April 29, 2005

A Day At The Races

I attended the Anglo-Chinese School (Junior) 37th Annual Swimming Championships today. I gave a short speech. I hope I inspired them with what I said. I tried to remind them of the power of the AC Spirit, the importance of a well-rounded education, and the strength of self-belief, conviction and perseverence. I also talked briefly about the Channel Swim and what it means.

I also handed out the prizes. With my back in bad shape, it wasn't ideal to be bending down to shake the hands of all the little kids, but it was important to look them in the eye and speak to each and every one of them as I handed them their prizes.

At the end of the day, if I touched one of their lives and made a positive difference, it'll all have been worthwhile.

Posted by pj at 09:32 PM | Comments (3)

April 23, 2005

MMMM... Brains

I was so exhausted from training and battling my back injury that I fell asleep for around 2 hours this afternoon. It was a long, hard afternoon nap. My lack of decent sleep recently meant I popped almost immediately into REM sleep, and thus my two hours, instead of being restful, were filled with extremely vivid dreams. True to form, having woken up now I can only remember two things: clutching a Boston Red Wox World Series Championship Ring and sobbing happily, thinking, "This is the happiest day of my life!"; and finding my face stuck in my blanket and being unable to breathe, but too exhausted to move and wondering if this is how I would end up dying. Finally, with a desperate surge of strength, I managed to shift my nose and fill my straining lungs with sweet air. I'm not sure the second was a dream.

After I woke up I stumbled out of my room, my head filled with cotton wool and my tongue as parched as the Sahara. I'm sure if you looked on it, Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz would have been spotted running around. I shuffled along the hallway, head rolling around as I lurched from side to side. I shuffled into the study and found a cup of water, which I gratefully gulped down.

A moment later, my brother walked by, on his way out. He looked at me.

Feeling like a zombie, I croaked out, "Brains..." His girlfriend followed a second later. "Bye!" she waved.

"Bye..." Even zombies have manners.

I stumbled downstairs where my brother was getting ready to go to a swim meet. Refilling my cup of water, I sat down at the kitchen table. My brother went to the toilet to change and I was left alone with his girlfriend. Curiously, she chose the furthest possible point of the room away from me to stand and examine the photographs we have displayed.

A minute later, my mother came down and looked at me, who was still groggy.

"How are you?" she inquired.

"Brains..." I replied, "Must... have... brains..."

There were no brains in the fridge, so I satisfied myself with grapes instead.

Posted by pj at 06:22 PM | Comments (2)

April 11, 2005

Daily Routine

Up to this point in time, I haven't mentioned anything specific about my training. That's been because, well, it's boring. There's not much to say about hours and hours going up and down a pool following a thin black line. That's one reason why swimming requires so much mental discipline: the sheer boredom of the sport. It's not that the scenery never changes; it's that there is no scenery to begin with. You can't talk, you barely have time to think, you can't breathe at will, and you're soaking wet. It's not a sport which lends itself to training montages in sports movies.

However, given that this is a training blog, I would be amiss to talk about my training. Perhaps the best way to explain how it feels is what happens after one of my four-hour, 16 km training sessions: I stagger out of the pool, stumble through the shower and then slowly and painfully drive myself home, every muscle in my hips, back and shoulders screaming. I eat a breakfast of cold oatmeal and fruit, along with some toast, and my hands and arms are so tired that I inevitably end up dropping the food several times. This morning, I had the added humiliation of my chair breaking under me due to several loose screws. I caught myself in time, but my oatmeal ended up scattered on the table. I was so hungry I scooped it up and ate it anyway. I sure as hell didn't want to go cook another batch.

One day a week I get to stay home and rest; the other days I get dressed and go to work, where I face class after class of young students who proceed to drive me crazy. Most of them are great kids; it's the few who are lazy or disobedient which drive you nuts. The worst are kids who are really smart and think they know better than you do. Putting up with them and patiently explaining why you do things a certain way would be exhausting on a normal day; when your hands are trembling from muscle fatigue, it tests you mentally and spiritually.

Their inexhaustable energy, however, is also a source of inspiration, and one of my classes in particular is a real joy to teach- not because they are particularly talented, but because the class is composed of kids who really try. One chap with a physical disability is a real fighter and I find it a real honour to work with someone who is so determined to overcome his physical limitations. He is fearless. The girls in the class are unfailingly polite and cheerful and enthusiastic, and the guys in the class help each other and really pull together. I look forward to my periods with them every week.

After school I stay back to finish my marking, work on my lesson plans and then stagger home to gulp down dinner, before collapsing in bed to get ready for another day.

Such is my life.

Posted by pj at 03:21 PM | Comments (2)

April 03, 2005

Innovation and Enterprise in the Classroom

As another digression from my thoughts on swimming and training for the Channel, I thought I'd post a basic summary of remarks I delivered to the Singapore Geography Teacher's Association Annual Seminar, Saturday, 2 April 2005. It was created partly in collaboration with my ex-classmates from ACS(I) and I am very grateful to them for the suggestions, advice and feedback.

Title of talk: Fostering the Spirit of Innovation and Enterprise – A Student's Perspective

1. Introduction: The role of students in the learning process

Theoretical framework:

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do.
By Judith Rich Harris (Free Press, 1998)

Harris' research suggests that parents have little or no long term effect on their children’s personality, intelligence, or mental health. The environment definitely has an effect on how children turn out, but it’s not the home environment. It’s actually the environment children share with their peers: what she terms her group socialization theory. If the behaviour a child learns at home is inefficient or inappropriate outside of the home, then they drop it and learn a new way of behaving. For example, language: 1st generation Chinese-American children tend to speak English better than Chinese, because it is more efficient and useful.

Given this, what can educators do to help facilitate a learning environment, and to aid students to help each other develop entrepreneurship skills?

2. Suggested basic factors:
a. Environmental
b. Process/Technique
c. Skills to Teach

3. Environmental Factors
a. Confidence is paramount. Students must be confident and unafraid of failure if they want to succeed. They must be able to withstand failure.
b. Focus on your objectives for learning, not the process. Make the goals clear (use rubrics?) and let the students find their own way there.
c. Set expectations high- but don't be disappointed.
d. Emphasise that there is no “right” or “wrong” way- free them to find out what works for themselves.
e. Encourage free-thinking, critical analysis, and questioning.
f. Value all forms of intelligence, not just analytical ability. Tolerate eccentricity and respect diversity of opinion and values.
g. Encourage education outside the classroom and life-long learning; encourage the students in sports and other CCAs. Remember: Mens sano in corpore sano. Many important skills and values can only be learnt outside the classroom.
h. Listen. Be a friend. Do not do to a student as you would not want a student to do to you. Reciprocity. Remember what it was like being young.
i. Encourage subversion- allow them to challenge you. Innovation is the subversion of established thought, so they must practice this. Rise to the challenge, don't squash it. "Because I say so" is never an acceptable answer.

4. Process/Technique
a. Have role models. Study others’ lives through biography. This allows children to realise what can be achieved. It gives them goals and engenders confidence. It is best to study people most similar to them (fellow Singaporeans). See the new Singapore Olympians book.
b. Reward risk-taking and non-traditional thinking, not just results. Risk-taking and non-traditional thinking lead to frequent failure, but the long term payoff is infinitely higher.
c. Reward hard work as well as intelligence. It is, after all, 99% perspiration, so encourage that more.
d. Don’t be afraid to digress occasionally. Let the students’ minds take them where they want to go. You may be surprised where it leads.
e. Look to the future. Share demographic information and trends. Be aware the future belongs to the students.
f. Utilize the tools students are familiar with: the internet, computers, mobile phones, etc.
g. Assign experiences which integrate several different courses of study- don't let students get stuck approaching problems using techniques limited to one field.
h. Encourage feedback. Let the students feel they have a stake in the process.
i. Discussion of issues: encourage freedom of thought inside and outside the classroom

5. Skills to Teach
a. Teach organizational skills and time management skills
b. Teach servant leadership skills- be aware that to lead is to serve. The person who makes the decisions takes the responsibility.
c. Teach listening skills. You must listen too.
d. Share the importance of learning to write and speak clearly- you can't communicate your ideas otherwise.
e. Introduce diversity and global awareness as values and encourage travel. The world is getting smaller, and we must be aware and respctful of different cultures, traditions and values. We have much to learn from them.
f. Urge students to consider trying to start a "business" while in school- not necessarily monetary, but rather something they manage on their own. Let them, for example, manage the classroom.
g. Teach independence of thought and critical analysis.
h. Teach collaboration skills- mix students of different abilities. Innovation today comes from mass collaboration.

6. Conclusion
a. Trust your students more.
b. Chaos is inevitable. Chaos is good. Out of chaos comes creativity.
c. We don't really care about the grades- we were too busy learning things. There was learning time, and then there was time when we memorized what the “right” questions were- those incidental things which we just happened to have to know and do to pass our exams.
d. No one told us the right answers to all the non-work related questions we spent most of our energy contemplating.
e. We all were very tolerant of eccentricity and diversity because a) we all knew we were screwed up to some extent or another; but b) we also had confidence in ourselves, a swagger that whatever happened, we would come out of things fine.

Posted by pj at 07:16 PM

April 02, 2005


Yesterday (Friday the 1st) I attended the launch of Singapore Olympians: The Complete Who's Who 1936-2004 and it was a fantastic event. I was very privileged to rub shoulders with some of the greatest sporting heroes this country has ever produced. It was also thrilling to say hello to many of my old friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in many years.

After I received my complimentary copy of the book, I ran around eagerly trying to get as many of them to sign it for me as possible. I felt more like a fan, actually, than one of the honoured. I don't know how others see me, but I never felt like I was one of Singapore's great heroes. In 1996 I was the best butterflier in Singapore, and I held two national open records, but unlike many of the other athletes I was extremely fortunate to have my family to support me and ease my progress. I never had to fight my way up from poverty to represent the country, nor did I have to overcome major obstacles apart from my competitors. I didn't even have the sustained success that many others had; my heyday was a short three year stretch between 1995 and 1997 and after that I moved over to make way for a younger and better generation. In essence, really, when I think about myself and my competitive career: it was good, and it was more than I ever dreamed of, but it wasn't inspired. Literally, inspiration means the breath of God, and while there are many examples in the book of careers and athletes who had that, I by comparison was just lucky.

The inspiration from these athletes, though, should serve to inspire a new generation of Singaporean sporting excellence. Singaporeans need heroes and role models, and as was pointed out by one of the book's authors, many young Singaporeans know about Beckham and Owen, even Pele and Maradona, but they know little about our own giants of sport, colossi who bestrode the world in their own times and in their own way.

If there is a central message to the book and to my swim, it's a reminder to us all that anyone, anywhere can do great things. We can help ourselves remember that by looking at all the great, inspired sporting heroes who came from our humble island and who went on to experience the heights of their sport. They did it; so can you.

"To P.J.- the new mission is Olympism!" wrote C. Kunalan in my book. Indeed it is. Let us spread the ideals of Olympism and promote the values inherent in it. Remember: it doesn't matter where you are from, or who you are, or what you do. If you believe, as I did, you too can breathe the breath of God.

Posted by pj at 07:07 PM