Monday, November 10, 2014

Include gender identity, sexual orientation in Constitution

(Published - Today, Nov 1, 2014)

I read with disappointment the report “Apex court rejects constitutional challenges against Section 377A” (Oct 30). It appears that further discourse on Section 377A will now reside in Parliament, to consider the extralegal arguments.

It is sad that the rights of sexual minorities here are unable to be protected in the social, economic and legal domains, to the point constitutional challenges were made, when according to the courts, the decision is best left to Parliament.

A lot has been discussed since 2003, when then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong touched on non-discriminatory employment of homosexuals in the Civil Service.

It is now time for action, for us to codify non-discriminatory practices in our law and have the Constitution explicitly protect all, regardless of sexual identity and orientation.

Retaining Section 377A implies the continued legal discrimination against consenting homosexual males, even in their private lives. This surely cannot be supported, especially when weighed against the liberties of consenting heterosexual acts in private.

I had always believed that the Constitution served to protect minorities and the vulnerable among us, while capturing the aspirations of our society, one that is built on equality, among other pillars.

If we aspire to be non-discriminatory in all segments of life — professional, social, legal, personal — let us put gender identity and sexual orientation in the Constitution. From there, we change the laws slowly to be aligned with the Constitution’s values.

Ho Chi Sam

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gender stereotypes must be confronted

(Published - Today October 10, 2014)

I refer to the report “Ministries studying feedback on relationship workshop” (Oct 9). In her open letter to her principal, Agatha Tan wrote that the booklet distributed at the workshop perpetuated gender stereotypes.

Snapshots of its contents suggest that girls must make behavioural changes to accommodate the behaviour of hormonal boys.

Other content generalised and trivialised the decision-making capacity and communication styles of females, such as suggesting that they may say one thing and mean another. Such materials leverage gender stereotypes that are unhealthy, if not harmful.

It is through stereotypes that we trivialise and misjudge lived daily experiences, such as if people believe men cannot control themselves and women do not often mean what they say.

The implications are that stereotypes often go unquestioned and are normalised in culture, professional environments and the law. This disadvantages and marginalises people further.

Gender stereotypes perpetuate body image disorder and impose unrealistic perceptions on relationships. They are behind bullying in environments that demand “manly” males and “womanly” females. The stereotypical view that “it’s a man/woman’s job” is an unfair workplace impediment.

There may be a history or a long-lived paradigm that informs our current view of gender roles, but this does not make it morally justifiable or eternal.

The booklet’s content may resonate with some persons at some points in their lives, but it does not fully account for relationships in general. In fact, it is simplistic and reductionist.

The snapshots Ms Tan shared are a regression, from understanding gender as cultural and nuanced to accepting it as a rigid, dichotomous and mutually exclusive binary. These stereotypes thrive on sexism, and sexism hurts us all, regardless of gender.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Be more tolerant, regardless of gender, sexuality

(Published - Today June 28, 2014)

As a husband and father, I am supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Singaporeans.

Moreover, I cannot allow myself to be misrepresented by those who leverage the rhetoric of “family”, “marriage” and “children” to put down LGBT people.

I find it condescending and dehumanising to trivialise sexuality as a “lifestyle” and unnatural.

This issue has unnecessarily polarised Singapore.

I believe faith and religion can coexist with harmonious diversity and a respect for people, regardless of their persuasions and orientation. It is not a zero-sum game.

I doubt what Pink Dot stands for will affect our loyalty in friendships, faithfulness in marriage, love in parenthood and commitment to our religious communities.

While there may be different ideological persuasions, we share a common responsibility in this diverse and multicultural space for ensuring that others are not inconvenienced or made to feel small.

Singapore needs to be more tolerant, accepting and respectful of people, regardless of gender and sexuality.

Ho Chi Sam

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Cross-site scripting, hacking and unauthorised access to server: Not the same

I read the news about one man who was fined $8,000 for "hacking" into the Istana website.

The report read:
Delson Moo Hiang Kng, 43, pleaded guilty to a charge of unauthorised access to the server hosting the Istana website, after admitting to carrying out a cross-site scripting attack on the Google search function embedded in the site.
The report later referred to the incident as "hacking of the Istana website".

I am puzzled.

What I understand from the reports is that the man did cross-site scripting on a Google search widget that was placed (embedded) on the Istana website.

As a result of this, the appearance of the Google widget changed, and displayed contents from another source, i.e. another website.

Ok. Unauthorised access. Hacking. These are very serious things, especially when it concerns government services. The government has a responsibility to its people to ensure that the public services provided online are accurate and secure. And as members of public using these services or accessing the contents, I believe we should stand with the government against activities that obstruct and disrupt these processes that only the government can provide.

Back to the case. When I first saw the screengrab of the defacement, I initially thought that the man put in some html code in the google search bar, and it created an iframe that pointed to the contents of another website. But more importantly, while as a layperson I did not understand what this IS, I probably knew what this ISN'T - it didn't look like hacking or server access to me. I am not siding with the man, because what he did was really inconsiderate. The issue I have is with how different computer activities get simplified and conflated.

Did the code of the Google widget change? I don't think so. Cross-scripting based on a vulnerability inherent in the widget at that point in time, I believe, does not have any material impact on the codes of the Google widget that is already embedded on the website.

In doing cross-scripting, the function of the search widget (i.e. allowing members of public to perform searches) may perhaps be hindered by the third party content that is displayed. This can then be really inconvenient for any one who intends to use the function that is available on this particular page.

Did the man use the third-party widget to access the Istana website? I seriously doubt it. The widget is just a line of code pasted in the css/html code of that particular webpage. In my layperson understanding, anything that happens to it will have no critical impact on other lines of code on the same webpage.

Did the code of the Istana website change? I don't think so. This will require access into the content management system serving the Istana website. Such access is only granted to those who (i) have administrator privileges, (ii) are accessing through secure computers, and (iii) are accessing through the secure network.

Did the man commit an unauthorised access into the government server? The verdict and the report said yes. If an unauthorised access was committed, it would have been a serious crime, because this can result in content being changed and members of public being misled. If there was unauthorised access, there would have been a log of it. I am not sure if the log was presented as evidence, but then again the act of cross-site scripting has almost nothing to do with logging into a server.

Unauthorised access to the server and backend will also result in the man accessing sensitive databases, but in most cases, sensitive databases do not normally point to public-facing corporate websites (c.f. secure intranet login access), unless the corporate website contains web services (e-services) which require members of public to submit sensitive information.

The whole incident says nothing about cyber security, because I honestly feel there is no breach - just some superficial mish-mash of content from different sources that resulted in what appears to be defacement.

I liken this to vandalism of a letterbox at the HDB void deck. When paint is splashed on your letterbox, here are the following realities:

1. Inconvenience: Your letterbox looks awful now.
2. Proprietary: Wait, you don't own the letterbox. But sure, it is part of your "home", but you don't own it.
3. Security: The security of your HDB flat is not compromised, and no one has entered it.
4. Security / Modification: Because of the letterbox defacement, NO ONE got into your HDB flat, NO ONE went into your kitchen and NO ONE cooked you a pot of fish porridge.
5. Security / Modification: The contents and structure of your letterbox do not change, despite paint being splashed on it.
6. Inconvenience: The postman/postwoman will have difficulty finding your letterbox because of the defacement.

Was the man's reported actions even "hacking"? Hacking involves access and possibly modification as a result of access. I doubt there was material modification (modification of code) of the Google search widget. There was no material modification of the Istana website. The only "modification" was the inclusion of another third-party website content in the (also third-party) Google search widget. This was and is a vulnerability that Google has to deal with. In short, it still didn't constitute a modification in the technical sense. This means it is quite difficult to use Part II Para 5 of the Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act to explain the man's actions.

Even if he really did (which I doubt), I believe the man did not need to access the public server hosting the Istana website to commit the cross-scripting that he did because whatever is done at the server level (which hosts and serves content to the Istana website), does not have any material impact on the Google widget.

The responsibility of choosing third-party widgets used on any government website lies on the shoulders of the government, because the use of third-party widgets comes with the risk that there may be vulnerabilities that might affect the appearance or function of the widget.

Based on the report, I fear this may set a precedent which very simplistically conflates the activity of cross-site scripting into activities such as hacking and unauthorised accessed. It is puzzling as it is frightening. This means, it empowers the government to overestimate and misdiagnose a wider range of computer activities as criminal.

If there was a mischievous intent to inconvenience members of public using a government website and service, the man should be punished accordingly if found guilty. But somehow, he is found guilty of engaging in what I feel to be a dubiously described process that does not accurately depict the real action (i.e. cross-site scripting).

Perhaps, since there is inconvenience in the form of obstruction, Part II Para 7 of the Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act could extend to cover "computer-based services" and "infrastructure". This way, we might have a stronger case to bring against folks who exploit vulnerabilities in third-party widgets (not owned by government) embedded on government websites with the intent to inconvenience members of public who would want to use the website and its services. I mean, it's already unlawful to obstruct a civil servant from performing his/her duties, and this can be extended to cover the digital domain.

The Act has to be updated to adequately cover the key processes and impact of unauthorised access, unauthorised modification (include the immateriality of ownership, and expand on modification - material, content, function, etc.), and obstruction of computer-based services.

Perhaps the more well-informed persons in the Infocomm Development Authority and the Ministry of Communications and Information could explain, with regard to the case, the fundamental differences between (i) cross-site scripting (in the Delson Moo's case), (ii) hacking and (iii) unauthorised access to the server. Some sense has to be made out of it.

In govt speak, pls clarify, we need to sync up everyone. then get their buy-in. fyna pls. tks.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Upbeat Uptown Girl by Billy Joel

Here's another post on music. Taking a break from the draining pieces on sociology and discourse analysis.

What I believe to be the barometer of upbeat songs is Billy Joel's Uptown Girl.

1. The verse keeps going "up", at least the counter-line does.
2. The beginning of every stanza of the song sounds like a climatic chorus.
3. The end of every stanza sounds like a pre-chorus build to another chorus.
4. (Studio version) Damn, those drums really took a pounding.
5. The song is always "moving" - it has 4 different key signatures, with well-written transitions (transposition).

Verse (E maj key)
E F#m G#m A-B
(upmoving counterline: E, F#, G#, A, B)

Chorus (C maj key)
C Am Dm G
C Am Bm E

Postchorus (A maj key)
A F#m D B

Bridge (D maj / B min key)
G A F#7/A# Bm
G A F#7/A# Esus4-E
(upmoving counterline: G, A, A#, B)

Friday, May 23, 2014

No Doubt's Too Late

Return Of Saturn, the 2000 follow-up album to No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom. It had less of that upbeat ska and reggae, and was for me, musically a better end-to-end album than Tragic Kingdom.

One song that immediately won me over was Too Late. Seems to have the same musical footprints of Don't Speak, or maybe it's that C minor key signature. Whatever the case, they're good songwriters.

I don't think I'll be able to articulate the many extents to which Too Late is such a great song, so here are just the chords:

Intro / Post-chorus
Gsus4 , G | Ab-5 , Ab

Fm7 , Bb-5 | Ebmaj7 , Cm7 | Gsus4 , G | Ab-5 , Ab

Ab , Cm | Bb , F9/A | Fm7 | G7aug5

Fm7 , Ddim | C | Ab | C
Fm7 , Ddim | C | Ab | Db

Cm | G7 | Eb | F7
Ab | G | G

By the way, Don't Speak's chords are:

Cm | Gm | Fm | Bb
Gm | Cm | Fm | Bb
Cm | Gm | Fm | Bb
Eb | Bb | C | C

Fm | Db | Eb | C
Bbm | C | Fm | Db , C

Db | Ab | B | F#
A | A | Ab

Belinda Carlisle's Leave A Light On and transposition

Belinda Carlisle will occasionally play on the radio (yes, I listen to the "oldies" station). Quite captivated by the song Leave A Light On.

There's so much to talk about in this song.

It isn't your typical pop/rock song, although it sounds like a pretty straightforward upbeat tune.

Instead of getting 4 bars in a line, you get an additional bar. Probably gives your fans enough time to compose themselves before singing the next line. Still... Wow.

The song has 2 key signatures, D and C. The transition between the 2 keys isn't too complicated, consider D's 4th chord is C's 5 chord. Double wow.

For me, the critical factor to this song is the E minor chord. The chord fits well into the D major key signature, providing a useful transition to G major and A major. It also belongs to the C major key signature, as the third chord minor, and also for the fact that it is only different from C major chord by a note.

I think the solo is a bit anti-climatic, but it's George Harrison, so that's ok. The pre-solo bridge too is a bit disorienting for the first few chords. Still, this is an excellent upbeat song

D | A | Em | Bm , A | x2

Verse + Pre-chorus
C | G | Dm | Am , G | x2
C | G | Bb | F
C | Em | A (could be Asus4) | A

Chorus + Post-chorus
D | D | Bm , F#m | Bm , F#m | G | A | x2
G | A | D | G | Gm
D | A | Em | Em

A, G, A, Em, Bm, G, G

So tuck your t-shirt into your pants, put on your shoulder-padded blazers, spray that thick hair, and enjoy.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Summer's Over: Rialto's songwriting clinic

This post is about Summer's Over by Rialto, one of my favourite bands.

Both their alums, Rialto and Night On Earth, are musical textbooks for any aspiring songwriter in the guitar-driven pop/rock genre. I'm not a lyrics guy, so am more into the chords and instrumentation.

Rialto has impeccable songwriting skills and musical craftsmanship. They keep their music simple, well arranged, and string their chords pretty tightly. The manner in which the chords are arranged depicts a feel of falling, because the counterline connecting the chords seem to be going lower and lower, i.e. "falling".


G | Bm/F# | G7/F | C
G | Bm/F# | G7/F | C | Cm

G , Em | Bm | Dm , E7 | Am
C , B7 | Em , D | C , Am | Em , D

The verse's chord sequence is quite typical of pop/rock songs. In the key of G, you begin with G chord. While keeping B (ti) and D (re) notes in the chord, the G (so) transits to F# (fa#) to become Bm, then to F (fa) to become G7, and sets up the final transition to the next chord C, in which all notes B+D+F jump "upwards" to C+E+G. In the second line of the verse, C major chord becomes C minor.

When it comes to pop/rock songwriting, counterlines determine how coherent or dynamic your song is. They are the invisible connections between chords. In the case of Summer's Over, the verse counterline is "falling": G-F#-F-E-Eb.

Well, sounds like Julian Lennon's Saltwater, huh?

The first line of the chorus is invokes a slightly different feeling, as the counterline moves up. Well, choruses have to be climatic, hence the difference in the first line in a song that mostly comprises "falling" counterlines. Here are the permutations, but you get the picture.
1. D-E-F#, A-B-C (climbing up, jump, climbing up)
2. D-E-F#, F-G#-A (climbing up, step down, climbing up)

For the chorus' second line, it goes back to "falling", to return the song to its equilibrium: G-F#-E-D-C, C-B-A (going down and down).

Another indicator on how "tightly" you like your chords to be bound together is the management of the variation between 2 consecutive chords.

In the verse's first three chords, there is only one variation and it moves one key at a time, i.e. G+B+D, F#+B+D, F+B+D. Most songwriters who experiment on the guitar or keyboard will be quite familiar with this, i.e. retaining more than 50% of a chord, while moving the rest of the notes in the chord to another key, either upwards or downwards, by a key or 2.

For instance, Sixpence None the Richer's Kiss Me's verse follows this convention, in Eb major key: Chords - Eb, Ebmaj7, Eb7, Ebmaj7; Counterline - Eb, D, Db, D. Nothing else in the three chords changes, except for those mentioned notes.

Well, Rialto still rocks. Maybe I'll cover Monday Morning 5:19 and Hard Candy next time.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Take a chance on him?

Here's what's happening recently, along with some political imaginings of clean Singapore, in the tune of ABBA's 'Take a Chance on Me'.

If you heard the vine, it's Roy this time
He talked PM Lee and the C.H.C.
If you heard the news, you know, it's going 'round
It's Drew and Napier, no? Gahmen take him down

If he could have known of the gahmen's tone
Gahmen's so kiasi, it's on 'Factually'
It's all about C.P.F. and he said a "lie"
If you smelled his lawyers' breath, and you're gonna die

Well it's PM Lee
(In his tighty whitiessss)
Well he's PM Lee

We can lim kopi, we can go Whitley
Or we're gonna sue yer
Don't talk about Ho Chings, or Temasek Holdings
And we won't sue yer

'Cause you know he's got so much that he wanna do
When he dreams of him fixing you, it's tragic
Roy shouldn't have put the picture there; when you're sued, it's never fair
But I think you know Lee will knock you cold

Sunday, May 4, 2014

On AWARE and Military Service

The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) Singapore commented on an article on the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) considering "recognising" NSmen in the form of "giving them a bigger stake in the country, such as in the areas of housing, healthcare and education".

AWARE said in a post on their Facebook page:
Every person deserves access to housing, education and healthcare, because these are basic requirements for human sustenance and social participation. AWARE disagrees strongly with any link between support for fundamental needs and an individual's status as an NSman, especially when the military may not be suitable for many people, regardless of their gender. AWARE has long maintained that military service should not be held up as the single gold standard of citizen belonging - an approach which this proposal threatens to intensify, creating different tiers of people with different social entitlements and worth.
As for the reactions, well, to sum up, the men weren't happy to learn of this.

First and foremost, we have yet to hear the details of this "recognition" that MINDEF is considering. So, it's good to wait and find out how much of a "stake" the government will be giving to those who serve.

Given National Service (and the majority of those who serve) is compulsory, I personally see this "recognition" as compensation in the context of 'choiceless-ness' as opposed to incentivisation in the context of 'choice'. This definition of compensation here sits in the context of a lack of choice, mainly (not entirely) for many Singaporean men. The action of one's commitment to National Service cannot mask the reality of compulsory conscription and the penalties that come should one choose not to serve.

Moving on another tangent, National Service discriminates. Not specifically referring to the disproportionate representation of Malay-Muslim Singaporeans in certain sectors within MINDEF, but the forms of discrimination are based on sex (not gender by the way) and physiology, among other things.

Having male sex organs will generally qualify (in a compulsory sense) you to be part of an organisation that leverages apparatuses of violence in the name of a flag. History is also used to further justify male participation in violence in the name of the nation. The absence of these sex organs exempts you from compulsory service, but you may choose to serve. In view of this, there are different contexts in which NS is done.

As for physiology, it is about finding the most desirable Singaporean body to perform various demanding tasks required across different segments of national defence.

That said, AWARE is right in saying that the military may not be suitable for many people, based on the above and other traits. There is discrimination based on things we mostly do not have control of - sex (I said "mostly"), physiology for instance.

I also agree with AWARE that "military service should not be held up as the single gold standard of citizen belonging". People of different bodies, persuasions, creeds, physical abilities, talents and opportunities, all deserve to claim a stake in defining citizenry. In addition, we have to put aside prejudices to create opportunities for different people to define citizenry - level the playing field a little.

One may argue that the many institutions that bring about the general stability and comfort most of us have enjoyed throughout the years could not have done so without National Service. But I believe that national defence is an interdependent unit as are all institutions supporting one another, rather than a super-set.

Now, let's look at housing, healthcare and education. These are the critical variables of social stratification in Singapore.

In giving a "bigger stake", it is implied NSmen will be given a slight advantage over non-NSmen when it comes to access to housing, healthcare and education. As an NSman, I'll gladly take this and say "thank you", since it directly benefits my family and its state-condoned family structure.

I believe the issue of contention is that the idea of compensation for compulsory (and discriminatory) conscription intersects that of what should be universally and equally accessible to all in Singapore.

Alternatively, it will be better if conscripts and NSmen are paid the same as regulars of the corresponding ranks. For reservist training, NSmen should be paid their rank pay, on top of their compensated salaries, regardless of where they work. This way, the compensation or incentive (however you see it) symbolically remains within the confines of the institution (NS), even though the monetary "advantages" have implications beyond it.

Again, this still does not address the issue of NS' position in Singaporean citizenry and defining it, simply because bigger compensation or incentives (however you see it, again) are still thrown in that direction. Since you can't put a price on the 2-2.5 years of lost youth, the state-imposed absence of husbands/fathers/brothers/sons, we'll probably not know what's the right amount and the right avenue through which it should be disseminated.

On every level, there's a lot of discrimination: The unquestionable sacred cow of the Singaporean male-ness being intricately tied to nationhood therefore justifying compulsory NS, tax "incentives" given to NSmen whose circumstances are in fact based on choiceless-ness, etc.

To stand up and say, "Shut up you women. Why don't you get conscripted first, then come and talk?" still does not address the issue of discrimination and the implications of (gender) discrimination on socio-economic stratification - since we're talking about housing, education and healthcare here.

Having women conscripted may solve some downstream grievances, but does that mean upstream problems are solved? NS then remains unquestioned.

I honestly have no idea how this can be best approached. I guess we have the capable leaders in the Cabinet (with disproportionate representation of men and women) to come up with the right solutions, huh? But you've got people in there who'll answer your questions with the same question "what do you think" hehe.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

HPB’s FAQ a step forward in sexual health governance

(Published - Today Feb 5, 2014)

I read with interest the report “Health Promotion Board’s FAQ on sexuality draws positive response online” (Feb 5).

While some laud this as a progressive step, I feel that the HPB, as the leading stakeholder in the governance of sexual health in Singapore, has simply made the right decision.

It has cut through contestations for moral superiority by addressing issues at the heart of sexual wellness. By presenting up-to-date information in an unbiased, transparent manner, the HPB provides the service of educating.

Questioning youths and adults remain, and they may neither be properly informed about sexuality nor aware of available resources such as counselling and social workers.

The topic of homosexuality aside, it is ideologically jarring for many to comprehend the differences between gender, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

The HPB has explained them in a simple manner, and persons who do not feel or embody the societal alignment of these identity characteristics can be informed without being judged and stigmatised. Sexual health affects everyone, regardless of orientation and persuasion.

Some are challenging the purpose and credibility of the FAQ, but are unaware that they are complicit in the denial of information for young persons unsure about their identity or at risk of self-harm or suicide.

I have encountered those who think they have nowhere to turn to because of the predominant, intolerant environment. I am no social worker or counsellor, and have directed them to relevant groups.

The HPB has unfortunately removed these links from the FAQ.

Persons who disagree with the HPB may play the moral, parental or religious card. As a father and one who believes that the family is an important institution, I am concerned about the implications of their disagreement.

I commend the HPB for taking steps to ensure that no Singaporean is left behind when it comes to the transparent dissemination of information on sexual health.

Ho Chi Sam

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ms Noel Evelyn Norris (1918-2014)

Ms Noel Evelyn Norris passed away in the morning of 15 February 2014. She was 95.

To many, she was a dedicated lifelong educator, whose contributions probably deserve a lot more mention and presence on the web. She is known in the Rafflesian community, namely Raffles Girls’ School, as one of the school’s long-serving principals, on top of having been a student and a teacher.

To me, she was just a tutor who had a profound impact on my life.

When I was at the early primary levels, I was somewhat convinced – by my mother – I was struggling with my languages. Mandarin – a given. English too. So I had tutors for both languages. I hated reading then. Still do now, as I only read the things that are of interest to me.

In 1994, some arrangements were made and I remember my parents telling me that the next English tutor was rather “stern” and goes by the name Ms Norris. She was the friend of a customer of the company my dad worked for at that time.

That friend was the late Ms Paramita Bandara, who taught at RGS from 1967 to 1969, during Ms Norris’ tenture as principal from 1961 to 1976, but I'm sure they go back longer than that. Ms Bandara was principal of Ang Mo Kio Secondary School, which I attended in 1996 to 1999. Ms Bandara passed away February 2013.

So, every week, from 1994 to 1999, I would be dropped off at Brighton Crescent for a one-hour session with Ms Norris. She only asked for $50-60 a month, and on hindsight, she did not really need the money; I was more of a retirement hobby and she had been teaching only a handful of kids during her retirement years. From her stories, she enjoyed tutoring and mentoring them.

From day one, she told me that I was not going to write any more stories for essays. I had to write expository essays, make a couple of points and substantiate them. Again, on hindsight, I realised on the one hand that with a limited vocabulary, I would not fare very well in the national examinations. On the other, if I ever made it to do ‘A’ Levels, expository essays would be the only choice and none of that “xiao ming goes to school” and “suddenly, I woke up and realised it was all a dream” nonsense.

This was the same strategy I later adopted for my Chinese essays for my ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level examinations, which were probably the most arduous approach. Thankfully, I had very kind teachers in Ang Mo Kio Secondary School and Nanyang Junior College, who acceded to my request to stay back after lessons with me, for half to one hour every week, so that I could run through with them common words and terms used in expository essays, to compensate for my limited vocabulary. And in the end, I got by with my Chinese.

For almost every week for 6 years, I would be writing an expository essay as a take-home assignment, based on topics and titles that Ms Norris plucked out from some exercise book that looked like it came from the 60s or 70s. And it probably did.

There would also be a weekly comprehension exercise, which was quite nerve-wrecking. She would first ask me to read aloud the comprehension text, correcting my pronunciation or asking me the definition of certain words while I was at it. I would occasionally take a sip of water after I was done with the text, and I had to immediately read aloud the question and verbally answer them on the spot.

There were lots and lots of grammar exercises, the kind I never had in Primary or even Secondary School (well thanks Lee Yock Suan). I can imagine Ms Norris correcting me right now for using the word “kind” in the previous sentence, when it is supposed to be “type” or “ones”.

“You don’t eat breakfast. You have breakfast.”
“So you’re going to take a bath? Where are you taking it to?”

Placement of adverbs and prepositions, usage of pronouns and determiners, etc.

So I got by my PSLE and ‘O’ Level examinations, and I cannot remember who decided that 6 years of tutoring was enough. I was on my own after that.

Little did I know that the many years of her tutoring and mentoring (and lots of drilling) would have an impact on my ‘A’ Level subjects and University Level essay writing. I appreciated Ms Norris’ help a lot more when I was doing my undergraduate and graduate studies.

After 1999, my mum continually reminded me to visit Ms Norris and send her postcards every December (Christmas and Birthday). I was shy and did not know what to say or do. There were years we did not visit her, but there were years when we had tea, or prata, or pie, or watched the National Day Parade on TV.

Ms Norris lived in a simple house surrounded by the massively redeveloped and reconstructed bungalows towering around it.

She always had a dog. In the mid-90s, it was a golden retriever (hope I got the breed right). From the late 90s, she had a Jack Russell (hope I got the breed right, please correct me if I'm wrong), which went by the name Tiny.

I recall she did not have a name for the dog, always calling her a “busy little bee”. Perhaps the name Tiny stuck. Tiny would always survey her garden and make periodic reports, at times interrupting the session. I remember patting and stroking Tiny many times while doing those comprehension and reading exercises with Ms Norris.

In the years I visited her, Tiny was by her side. Always happy and excitable. I learned that Tiny died in January and Ms Norris, having already suffered a stroke in November 2011, fell ill after that.

I only found out in 2013 that she had been bed-ridden following her stroke, only barely able to move her arms. Every visit thereafter was not without a lump in the throat and an at times futile attempt at fighting back the tears.

It was only a handful of visits, and I brought along my first daughter April. April liked her garden and picked a handful of flowers for her every time we were there. She enjoyed playing with Tiny too. We would bid our farewells with April blowing kisses at her, and Ms Norris mustering enough strength to return the favour.

One Sunday morning in October, April was muttering “Nors, nors, nors” at me referring to Ms Norris, and I acceded to her request to pay Ms Norris a visit. I guess April remembers her for her garden and her dresses.

Every visit to her house gave me a sense of nostalgia, except that there was a hospital bed and a team of caregivers in the last year. I’d be happy to see her slowly walking around her house, or rocking from her seat to create enough momentum to stand up.

The last visit on Sunday was as surreal as it was absolutely gut-wrenching. She rested in a coffin placed in the centre of the living room, which was cleared of its furniture. There were lots of people, some sitting in the dining room, others standing chatting and greeting others. Deborah and Carmee greeted us, but it was all a blur to me. They were part of a team overseeing Ms Norris’ care following her stroke.

On the backdrop of all her achievements and contributions to education in Singapore, what Ms Norris has done for me is rather small. It is however quite amazing that while she has given just around 300 hours of her life to tutor some random kid, the kid has managed to achieve a lot more than he thought he ever would – from all the simple things like the confidence to speak and write, to the lifelong skills of writing, having a stand and articulating it. There is a composite of other contributing factors, but as the years go by, I continue to understand and recognise the profound impact she has on me.

I guess when we’re younger, we probably have not been through enough to understand how much others have played an important role in shaping our lives and views of the world.

While she has lived a long life, it was still painful to see her go. I always wanted another opportunity again for my children to raid her garden for flowers, so they could drop them into her hands. But I guess it’s time to say goodbye.


[added 11 March 2014 and I still feel the grief now] My wife and I went to her funeral and witnessed her cremation on 19 Feb. Old RGS girls, teachers, principals were there, along with a small group relatives, her church friends and a group of Crescent Girls. It was awfully painful we had to place flowers on her as she rested in her coffin, because it reminded me of the times when my daughter was trawling her garden for flowers, picking them and later dropping them into her hands. It's painfully poetic.

When it was time to say goodbye, some of us wept, some waved goodbye, most were singing and they probably drew strength in solidarity in such sad times. After she was sent off, and when the goodbyes were said, the old girls broke out into the RGS song. I think it was ex-principal Carmee who started it. Powerful moment. Fitting tribute (although she has done a fair bit of CGS too).

It'll always be for selfish reasons we want others to be healthy and never grow old, so that there can so much more to talk about and share - stuff like "I graduated" "I got a job" "I got a family" "I'm correcting my daughter's English" "I'm somebody" etc, all of which probably ending with a heart-felt "... and thank you".


From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Ms Norris.