Gotong Royong


Had the privilege of bringing this author around the Gardens. We exchanged books that we wrote and of course she got the shorter end of the deal.

My, this was one of those books you don’t want to finish so fast, so as I was reading it, I kept eyeing the remaining pages with anguish that it wasn’t many times thicker. Do books come with different speeds? Why did I read the 236 pages in such a short time? It was such an enjoyable book, like kachang that once you started eating is very hard to stop.

I was transported in time to a kampung in Potong Pasir set in the 1960’s mainly where the author lived and grew up as a child. Little things like how her mum cooked nasi lemak and how she described the smells but yet could not have the satisfaction of eating it because it was meant to be sold off as a means to make ends meet really gave the book the “dramatic arc” the author had mentioned about writing to me.

You also get a glimpse of the political history of Singapore as the stories and struggles of kampung life she writes weave the kampung peoples’ lives with Singapore’s independence and how aspects of their lives are affected by the riots, konfrontasi, elections and separation from Malaya. Tan Howe Liang’s sporting achievements are featured especially in the last chapter “The Lion must learn to roar again, 1965”.

Not only did I appreciate water running from taps, books that litter my home and flushing toilets after reading her book but the greatest take-away from the book was mostly about soul, the kampung spirit, friendship where no one is afraid or inhibited to lend a hand or to share in burdens and joy. The paperback is light in the hands but you can feel its weight in its words and stories.


Book review – The Element by Ken Robinson

My rating – 9/10


It’s chocked-full of inspiring stories of people like Matt Groening, Arianna Stasinopoúlou – founder of Huffington Post, musicians like George Harrison and many more who found their element. Robinson defines it here

“The Element is where your natural aptitudes meet your personal passions. It could be playing the guitar, basketball, cooking, or teaching, working with technology or with animals – anything for which you have a natural feel.” Many of these people did not do well in their schools and often had to overcome serious adversities in life. A lot of them had someone who believed in them.

Some of the stories are impossibly inspiring, for example, the story of John Wilson – blinded in both eyes at age 12 thanks to a chemistry experiment gone wrong but went on to eradicate river blindness in Ghana through an organisation he set up.

I found the beginning and the end of the book a bit more engaging. The middle part expounds on what it means to find the element and becomes academic so requires more focus. I certainly will have to re-read that part. Overall I thought it was well worth the read, very thought provoking especially if you are an educator to someone who is stuck in a rut – it does speak to humanity as a whole actually. If you have seen and heard Ken Robinson on TED, you will understand his educational standpoint and where he is coming from. To the book’s credit, and I think it’s a good book, almost groundbreaking, it did make me feel like I needed to rewind my 8 years as a teacher, start all over again and be bolder in reforming the education system in Singapore. It’s true that schools do kill creativity and that teachers and administrators should lighten up and become more innovative. I don’t think our school system isn’t innovative but it is sometimes innovative in an odd way, adding to workloads and yoking the students with more pressure. I have got lots to say about the A levels and how we drill our students with the correct answers. We say they can’t understand and are not motivated to learn and so we drill and practice… I sometimes look at some of my students and feel a deep sense of pity. They either have forgotten to learn or find the whole exercise pointless – and these are to my own judgement, bright young kids. Any kid is bright – until we start educating them! 😦 This book gives some hope but I know some will say such bottom-up change and moving away from standards-based assessments is impractical. So it was good that there were some seemingly impractical solutions exemplified in the book – like a school that set up near an old folks home. The retirees volunteered to mentor the students resulting in improved grades and engagement by the students and interestingly the need for medication by the older folks also dropped significantly.

I think educators need to take this book seriously and try to get a sense of what it’s trying to say – personalise education and look at each student, child as someone with potential and harness that with encouragement, mentorship and a validation of their personal gifts.

Safe in the pages of a book

Sebastian Faulks – I have read 2 of his books and absolutely love them.  He has a way with words that sits well in my mind, somewhat like the writings of Rabindranath Tagore.  Of course the comparison is really tenuous and demands more.

“Devil May Care” is a James Bond novel and I remembered more about the thorough descriptions of the meals eaten by the spy than the action itself.  Nonetheless, it was a good read and well paced.

“The Girl at the Lion d’Or” – perhaps this is where I felt the style of Faulks and Tagore seem to have some similarities and I liken this book to Chokher Bali  The fate of the woman protagonists in the books are well described.  Not too dramatic but yet gripping.

I just downloaded “A Possible Life” and love what I am reading in the first few pages.  It looks like a book that could be safe haven for a week or so.



Recent reads


As a total outsider to Ancient Greek history, I found this book hard to follow. Too many unfamiliar names being brought up. But the names are brought to context by the author Paul Cartledge so one begins to get acquainted with names and terms like Herodotus, Plutarch, Greco-persian wars. Anyway, obviously my interest was piqued when I watched 300. I rewatched it before the marathon and the words of Gorgo to Leonidas “Come back with your shield or on it”. Some borrowed bravado to complete 42K. Pretty apt since the battle at Marathon was important in the War against the Persians.

The Mystic Masseur

VS Naipaul is probably an author that is a must-read but this is the first of his books that I have read and will definitely not be the last. This novel is written simply but reads vividly as though I was watching a movie. He adds interesting details to the description of the characters and what they are doing that the characters take on a life in the book. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this over 3 days.

The Children of Hurin

I have read the entire trilogy of the LOTR but I felt this book to be more captivating. Its well described as one of the more dark stories by Tolkien but still not off-puttingly dark. Its more dramatic in terms of what the character Turin faces and is a deviation from the long detailed descriptions found in the trilogy especially of the battles. So in a way, I found this book to be a better read.

All these books were from the MPH sale at the Expo and were selling at $8 a piece.

Octopus’ Garden

I was reading Sea Stories (Classic Illustrated Edition) Compiled by Cooper Edens. Its a really nice compilation of stories inspired by the sea. Like the 20,000 Leagues under the sea, Captain Blackbeard, The Old Man and the Sea, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner…

What attracted me to book was the front cover.. it was a nice painting

One of the entries for the book was this Poem by Richard Starkey. Turns out to be Ringo Starr from the Beatles.

Octopus’s Garden

“I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’ garden in the shade
He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been
In his octopus’ garden in the shade

I’d ask my friends to come and see
An octopus’ garden with me
I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’ garden in the shade.

We would be warm below the storm
In our little hideaway beneath the waves
Resting our head on the sea bed
In an octopus’ garden near a cave”

(these are just 3 stanzas>

“The idea for the song came about when Starr was on a boating trip with his family in Sardinia in 1968. He was offered an octopus lunch, but turned it down. Then the boat’s captain told Starr about how octopuses travel along the sea bed picking up stones and shiny objects with which to build gardens. Starr said that hearing about octopuses spending their days collecting shiny objects at the bottom of the sea was one of the happiest things he had ever heard, inspiring him to write this song.”


Here are the Beatles fiddling with the song.

Here’s a Sesame Street version… 🙂



A collection of essays, biographies and Nobel lectures from 10 Nobel Laureates. The literary styles were contrasting and for some, I just couldn’t read beyond 2-3 paragraphs so I skipped them. Those in asterisk were the ones I really got down to reading as they were styles that appealed to me more. I liked especially the one by Amartya Sen and he also wrote about Rabindranath Tagore in this book. which is interesting as Amartya was a student of Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan, the school which Tagore had set up. So there was a good insight about how the school was run from a student’s perspective. Genuine interest and curiosity in subject matter was more important than academic excellence in the school and most of the time, classes were held outdoors if Tagore had the choice as he believed a natural setting was conducive.

Memorable quote from Tagore as he described blind following of tradition – “lost in the dreary desert sand of dead habit”

I enjoyed reading VS Naipaul as he wrote in a simple style that was pleasing and relaxing and not at all flowery, which I can’t take to. The life of Grazia from Sardinia was also interesting and dramatic and the education of the very learned Amartya Sen was impressive to read as he went from one reknown university to another as an academic.

Sir V S Naipaul (United Kingdom, born in Trinidad)*
Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
Derek Walcott (St Lucia)
Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)
Patrick White (Australia)
Ernest Hemingway (USA)
Grazia Deledda (Sardinia, Italy)*
Amartya Sen (United Kingdom and the USA, born in India)*
Rabindranath Tagore (India)*
Nelson Mandela (South Africa)

*ones that I read fully, others were skimmed through.

Books read (starting Nov 2007)

1. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – Bill Bryson

2. The Monk who sold his Ferrari – Robin Sharma

3. Universal Father, A Life of Pope John Paul II – Garry O’connor

4. Five Minds for the Future – Howard Gardner

5. Nobel Laureates in Search of Identity and Integrity: Voices of Different Cultures – Anders Hallengren