the long run…I hope younger parents can teach their children better,” he shares. “Racism is not natural, it is learned; it’s not alright but it will take time to fix.”

Although it may not be intended racism, the AHRC writes that ‘racism is as much about impact as it is about intention’. “[We] shouldn’t forget about those who are on the receiving end of discrimination.”

Awareness of differences includes deliberate effort in showing respect

Understanding the importance of a cultural tradition or religious practice of various ethnicities is one of the key ways to show respect, suggests Siti Ismail, a 38-year-old marketing manager. 

One example will be offering dishes which are non-halal or contain pork to me,” she shares. “Most of the time, this happens because the other person forgets that I don’t consume [these]. It may seem harmless but I do get affected by it at times.”

Understanding the importance of a cultural tradition or religious practice to a race is one of the key ways to show respect. (Photo source: The Wall Street Journal)

Making a conscious effort to be aware that there are other races around is another way to prevent disrespect, unhappiness and misunderstanding. Hence, speaking in one’s mother’s tongue is a common thorn in every race’s side. “As a Malay, I do take offence when other races [speak] in their native language in front of me,” Ms Ismail says. “When they do that, I often feel that either they were trying to exclude me from their discussion, or they were keeping something from me.”

Mr Teo expresses the same sentiments and warns people against it: “[That is a] commonly cited example [that seems discriminatory]. Sometimes, people are not seeking to exclude, but are just being careless, or are simply more proficient in their own language,” he explains. 

To minimise such misunderstandings, he says that making an effort to switch to English when someone of another race is around, and making sure they can be included in the conversation, is “basic politeness”. He recognises that many Singaporeans do practise that and are “by and large gracious”. 

Since Singapore is a multiracial and multicultural society, cross-ethnic understanding can truly foster a greater appreciation of various cultural values and practices. But besides that, “adherence to a common [national] set of values [is] essential [in] producing inter-ethnic acceptance and harmony,” says Associate Professor Tan. He thinks that this is effective in curbing racism, because it “means subscribing to a set of superordinate [national] values, practices, and purpose.” 

According to Dr Tan, it is worthwhile to note that a cosmopolitan and multiracial society does not cause racism, and does not automatically promote prejudice. 

He argues, “It is only when diversity is somehow perceived as a threat [that] it could exacerbate racism, intolerance and conflict.” He advises instead that the key to a “high degree of social integration and harmony” is the “orientation towards embracing diversity.” 

In the last part of TheHomeGround Asia’s series on racism, we examine the differences among racism, cultural insensitivity and cultural appropriation. The interchangeable or conflated nature of these issues have become dangerous with irreversible consequences. 

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Culture Home & Family Local Singapore Youth

Eschewing mainstream educational environments for homeschooling

While all Singaporean children are required to attend national primary schools under the Compulsory Education Act, an increasing number of families are seeking to exempt their children from this practice to follow an off-the-beaten path for education. Who are those who are homeschooling? How do homeschoolers fare after taking this unconventional route? We speak to two homeschool graduates, the founder of Homeschool Singapore and a holistic educational therapist and learning coach for their stories, and their hopes for inclusive schooling for all in the future.

Finding better ways to meet the different learning abilities of children with special educational needs (SEN) is one reason why parents choose to homeschool in Singapore. Conditions that affect a child’s learning include autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyspraxia and dyslexia. 

“No two children, even with the same diagnostic label, share [the] same profile of challenges and strengths,” says holistic educational therapist and learning coach Sarah Lee-Wong, 43, who aids parents in figuring out the best education option for their children, including those with SEN. An advocate for inclusive education, she also runs a page on Instagram called Mama Anything that advises parents on education-related questions, and provides information for those looking to homeschool their children. 

Mama Anything is a page run by holistic educational therapist and learning coach Sarah Lee-Wong that provides important information for parents looking to homeschool their children.  (Photo source: Mama Anything / Instagram)

As such, some parents may choose to homeschool instead of sending their child to mainstream schools. But Mrs Lee-Wong acknowledges that “even if our children share the same diagnostic labels, [parents] will have a different answer.”

Deciding what is best for their child’s education will also depend on a family’s ability to afford private services, and the availability of services in schools, she says.

Dawn Fung, 41, founder of Homeschool Singapore, shares that the common reasons for homeschooling are manifold.

These could include finding a curriculum that fits parents’ religious or pedagogical beliefs; having unhurried time to explore the world as the classroom with kids; being able to provide the best resources available outside of school, such as a dedicated coach for sporting dreams; or simply that parents enjoy teaching their own children.

Homeschool Singapore was started in 2013 to promote homeschooling in Singapore, and to nurture a community through “shared memories, mutual assistance, exchange of ideas and common aspirations.” It is a tight-knit circle, whose members chip in to create awareness, counsel other parents and organise events, such as the annual Homeschool Convention, which brings together alumni and homeschooling parents.

Homeschool Singapore organises an annual convention that gathers homeschooling parents and alumni. (Photo source: Homeschool Singapore)

Homeschooling in Singapore

The Ministry of Education (MOE) encourages all Singaporean children to attend mainstream schools, so as “to acquire a common set of core values, knowledge and skills, interact and learn with fellow students, and grow up together to forge a common national identity and engender social cohesion.”

The Compulsory Education (CE) Act, for instance, requires all Singapore citizens born in and after 1996, and residing in Singapore to attend a national primary school, unless MOE grants an exemption.

The level for compulsory education is limited to primary school, and all homeschoolers have to take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), with a passing benchmark of above the 33rd percentile of PSLE candidates, in the same year.

According to several media, MOE reports about 50 homeschooling children in every cohort, each year. Ms Fung estimates that there could be up to 1,000 homeschoolers in Singapore, because of the way the community defines ‘homeschooling’. 

She explains that the definition includes parents, children from preschool, primary and secondary years. While expatriate families who are here on a short stay and Permanent Residents are not counted by MOE. Furthermore, some students who are on leave of absence from school and taught by their parents might be included as homeschooling, she adds.

The pandemic has also contributed to a rise in interest and enquiries. “With home-based learning and work-from-home arrangements, some parents find themselves enjoying the time spent with children, and are exploring the option of homeschooling,” says Ms Fung.

Dawn Fung defines great education as personalised to the learner, so as to explore their fullest potential. (Photo by Hoon Sze Siang / Snapshot Imaging, courtesy of Dawn Fung)

Concerns about prospects

‘Are they going to have a future?’ This was a query Ms Fung once fielded from those who were uninitiated about homeschooling. 

In a recent survey she conducted with 15 homeschool graduates, aged 18 to their early 20s, all but one respondent indicated that homeschooling has prepared them for the workforce. They are also happy to be homeschooled, and most are willing to homeschool their own children.

Ms Fung is confident that “homeschooling graduates have no problem navigating [the workplace], because they know how to learn” and find solutions. But in a country where traditional schools and classrooms are the norm, not having schooled the conventional way and graduated with accredited qualifications has its challenges.

Enzo Ng, 25, has been homeschooled all his life. He currently helms different businesses, including a consultancy firm Ng & Partners, and a dog training and accessories business Diamond Dog K9. He attributes the reason for his homeschooling to parents who believed in managing the social, educational and religious influences that he was exposed to.

Mr Ng’s experience searching for work using an unaccredited certification speaks to this. Most potential employers he encountered were “more concerned with paper than ability,” exemplified by their queries on the legitimacy, or the equivalent, of an Abeka Academy curriculum in the Singapore schooling system. The Academy has its origins in the United States and offers a faith-based curriculum for homeschoolers, built around Christian values.

Enzo Ng’s Abeka Academy credential invited scrutiny from potential employers, who were more concerned with paper qualifications than ability. (Photo courtesy of Enzo Ng)

On the other hand, John Teoh, 21, thinks that there are neither “significant disadvantages [nor] advantages to people who homeschool, or go public school” when it comes to employment opportunities. While he is a self-employed photographer and filmmaker, homeschool friends around him who have applied to jobs vary in their success rates.

Mr Teoh has been homeschooled for the majority of his life, save for a half-year stint in public school, back in secondary one. He explains that his mother had wanted to spend more time with him. And afterwards, “she felt that her calling was to help us develop our talents and our skills. And it’s not just about education, but about learning… [and] preparing us for life.”

Homeschooling has given him and his friends many opportunities to meet people from different backgrounds. His personal and parents’ contacts gained during his homeschool years could be tapped for work opportunities: “You are going to find someone who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone,” says Mr Teoh, who is waiting to start his freshman year at Asbury University in Kentucky, USA.

Questions from the uninitiated

‘Where do you get friends?’, ‘How do you get to know people?, ‘Are you always at home?’

Given that the homeschooling community is still relatively unknown, questions like these are frequently directed at homeschoolers. They also face stereotypes of being socially awkward, sheltered or disciplined. 

Prompted by mainstream perceptions that homeschoolers are socially inept, Mr Teoh started The Socially Awkward Podcast to amplify the voices of homeschoolers in Singapore. “We kind of wanted to play off that,” he says, referring to the podcast’s title. “These people that we are featuring on the podcast, in no way are they socially awkward.”

Homeschoolers are also often thought to be sheltered, which he thinks is true to a certain extent for younger ones. “Once we hit the upper secondary level, we start to become a lot more independent, can take initiative and do a lot more things,” he says.

John Teoh started The Socially Awkward Podcast, on top of photography and public speaking interest groups to cater to his homeschooling community. (Photo courtesy of John Teoh)

In his community, homeschoolers are also often able to start their own interest groups if none exist. “Most of the time, you’ll find one or two other people interested in the same thing as you,” he explains.

There are also many sports groups in Mr Teoh’s homeschooling community, ranging from soccer, netball, dragon boating to kayaking. On top of the podcast, he has initiated photography and public speaking interest groups, too. Comparatively, students in public schools may find their options constrained by the range of co-curricular activities (CCA) the school offers, and may also face a cap on intake for popular CCAs. 

Apart from wanting to dispel the perception of being socially awkward, he hoped to create an accessible avenue for homeschoolers to nurture their passion in media production. “I figured that there would be people who are younger than me, or less experienced than me who want this sort of experience,” he says, “but they don’t know how to find it or don’t know where to go.”

Interested homeschoolers simply have to share what they wish to learn. If the podcast team is able to provide the opportunity and guidance, “you are most welcome to come on board,” adds Mr Teoh. 

The Socially Awkward Podcast features diverse homeschool voices, delving into topics related to homeschooling, and also pertinent issues, such as mental health and relationships. (Photo source: Homeschool Singapore)

As to the common assumption that homeschoolers are unsocialised, Mr Teoh thinks that this is “not entirely accurate”, but appears in isolated examples. Whereas, Mr Ng says that they are “not wrong” or “not unfounded,” as he notes that such assumptions are made because some homeschoolers have appeared to display unsocialised behaviour.

So what is there to make of “the unsocialised myth”, as Ms Fung calls it? To her, these stereotypes are an image that people who do not know what homeschooling is like, make of homeschoolers.

Whenever she talks about the homeschooling community, she likes drawing attention to how “un-homogenous” it is: “If you talk about a typical profile of a Singapore school student, you cannot find one. It doesn’t exist,” she explains. “Same thing. If you [try to] find a typical profile of a homeschooling family or student, there isn’t one.”

Naysayers decry potential abuse of homeschoolers

Even as Ms Fung and those in her community extol the benefits of homeschooling, there are sceptics who question the efficacy and safety of a homeschool environment.

In a letter to the Straits Times Forum page on 4 February 2020, Cheng Choon Fei noted that parents might not have the “correct skills” to ensure that their child attains their potential, and suggested that it was best to “leave it to the professionals.”

While in an 80-page article in the May-June 2020 issue of Harvard Magazine, Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor, pointed out that the practice could isolate children and prevent authorities from being alerted to evidence of child abuse. In other cases, parents might use homeschooling as a cover for their lack of care and end up neglecting their child’s education, since they might not be held accountable for proving that teaching and learning is taking place. Refuting Ms Bartholet’s call to ban or severely restrict homeschooling in the US, Boston College Research Professor, Peter Gray in a piece for Psychology Today instead argues for the benefits of educational diversity.

For those who exploit the homeschooling system in Singapore, Ms Fung says that they should be held accountable, rather than result in the practice being rejected wholesale: “If a homeschooling parent is in the news for neglecting or abusing his child, then he is not homeschooling. Instead of education, he used his time for evil,” Ms Fung argues, and asks, “Does that mean homeschooling is wrong?”

She applies this same logic to teachers who have been caught molesting their students: “Is schooling wrong? Were the schools closed down? Of course not. You make sure that there are better practices in place,” she says, and adds that this should be the same for homeschooling: “You don’t shut down homeschooling because of some stupid offender. You punish that offender, and then you focus on those who do it right.”

Naysayers question whether homeschooling provides children with a proper education, and could expose them to parental neglect and abuse. (Photo source: Canva)

Hopes for inclusive schooling for all in the future

Mrs Lee-Wong believes it is important for all parents, whether of homeschooling or public school children, to be informed of their child’s educational choices, by understanding children’s interests, learning abilities and the learning environment or culture most suited to their growth.

“When our children have special educational needs, then we also have to think [about] how [to] help them navigate a society where learning and life is still very much catered, geared and designed for the neurotypicals,” she argues.

It is also important that homeschooling parents constantly review their children’s needs and the family’s situation to ascertain if it remains the best option, says Mrs Lee-Wong.

If a family’s homeschooling journey has come to an end, due to a lack of spousal support or financial issues that render it untenable, or due to children wishing to attend public schools, Ms Fung advises parents, who often berate themselves, to “let go” and retain the happy memories. 

“Homeschooling is not some ideology you put on some pedestal,” she asserts. “It is one of the many viable educational pathways out there. It will work if you want it to, but it may work only for a season.”

What is important, says Ms Fung, is for all parents to be able to exercise more autonomy in their children’s educational choices. “When you have people who are free to decide if they want to school or homeschool, they have made a mental and emotional decision to be involved. And you cannot take that lightly,” she says.

Looking ahead, Mrs Lee-Wong hopes to see more children of various physical, learning and behavioural abilities interact in a school setting, citing British Columbia as an example of inclusive, mixed school setting. She also wants to see an integrated system of allied educators made available within the school premise, so that children of various SEN may more easily access support services, intervention or therapy services.

Similarly, Ms Fung wishes for Singapore to be an example of an inclusive, collaborative education landscape: “Why can’t homeschooling families contribute some programmes to their neighbourhood schools? Why can’t schools open up integrative opportunities to include homeschoolers? Don’t we believe in education without borders?” she asks.

For Ms Fung, education should be customised to the learner, and never about them “fitting into a system”.

She adds, “People forget that children are not little adults. And children are not workers. I hate the idea that you prepare a child for the workforce. You prepare a child to live a healthy and meaningful life with you… Professional educators and parents must respect childhood for what it is, a fleeting period of formative growth, exploration and play without worries.”

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