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In Conversation With: Darren Ng, Founder of SGVenusFlytrap

Through our weekly series In Conversation With, TheHomeGround Asia amplifies and celebrates the ideas, achievements and experiences of extraordinary individuals who are creating ripples in unique ways. This week, we speak with student-entrepreneur Darren Ng, founder of the SGVenusFlytrap Facebook group, and a plant-man with a keen interest in carnivorous plants.

The home of 22-year-old Darren Ng’s venture, SGVenusFlytrap, is a deceptively stunning snare for unsuspecting critters. Whereas other plots may contain ornamental plants or fruits and vegetables, Mr Ng’s garden comprises an assortment of carnivorous plants, their scarlet hues a stark contrast standing against the typical greens of plants. It is a lair insects might prefer to avoid, for while the services of some may prove useful in pollination, others may find themselves flying into a deadly trap. A Venus flytrap, that is.

But while Venus flytraps are the namesake of his community and business, they are far from the only threat. A stray fly could just as easily fall into the murky depths of a pitcher plant, whose elongated and tapered cylinder restricts the movements of its prey, leaving it to drown in a cauldron of digestive liquids. Or, a trusting beetle looking for a tasty nectar treat may instead find itself trapped in the sticky tendrils of a sundew, to be entangled and consumed. 

An unsuspecting mosquito becomes the meal of a sundew. (Photo courtesy of Darren Ng)

The sinister nature of these plants are precisely what drew a curious Mr Ng, when he first saw them on a page of his primary three science textbook. What he did not expect, however, was for a childhood interest to spark his budding business today. 

At the age of 14, Mr Ng discovered plant tissue culture technology, where plant tissues or cells are harvested and grown under laboratory conditions to enable the rapid production of plants. Intrigued by the process, he reached out to his secondary school science teacher, who let him use the school’s facilities for his experiments. 

“I first came across the technology when I was surfing the net, and learned that plant tissue culture was used in the cultivation of crops, such as tobacco, orchids and many other plants,” he explains. “But I hardly saw people applying this technology on carnivorous plants at that time.”

His research first began with plant tissue regeneration, a phenomenon that allows plant tissue to recover and regenerate after they have been damaged or injured. Using the only plant he owned at the time, a Venus flytrap, Mr Ng’s experiments led him to make a serendipitous discovery – the Venus flytraps he was culturing were adapting, through the batches, to Singapore’s tropical climate. 

“We created a tropicalised version as a by-product, purely by accident,” he exclaims. 

A plant tissue culture being cultivated. (Photo courtesy of Darren Ng)

Inspired, Mr Ng continued to pursue this line of research, creating Venus flytraps that are suitable for the layman in Singapore to grow without specialised set-ups required by typical traps, which are temperate plants. 

His research eventually piqued the interest of other carnivorous plant keepers, who came onboard the project. Together, they created the SGVenusFlytrap Facebook community group in 2016, where they share resources, plant growing tips, and successful plants and habitats that they have cultivated. The group, which started with only 10 members, has grown to 4,000-strong under Mr Ng’s charge, prompting him to establish a viable business plan to sustain his research and the community. 

Today, SGVenusFlytrap is both a community and a business.

As a community, they continue to research and develop tropicalised versions of carnivorous plants, while educating interested growers on how to successfully cultivate these plants.

On the business front, Mr Ng sells these plants, while also offering educational workshops on carnivorous plants and the biotechnology behind them. Besides which, curates and creates unique terrariums with carnivorous plants that can be kept in an indoor environment, without direct sunlight. 

A terrarium of carnivorous plants. (Photo courtesy of Darren Ng)

TheHomeGround Asia pays a visit to the community garden of SGVenusFlytrap and sits down with Mr Ng, who shares his love and fascination for these plants, the challenge he finds in his job (which he juggles as an undergraduate studying business management), and his motivation and passion as a student-entrepreneur with green, snappy fingers. 

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

Darren Ng: I think carnivorous plants are really cool biologically. My favourite thing about them is the fast-moving action of a Venus flytrap. That’s something that exceeded my knowledge when I was in primary school, whereby I always thought that plants cannot really move. But being able to see them snapping in less than a second really amazed me like, ‘Wow, how can even a plant do that?’ 

And even though many may think that carnivorous plants need to consume insects to survive, they can grow perfectly well without it. Insects are more like a vitamin pill. For us humans, if we don’t eat any vitamin pills, we can still grow pretty well and lead pretty good lives. But what happens if we don’t take in carbohydrates, and we are not given three meals a day? We may suffer. Same goes for plants. Sunlight is their main source of energy, rather than insects. They contain chlorophyll, so they can still photosynthesise. 

Carnivorous plants at the community garden of SGVenusFlytrap.

However, in the past, carnivorous plants were one of the hardest plants to grow in Singapore because they require a temperate climate to thrive. When bringing a temperate plant to tropical weather, they either don’t thrive well, or you have to be hardcore hobbyist with suitable air conditioning and grow light setups to cultivate them. I saw that the community would benefit greatly if these plants were much easier to be kept in Singapore weather, which is why I continued my research on plant tissue culture, to develop carnivorous plants that are adapted to Singapore’s tropical weather. 

THG: When did you realise that you had actually created something new? 

DN: I had been observing how one of my Venus flytraps’ leaf was regenerating from an open cut that I inflicted, and realised that the leaf had not just healed, but had actually regenerated into a baby Venus flytrap. As time went by, I was surprised to find that about 30 per cent was able to thrive well in a non-air conditioned environment. With that revelation, I continued to read up on the various biological mechanisms to understand what had happened on a molecular level. Soon, I confirmed the phenomenon, and with some changes to the research methodology, I managed to raise the success rate of this new tropicalised version to 96 per cent. 

Today, the research is angled slightly differently. What we are investigating is the changes happening on the molecular level of these plants, and how gene expression causes the plant to change in the way that we have originally observed. Currently, we know that they are able to grow well in hot weather, but we do not exactly know what changes on the genetic level.

Venus Flytraps are typically temperate plants, but plant tissue culture has allowed Darren Ng to create a tropicalised version. (Photo courtesy of Darren Ng)

THG: It must have been quite exciting to realise you have created something new as a young teenager! Can you share that moment of success? 

DN: The feeling of success was actually very short-lived, because after the success of the research work, we were faced with a slightly more challenging problem: more and more of my friends wanted to grow these plants [Venus flytraps]. The initial success was just on a paper document. We can develop this plant, but being able to grow them at scale to meet the community request is the next problem we face. Many of us had come together to make this work, and now, we all want to be able to grow something for ourselves. 

That’s how the SGVenusFlytrap community first started – as we were trying to think about a more sustainable way of cultivating these plants. 

THG: Tell us a bit more about the SGVenusFlytrap community. When you first started, it was only with 10 members. What has the journey been like? 

DN: When we first started research on plant tissue regeneration, the change in plant behaviour was not something supported by many, especially the pioneer members. At that point of time, being able to change plant behaviour is something [seen as] almost impossible. But as our community grew, we showcased that as a community, we can achieve greater things than a small, one-person team.

With the success rate increasing over the years and our community building up, there are more and more people who are successfully growing these plants. And when the members bring back their overgrown plants to let us take a look, the satisfaction that they show or they achieve by growing these plants, is also the satisfaction I get from setting up this group; I see that the community is benefiting the new members, and that keeps me and my whole team going.

THG: The community has also decided to establish a physical garden. How did that come about? 

The community garden managed by SGVenusFlytrap in Punggol, north-eastern Singapore.

DN: We decided to establish a physical community garden at Punggol because we faced difficulties when members were trying to come to my house to visit the plants. Now, with about 4,000 of us, coming to my house to visit is a challenge. That’s why we decided to set up a physical place, where our members can pop by and take a look at the full range of carnivorous plants we grow. With a community garden, it’s easier for us to educate and teach them on the spot as well. 

THG: Are there any plants in this garden that are special to you? 

DN: The oldest plant in the gardens is nine years old. It was the first one that actually survived under my care. I didn’t expect that this plant would follow me for so long, generation after generation, but it was something pretty amazing as it witnessed the progression of the community. The longest Venus flytrap in particular is across the whole community, because they got cloned from the same plant. It has divided itself so greatly. 

THG: Now that you have established a thriving community and garden, you’re looking to move into a business. What inspired that change? 

DN: The main reason why we are trying to venture into a business is because of the sustainability of this community. In the past, community members only covered material costs. In order for long-term sustainability, in terms of being able to get permanent members to help out, we will require a more sustainable model. I see a business as a potential way we can allow this community to progress into the future. 

If one day we had to close this community, I believe that a lot of members would be quite disappointed. We had come together to build it, and it didn’t last. 

THG: You’ve been doing this for about a decade now, what has been the most memorable moment thus far? 

DN: When we first started out, we had very minimal results, so when we first shared online, we faced a lot of experienced growers who believed that what we were doing was impossible. They didn’t believe that these plants’ behaviour can change with biotechnology. At that point of time, I really felt quite discouraged, especially when in school, teachers were very friendly and encouraged us a lot. But when it comes to reality, it’s the first time I met a setback. But when I faced that emotionally, a lot more members actually came in to encourage me, and guided me to change my mindset about things. 

Carnivorous plant-enthusiast Darren Ng checking on the plants at the community garden.

One of the most memorable quotes a member shared with me was: ‘You have to believe in yourself, before others will believe in you.’ I learned that we should focus more on people who support us, and then we move forward because of these people.

THG: You talked about the struggles you faced in the beginning, but what about the triumphs? What has been the best thing about running this community?

DN: I think my favourite part is when I interact with members, especially when they come down to the garden to learn. While they are learning how to grow these carnivorous plants from me, I’m actually learning a lot of life values from them at the same time. So through the day-to-day interactions, it really opened up my mind because of the number of people I speak to.

THG: What about your greatest takeaway? 

DN: The greatest takeaway is that failure is something unavoidable and it should be something expected. Through this 12-year journey, we faced multiple and endless failures, but it’s actually the progress or the process of how to accept the failure and how to make changes, coming up with solutions, to ensure that we overcome all these obstacles. I believe that to be successful, we should have constant improvement over time.

An assortment of carnivorous plants including Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, and sundews.

THG: Moving forward, where do you hope to bring your research next? 

DN: On a personal level, the passion of growing these plants is still as strong as when I first started out. I’m still constantly researching how to grow varieties from even cooler temperatures. What we’re growing now is just the tip of the iceberg. I want to try converting these challenging plants to become an easier plant for my friends and members. I’m referring specifically to the highlanders, which grow in very cool temperatures of just over 10 degree Celsius. They’re beautiful, and very exotic. That’s part of the greater challenge ahead that I’ll be facing. 

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Asia Culture Design Local Singapore South East Asia Travel

Discover the evolution of Singapore’s passports overtime with Gil Schneider

Ever wondered how Singapore’s passport has evolved over time? TheHomeGround Asia spoke with Gil Schneider, the President of the Vexillological Society Singapore to find out more. 

Gil Schneider is an avid collector of passports and has amassed hundreds of them internationally in his trusty vintage suitcases. We get a sneak peek into his collection of Singapore passports, from the end of World War Two in 1945 until today. From flimsy slips of handwritten papers to state-of-the-art biometric passports, watch how our travel documents have evolved over more than half a century.

Dr Schneider unearths his rare finds of passports made just for the Hajj pilgrimage, travel for the stateless, and visits to our bordering neighbour, Johor Bahru.

Specials thanks to Gil Schneider | The Vexillological Society Singapore.

Check out the full video above for more insights from Dr Schneider on the evolution of Singapore’s passport. 

WATCH: In Conversation With: Jayaprakash Joghee Bojan, wildlife and nature photographer

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Culture Lifestyle Local Sex & Gender Singapore Wellness

The case for women masturbating and sex toys

We do not talk nearly enough about sex and female pleasure. But when we do, what are we saying? And beyond chitchat, how do our actions fare? In the second of a two-part series on female sexuality and pleasure, TheHomeGround Asia delves into the world of female masturbation and sex toys, uncovering the misconceptions surrounding them, and understanding how they are important to a woman’s sexual wellness.

‘Dirty’, ‘immoral’, ‘wrong’ – these are words that the women TheHomeGround Asia spoke to associated with masturbation when they were growing up. These sentiments are reflected nationwide: a 2015 survey commissioned by Swedish wellness brand Smile Makers revealed that one in two women think that talking about masturbation is taboo.

Sexual wellness advocate Janice Lee says that women are “afraid” of masturbating: “Masturbation is seen as dirty. You shouldn’t play with yourself… The hymen may break when you play with yourself, whether it’s with your fingers, or a toy… These are beliefs that have been perpetuated through the generations.” 

Sexual wellness advocate Janice Lee suggests that women are afraid of masturbating because the belief that it is ‘dirty’ has been ingrained in women through the generations. (Photo courtesy of Janice Lee)

It is perhaps no surprise then that Singapore presents with the largest masturbation gap in the world, according to a survey conducted by a sex toy company.  Involving 6,000 participants across 12 countries, it found that women worldwide masturbate 68 per cent less than men on average. In Singapore, the gap widens to 79 per cent. This is despite women ranking their libido at a similar level to men. 

The Smile Makers’ survey found that only 30 per cent of women in Singapore are satisfied with their sex lives, even though nearly 60 per cent believe that achieving sexual satisfaction is within their control.

So if women want it, why are they not getting it? 

Lack of knowledge behind female masturbation and pleasure

“The issue is simply a lack of information,” suggests Ranae (not her real name). When chatting with a few of her girlfriends about masturbation, she recalls one of them asking, “How do you even do it?” 

She adds: “Information about female sexuality and pleasure is rather opaque in mainstream media, unless you actively search for it.” 

Misconceptions surrounding a woman’s sexuality and pleasure can also be a contributing factor. 

There are many misconceptions surrounding a woman’s pleasure and sexuality, such as women being able to achieve pleasure easily via penetrative sex. (Source: Canva)

Another interviewee, who prefers to use her pseudonym Veron, reveals that misinformation abounds in her conversations with friends: some believe that the clitoris is an extra fold in the vulva and unimportant for female pleasure; while many men think that it is easy for a woman to feel pleasure and achieve orgasms solely through penetration. Better yet, she has heard of men who maintain that speed is everything when it comes to pleasuring a woman. 

“Sorry, lads, it’s about precision and rhythm,” she laughs. “Jackrabbits are useless here!”

But while Veron brushes off such misconceptions, they are telling of the sheer lack of knowledge about how women can achieve sexual pleasure. Not to mention the frequent ignorance about the female anatomy which she believes is fundamental information if a woman wants to have pleasurable sex. 

“Every ‘pistil’ (the female reproductive part of a flower, alluding to the female vulva) is unique and everyone has different thresholds and pleasurable points,” says Veron, who acknowledges that female orgasms are not easy. “It needs understanding, time, a tender touch, and love.” 

An ongoing survey of 560 women by local sexual wellness platform ZaZaZu finds that 73 per cent of college-educated (and above) women are unable to accurately identify the clitoris on a body anatomy map. 

As it happens, a sample of 1,478 women reports that women are able to achieve orgasms less than a third of the time without clitoral stimulation, as opposed to nearly two-thirds of the time with it. This is a little-known fact among the women Liu Jingjin, co-founder of ZaZaZu, has spoken to. 

She explains: “Very often, when you are in certain positions [during intercourse], you actually have an orgasm during sex because the clitoris is rubbing [against a surface]. There is stimulation on the clitoris but because you are having sex at the same time you don’t necessarily recognise that.” 

Why masturbate? And why do women not?

Ms Liu argues the case for masturbation: “I believe the more you understand your body, the more you can protect yourself as well. Explore your body, and learn where your erogenous zones are. There are obvious zones, like the breasts and the clitoris, but I also have a client who said that her erogenous zones are behind her ears.” 

“We have to stop thinking about the penis as the only tool and only form of having sex,” Ms Lee adds. “We should be thinking about having sex as different kinds of sensory experiences. Any erogenous zone can be stimulated.”

Masturbation can help women relieve period cramps, according to a study by a sex toy company. (Source: Canva)

Besides learning more about one’s body, masturbation also comes with other perks, she says: “Masturbation relieves a lot of stress because it can release a lot of endorphins and serotonin [chemicals and hormones that regulate stress and happiness in our bodies].” 

But despite the perks, women are still not masturbating, and Ms Liu believes that besides a lack of knowledge, some women are discouraged from engaging in their own pleasure. 

In her experience consulting with women on sexual wellness issues, she reveals that many women think masturbation is harmful or will replace their partners. But, she says, “[masturbation] is an enhancement to get better sex with your partner, [rather] than having less good sex.” 

Liu Jingjin, co-founder of ZaZaZu, finds that women’s partners sometimes discourage them from using sex toys or masturbating as they feel intimidated. (Photo courtesy of Liu Jingjin / Facebook)

Another prevalent problem she encounters is that many women’s partners actually discourage masturbation and the use of sex toys, as they feel intimidated by women taking charge of their sexual pleasure. She says that their partners tell them “if you introduce a sex toy into the bedroom, you are actually undermining my manhood.” 

Ms Lee agrees, noting that she commonly gets questions from men along the lines of, ‘If my partner uses sex toys, what about me? What’s going to happen to me?’ 

“Nothing,” she answers. “If your partner thinks that the sex toy is better [than you], it’s not a problem with the sex toy, it is a problem with the relationship.” 

The need to normalise sex toys

Some of these misconceptions and hesitations are why Ms Lee decided to enter the sexual wellness scene. As a business development consultant for sextech and femtech companies, she places sex toys on the shelves of mainstream stores, shops specialising in sexual products, and e-commerce. 

“It’s to normalise the talk,” she explains. “The more you expose them to this, the more they are able to at least see that it’s okay for sex toys to be there because it’s not something to be ashamed of.”

She adds that placing sex toys on the shelves of stores in malls or e-commerce platforms helps alleviate the stigma attached to walking into sex shops: “The image is sleazy. If I go in, it means I’m perverted.” 

But when made available in mainstream channels, she says that it is easier for people to pick up the toy and have a look at it. 

Having sex toys in mainstream channels allow them to become normalised, and destigmatises their use. (Source: Canva)

“Instead of looking at it as just a toy, look at it as just another wellness product that is meant for your more intimate parts, that’s all. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” says Ms Lee. 

Raleigh (not her real name) welcomes the move: “It makes sex toys seem less taboo and stigmatised, and also much more accessible to the everyday woman.” She shares that her sex life has improved since she started using a vibrator that she received for her birthday.

Ranae and Veron, likewise, have had positive experiences with sex toys. 

Advice for women starting out

Before even beginning to explore one’s body, Ms Lee reminds women: “Cut yourselves more slack.” 

She advises: “We grow up with the norms and taboos around [masturbation], so we’re already a little bit biased against it. If the mindset is not changed, it’s hard to engage in the act wholeheartedly. We have to start slowly.” 

But it is not necessary to buy a toy when starting out; fingers work just fine, says Ms Lee. The point, she emphasises, is that women should start by getting comfortable with their own bodies: “Make love to yourself… Which are the areas that you feel are more sensitive, which are the areas that you like being touched? Just get used to touching yourself… it does not have to be the vulva.” 

And, if at the end of it all, you fail to achieve an orgasm, she insists, “Don’t berate yourself… Just practise it a few more times. Do it in different ways, and find different forms.” 

Drawing from her own experiences, Ms Lee reveals that she does not achieve orgasms easily, but she still enjoys the journey. 

Despite her occupation and running her own sexual advocacy platform, Ms Lee says she is still learning, a process that is ongoing: “Your body is always changing, the hormones are always changing. Everybody’s experience is different. And you should navigate this by yourself first, before engaging with a partner.”

Creating a welcoming landscape for women to explore their sexuality

Janice Lee hopes to ignite a #makelovetoyourself movement, where women will learn to pleasure and care for themselves. (Source: Canva)

It is Ms Lee’s hope that in promoting sexual wellness and sex-positivity, she will ignite a #makelovetoyourself movement.

“If you do not know how to make love to yourself first, you do not have a right to expect anybody else to know how to do that,” she underscores.

Meanwhile, Ms Liu’s goal with ZaZaZu is to forge a community where female pleasure is not just accepted but encouraged. Like Ms Lee, she emphasises that achieving a healthy state of female pleasure is not merely about bridging the orgasm gap, or even about achieving an orgasm.

“You don’t need to have orgasm to have great sex,” she says. “It’s just a consequence of great sex. When women start to enjoy sex, and sex becomes a central part of your life and an essential health pillar, then we can have a community where women can safely explore.”

And it is through exploring their sexuality that women can build more confidence, adds Ms Liu, something she has experienced herself. 

“I became who I am today, a confident woman, partially because I was able to explore sexuality in a very healthy and open way,” she says. “Sexuality informs your identity. And if you are secure in who you are, that builds confidence, and confidence is something that encourages us to change the world.” 

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Culture Sex & Gender Singapore Youth

Dangers of social media use for teens and what should be done

TheHomeGround Asia is back with the fifth and final episode of Beyond Within. This week, we explore the dangers of social media use for teens and what should be done to better protect them. 

Our five guests react to InstaSex, an investigative story by The Straits Times that examines the challenges and sexual threats faced by young girls online.

We hear from Vanessa Ng, an accountant who also runs @upand.out on Instagram, which offers sex-education for the masses; Hope Tay, one-half of the self-help podcast @Mentaldumbbells that chronicles issues facing growing adults; Haikel Fahim, founder and host of The Ironing Board Podcast, where he opens discussion around various social issues; entrepreneur Annie Chan; and Dr Simon Neo, a psychotherapist.

Here are some of the key points brought up in this episode:

People’s choice to post what they want 

Even if individuals wanted to show more skin online, “there is nothing that these girls did, or do, to warrant this kind of abuse,” Vanessa Ng says solemnly.

Annie Chan echoes the same sentiment: “Whether I post a sexy photograph of myself, it is my prerogative.”

Nevertheless, this simple truth does not deter some men from sexually harassing girls and women they come across online, often with long-lasting mental and emotional repercussions.

Enduring consequences of social media sexual abuse 

Mental health issues following sexual assault has long-term consequences for both victims and their family.

Dr Simon Neo highlights that the scars linger often not only for the individuals but for the whole family. Often these cases are so serious that professional intervention and therapy is needed.

Haikel Fahim similarly shares his concern that victims would often take years to fully overcome the assault: “Perhaps it will stay with these people for the entirety of their life.”

Protecting the young from abusive behaviour 

For Ms Chan who is concerned that her teen nieces and nephews would also experience the same harm online, she advises them to “be more mindful” and “do what is needful” to protect themselves, such as not sharing suggestive photographs to reduce the chances of pictures being sexually misappropriated.

For individuals who have been sexually violated, she suggests raising the matter to their family or school, so that perpetrators do not get away with their actions.

Ms Ng thinks that educating girls and boys “repeatedly from young” on the appropriate boundaries of online behaviour is essential. For instance, it is wrong to zoom in on one part of the body, and no one should recirculate nudes sent in trust.

Falsely holding girls accountable for others’ actions also teaches the wrong lesson that the victims, instead of perpetrators, are at fault, when they have been sexually abused on- or offline.

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Culture Featured Home & Family Singapore South East Asia Youth

Single fathers need a listening ear, too

As Father’s Day draws closer, TheHomeGround Asia speaks to three single fathers to shed light on their unique experiences, and what it is like to be a part of a community in Singapore that often goes unseen and unheard, as they handle the demands of parenthood.

Single fatherhood fell on 44-year-old Terence Low’s shoulders without warning two and a half years ago with a phone call. 

One evening in 2018, he returned home to find his wife out and thought that she was perhaps at church camp, since she had taken some of her belongings with her. He recalls asking his son and daughter (then 11 and 8 years old, respectively) where their mother was: “They said ‘Mum went for some event, didn’t tell us.’”

Soon after, Mr Low’s son Jonas, who turns 15 this year, remembers how an ordinary day turned into one he would never forget, when he learned that his mother would not be coming home, for good. 

“She called home. My grandmother picked up, passed the phone to me… She told me that she found a place somewhere, a place to rent,” he says. 

She subsequently asked Mr Low for a separation, which ended in a divorce in August 2019. “We thought we’ll just try to work it out, but she very abruptly left the house, and then asked for a divorce,” he says. 

Something had felt amiss during the divorce proceedings, he adds, as she had ensured that he would have full care and control over their children, although they shared custody.

According to several legal experts online, the court in Singapore usually grants joint custody to both parents in the event of a divorce, save for exceptional circumstances. While care and control of a child is awarded to one parent, often the mother, who becomes the primary caregiver.

His ex-wife’s abrupt departure left Mr Low floundering, and he had contemplated ending his life: “I had [the] idea to leave everything. Go to some tall building and just end it.” 

But his attempt to leave his children with their mother, by asking them to wait for her at a McDonald’s as he observed them from a nearby pillar, only made him realise that he had to fulfil his responsibility as their sole caregiver.

“As I observed them, I felt that I just couldn’t lose these two. I always thought that even if she had left… Maybe I could just fight for it, get her back,” he shares. 

Mr Low’s hopes for a reconciliation were further dashed when his ex-wife died unexpectedly from hypertensive heart disease in November that same year. “When someone passes away, all hopes of trying to reconcile just dissipate,” he says. It was a tragic-filled time for him, as his grandmother had just passed away two weeks earlier.

In hindsight, he believes that his wife might have been trying to cushion him and their children from the blow of her impending death.

“Emotionally or physically, health-wise, she was not good. Maybe she thought her time was almost up,” he rationalises. “So that’s why she chose to go away alone.” 

Mr Low is just one among a silent community of single fathers in Singapore –
a group that often goes unheard and unseen. 

“It does seem like we are the forgotten group. I don’t think there’s a statistic to trace how single dads are doing in Singapore,” he points out. “No one is actually keeping track of such things. We’re just trial and error, going as it is.”  

Terence Low and children
Terence Low with his teenage children, Eva and Jonas, on a walk. (Photo courtesy of Terence Low)

The struggles of single fatherhood

Having been awarded care and control of his son Adyan since his divorce in 2011, Mohammed Raziff bin Abdull Hamid, 52, acknowledges that at least, he has a relatively amicable relationship with his ex-wife. 

“We know that our son is the utmost importance, so whatever differences we put aside just to take care of his needs,” he says. “The agreement is liberal access for the mum, 24/7. You want him, can just come and take him. My only ask is half an hour before you come, at least give me a call so that I can prepare.” 

There were signs that the divorce had affected his son growing up. Mr Raziff recalls one painful moment when he realised that Adyan was uncomfortable socialising with other children.

“All the children when they play at three, four years old, they will run back to their mum,” he says. “He doesn’t want to be seen with the other kids. And the reason because he [doesn’t] have a mum.”

This incident led to Mr Raziff making a commitment to be present for his son, especially when it comes to school events and performances. 

“Although I can have [his] grandmother or grandfather there, without saying, he knows that all the [other children’s] parents will be there, so he wants his parents to be there,” he says. 

“Most of the time, I’ll be there for him in school so that he won’t feel left out just because he doesn’t have a mother.”

Raziff and Adyan
Mohammed Raziff bin Abdull Hamid with his son Adyan, during the Hari Raya festival in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Mohammed Raziff bin Abdull Hamid)

Aside from meeting their children’s emotional needs, having the financial means to bring their children up is another concern for single fathers. 

Mr Low worries about his ability to make ends meet. He describes himself as part of the “sandwich class”. 

“I come under the sandwich class – not necessarily I am low-income but neither am I having a huge paycheck to cover a lot of things,” he explains. “Initially, I could get by with some financial assistance. But I got a pay rise, and then I couldn’t get all the financial help that I would get from MSF (Ministry of Social and Family Development). So I basically couldn’t qualify for [financial assistance].”

Another hurdle single fathers face is the perception that they are less conscientious than mothers. “I think they feel the guys tend to be a bit more laissez-faire. Maybe a bit don’t care less; not so meticulous in caring for the children,” posits Mr Low.

No man is an island

Then there is the issue of finding emotional support. 

For Charles Tan, emotional support comes in the form of a chat group that mostly involves other single fathers. He meets up with his fellow group mates once or twice a month to discuss common struggles regarding parenting and spiritual matters. But, he notes that personal issues usually surface less frequently. 

“I think we just have to leave it to them. If they want to talk about it, it’s fine. Grief and loss is something very personal,” he says. “So we just need to be there for each other.” 

A widower, Mr Tan lost his wife to lung cancer in 2012. When she was diagnosed the year before, he was working in Australia, and intended to have his family join him later that year. 

“Lung cancer is known as a silent killer… People don’t show any symptoms until probably stage three or stage four. By then it’s quite late already. The tumour has already started in the left lung, but spread to the brain,” he shares.

In the wake of his wife’s death, Mr Tan grappled with loneliness and emptiness, as he adjusted to a life alone, and took on the sole responsibility of caring for his children.

“She was my lifelong companion. So her passing away hit me really hard. I suddenly felt very lost, heartbroken, devastated,” he shares. “The world around me had totally crashed and collapsed,” he added, saying he felt “totally alone” with his grief and loss. 

“I think it’s a common feeling that we all have – the feeling of isolation. It’s not that we want to isolate ourselves, just that people are not so forthcoming to come and talk to us,” Mr Tan explains. 

Adapting to single parenthood was not easy, especially since his wife had been a stay-at-home mother: “I think I just left it to her to take over the role of parenting the kids, and even discipline the kids, whereas I was busy working,” he says. 

“[When] my wife passed away, the challenge becomes even more daunting for me, because I realised I don’t have all the skills, the knowledge and experience that I need to be able to be a good parent to my children.”  

Charles Tan family Melbourne
Charles Tan with his late wife, daughter Shema (8) and son Rhema (5) at Glen Waverley Primary School in Melbourne, 2007; one of his family’s happier moments together. (Photo courtesy of Charles Tan) 

Relating the struggles of single parenting did not come naturally to Mr Tan, he was uncertain if others would be able to “show the kind of understanding, compassion and empathy that we need.”

He elaborates, “Maybe other guys find it hard to respond to us. We are more likely to share our issues and struggles with friends and other people who are willing to listen and show their care and understanding to us.”

Seeking help can be onerous too, shares Mr Raziff, whose discomfiture in expressing his feelings further prevented him from opening up: “I guess men are more… egoistic. We think we are always in control, we can do things,” he says. “I won’t be able to sit down with an expert to say, ‘Yeah, I need support for this.’” 

Mr Tan attributes this to the different ways that men and women are socialised. “It’s got to do with socialisation processes from young. We have not been [conditioned] to express our emotions, and we think that showing our emotions might be considered weak by other people,” he says. 

As a Prisons Counsellor, he counts himself fortunate in being more comfortable talking about his emotions than fellow single fathers: “Talking about emotions comes easier for me, because we have to talk to clients about emotions.” 

But at home, speaking to his children about their mother’s passing has proven trickier: “There were times when I did try to bring up the subject, and they didn’t want to talk about it… [My daughter] did say that she was feeling sad during Mummy’s funeral. My son, on the other hand, didn’t show any emotion.” 

Time, though, has enabled him to develop a closer relationship with his daughter Shema and son Rhema, but Mr Tan acknowledges that the process is a work in progress. 

“I’m trying to make myself available,” he says. “It’s a mindset shift I’ve to change on my part, recognising that while I’m still a father, as the kids get older, I have to relate to them more like a friend.” 

Charles Tan and children Shema and Rhema
Charles Tan and his son Rhema, at his daughter Shema’s convocation ceremony, in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Charles Tan)

More financial advice and support can lighten the load

Aside from better avenues for emotional support, Mr Low thinks that providing more financial resources is also key to meeting the needs of single fathers. 

“Finance is one of the top things that we always are facing,” he laments. In order to improve his family’s financial situation, the single father enrolled in workshops meant to teach him how to invest his money, which ironically, took a further toll on his financial resources. 

“I went for workshop after workshop, which is why I probably exhausted my finances… There’s the desperation to want to make it better than a family that’s traditionally with two [parents]… and to see how to really support my two kids,” he says. 

The admin executive, who works in a bank, recently opened a store in Lucky Plaza selling plastic paraphernalia, such as lunch boxes and shelves. Mr Low sees the space as a way to give back to the community, as he intends to hire other single parents to help run the shop. Still, he worries about how long he can sustain this venture, which was launched at the start of phase two (heightened alert), as business has been slow.

Terence's children Jonas and Eva, 2011
Terence Low’s children Jonas and Eva, when they were five and two, respectively, in 2011. The photo was taken at childcare, when Mr Low had just gotten them to put on their shoes before heading home. (Photo courtesy of Terence Low)

It takes a village to raise a child

Having a reliable support system of a loving family has been a lifeline for single fathers like Mr Low, who says that he is grateful for his parents. 

“My dad came in and he supported me,” he says. “He’s someone to talk to and bounce [ideas off], see what can be done.”

Similarly, Mr Raziff’s folks have been integral in raising Adyan. “Both my parents [are] living with me. So [his] grandfather and the grandmother [are] critical in [his] growing up,” he says, which was partly why his ex-wife wanted to give him care and control of Adyan, as they have been a constant presence since his son was a baby. 

He maintains that his friends have also been central to Adyan’s growing up, especially after he moved back to Singapore with his son last year, and initiated more meetups with friends. Prior to the move, they had lived in Johor Bahru for five to six years. 

“All my Facebook friends are his friends… He talks to them like he’s talking to adults,” he says. Adyan has even initiated meetings with Mr Raziff’s friends on his behalf: “He’s that close that he can ask and sometimes make me paiseh (meaning ’embarrassed’ in Hokkien) when he asks without my permission.” 

Mr Tan, too, appreciates the kindness of loved ones: “I am very thankful to receive some spiritual and emotional support from my church; pastors, friends, colleagues, relatives, who showed care and concern for me and my kids during my journey,” he shares.

Raziff with Adyan cycling 2020
Mohammed Raziff Bin Abdull Hamid with his teenage son Adyan near the Singapore Flyer, last year. (Photo courtesy of Mohammed Raziff Bin Abdull Hamid)

“I feel like I am a father as well as a mother,” Mr Low admits. Although he adds that he is clueless about approaching “girl issues” when it comes to his daughter, Eva, who turns 12 this year. 

“Certain girl issues I don’t know how to sit with my daughter to tell her, so I’m very thankful that I have my mum,” he says. 

Mr Raziff jokes that his friends refer to him as both a mother and father. But he is quick to point out that he does not see himself fulfilling both maternal and paternal roles. Rather, he sees these duties as part of his responsibilities as a father. 

“I don’t feel like I’m a mother and father, but I have a responsibility to fulfil whatever responsibility, A to Z, there’s no separation,” he emphasises. “If you have a wife, then you say I take A, you take B, I take C, you take D. But for me, A to Z is just my responsibility.”

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

Where to find help:

Samaritans of Singapore: 1800 221-4444 (24 hours)
Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800 283-7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
TOUCHline: 1800 377-2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)

Categories
Entertainment Review

Watchlist: Top 8 Shows in June 2021

We have arrived at the halfway mark of 2021, and with the hot summer break comes an exciting list of thrilling dramas returning for new seasons and sequels. June is also the month of roses, which means a slew of romantic comedies in the heat of a passionate summer and plenty of slice-of-life dramas to tide us through the mini circuit breaker situation.

Unfortunate as it may be, we have been back at phase two, plus ‘heightened alert’, for almost a month, which has meant being stuck indoors working from home and ordering food delivery.

Alas, dear cinema fans, we feel your urge to rush to the theatres. But in lieu of lockdown lite, many premiere dates have been delayed, and we advise our readers to stay home as much as possible. While we have included a couple of films showing in cinemas this month, just remember to wear a mask at all times and observe safe distancing rules if you do head out.

With a dozen shows on our to-watch list for June, we have quite the selection lined up, and we are sure the cinema can wait until restrictions are loosened again, which is literally just days away (14 June), so hang in there!

For Netflix- Fans

Fatherhood

Based on the 2011 memoir, Two Kisses for Maddy, A Memoir of Loss and Love, Fatherhood tells Matthew Logelin’s story of being a widower, raising his daughter, Maddy, alone following the unexpected demise of his wife. Our favourite actor-comedian, Kevin Hart, stars as Matthew, who struggles with the loss of his wife while adjusting to single parenthood. In the different phases of his daughter’s life, Matthew faces the everchanging challenges of fatherhood, as he tries his best to play both parental roles and ensure that his daughter feels the love of not one, but both parents in her life.

A heartwarming story that is sure to make us laugh and cry along with our Dads, Fatherhood comes to us on Netflix this Father’s Day weekend, on 18 June.

So Not Worth It

From the creators of Unstoppable High Kick comes So Not Worth It (also known in Korean as I Hope The Earth Collapses Tomorrow), a sitcom revolving around a group of students from multicultural backgrounds residing in a dormitory in Seoul. Making a bold statement with its young and playful vibe, the show introduces many fresh-faced rookie actors to the scene, including rising star Park Se-Wan, newcomer Shin Hyun Seung and idols Choi Young Jae from Got7, and Minnie from G(idle), as well as Nigerian-Korean model Han Hyun Min.

The slice-of-life drama presents a unique take on the sitcom format, exploring the diverse and unique personalities of each Gen-Z student, as they leave their homes to live together with strangers. While the roof over their heads seems to be the only thing they have in common, the everyday moments of laughter they share transcend their differences and we look forward to watching their sweet stories create lifelong friendships.

So Not Worth It is a Netflix Original and will be released on the platform on 18 June.

For the other Couch-Potatoes

The Bold Type Season 5

After a year-long wait, our favourite female trio from Scarlet magazine is back with the fifth season of The Bold Type. Season Four left all three ladies in rough spots in their careers and love lives. Diligent Jane struggles with newfound feelings for her writer subordinate, Scott, and struggles with professional and personal boundaries. After losing her job at Scarlet, Kat finds herself drifting off course, with her new bartending job and budding relationship with Ava, whose Republican views she cannot align with her own Democrat activism. Sutton’s reluctance to have children puts an end to her four-episode long marriage to Richard and drowning her sorrows in alcohol result in regrettable actions that threaten to jeopardise her career. Our ladies’ difficult positions makes for great drama, and a binge-worthy chick-flick.

Spanning a short six episodes, the fifth and final season of The Bold Type was released on 26 May, and it promises to fill our month with lessons on confidence, equality and girl power, before concluding its story on 30 June.

The Mysterious Benedict Society

Based on Trenton Lee Stewart’s book series, The Mysterious Benedict Society follows four orphans, each with a unique skill, who are summoned to a boarding school known as The Institute, by an eccentric benefactor, our titular hero, Mr Benedict (Tony Hale). Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance must infiltrate the mysterious L.I.V.E institute to discover the truth behind a global crisis known as The Emergency. For mysterious reasons, the mission he assigns them can only be accomplished by children. And when the headmaster, the sophisticated Dr Curtain, Mr Benedict’s evil twin brother appears to be behind the worldwide panic, it is up to the kids of “The Mysterious Benedict Society” to defeat him.

The Mysterious Benedict Society arrives on Disney+ on 25 June.

For K-Drama Addicts

Hospital Playlist Season 2

The long-anticipated slice-of-life medical drama that topped ratings in 2020 is finally back with a second season!

The second instalment of the Wise Life series reunites writer Lee Woo Jung and director, PD Shin Won-Ho, to tell the stories of five doctors who have been best friends since they entered medical school together in 1999. If you are a fan of Hospital Playlist, you would have noticed the huge cliffhangers left from Season One that left us waiting on the edge of our seats for an entire year.

For a naturalistic drama, Hospital Playlist sure knows how to bait its audience with mystery and we, at TheHomeGround Asia, are burning with questions.: Do Lee Ik-Joon and Chae Song-Hwa begin a relationship? Are our Winter Garden (the ship name of Ahn Jung-Won and Jang Gyo-Wool) couple finally together? Are Kim Jun-Wan and Ik-Soon breaking up? Why did Yang Seok-Hyeong divorce his wife, and what did her last phone call to him mean?

We wish that the show would stick to the usual K-drama schedule of showing two episodes a week so it can offer us more answers in record time. But Hospital Playlist is a drama that takes its time to tell its story, and it will be back to its special single-episode weekly slot every Thursday, beginning 17 June on Netflix.

Voice 4: Judgement Hour

South Korean cable television channel OCN’s most highly rated series yet, Voice has been picked up by tvN and is back for a fourth season. The police procedural crime drama follows the lives of 112 emergency call centre police officers as they fight against crimes using the sounds that they hear.

Lee Ha-Na reprises her role as Kang Kwon-Joo, a tough policewoman gifted with perfect psycho-acoustic skills, trained to decipher different sounds and identify criminals via voice profiling. Following the death of her partner, Do Kang-Woo in the finale of Voice 3, the fourth season introduces a new leading male, American police officer, Derek Jo, played by Hallyu star Song Seung Heon, as the muscle of the Golden Time team. A unit leader at the LAPD, Derek Jo is a tough perfectionist, intolerant of the smallest mistake, who winds up collaborating with the golden time team through a common case. Together with Kwon-Joo, Derek Jo will learn to confront his inner demons, as Voice 4: Judgement Hour pits the Golden Time team in a race against time and yet another vicious villain.

Season four of Voice will take OCN’s Friday-Saturday night slots, and will premiere on 18 June.

Monthly Magazine Home

Monthly Magazine Home tells the story of a romance between a man who enjoys buying houses, and a woman who is a homebody. Na Young-Won (Jung So-Min) is an editor of the monthly living magazine ‘House’, who appreciates home as the place where she can be her true self. As per the natural course of things in the world of K-dramas, she clashes with our male lead, Yu Ja-Seong (Kim Ji-Seok), who sees homes as merely properties that he can buy and sell for profit. Following their disastrous first encounter, Young-Won is mortified to find Ja-Seong as her new boss, leading to a bickering dynamic between the two. But what can polar opposites do, apart from attracting each other?

Monthly Magazine Home airs on JTBC, premiering on 16 June, following the end of Law School.

For Cinephiles

A Quiet Place Part II

The sequel to John Krasinski’s award-winning film The Quiet Place, comes part two of the story. Starring Krasinski’s wife, Emily Blunt, who reprises her role as Evelyn Abbott, we follow the Abbott family in their journey through a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by blind monsters with an acute sense of hearing. Following the events of the previous film, Evelyn is now left widowed after her husband sacrificed himself to save his surviving family. With her three remaining children by her side, the Abbott family are forced to venture into the unknown to face the terrors of the world. Soon, they come to the horrifying realisation that the creatures that hunt by sound are not the only threats that lurk beyond the sand path.

A Quiet Place Part II premiered in local theatres on 10 June.

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

Categories
Asia Entertainment Lifestyle Review

What we can learn from zombie apocalypse movies, in a pandemic

When Covid-19 hit, the world’s governments implemented unprecedented measures; nationwide lockdowns, closed borders, quarantine orders – all to contain a virus that no one knew much about, then. Streets were emptied, supermarkets hoarded, and all of a sudden, the world around us resembled a scene right out of a zombie apocalypse. And so, when we entered a state of heightened alert once again, this writer decided to take a few lessons in survival from pandemic movies, and ended up finding surprising parallels to our lived realities. 

As a child, I spent a good amount of time living in my own head, crafting intricate fantasy worlds and conjuring up friends that I would converse, play, and interact with on an almost-daily schedule. With every new book I read and every new show I watched, more characters were introduced into my own imaginary bubble. It was a world made by me and for me, where the only rules that existed were ones my seven-year-old mind could come up with.

How fiction actually met reality? Not quite what I imagined. No warriors, faeries, heroes, or glittering vampires (I was an impressionable pre-teen, cut me some slack) swooping in to save the day. Instead, a worldwide pandemic that has, to date (10 June), infected over 175 million people and taken the lives of nearly four million worldwide. 

As Singapore entered into yet another month of quasi-lockdown during phase 2 (heightened alert), I found myself binge-watching fictional catastrophes in an attempt to escape the real-life horrors being shown on the news daily. Somehow, watching the world end in a full-blown zombie apocalypse is much more comforting than the horrors that exist in reality.

And despite my escapist tendencies, what I instead ended up gaining from five apocalyptic movies (World War Z, Doomsday, Train to Busan, I am Legend and Birdbox) is a realisation that fiction can have eerie parallels to our now (a horrific case of life imitating art), and that we have much to learn, even from fictional tales about mindless creatures on a single-minded mission to consume human flesh. 

(Psst, generous sprinkling of spoilers throughout! Read at your own risk.) 

Lesson #1: Prevention is better than cure

Really, it is. And maybe it is time we learned to heed warning signs before things blow up in our faces, much like how the world ended up being overrun by rabid zombies in World War Z despite early indicators that something was about to go awry. 

The movie starts out with a news montage; nothing too alarming, not more than usual, anyway. News on natural disasters wrought by climate change, typical daily updates, and the faintest inkling of something worse to come, with isolated incidents of unexplained violence and psychosis in various parts of the world. 

When zombies overran the streets of Philadelphia, it caught citizens and the Government off-guard, despite early indicators of things going awry. (Photo source: World War Z)

The scene then cuts to an idyllic scene of domestic life in Gerry Lane’s (a former UN agent, played by Brad Pitt) household: dad making pancakes, kids getting ready, the full works. I’ll save you the mundane details, but a mere 10-minutes in, the action begins. Sirens all around, chaos reigns as zombies overrun the streets of Philadelphia, forcing Gerry to flee the town. 

And all this happens, we later learn, despite early warnings of a “zombie” outbreak from various sources. In contrast, viewers are later brought to the city of Jerusalem, where peace reigns as the city has been placed under pre-emptive lockdown after heeding early warnings. 

Of course, this will soon come to an end for us to get the heroic scene of Pitt saving a woman’s life by chopping off her hand before she gets infected, but the message is conveyed: Be warned, or else. 

And indeed, we’ve seen this happen in real life, when a delayed response to early Covid-19 cases resulted in spikes in caseloads, overwhelmed healthcare systems, and drastic measures being taken to contain the spread of a raging virus. 

Lesson #2: Leave no man behind

What did the five pandemic movies I watched have in common? A hero, because what would any action thriller be without one? And of course, the occasional villain archetype thrown in for good measure to drive home the point. If there’s one thing to takeaway from these films, it’s this: the welfare of the whole always supersedes that of the individual’s. 

Cue the touching scene of Robert Neville in I Am Legend (played by Will Smith) sacrificing his life to develop and deliver a cure to the zombie apocalypse that had decimated the population. 

The final stand-off between Robert Neville and a Darkseeker, before Robert sacrifices himself. (Source: Giphy)

If a hero’s sacrifice doesn’t quite strike a chord, perhaps the cautionary tale that is Train to Busan might, with business owner Yon-suk’s (played by Kim Eui-sung) selfish actions to deny initial safety to a fleeing group inadvertently resulting in the death of many of the train’s passengers, and subsequently, himself. 

Meanwhile, main lead Seo Sok-woo (played by Gong Yoo) goes through a rapid character development arc; starting out as a cynical and cold hedge fund manager only interested in saving himself and his daughter, Sok-woo is later struck by the self-sacrificial nature of his own daughter and other passengers he meet on the train, and the show concludes with a final act of sacrifice from him to save his daughter and one other pregnant passenger.

Simple lesson to be learned, really: Help people, good; selfish, bad. Quite elementary, if you ask me. 

In the wise words of Mossad chief Jurgen Warmbrunn (played by Ludi Boeken) of World War Z: “Every human being we save is one less zombie to fight.” And every one less infection of Covid-19 is one day closer to normalcy (and travels!) again. So do your part, people! 

Lesson #3: Heroes are everyday folk

There may not always be a man with a piercing gaze diving in to save the day (ahem, Brad Pitt), or even the ripped body of Will Smith to admire while the world falls into shambles, but really, heroes are found in the everyday people as well.

Timid grocery store employee Charlie (Lil Rel Howery) sacrificed his own life to save a group of almost-strangers from the sinister forces in Birdbox, Sergeant Norton (Adrian Lester) gives up his life to give the others time to escape in Doomsday, and blue-collar worker Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) stays behind to fend off a rabid horde of zombies in Train to Busan to save his fellow passengers and his pregnant wife. 

Sang-hwa sacrifices his life to save his pregnant wife and other passengers. (Source: Train to Busan)

While we may not have such flamboyant displays of heroism in the fight against Covid-19, everyday heroes too exist in our frontline workers who willingly go into the trenches daily to safeguard public health, or ensure our country remains operational and running while the rest of us hold up in the safety of our homes (rather grudgingly). 

And as much as acts of heroism deserve applause, so do these little everyday actions as we battle the pandemic today. 

Lesson #4: Fiction isn’t too far from reality

Alas, fiction comes to an end after two-hours of nail-biting action, but the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over. After getting over the tragic deaths of a number of the main leads for the greater good, and basking in the feel-good moments of families reunited and people saved, I find myself back in the reality of blurred boundaries in this perpetual work-from-home grind, mask-wearing, and meeting a maximum of two people at a time. 

Like in Birdbox, for some kids, a pandemic world is all they have ever known. (Source: Birdbox)

As I walk away, blurry-eyed, from nearly 10 consecutive hours of zombies, gore and deaths, it is with the strange realisation that a world in shambles is the ‘normal’ that some children are growing up in. It is all they have ever known; infants born at the start of the pandemic are probably walking and talking by now, but have never seen a mask-less face on the streets. 

It is a sad ‘normal’ to live in, but with the situation stabilising in Singapore and vaccines rolling out worldwide, perhaps the children of this generation will one day be able to show their smiles on the streets again. Much like how all five movies conclude with a bittersweet end, the coronavirus will too, one day (before we turn into living zombies ourselves, lacking any skills, social or such like, besides staring blankly at our screens.)

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Categories
Culture Home & Family Local Opinion Singapore Youth

Opinion: The bilingual trap Singapore fell into

Did mandating a society to become bilingual over a generation really benefit it, or did it jeopardise our command of either languages and familial cohesion? Young Singaporeans today continue to find out.

Despite only ever communicating with my grandparents through bits and pieces of Mandarin, awkward gestures, and an unending supply of smiles, like most of my peers and through all my life, I had never thought to question our odd predicament.

Of course, we now know that a large part of our peculiar communication paradigm exists because of a bilingual policy implemented through the 60s and 70s in an effort to, broadly speaking, facilitate economic development through foreign investments and preserve our multiethnic national identity.

As a matter of fact, 85 per cent of Chinese Singaporean households were reported to have spoken solely dialects before 1979, when the Goh Report, an extensive assessment of the education system led by then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee, uncovered several deficiencies within the education system, chief among them an ineffective bilingualism that had led to concerning language problems: More than six in 10 students who sat for the PSLE and O-Levels from 1975 to 1977 had failed at least one of their two main languages.

The New Education System was soon founded on the recommendations of said report, and the rest is, as they say, history.

But how much of this ineffective bilingualism has actually been stamped out since the makeover, and perhaps more importantly, how effective has our bilingual policy been at improving our lives?

Singapore’s late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew believed that the extensive use of dialects was keeping the Chinese population fragmented. (Photo source: jeraldinephneah.com)

Say ‘no’ to dialects, but in proper English, please

I remember visiting my grandparents every weekend as a child and being in a kitchen teeming with the unrestrained conviviality that characterised my grandparents’ Teochew and Cantonese – the two dialect groups they each belong to.

Without the slightest clue as to what was being said but intrigued nonetheless, I would interrupt sheepishly in Mandarin from time to time, in hopes of validating what little grasp I had of the seemingly esoteric tongue. Although my grandparents speak some Mandarin, it has never been an adequate means of communication, and hence my relationship with them never progressed past a certain stage.

Most of my peers today seem to recall similar experiences: “We didn’t understand each other, and there wasn’t really anything we could do. Like, it’s no one’s fault. Could I have learned the language? Probably, but I was only a kid. I spoke whatever my parents spoke at home,” remarks Marcus (not his real name), a 25-year-old logistics executive, about his relationship with his grandparents.

Just like Marcus’ parents, mine never had any thoughts of me picking up dialects, and much of it, I have since found, was due to how our earlier leaders had approached language planning and policy.

According to Lionel Wee (2009), a professor of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, both the Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong administrations, convinced that dialects were adding to the mental load of children thereby undermining their proficiency in the official languages, had embarked on a series of campaigns to rid households of dialects, putting in motion the intergenerational communication pickle we find ourselves in today.

But mysteriously left out of conversations back then, however – and what I argue is worth contemplating – was the possibility of an underdeveloped curriculum and inferior instruction.

The Speak Mandarin Campaign launched in 1979 aimed to encourage Chinese Singaporeans to replace the use of dialects with Mandarin at home and in public. (Photo source: Remember Singapore)

Singapore’s underdeveloped linguistic environment

I found it fascinating when I was living in the UK that regardless of age, ethnicity, social status or occupation, the British spoke better English than practically all my peers back home in their mid-20s, elite school alumnus notwithstanding. This, despite English having been framed as the lingua franca of generations of Singaporeans.

After consoling myself, the obvious realisation emerged; our baselines are unequal, and the same conclusion would be true of comparisons between Singapore and any Anglophone society today. To put it another way, the English we grew up on, whether we were instructed in an elite or neighbourhood school, is still a far cry from the English of the Anglosphere.

This is made apparent every single time a politician, business owner, executive, or person on the street is heard speaking in the media, either fumbling to express the nuance in their speech, misusing common phrases and expressions, or in some cases, all of the above with the bonus of misrepresenting economics concepts.

Interestingly, if we take the findings of the Goh Report to mean anything, and over 60 per cent of 12- and 16-year-olds back in the 70s had indeed failed at least one of their two languages, what reasonable conclusion can we make of the general level of proficiency in society then, taking care not to forget that a segment of that cohort would logically go on to teach the next?

Could this be why students in as late as the early 2000s and 2010s, like myself and everyone in my social circles, continue to recount anecdotes of MOE-trained English teachers endorsing characteristics of the language we then later came to realise were misguided? Very likely so.

Public signs in Singapore, like this one at a train station, often show the four official languages of the country. (Photo source: shimmertje / Flickr )

Alas, the inconvenient truth is that our bold attempt to grapple with not one new language but two – neither of which have spent enough time within our society and institutional framework for mastery to be evenly distributed across the population – has ensured a relatively mediocre command of either language in the layperson. The clearly observable fact that the average Singaporean’s English is not prized in the UK today, nor their Mandarin in China and Bahasa Melayu in Malaysia, should lay to rest any doubts.

Considering that language within societies takes generations to reach any level of sophistication – in homogeneous environments at that – it is entirely natural for us to be in such a predicament today. We have not been brought up on a fully developed language, and that’s because we do not yet have one.

Not fitting in, at home

It should be reasonable by now to posit that without the idiosyncratic bilingual policy of previous administrations, Singapore’s communication paradigm would look vastly different today. Apart from what has already been argued, familial and, by extension, intergenerational cohesion might have radically diverged from our current reality if, for instance, citizens then had a say in which languages they wanted for their children.

It is my belief that harmony at home largely stems from shared values, traditions, ways of and ideas about life. By the same token, few would argue against the notion that one’s language also shapes one’s worldview. This is perhaps why members of a family who speak a different language eventually see their paradigms diverge.

“I don’t really tell my parents much these days because they wouldn’t understand most of it. It’s kinda pointless,” Alex (not her real name) laments. A second-year communications student in university, her experiences growing up in a fairly conservative Chinese family who had picked English to raise her with – they made English the language spoken at home after she was born – echoes mine.

She explains: “By the time I was in secondary school, everything I was consuming was in English, and mostly from outside of Singapore. By then, the Chinese content my family was watching appeared quite boring to me. I just couldn’t relate.”

What Alex had described was more than just a communication gap. As we build our perceptions of reality around the language and media we come into contact with each day, we drift further and further away from family members with different realities, eventually losing the ability to recognise each other’s. This might explain the tension that some of us experience at home, sometimes from the way in which a family member approaches a problem, other times from simply how they choose to live, but always due to a misalignment of beliefs and values.

Some families may manage these drifts better by cultivating shared values through family activities, but what happens when a family lacks the time or inclination?

A relevant island is a prosperous island 

Most people today will insist that the bilingual policy saved Singapore’s economy, and that this is revisionist arrogance fuelled by some version of hindsight bias.

“But we had to do it. We had to speak English to be relevant to the world,” says Megan (not her real name). “How else would we have competed? For investment, for commerce?”

As a 24-year-old graduate student, she believes that Singapore would have flopped if not for a bilingual policy that prioritised the language left behind by our colonial masters, and she is not alone in this view. Of the countless friends with whom I have had discussions about this, virtually none disagreed with the Government’s policy.

A poster for the Speak Good English Movement, which started in 2000 and still runs annually. (Source: u/Haneestaz / Reddit)

But surely it is mere conjecture to argue that without the adoption of English, Singapore would not have made similar strides. Those who doubt this only have to look over to Hong Kong, our cousin who operates an economy fairly similar to ours and who has achieved comparable economic success within a similar time frame without forcing its citizens’ tongues.

Despite never having to abandon their native tongue, the predominantly Chinese society was still able to connect with the world and establish themselves internationally. Hong Kong films have never had to be in English or Mandarin to attract an international audience, and Hong Kongers have never been coerced through policy to change the language they spoke at home, with their elders, or in their communities. While it is undeniable that segments of Hong Kong society have always spoken English to varying degrees, that was the extent of their language policy. Citizens chose for themselves the level of penetration the language had in their lives, and that was it.

Although being under British rule until the late-90s meant that the city had some privileges, GDP growth after the handover to China kept its trajectory for the most part, and the simple fact that virtually every generation of Hong Kongers since their colonisation has operated primarily in their mother tongue should induce one to re-evaluate their assumptions here.

Ultimately, they made it by being themselves, and the nation’s triumph in modern history should be seen as the antithesis of Singapore’s long-held edict that our economic edge rested on our ability to speak “good English”.

Nevertheless, it remains a mystery if the bilingual trap has truly inflicted more harm than good to Singaporean society and culture. It is, however, worth taking some time to appreciate this curious feature of our linguistic history, pending any lessons it might reveal for the future.

Chester Tan is a freelance writer, aspiring photojournalist, and communications student in his final year of university. 

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Categories
Lifestyle New Zealand Travel

Otorohanga, the Kiwiana capital of New Zealand, is a rural escapade unlike any other

With the pandemic halting travel plans, many have turned to ‘virtual travelling’ to sate their wanderlust. For those yearning to catch a glimpse of other pockets of the world, TheHomeGround Asia brings you on a journey in Through the Eyes… where we ask expatriates in Singapore what they love most about their home countries. In this installation, travel executive Anna Harlow reveals the wonders of her hometown, the seemingly rural Otorohanga in New Zealand.

When we think of New Zealand, we may think of the idyllic, hilly landscape from Hobbiton, the place where author J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits came to life in director Peter Jackson’s movie series The Lord of the Rings. We may also think of the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand who continue to influence the island country’s cuisine, culture and language. But very rarely do we think of visiting the small rural town of Otorohanga, ensconced in the Waikato region in the North Island of New Zealand.

In the Waitomo Caves, glowworms turn on their bioluminescent tail to light up the dangling droplets of mucus they secreted to attract and trap insects. (Photo by Tomáš Malík / Unsplash)

Situated some 50 kilometres south of Hamilton, New Zealand’s fourth most-populous city, Otorohanga is a thriving town with a small population size of approximately 3,200. Several highways intersect near Otorohanga, which makes it a popular spot to layover among seasonal roadtrippers. It is also home to a series of karst caves that are part of the Waitomo streamway system, known as the Waitomo Caves, where tourists flock every year to marvel at the caves’ starry night-esque ceiling, a phenomenon brought about by glow worms.

“In general, New Zealand is good to visit throughout the year, but I would personally recommend Summer (January-April) as the climate is really pleasant then,” says Anna Harlow, 32. 

Mrs Harlow, who is a Travel Executive at luxury travel company Scott Dunn, grew up in a family of dairy farmers in Otorohanga. She moved to sunny Singapore in April 2019, following her husband’s job relocation here. “Otorohanga is also known as the ‘Kiwiana capital’ of NZ,” she says.

Sunset over Waikato, the region that oversees Otorohanga and Kawhia. (Photo courtesy of Anna Harlow)

Kiwiana capital of New Zealand

For the uninitiated, Otorohanga is self-proclaimed as the Kiwiana capital of New Zealand. The term ‘Kiwiana’ is widely applied to objects, food, cultural icons, and even expressions that are unique to New Zealand and her people. From the buzzy bee children’s toy to kiwi fruit, jandals (a type of flip flop) to pavlova, these artefacts tell a story of a 20th century New Zealand and often evoke a sense of national identity and nostalgia.

How Otorohanga got its reputation as ‘the Kiwiana capital’ is nothing short of a brilliant marketing strategy. Following the establishment of New Zealand’s first kiwi conservatory facility in 1971, which earned the rural town the moniker ‘Kiwi Town’, a brilliant marketer suggested extending the theme to celebrate all things uniquely Kiwi (or Kiwiana) in New Zealand. 

“Today, you can even visit Otorohanga Kiwi House, which is home to several native birds, including the kiwi,” Mrs Harlow says. “You can get up close and watch the keepers feed them at certain times of the day too.”

According to Anna Harlow, pavlova and green-lipped mussels are dishes unique to New Zealand. (Source: Canva)

When asked about dishes that are uniquely Kiwiana, Mrs Harlow suggests that first-timers feast upon green-lipped mussels and pavlova; the former is endemic to New Zealand’s coastline, and the latter is its national dessert.

Packed full of anti-inflammatory properties, Omega-3 fatty acids and other vitamins, the former is a nutritious shellfish – discovered only in the late-60s by NASA scientists while embarking on a quest for natural cancer-fighting treatments – native only to New Zealand and is a staple among the indigenous Māori people. 

The latter, meanwhile, is a sweet meringue cake topped with fresh fruit and cream made famous in the early ’90s.

Black sand beaches, hot springs and a Maori festival in Kawhia

The beaches in New Zealand are a study in contrast; some offer pristine white sand with balmy waves, while others boast glistening black sand and impressive surfs. But if anything, visitors ought to visit the geothermal shores of New Zealand to dig for themselves a hot pool in the sand and immerse in nature’s ‘jacuzzi’.

Anna Harlow at Ocean Beach with her jeep. (Photo courtesy of Anna Harlow)

On the western coast of the North Island of New Zealand, or south of Otorohanga, lies Kawhia Hot Water Beach. While throngs of tourists would head over to the Coromandel Peninsula for its hot water beaches, Kawhia Hot Water Beach (also known as Ocean Beach) is an idyllic getaway known only by locals. Beyond the tussock-fringed hills and rugged coastline, a panoramic view of sparkling black sand and cobalt blue sea stretches as far as the eyes can see.

“Head over the sand dunes for low tide and you can dig your own hot pool on the Ocean Beach, don’t forget the wine or your spade,” Mrs Harlow suggests.  

The sleepy beachside town of Kawhia offers plenty of big fishing competitions where visitors can marvel at the haul from the fishermen. But nothing beats the Kai Festival (the word kai means ‘food’ in Māori) which takes place every February. “You will find mussels, hangi (the Māori method of cooking meat and vegetables under the ground with hot rocks and wet sacks), Maori bread or whitebait fritters there,” Mrs Harlow says.

“Local bands will come to play and it’s free admission so that makes it great for everyone. While you are there, head to the museum which is full of history all about Kawhia.”

There are several hot water beaches in New Zealand, where visitors can dig up their own hot water pools to soak their feet in. (Photo by Fotos593 / Shutterstock)

Into the wilderness

When she was younger, Mrs Harlow and her family would sometimes spend the weekend outdoors, going on a hike or trek around New Zealand’s hilly or coastal landscapes.  

For starters, Mrs Harlow suggests visiting the coastal sunshine paradise near Mount Maunganui. Crowned as one of the top beaches to visit by TripAdvisor, the main beach has plenty to boast about. 

In summer, the beach comes to life with surfers catching the waves, families with children going on a swim by the ocean, people suntanning or relaxing on the clear white sand, and hiking enthusiasts readying themselves to go on a challenge. Dozens of beachside cafes and restaurants line the shoreline, proffering simple street bites to seafood fiesta, where you will be spoilt for choice.

The majestic view from the summit of Mount Maunganui. (Source: Canva)

Situated over 230 metres from the sea, reaching the summit of Mount Maunganui, a now extinct volcano, is a challenge and not for the faint-hearted. And yet, the vantage point offers a gorgeous 360-degree view of the surrounding – including the Western Bay of Plenty, white sand coastline, and even Tauranga’s city suburbs.

“Mount Maunganui was our summer go-to throughout childhood,” Mrs Harlow reminisces. “It’s about a two-hour drive away over the Kaimai Range to the coast. There’s plenty to do with a huge ocean beach on one side and a calm harbour on the other, it took us from babies up until teenagers.”

From the base to its summit, it takes about two hours to hike up and back down the now-extinct volcano, Mount Kakepuku. (Source: Canva)

Some 20 kilometres north of Otorohanga lies Mount Kakepuku, another extinct volcano. One of many volcanoes that emerged two million years ago, Mount Kakepuku (whose name translates as ‘swollen stomach’) towers above several dairy farms and looks across other volcanic peaks.

Mrs Harlow says: “I would suggest Mount Kakepuku for the less fit amongst us, it is 449 metres to the top where you can see for miles over the Waikato farmlands. The track is new and in great condition and you can mountain bike on the lower part as well.

“You will experience the New Zealand native flora and hear the local bird songs too,” she adds.

For those looking to bring a piece of Otorohanga or something Kiwiana home, Mrs Harlow suggests an All Blacks (the nation’s famed men’s rugby union team) rugby shirt.

“We’re really big on rugby over there,” Mrs Harlow adds, highlighting the famous Māori war dance performed by the All Blacks before their matches.

“If you have children to buy for then go for the iconic Buzzy Bee! Prince William played with when he visited New Zealand as a baby with the late-Princess Diana and Prince William.”

Anna Harlow grew up in a family of dairy farmers in Otorohanga, New Zealand. (Photo courtesy of Anna Harlow)

Despite being away from home for a long time, Mrs Harlow still thinks fondly of her hometown, where her parents and her two brothers and wives live a 10-minute drive from each other. On what she misses most, Mrs Harlow says wistfully: “The fresh country air and the quietness.”

For someone who has been to many cities for work and leisure, Otorohanga is not just a home for Mrs Harlow; it is a welcoming respite from the hubbub of life.

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Categories
Asia Culture Food Local People Singapore South East Asia

It’s soy good! Interview with Ken Koh, third-generation soy sauce maker

Soy sauce is just soy sauce… or is it? Ever wondered how it is made and what makes one taste better than the other? TheHomeGround Asia visited Nanyang Sauce Brewery in Jurong, western Singapore, which continues to produce soy sauce the traditional way and is one of the last few Singaporean sauce makers with local operations. We speak with owner Ken Koh, who took over the business in 2017, to find out more. 

A third-generation soy sauce maker, Ken Koh shares the origin story of the business, which his grandfather Tan Tiong How started in 1959. The late Mr Tan first arrived in Singapore in 1942, from Fujian province in China.

Mr Koh describes Nanyang Sauce Brewery’s preference for the traditional method of slow fermentation, rather than the way commercial soy sauce is made by speeding up the process to a day using acid hydrolysis. Instead he believes that the traditional process produces a richer and more flavourful product. Which is to say involves mixing non-GMO soybeans with wheat flour and aspergillus mould, before allowing to ferment in its own time, for months, under the sun in giant vats.

Mr Koh has transformed his family’s soy sauce business by embracing the artisanal side of things. He has since introduced new ideas to the company, such as packaging its premium-grade soy sauce as gifts, increasing product variety, and starting a Sauce Academy, where he holds workshops and sauce-tasting sessions to showcase the flavours of the company’s sauces.

Participants can choose from various types of workshops, where they can make their own chemical-free bottles of soy sauce, or learn how to pair food with different combinations of sauces.

Last month, Nanyang Sauce Brewery held a soy appreciation workshop on 8 May as part of Singapore HeritageFest 2021, presented by the National Heritage Board.

WATCH: In Conversation With: Jayaprakash Joghee Bojan, wildlife and nature photographer

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