Saturday, September 30, 2006

Mission Statement

There is something lyrical at times about the cloisters of a convent. There is a hidden music, the light seems to percolate around the stone pillars, while somewhere, a voice is always singing. It was in such a setting that the head of the convent said to me, "Let's talk about your mission statement."

Till this day, I remain amazed by those three years of my life. What on earth was a young, single Asian gentleman doing teaching in a convent? The reason given was fantastic, fantastical, almost (but not quite) beyond belief. And yes, that interview in August 1994 produced a mission statement. I'm not sure if it really is all my mission, but it does cover some of it at least. I have tried to live as if it were true.


We all have a mission in life.

Mine is to find Reason
and bring it where it is needed;
It is to give Reason a voice,
even when it is troublesome to do so.
It is to use Reason in the service of God,
and not for mere advantage of myself or for others.

How can I do this?

I must do this with a sense of duty,
to seek the greatest good for others.
It must be done with patience and care;
with love, justice and compassion.
I will be a good friend to those who have shared friendship with me;
I will be rational with those who do not seek my good.

I will try to bring out the best in others,
but I will not presume on their limitations
or impose any discipline on them
which I have not imposed on myself.

And I will always make time
for things of eternal value and of lasting worth,
at the expense of lesser things.

Friday, September 29, 2006


Things are looking up
The wrong end of history
Shudder at the waste;
Fast and purge the narrative
Clear the post-colonial stage

Off alone depth charge
Deep think internal affairs
Brown study arms race;
We're on a roll, mushroom cloud
And suddenly, not aloud.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006


This is actually from the ancient cyborg movie, Robocop.

"What are your prime directives?"
"To serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law."

The questions one asks all the time are, of course:

1. What is the public trust and how does one best serve it?
2. Who are the innocent and how does one best protect them?
3. Which is the highest law, and how does one best uphold it?

And thus, one is accountable at least to the internal inquisition - if not the eternal one.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Wolfhound's Sabbath

Be Thou my Breastplate
Guard my heart from the darkness that quenches love

My Sword for the fight
Give my hand the power to slay the darkness that destroys

Be Thou my Dignity
Guard my head from the darkness that makes worthless

Thou my Delight
Give my hopes the power to stay the darkness that defiles

Thou my soul’s Shelter
You who are a mighty rock in a burning land

Thou my high Tower
You who are the protection of watchmen

Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power
Help me to be a light on a hill against the fall of the coming dark



Sunday, September 24, 2006

Missing Words

Sometimes, I find it remarkable how entropy works in the minds of men. Whether it is laziness, or a shying away from duty, or an aversion to the unpleasant or dissonant, men will delete, expunge, elide, abbreviate and distort. I shall give two examples from relatively well-known pieces of literature.


Be Thou my Breastplate, my Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

This third verse of the 8th-century Irish hymn, Be Thou My Vision, is hardly ever sung today. Perhaps the modern eye shies away from 'breastplate', obsessed as the modern mind is with prudery; perhaps it is the violence implied in the first line. Who knows? But as the middle verse of the hymn, it is intended to be the 'hinge' of the work. Without it, the transition from second verse ('Thou my great Father') to fourth ('Thou mine Inheritance') is jarring. Then again, you never know what you've missed if you have never had it.


And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Another third verse. Apparently, only the Marines sing this verse anymore at all, these days. In fact, from what I've seen, only the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner is sung during most national-level events in the United States. I suspect it's because some of the words of the second verse seem so... covert.

On the shore, dimly seen thro' the mist of the deep
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

What indeed?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Reality Check

Time is the enemy behind you.
Eternity engulfs time.

Anxiety is the enemy within you.
Knowledge dispels anxiety.

Arrogance is the enemy above you.
Wisdom checks arrogance.

Fear is the enemy beneath you.
Love casts out fear.

Who crosses you?
He who accuses.

Who assists you?
He who watches.

What is the price of the divine?
It is required that you empty yourself.

What is the penalty for failure?
That you face reality, knowing it is not.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Tactics Of Mistake

When I was about 40% of my current age, I read a book which changed my approach to life. This book was Gordon R Dickson's Tactics Of Mistake. Although only one of the many SF novels I've read over many years, the focus of the book is on a specific strategy - to use various means (including non-violent resistance and refusal to resist) to tempt an opponent into minor, non-fatal mistakes. The accumulative effect of these minor mistakes is that opponent's failure and your own success.

Such a strategy requires a medium- to long-term view of life. It is a patient strategy, terribly unsuited to the choleric and mercurial personality that I am. Yet, by keeping it in my armamentarium, I've built the discipline of patient waiting - not merely forbearance or patience, but the habit of waiting for long periods with intent. Passive patience is easy for many, but active patience, the patience of the stalking cat or watching hawk, is hard to learn.

At the same time, the Good Book tells us to be 'as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves'. In my more cynical days, I used to take it to mean that you could either choose to bury your waste carefully or deposit it in large and unsightly piles. Of course, what the Book means is that you should learn to avoid trouble, but without using aggressive defence. What options are open to us, then?

Here are three possibilities which may seem quite odd, so I shall explain them as best as I can. If you add all three to your armamentarium, it improves your chance of surviving the vicissitudes of life, and emerging scathed but sound at the end of your days.

1. Vulnerability

Vulnerability is the strongest defence. The word means 'capacity for suffering wounds' and has become the equivalent of 'defencelessness'. But what if there is nothing to defend? A lie has no target, the intent to hurt finds no object, the duellist aims into a cloud of mist; this is what vulnerability is about. The person with nothing to hide and the true capacity to 'suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite; to forgive wrongs darker than Death or Night' is strong indeed. It requires the virtue of faith from the people of the Book, for without faith, there is only the fear of injury.

2. Perseverance

Perseverance is the steadiest approach. The word means 'capacity for continuing in one's endeavours'. It isn't 'stubbornness' or 'doggedness', but something creative and active: the power by which water continues to find a way past barriers. Note that many have defined perseverance as 'persistence', 'fortitude', 'endurance' and so on. These definitions miss the point of 'creative and active'; one who perseveres is not just a barnacle of some sort, immovable and stony. It requires the virtue of hope from the people of the Book, for without hope, there is no point in perseverance.

3. Perspicuity

Perspicuity is the sharpest weapon. The word means 'capacity for seeing acutely through or into things'. It is associated with intelligence focussed to a specific point - it is intelligence used to bring wisdom, discernment and understanding to bear on practical problems. Some people have used it to mean 'shrewdness', but that would be the basest form of such a trait. The problem of course, is that a weapon can be used unjustly to hurt and damage others. It thus requires the virtue of love from the people of the Book, for without love, perspicuity is violence.

Monday, September 18, 2006

How To Be Good

There are many ways to read a statement like that, as I realised after filling in the 'Title' box for this post. 'Good' can mean virtuous, complaisant, excellent, short of excellent but still not bad, above average, an economic object - and so on. The sentence if it is made into a question can take on overtones (or undertones) of complaint, of abject moral need, irony in the face of depravity - yet another bunch of possibilities.

All I really wanted to do was post a couple of links for my fellow researchers and others interested in qualitative research in the social sciences:

This is a link to an analysis of why large social groups of a certain kind can make collective decisions which are to their detriment and the detriment of their social environment.

This is a link to a powerful tool of the future. I think it can be used to explain many things in a complex social milieu, and probably map relationships that nobody knows exist, even those embedded in them.

I think that the first link is very helpful in many of the senses given at the top of this post. The second link is quirkier. I'm not sure what it's really good for, but I am sure it is good for something. Intuition tells me so, and that's good.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


I am a geek. The green phosphor of a distant age beckons. Green on black, it used to promise a better age to come. Now we are all monochrome.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Red October

Years ago, I remember watching the movie The Hunt for Red October, originally a Tom Clancy novel. Sean Connery acted as a Russian nuclear submarine commander who had disappeared with his ship. It wasn't a bad movie, although a bit too wet for my liking. At least the protagonist was not played by Harrison Ford, but by Alec Baldwin, who has a slightly wider range of expressions.

But what struck me was in the soundtrack. The theme included a mournful Russian song, somewhat distorted by foreground noise, yet still a powerful lament. It evoked images of grey seas and men who would never come home. I got my colleague Ludmilla (yes, a Russian girl!) to translate the song for me. She said, "Well, the music is clear but the words are... (she paused) ...very badly sung." And then, she gave me the following English translation.


Hymn To Red October
(translated by L)

Cold, sad, and heavy is my soul.
How can I know what I shall see?
Goodbye, my beloved shore,
It is hard not to imagine that it is a dream;
Homeland, dear homeland, my birthplace...
Goodbye, my dear place of birth.

Something is calling me…
Something is taking me away by sea…
Something calls to me...
Something takes me away by sea...

A salute to our fathers and grandfathers!
Their journey and their principles are always with us;
Now, nothing can stop our dear homeland’s victory march.

You must swim without fear,
Sow your honour, spread your wings;
Revolutionary hope is our people’s only faith!
Revolutionary hope is the only faith of our people.

A salute to our fathers and grandfathers!
Their journey and their principles are always with us;
Now, nothing can stop our dear homeland’s victory march.

You must swim without fear,
Sow your honour, spread your wings;
Revolutionary hope is our people’s main faith!
Revolutionary hope is the main faith of our people.

In October, in October, we report our victory —
In October, in October, a new world for us!

You must swim without fear,
Sow your honour, spread your wings;
Revolutionary hope is our people’s new faith!
Revolutionary hope is the new faith of our people.

A salute to our fathers and grandfathers!
Their journey and their principles are always with us;
Now, nothing can stop our dear homeland’s victory march.

In October, in October, we report our victory —
In October, in October, a new world!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Somewhere out there is an anonymous voice. I have no idea how long it has been out there.

The following is a quote from that voice.





he is here
he is not silent
but you would
have to be quiet

really quiet

you are free
the voice has said it
you may go
you can be quiet

but you




Sometimes, one wishes one could be as free. But the chains of power, prestige and pleasure are assumed to bind all equally. And to some extent, no matter in what guise, we are all tempted to the dark side, again and again. Until, of course, the truth shall set us free.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Blast From The Past

On the management system in the Ministry of Education:

I found the professional officers to be generally hardworking and devoted to their profession as teachers. The standard of integrity was high. But the management system was dreadful - there is no other word for it.

There were two main areas of weakness in the style of management, or 'management culture' as the systems engineers call it. I will describe the first as the cult of obedience and the second as the cult of secrecy. I do not know for sure how and why these weaknesses arose.

In its crudest form, the cult of obedience expresses itself in giving unquestioning obedience to superiors and demanding the same of subordinates. Any departure from this conduct is regarded as tantamount to disloyalty.

Perhaps the cult of obedience comes naturally to teachers who are accustomed to obedience from their pupils. Perhaps under the stress of having to carry out many change in past years, the professionals had to suppress or ignore dissenting views of subordinates so that the work could be completed in time. Whatever the causes, the cult of obedience is bad management practice. It stifles initiative among subordinates, encourages servility, gives rise to the formation of cliques and promotes favouritism. Most damaging of all, it is impossible to attract talent to an organisation which engages in such practices or is believed to do so...

I now turn to the cult of secrecy. Its origin is even more difficult to explain than that of the other. Many instances have occurred of subordinate officers being denied access to documents on grounds of secrecy. In the cases I have examined, I could find no justification for the withholding of information...

In education what is the need for secrecy? I can't think of any, except in the area of staff personal records where confidentiality must be preserved for obvious reasons. As regards plans, policies, intentions, problems of implementation and thinking on these matters, the greater the volume of informed opinion the Ministry receives and the more aware people are of thinking in the Ministry, the more beneficial will be the outcome.

This is because all parties involved - ministry officials, school principals and teachers, parents and the objects of our endeavours - the pupils - are agreed on one objective. This is to give our schoolchildren the best education we can provide and they can acquire.

We may not be agreed on what is meant by 'best education'. Even if some kind of agreement is reached, we may still disagree on how to achieve it. But this is an argument in favour of open discussion, not of secrecy.

On 22 February 1981, Singapore's then Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee inaugurated the Schools Council at the Singapore Conference Hall. What you have just read is an excerpt from his speech on that occasion, taken from Wealth of East Asian Nations: Speeches and Writings by Goh Keng Swee, Singapore: Federal Press (1995), 215-217.

I knew Dr Goh as a very intelligent man, though perhaps not always complete in his wisdom. I remember that when I was a little boy, he asked me, "So what do you want to be?" I told him, "A teacher." He laughed and said, "Not an easy job. Read a lot and think about what you read." I was later to discover, of course, that this was but the first part of it.

I ended up reading a lot more than I thought I would. In the course of my research more than thirty years after my first meeting with Dr Goh, I came across the paragraphs which form the first part of this post. They are much quoted by visionary leaders such as Mr Lim Siong Guan, a former head of Singapore's civil service. They are part of the corpus of the intellectual tradition of a young nation, and with other words of that benign and admonitory ilk, will stand the nation in good stead for years to come.


Note: Dr Goh, the Gnome in these writings, died in May 2010. A longer excerpt from this speech can be found here.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Central Comedy

Finagle's Law According to Niven:

The perversity of the universe tends to a maximum.

Finagle's Laws of Information:

1. The information you have is not what you want.
2. The information you want is not what you need.
3. The information you need is not what you can obtain.
4. The information you can obtain costs more than you want to pay.

Finagle's Rules of Research
Ever since the first scientific experiment, man has been plagued by the increasing antagonism of nature. It seems only right that nature should be logical and neat, but experience has shown that this is not the case. A further series of rules has been formulated, designed to help man accept the pigheadedness of nature.

1. To study a subject best, understand it thoroughly before you start.
2. Always keep a record of data. It indicates you've been working.
3. Always draw your curves, then plot the reading.
4. In case of doubt, make it sound convincing.
5. Experiments should be reproducible. They should all fail in the same way.
6. When you don't know what you are doing, do it NEATLY.
7. Teamwork is essential; it allows you to blame someone else.
8. Always verify your 'witchcraft'.
9. Be sure to obtain meteorological data before leaving on vacation.
10. Do not believe in miracles. Rely on them.


Yes, all that was amusing. It often seems that the universe is indeed perverse and contrary to human expectation, or elicitive of human unreason. But the underlying reality is that all this is true. We live in a fallen universe. Things in it will NOT work out right. There is no salvation to be had in it, and the laws of thermodynamics agree. Human existence in such a universe would be a meaningless farce if the universe were all that exists (which by some definitions, it is). Dante wrote La Divina Commedia and others have also commented on the comedic nature of life. It isn't merely existential angst which makes us think that life is meaningless. There is no necessity for the universe to have a meaning in and of itself. None whatsoever.

But faith, hope and love, these three abide. And the greatest of these is love.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


It's odd that I should remember it, but after all, that was the intent. May the Mind of Christ, Our Saviour, by Kate Wilkinson and Arthur Barham-Gould, was one of the three hymns we sang on one of the most important days of my life. Some readers might recognize it.

The words printed in the programme were as follows:

May the mind of Christ, our Saviour,
Live in us from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All we do and say.

May the Word of God dwell richly
In our hearts from hour to hour,
So that all may see we triumph
Only through His power.

May the peace of God our Father
Rule our lives in everything,
That we might be calm to comfort
Sick and sorrowing.

May the love of Jesus fill us
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, selves abasing,
This is victory.

May we run the race before us,
Strong and brave to face the foe,
Looking only unto Jesus
As we onward go.

May His beauty rest upon us,
As we seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channels,
Seeing only Him.

I'm glad I still hear those words, especially in times of serious discontent and upheaval. Music is a potent weapon on both sides. But as General Booth of the Salvation Army was wont to say, "Why should the Devil have the best tunes?"

Monday, September 04, 2006

Agents Of Change?

Change is all around us. We hear the voices tell us to manage change, to adapt to change, to change our perspectives or to ignore the small change. But all that is guff. Change cannot be managed within the finity of human experience. Theory shows a million (well, at least 12000) ways to describe the management of change - but that is all: description, not prescription.

Human leadership and ingenuity rides change, copes with change. But to manage change, to adapt to it, to change our perspectives... What would you say if you were a surfer and a pundit told you to manage the ocean, adapt to it, or view the ocean in a different way? What if that pundit told you that surfing was about managing the sea instead of letting it manage you? Or that you should lead the surf?

In all these things, there is only one constant. The universe changes. Its creator does not appear to; the creator is unchanging to the created because the creator is even larger than the sea is to the fish - or the ocean to the surfer.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

White Cliffs

The stars are out tonight
The tide draws in
The billions of invertebrate dead
Give up their ghostly whiteness to the dark

Man makes his sacrifice
The sea rolls on
Faith whispers in the dying moments
And where hope fails the sun will rise again

Friday, September 01, 2006


Quick edit: I must thank every one of you who has shown appreciation, requested intercession, given thanks, wished for blessings upon me, expressed satisfaction, raised expectations etc. You, and the unnamed many others who have suffered me to teach them anything at all, in any way at all, are the reason for whatever gift I have and my use of that gift.


Three things have come to me; four things have inspired me.

The first is of a rhyme written by a person who in all innocence flatters me, and to this I make reply:

Not fire nor earthquake nor wind in the night,
The ravens' King speaks in both silence and light;
The Master of men is the alchemist's sight,
True Lord of wisdom and my intellect's might.

The second is from the difficult creed of my professional life, taken from the thirty-second chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah:

2 Each man will be like a shelter from the wind
and a refuge from the storm,
like streams of water in the desert
and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.

The third is in reflection upon some words of that great bard of Cymru, Dylan Thomas:

I have sworn that my words will fork lightning;
I have chosen to walk upon water;
I desire to be light on a hill
Before the end comes,
Before I must leave.

And the fourth is in my heart, and there it stays.

Labels: , , , , ,