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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Eating Snails in Hanoi

Snails Stir Fried in Butter

Snails Boiled in Spices

Hanoi people love paddy snails. These snails thrive in the wetness of the paddy fields. I suppose that is one good way of getting rid of garden pests that eat the food you grow. You turn the garden pests into accompanying dishes. Hawkers set up mini tables and stools along the side walks. They have huge vats of boiling water filled with herbs and spices. Snails are boiled and the served to customers in bowls together with a dipping sauce augmented with garlic and herbs. In one shop, the snails were served fried in garlic and butter.

The Husband and I aren't squeamish about snails. I used to hunt garden snails in My Someone's veggie patch in spring and early summer deep in the French countryside. Then after, I would go and play. A few days later, we would be served "escargots au beurre persillé". Yummy!

Snails have the texture of fish balls. Springy. The meat is quite bland so it helps to augment the taste with some strong herbs or aromatic butter. Ya gotta cook them good though 'cos they have something called zoonotic nematodes that can make you quite ill.

Com Hen

We had read about com hen before we arrived in Hué. Apparently, it is not an easy dish to make anywhere else except in Hué because it uses mussels from the Perfume (or Huong) River that passes through Hué.

We asked our guide to bring us some place to try com hen. We had initially wanted to eat at 28 Truong Dinh Road which someone helpfully recommended here. When we got there, there were no customers and someone was sitting in the shop with his bare feet propped up on the table. I had full frontal view of the soles of his feet. I was a bit put off and we picked another shop further down the street. The kitchen was a makeshift shack with pickled vegetables in huge aluminum vats. A lady was putting together plate after plate of com hen with her bare hands. The dish is eaten cold (so errrr... no heat to kill germs).

The Husband looked a warning at me... especially since the hotel receptionist had spoken about pickled vegetables that might upset any non-Vietnamese stomach. But I was there and I wanted to eat. It was a foolhardy decision but I did want to try the local dish. Stubbornly, I ordered 3 portions of com hen.

I was about to tuck in when the guide gave us a bowl of broth pictured above and said in his English that didn't sound like English "For safety... for safety... you drink... don't worry. For stomach. Don't worry." Why is it that when people tell me not to worry that I immediately begin to get anxious? So we stared at our 3 portions of com hen wondering whether to tuck in or not. The dish looked good but what of stomach safety?

I tasted the broth and noted that the key ingredient was garlic. That is what I use against stomach poisoning at home. So I tucked in gladly and drank up the garlic broth. We then went back to the hotel and chopped up cloves of raw garlic from my first aid travel kit... chewed... swallowed. So far, so good. No one has yet fallen sick.

The Husband however, is adamant that com hen is the last street food experiment he will undertake. Since then, he insists that we eat at nice hotel restaurants (but psssssst... he doesn't know what happens in the kitchens eh?) and he will only eat dishes that are piping hot. I have to be a good girl and do likewise.

He is wise, The Husband.

Of Buffaloes and Vietnamese Rice

Vietnamese rice is delicious. When I go home, I will try and buy Vietnamese rice. I love how the grains are soft and springy when you bite into them and how the grains kind of stick a little together. Rice al dente. A little harder in texture than Japanese rice, not as fluffy as Thai fragrant rice and softer than basmati rice. Vietnamese rice is so good I can eat it on its own with just a dash of nuoc mam.

Or maybe I just am not good at cooking rice.

Here in Vietnam, every street hawker's rice looks so good. At the train station, hawkers were selling rice and hard boiled eggs. I so badly wanted to try because the rice looked so good... but The Husband is squeamish (and rightly so I guess) about street food and I was quickly pulled away.

We learnt about rice growing at Duong Lam, a real rice farming village about 90 minutes drive away from Hanoi. The hotel recommended a guide but this guide was quite good. He wasn't uncouth, like the one here. The working animals are the water buffaloes. Bien, our guide, had fond memories of his family buffalo. He assured us that water buffaloes are very intelligent animals... more intelligent than dogs and positively genius when compared to cows. He said "You can teach a buffalo to act on command. Turn left. Turn right. Stop. If you yell at the cow, it doesn't matter how long you've been training her, she'll run." Buffaloes are given to little boys of 10 or so to look after. Bien remembers panicking at having lost his family buffalo.

Maybe that is why the Vietnamese eat dogs and cats. Buffaloes are smart and strong. If you could petify a buffalo and have it come running to greet you when you get home, why petify a dog or a cat? Bien is quite a good guide. Those who want to get a good idea of farming life in Vietnam can call him at 0921234-4142 or email him at 

Bowl of rice at Hotel Saigon Morin in Hué.

The rice farmer himself.

Rice plant seedlings that spring up out of every patch of soil because when harvesting, rice grains just drop along the paths.

Bien, our guide at Duong Lam Village. He was great. He grew up in a farming family and spoke lovely English. He regaled us with stories of his childhood and knew really interesting details about life in the villages.

Here is Bien explaining the farming calendar for Duong Lam Village for the Year 2012.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Hué Guide (About Sex and Breast Milk)

We had engaged a tour guide through the hotel reception for all of today. In the end, The Husband smiled gently and asked to be driven back to the hotel after half a day. It had become a torture. To begin with, the man failed to pronounce all his last consonants. All the t's and s's and l's and d's at the end of his words forgot to come out of his mouth. It was quite a strain to understand him and after hours of this, I was mentally tired. It was like total immersion in a non-existent language.

We noticed quite early on that he did nothing more than read the signs in English to us in his version of English that sounded like Vietnamese, but wasn't. We tried to help him along by asking him questions. 

Little Boy asked whether Buddhist monks could drink milk. The guide thought for a while and said "Monks cannot drink cow's milk, but they can drink woman's milk." And then he threw his head back and laughed at his own joke. Eh... what? The Husband raised one eyebrow. Little Boy made a little circular gesture with his index finger next to his ears. I smiled politely. But the guide wasn't done. He went on to describe to me in full detail how much he loves to drink his wife's breast milk (very much)... and how much breast milk his wife produces (a lot)... and the taste of the milk (very sweet).


We then decided that we would not ask anymore questions for fear that he might share with us even more intimate details about his wife and himself.

But when we came to the Pagoda of the Heavenly Mother, the guide asked me a question instead: "Do you know why this is called the Pagoda of the Heavenly Mother?" Of course, I said I didn't know. He then said happily "Ok... I will tell you. It is because the Heavenly Mother came here."

Little Boy couldn't help it. He threw his head back and guffawed loud and long. The chortles followed the giggles followed the guffaws. "Mom!" said my son in Chinese "I can be a tour guide too! This is called the Khai Dinh tomb because Emperor Khai Dinh was buried here. Here is the Morning Glory Hotel because in the past, people grew morning glory here!" I had to elbow my son in the ribs and tell him not to be rude. But ohhhhh... I so wanted to be rude myself too. I badly wanted to stop listening to the guide attentively. In fact, I didn't want to listen to him at all!

I became REALLY exasperated when he launched himself (with some interesting body language) into an  explanation of the sexual exploits of Emperor Minh Mang, a man so strong that he could satisfy 5 wives in a single night. "He made all his wives happy" and the guide himself looked happy enough that one might suppose that the Emperor had made him part of the action too. You should have seen the guide's face when he was describing this historic royal stud. It was deep deep respect and awe.... with a good dose of pure unadulterated joy. In almost every tomb we went to, the guide recounted the size of that emperor's harem. Possibly, those were the only facts he retained from his tour guide training classes?

So... when The Husband requested to cut short the tour to spare me more indignity, I was most pleased indeed. We arrived at the hotel not a minute too soon because he had begun to talk to me about the dog he intended to slaughter for his X'mas dinner... yes... you heard me. X'mas.

The Panopticon

"What is that?" I asked and Little Boy explained the photograph above to me. It was a prison used to house Vietnamese resistance fighters both male and female, following the design by Jeremy Bentham. This prison design allowed a single guard to watch over many prisoners, whilst remaining himself unseen in the tower that can look out... but none outside can look in. Little Boy encountered the notion when reading Michel Foucault's "Discipline and Punishment" and he was vastly intrigued to see a real Panopticon. Michel Foucault was a well-known French philosopher and... oh dear... please don't ask me to explain his writings. Little Boy's interest in the esoteric surpasses even mine.

As a psychologist, sensitive to psychological pain, the picture above of a Panopticon chills my blood. To me, it is the ultimate suppression of personal freedom. Your every movement is watched and controlled by a single person. You have absolutely no freedom... except that which is in your mind and your spirit. And that I suppose is what won Vietnam back for the Vietnamese. The French could imprison their bodies... torture... and suppress every physical freedom, but the French could not enslave the minds and spirits of these short, slight and ever smiling people.

When Little Boy first explained Michel Foucault to me, I wasn't really listening. I'm quite the expert at making appropriate noises that keep Little Boy talking about whatever interests him... but since many of his interests delve deep and run into the esoteric, I've found it less painful to tune him out whilst feigning interest. You have to feign interest right through to the end. Have to. Otherwise, Little Boy will REPEAT his lecture to you. Michel Foucault... French philosopher... SNORE!! All he does is THINK. Michel Foucault is a philosopher, not a man of action. Not the kind that Petunia admires from the roots of her peasant soul. But when I saw the Panopticon, it occurred to me that thinking is the beginning of everything isn't it? 

Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. Watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think... we become. 
- Margaret Thatcher - 

So I stood there staring at the picture of the Panopticon and shuddered at the physical form of Michel Foucault’s thinking. It had BECOME France’s fulfilled destiny as The Oppressor of Vietnam. What is worrisome is that Little Boy was given Michel Foucault to read when attending lectures at the university. I was pleased when Little Boy concluded his short exposé to me by saying that he thought the man quite sick in the head for recommending the use of Panopticon Principles upon school children and company employees.

Happily, the Vietnamese people had thinking of their own. A thought expressed by a slip of a girl with an indomitable spirit is etched in the collective memory of the Vietnamese and honoured in the same way people honour dead heroes and spirit banners. When sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment for subversive activity, the young lady in the photo below said…

 Je ne crains que votre régime ne dure les 20 vingt ans de mon incarcération. 

 I fear only that your regime will not last longer than the 20 years of my imprisonment. 

At the time they were uttered, these words fired the hopes and hardened the will of the Vietnamese people. It gave them a spirit banner to follow. Men, women and children fought to make her words reality… and thus it was that those words defined Vietnam’s destiny as a free people. By the way, don't make the mistake of asking your tour guide about buying Vietnamese property and land. Something in the eyes will look offended and he will politely tell you that unless you hold a Vietnamese passport, you can have no share of this country's land. The wounds are still raw of having others own the land the Vietnamese consider their birthright.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Crane On The Turtle

Every shrine or temple we visited in Hanoi had statues of The Crane on the Turtle... usually 2 statues, one on each side. I was curious about the significance of this ubiquitious pair, so I asked Bien, our guide. And he told us such a very pretty story.

The turtle and the crane, said he, represents friendship and co-operation. In days gone past, a flood arrived upon the plains of Vietnam. The crane flew hither and thither but found no place to rest his wings. He stayed in the air for a long time and was about to drop with exhaustion when a young turtle arose out of the flood waters and offered his back to the tired bird to rest upon. In this manner, the turtle kept the crane alive long enough for flood waters to recede.

Years passed.

The crane owed the turtle an eternal debt. The 2 stayed in close touch, one a creature of the skies and the other a creature of the lakes. They grew old together for both are long lived creatures. And it came to pass that a terrible drought passed through Vietnam. It was a drought so long and so thirsty that it drank up all the water in the turtle's lake. Many animals died. The crane could not bear to see his friend perish. With a supreme effort (for the old turtle was heavy and the old crane was weak) the crane heft the turtle up into the air and carried him to another lake far away.

There, the 2 animals lived together in reciprocity... helping and caring for each other until each passed into the mists of time only errrr... to appear again on Petunia's blog.

This fairytale is told to little children in every village, and it teaches the value of helping each other and caring for one another. In every place of worship, one can find effigies of The Crane Upon The Turtle. To me, it speaks volumes about how the Vietnamese defeated not one but TWO world powers in wars. This is a warm and friendly people with deep undercurrents of ferocity and determination made more redoubtable because their social bonds are so strong.

One mustn't underestimate the power of symbols. The crane and the turtle is not just a pretty story. When they listen to this story at their Mother's breast, Vietnamese children imbibe important values along with Mother's milk. The effigies of the crane upon the turtle is found in every place of worship. In places where the Vietnamese go to for purification, this symbol is the pure distillate of the values of love and co-operation between diverse peoples and different individuals. As people go about their lives, they are tempted to anger and selfishness... but there are reminders at important festivals and ceremonies of what the Vietnamese should be and should aspire to.

I tried but could not find anything like this in my Singapore. We worship money you see. Our purest icons are all about what money can buy - the BMW, the Mercedes, the Marina Bay sands. We've gained so much and lost our soul.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Hanoi Elegance Hotel

Hotel staff in Hanoi Elegance Hotel are amazing. We've travelled all over the world and have not met a welcome so warm and sincere. In most places we've gone to, hotel staff are professional and polite. So, we didn't quite expect a welcome that was both professional and warm - a sort of cross between a British butler and Aunt Eulalie's farm house welcome. The hotel rooms are nothing to shout about. They're very clean and of excellent standard, but the human touch is just... really special. 

How special?

For one thing, Little Boy was spoilt with TWO birthday cakes - one in the morning at breakfast with staff at the Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel... and another in the afternoon when we arrived at the Hanoi Elegance Essence Hotel. See... there was a mix-up and we ended up checking into one hotel yesterday and another today. 

Warm and friendly staff of Hanoi Elegance Essence Hotel surprised us with a delicious whipped cream vanilla cake decorated with a polar bear. Earlier in the morning, Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel sang a resounding birthday song at the breakfast buffet. Little Boy became a celebrity. Every other guest came by the table to wish him Happy Birthday. See those friendly faces? It really makes for a nice holiday to have a welcome like that.

The room at Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel.

Vietnamese people are highly skilled craftsmen. See what they can do with a few towels? Fold here and fold there. Lo and behold, a turtle to wish Little Boy many long years of life. Turtles live long lives and in Vietnam, they are good symbols for birthdays.

Dinner at Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel last night. Every bite was delicious. The highlight of this dish was the shredded beef in bamboo... but what really got my eyes to widen was the broth that came with the beef.

Oh this one... this one has gotta be the best dish of last night. It was sticky rice but for the life of me, I can't figure out how they managed to get the rice balls crispy on the outside, soft and moelleux on the inside.

Vietnamese spring rolls... chockfull of herbs and bursting with taste.

The waiter at the restaurant held his back straight and spoke in clipped tones. Service without servility, another Food Consultant, not waiter. Oh I just love waiters like this. So very French!! I asked him how to pronounce the Vietnamese word "tieu" with its various accents... and it got to one where he politely demurred to say the word aloud because "it is not a nice word and we should not say it here". Gee... I wonder what it means, that word...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Motivation Genome Offices Closed

It's after PSLE so Little Boy and I are going away for a bit. The Husband will be tagging along. Hence, Motivation Genome will suspend operations from 24th October to 4th November. We want to make sure that people who wanna buy Petunia's book are aware that any orders placed on 24th October onwards will only be mailed out after 4th November. So you all need to wait... ok? To make up for the inconvenience caused to potential customers, we will waive postage charges for orders received between 24th October and 4th November.

Those who can't wait, do note that Petunia's book is available from Kinokuniya and a few Popular outlets. Do please call Popular ahead to enquire exactly WHICH branch carries Petunia's Book. Meanwhile do forgive Petunia for abandoning this blog... abandoning all customers... so that she can go and play for some days.

Happy Holidays to you all. Now I need to go play to my heart's content to recover from post-PSLE traumatic stress disorder.

PSLE T-Score: The Role of the Mean

This post is the second of a pair of posts relating to the PSLE T- Score. The first describes the role of the Standard Deviation in the PSLE T-Score and can be found HERE. The PSLE T-Score formula is as follows...

You will notice that both the Mean and the Standard Deviation is necessary in the calculation of the PSLE T-Score. This post therefore, examines the role of the Mean in the determination of the PSLE t-score.

The mean is the average score of the entire cohort. It is a measure of paper difficulty. If the average score is low, the paper is difficult. If the average score is high, the paper is easy. How then does the difficulty of the paper affect the contribution to t-score? Let us pretend the 20XX's 4 subjects were difficult as follows...

(1) Math - Difficult (low cohort average)
(2) Chinese - Kinda Difficult (kinda low cohort average)
(3) English - Ok (not too low and not too high cohort average)
(4) Science - Easy Peasy (high cohort average)

In the table below I have fitted the PSLE T-score formula to a student who scores 100 marks for all 4 subjects. You can see that the higher the difficulty of the paper (i.e., the lower the cohort average), the higher the contribution to t-score.

For those whose next questions are...
(1) How do we compute the cohort averages and cohort standard deviations?
(2) Does the Ministry of Education release these numbers?

Parents can't calculate cohort averages and cohort standard deviations. You need to know the marks of all the students who took the exam to calculate these. The MOE also does not announce these numbers.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Petunia's Book at the National Library

I went to pick up The Husband's dry cleaning today. It was 3.45pm but the dry cleaning lady was out to lunch till 4pm. So, I waddled upstairs to the library where a lovely idea occurred to me. I searched the NLB catalogue for my own book: Internal Drive Theory(R): Motivate Your Child to WANT to Study.

What I saw got me so excited that I absolutely had to tell someone. I skipped up to the nice Malay lady who was having a peaceful time arranging books back on the shelves. I kind of giggled and then I squealed and then I pointed at myself and said "Look! Me! I wrote this book!!" and "Looooook! EVERY SINGLE copy is either On Loan... Reserved... or In Transit to Reservation. At first, the lady stared at me like I was a nut case. Then, she started to squeal too... and then she went and gathered her friends and we all squealed together. What a nice lady to share in my joy!!

I thank God. I thank God that people like my book so much that they're queuing at the library for it. Thank you God. Thank you!!

I suspect book sales will go down once this post goes up but I am too happy to care. May this book shine love into countless children's lives for generations to come... because how a child is treated today will define how the same child will treat his/her kids in future. Yes! May love spread like a contagion or a forest fire to touch the lives of uncountable children.

In Jesus' name I pray this. Amen.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Dr Pet's Compo Writing Workshop

I figured that if my own kids have flown the coop, I can still enjoy other people's kids. So many parents have asked me to teach their kids composition writing. I wasn't keen to do that because I had my own kids to look after but well... seeing that mine have disappeared somewhat from my life...

Anyway, I decided last night to organise Dr Pet's Compo Writing Workshop. Do spread the word and sign up HERE.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Halia Restaurant

Little Boy's sudden announcement that he wished to move out, followed by him moving out just as suddenly, all packed in 2 NTUC Fairprice plastic bags left me a bit lost. When the kids were little, we wanted more space for them to run around in and wished for a larger home. Now that we have this huge cavern to call home, the kids are no longer here to run around in it. I didn't feel like working so I took off yesterday to nurse my feelings of lostness.

Does anyone remember hanging on to the string of a helium balloon? It floats. It floats. And suddenly, your balloon breaks the string and floats away ... disappears into the blue sky. Balloon gone. Well, that's how I feel. My balloon tugged and tugged and then disappeared, and I am left staring at nothingness, a bit shocked. I couldn't bear to stay home in this empty cavern of a house even though I have plenty of work to catch up on.

I fled the house and spent the afternoon at Halia Restaurant instead. I needed to sort out my thoughts and make sense of why a life filled with kids has suddenly turned into a life with no kids at all. I thought I had it all planned out, filling my time with Motivation Genome and book marketing. I suppose nothing prepares you for the day your children  go "Ok. Bye bye! See you later Alligator!"

This was certainly not my first time at Halia but it was by far the most enjoyable visit.

Halia Restaurant in the Botanic Gardens delivers splendid quality at reasonable (not cheap) prices. The beef carpaccio was seasoned just right and very fresh. The food was simple with subtle tastes... sometimes surprising. The focaccia bread came with an olive oil dip that was flavored with thyme vinegar... a very pleasant surprise indeed. It's hard to succeed at simplicity you know. The more simple the food, the more exacting standards have to be because the raw produce has to be of tip top quality.

Beef Carpaccio. Fresh and seasoned just right with a sharp cheese (parmesan?) and pickles. It's not easy to get a beef carpaccio seasoning just so.

Steak with mushroom and potato puree. Very tender meat without any taste of meat tenderizer. The mini leeks lifted the taste of the heavy red meat. The potato puree was creamy and fragrant and went really well with the woody tastes of the mushrooms.

Ginger panna cotta. The crusty bits were really crusty and paired well with the soft bits. It was a pity I left the wafer too long. By the time I got around to eating the wafer, it had absorbed moisture from the panna cotta and was no longer crusty.

Ginger Mocktail


The service was excellent. Really! The servers were gentle and genteel. They smiled kindly at me and learnt my name. They chatted knowledgeably about the menu. They had clearly tasted the food before and knew what was what. This was a quality of service that approached what I would expect in a French restaurant like here. These weren't waiters and waitresses. They were Food Consultants.

When I got there, I was in a crabby mood. I wanted to be alone, but I didn't want to be alone either. So these Halia Food Consultants made genteel conversation and left me alone to brood when they sensed that I didn't really wanna talk. Dirty dishes disappeared quickly and quietly. Halia Food Consultants attempted small talk but did not insist to chat. When I left, the world seemed a better place. It helped too that my Halia Food Consultant was a motherly lady called Kenkar. I felt sure she understood my problems even though I breathed no word to her about my Empty Cavern Nest Home. I didn't feel like I was in a restaurant... it felt like I was at someone's really nice home. That's what it felt like.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Little Boy, the Older Brother

I've often thought that God might have mixed up the sequence of my kids. Even when Little Boy was three, he would smile contentedly to have The Daughter (7 years older) place her head in his undersized lap... and then he would proceed to stroke her hair for all the world like she were the younger sibling. And since The Daughter loved to be put to sleep, my Little Boy often took on the responsibility of tucking his older sister into bed when I was too busy to do so. When I dropped him at The Daughter's apartment, he took his own bag and then he carried HER books too.

The Daughter was (is?) an oversized toddler who loved (loves?) to be pampered. Little Boy was an undersized older brother who loved (loves) to pamper. I am wondering whether he learnt this from how he sees his father pamper me. If so, the woman who marries my son will be one lucky gal!!

The Daughter is thrilled to have Little Boy stay with her. It seems that both squeezed last night onto the same single bed and Little Boy took her to task for waking up at the unearthly hour of 9am in the morning. Little Boy was up at 6am and he cleaned the apartment before his sister woke up. Maybe I should insist that The Daughter move back home because she clearly isn't ready to manage her own life?

The Daughter arranged for him to sit in a lecture on South East Asia Studies. She assumed that he wouldn't wanna read up. It turned out that Little Boy wanted the notes to read up on all the lectures he is scheduled to attend. Tomorrow, he is attending a lecture on Native Peoples or something... I was told that he had fun hanging out with The Daughter's friends, and he wasn't pesky in any way.

How can a little brother not be pesky eh? I'm still observing things from afar with a mixture of amusement and bated breath. I wonder where all this will lead to. If you ask me it's a REALLY weird situation.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Little Boy Wanna Move Out

Observing the tons of fun The Daughter is having sharing an apartment with her friends, Little Boy has declared that he is old enough to move out on his own. Little Boy is not yet 12.

I actually quite believe him. Hence, the Husband and I are seriously considering allowing him to move in with his sister for secondary school. For one thing, I've not had to wake Little Boy up for school since Primary 3. Without fail, Little Boy is up every morning at 5.15 am preparing to leave house with The Husband at 6.15 am. At that time, Petunia is still dead to the world.

Kinda worried, I said... "Errrr... if you move out, I do expect you to keep an eye on your grades. I won't be there you know... to monitor them with you." Little Boy arched an eyebrow at me and said "Mom... since when have I neglected my grades?"

I didn't wanna remind him that he was at the bottom of his class in P3... a very short 3 years ago by my reckoning... but a fact that Little Boy has buried in the annals of his own life's prehistory. Politely, I tried to justify my existence "I did check your homework in P5 and P6".

"Mom, you check my homework to see which ones I shouldn't do" said he "I don't even show you all my homework anymore. I just get them all done in school. You only get to see the stuff I myself think I dun wanna do."

"Really?" I blinked at him. Surprised. "But I mark your work, no?"

Little Boy said "No you don't. Half of the Science papers you mark for me are wrongly marked. I google the answers to confirm. You've never once bothered to mark my Math paper. You can't read Chinese. You leave me to mark the English papers. You only mark compo and if I need to, I can always email my compos to you."

"How about food?" I asked.

"Hawker centres and canteen" came the terse reply.

"Who'll do your laundry?" I whined.

"There are machines for that, Mom" he replied kindly.

Well... it does seem that my presence is superfluous in Little Boy's life now. Little Boy is chafing at the bit asking my permission to gallop away and explore the world on his own. I've not had a son before Little Boy, and I wonder if it is sons that pull so strongly at the reins. Even in secondary school, The Daughter loved being pampered. She liked to be cooked for and fetched around, and sometimes, she even asked to be put to bed.

Little Boy, not quite 12, is just calmly telling me that he wants to go it entirely alone with the same determined air as when at 4, he gathered all his milk bottles and squeaked at me "I am too big for these anymore, Mommy. Please throw." I was unsure if he was serious and so I hid the milk bottles instead... lest he regret his decision and wailed for them at night. But he never looked back, my Little Boy. He had decided he didn't need milk bottles anymore and he never looked back from that decision. Not even once. Whether in the privacy of his toddler mind Little Boy yearned to suckle on a milk bottle, I will never know. I do know that he never asked for a milk bottle again.

We've sent Little Boy to his sister's for a week. He left with 2 plastic bags ready to sleep on the floor or couch in a room without aircon. I am half expecting that he'll call after a night or 2 to ask to come home to the comfort of Mom's house. But sigh... if the incident with the milk bottles is anything to go by, I rather doubt he will. But we'll see. If he is really determined to go it alone away from the family home, I will support his decision. If he has moved out by 12, then perhaps by 16, he will be earning his own keep... and I can stop giving him pocket money and I'll save on university fees? The Foster Daughter did meet a young fellow at a overseas conference for talented youths, who at 16, was financially self-sufficient.

And then I comfort myself with the following "If something is yours, let it go. If it comes back to you, it's yours. If not, it never was." I am confident that both Little Boy and The Daughter are mine. They will come back to me.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Our SG Conversation

A week or so ago, I received an invitation to participate in something called Our Singapore Conversation. I had read about it in the papers and vaguely remembered that those people who had been invited were rather important people from various walks of life... so I was kinda wondering as to why an almost- housewife like me was invited. But well... since someone had graciously extended an invitation, it seemed rude to not accept. I was also VERY VERY curious.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin
The first person who spoke to me was a rather handsome and youngish fellow wearing a red t-shirt, Converse moccasins and a pair of jeans. "Hello" said he "Are you Petunia? My wife reads your blog." I always get very pleased to hear that. Always. So yours truly smiled back brightly and said "Oh! That's nice! Does she also read the silly pieces about my dog Milo and my Little Boy who shoots little girls on their butts?" It appeared that Mr Handsome's wife did read the silly pieces too... as well as the rest.

He did not introduce himself, this Mr Handsome... no he didn't. I peered over and read his name tag instead. "Your name is Tan Chuan-Jin?" said I a bit hesitantly... and something in my memory came back about The Husband's comment about a very humble, sincere and down-to-earth fellow who had been fielded as a new MP. So I said, "Are you Tan Chuan-Jin, the MP?" and for a while I feared that I had said something inappropriate because his face took on a slightly closed look and so I prattled something quickly about my husband to try and smooth away his tiny frown. And too quickly, the session began and I had no chance to see if his face had softened or not.

Figuring Out The Why of Our Singapore Conversation
At the session debrief, I found myself sitting next to Mr Tan again. It was a relief to see that he was warm and friendly again. He made a comment about encouraging Singaporeans from all walks of life to sit together and share their perspectives. "Politicians have to manage the tensions between the various stakeholders. In Our SG Conversation, Singaporeans will get a chance to hear the life stories of other Singaporeans".

I must say that my experience of the SG Conversation opened my eyes to other Singaporeans. For one, I didn't realize that the elderly in Singapore felt such a sense of dispossession and rejection until one elderly gentleman from my group said his piece. For another, I had had the wrong assumption that harmonious race relations are so much a part of us that we don't need to work at it. It was a Malay lady doctor who in her impassioned speech convinced me that race relations can cause today, as much rawness as in the 1960s.

So yes... I think if, as explained by Mr Tan, the aim of the SG Conversation is to teach each of us some truths about our own country, then it did achieve that aim with me. I didn't really believe The Straits Times when it went on and on about how fragile our racial harmony is. I was also not deeply cognizant enough about the sense of rejection the elderly in Singapore feel so keenly.

These 2 truths took me by surprise. I may come across as naive or ignorant or even as lacking in empathy for Senior Citizens or minority races but I really was startled by the sharing from the Malay lady and the elderly gentleman.

Mr Heng Swee Keat explained that after enough conversations have taken place, the government will drill down on the key themes that emerge. I am familiar with the grounded theory methods that can be used to surface the themes from these SG conversations... and I do hope that the government will use these analytical techniques to surface themes from the flipcharts and notes that our conversations produced today. After the analysis and drilling down, I expect there will be a clearer direction to guide our actions as a nation.

And you know what, I don't think one needs to be anyone important to take part in the SG Conversation at all. If you're a Singaporean and wanna be part of the conversation you can just sign up and take part. I do encourage people to go and speak their minds, and learn from fellow Singaporeans. If we are Singaporean, we do have a duty to engage in a dialogue about our future, no?Besides, I had great fun. The ambience was very non-threatening. And I did learn important things.

Experience the How of Our Singapore Conversation
In actual fact, Petunia has never really grown up. No, not really. I still believe in the benefits of play time. Indeed, little kids have sometimes not known what to say when their Moms ask them "Is Auntie Petunia a child or an adult?" The session had coloured pens, large flip charts, cosy circles, scissors, glue, magazines and a Funny Man Facilitator. You couldn't help but feel like playing. The format of the session helped people to think divergently... mentally leave the boxes of current reality and dream silly from the heart about what people want to see in Singapore tomorrow.

I was allowed to be silly for a while... to leave the constraints of reality and really think about what I wanted tomorrow to be.

Back to Tan Chuan-Jin
When everyone rose to leave, Ms Lydia Lim, whom I NOW only discover (by googling) to be the Straits Times Deputy Political Editor, sat with me and engaged in some small talk.

"Did you not recognise The Minister? said Ms Lydia

"Oh yes! Oh yes! I know Mr Heng indeed!" smiled I.

"Errrrr... no. The OTHER Minister" said she.... and I swear her eyebrows giggled.

"Hmmmm... there is another Minister? Where?" I said, and peered about.

"Over there" and she signaled in the direction of Mr Tan Chuan-Jin. Oh dear me! I had quite missed the fact that Mr Tan Chuan-Jin was himself a minister. I presently realize, that I have been a little rude... somewhat impolite... and Dear Mrs Tan Chuan-Jin, if you do read this, please let your husband know that I am most grateful for his impeccable manners and depth of humility (gee... the man actually said he was the photographer for the occasion!! And I believed him!!), which clearly made up for my own unseemly lack of manners.

Mr Heng Swee Keat
I was happy too that I got an opportunity to make my peace with Mr Heng, after subjecting him and his Ministry to a fair amount of online abuse in the past 2 years. I saw him, shook his hand and made my apologies because I truly am very grateful that MOE has made some bold moves in the last month. The online student portal will help schools share learning resources with all other schools and students in the country. There is no more school banding and so schools don't need to compete with each other. This means that they won't be driving our children so hard academically and in CCAs, to try and outdo other schools. Schools and teachers can go back to nurturing our children. Schools who don't compete with each other will also collaborate.... and in so doing, every Teacher's workload will be considerably lightened. This frees up Teacher time for our children. Unfortunately, I think I also subjected poor Mr Heng to some minutes of boring prattle.

I can't help it! When I get nervous, I prattle!

I am grateful for these changes and realise that Mr Heng and his team must have had long and hard conversations about the issues before moving decisively to make these changes. I am also thankful to Ms Sim Ann for having been, for more than a year, the calm and deeply thoughtful listener and dialogue partner that makes her so very very special. It never felt right to blog about Ann because we had met up very discreetly and chatted very honestly. Blogging about Ann seemed like a betrayal of trust because Petunia never mentions friends by name on this blog (and also, I was plenty angry at MOE). If I had nothing nice to say back then about MOE, I didn't feel like naming people.

I do have nice things to say now... and I really think that without Ann's patience and forbearance, I probably would not have been asked to take part in the SG Conversation. Without Ann probably, Mr Heng may not even know about my blog... and would not have told me today "I read your blog".

I am always happy when people tell me they read my blog. Always!! It's what writers want - to be read. It is for that we write.

Mr Heng Swee Keat

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin

Our Flipchart

Thursday, October 11, 2012

PSLE T-Score: The Role of Standard Deviation

When your child takes the PSLE, he or she will generate 4 raw scores. These are the actual marks he/she gets in the exam. If you imagine all the PSLE raw scores plotted on a graph... there will be 4 bell curves looking like the graph on this site. Some assert here that the 4 subjects' raw score bell curves vary in the size of their bell bottoms in the following manner...

(1) Math - wide bell bottom
(2) Science - less wide bell bottom
(3) English - even less wide bell bottom
(4) Chinese - narrowest bell bottom.

The raw scores for each subject, need to be transformed into a t-score. In essence, each child has 4 t-scores - one for each subject. The cohort average for each subject becomes the t-score of 50. If you score below the cohort average, your t-score is below 50. If you score above the cohort average, your t-score would be above 50. If you score exactly the cohort average for all 4 subjects, your aggregate t-score will be 200 exactly.

Now... let us go back to the notion that the 4 raw score curves have different bell bottom widths. We need to consider this notion in relation to the consideration of EQUAL WEIGHTAGE for each subject.  In order to ensure equal weightage, the transformation from raw scores to t-scores needs to bring all 4 subjects' bell bottom widths into parity, i.e., the transformed curves for each subject all have the same bell bottom width. In this way, every 1 point of t-score in the Mother Tongue curve is equivalent to 1 point of t-score on the Math curve, which is equivalent to 1 point of t-score on the Science curve... add these 1 points together and you get 4 points of equal weightage.

Consider now, that the 4 raw score curves are all either narrower or wider than the t-score curve. Now, if your raw scores bell bottom was narrow... you would have to pull it wider to fit the wider spread of the t-score curve. If your bell bottom were wider... you would have to compress the spread to fit the spread of the t-score curve.This means that every 1 mark increase/decrease in Chinese raw score (see above... narrow curve that is pulled wider) gives you a higher increase/decrease in t-score than every extra mark in Math raw score (wider Math curve compressed).

In layman terms, it means this. If the difference in raw scores between the poorest students in Chinese and the best students in Chinese is small, it means that the bell curve is narrow. If the difference in raw scores between the poorest students in Math and the best students in Math is large, then the bell curve is wide. The width of the bell curve is captured in a statistical device called the Standard Deviation. The Standard Deviation is an integral part of the t-score calculation. The formula for the t-score (taken from here) is as follows...

Note that Z (i.e., the standard deviation) is an integral part of the formula pictured above. A high standard deviation (i.e., wide raw scores bell curve) makes for LOWER t-scores. A low standard deviation (i.e., narrow raw scores bell curve) makes for HIGHER t-scores. If it is true that the raw scores bell curve for Chinese is the narrowest (and Math the widest), then those who score 100 marks in Chinese will have higher Chinese t-scores than the Math t-scores of those who score 100 marks for Math. Add these t-scores up and the student good in Chinese will have the higher aggregate than the one good in Math.

See the table below where I have fitted the t-score formula pictured above to 4 subjects with increasing standard deviations (see column in orange)... and note how the subject t-score decreases correspondingly.

No one really knows 
which of the 4 subjects has 
the narrowest raw score bell curve... and which the widest.
If you have such information, please leave a comment.
I will address the role of the Cohort Average in the T-Score Computation HERE

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Dog and His Petit Miam

Milo recognises the words "Petit Miam". I was quite surprised to see Petit Miams at NTUC Fairprice. " "Petit" is the French word for "little". "Miam" is the French rendition of "yummy". So, put together, these are actually called Little Yummies... and Milo loves them. In France, they retail as "Petit Yoplait" but I much prefer to call them Petit Miams.

Milo's eyes light up bright when I wheedle "Whooooo wants a Petit Miam?" He licks his chops and sits down politely when I peel off the cover. See how gently he savours his Petit Miam? We don't give him what's left after we're done ok. Milo gets the whole pot to savour all by himself.

You know my dog ah... he has such soft fur on his snout. It's so nice to rub my cheek on the softness. When he is dead, I will turn him into a carpet.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


The boys in Little Boy's class devised a game of catch that they've named Virus. Little Boy thinks it is the most exciting version of Catch ever! The boys get to run anywhere in the school that they want... which kinda turns it into action that comes right out of a spy movie where one needs to elude the bad guys.

The game starts with 2 Viruses who set out to catch the other boys. Once you're caught, you turn i.e., you become a Virus. The winner is the last one to be caught. For days before PSLE, Little Boy's whole class played Virus at recess and he came home to regale me with tales of how he eluded capture and how he had contrived to catch others.

"Trust no one" said Little Boy in sepulchral tones and large serious eyes... but with a giggle hiding at the back of his throat. See, when the game starts, the boys run off in pairs (for company, I guess). On one occasion, little M was Little Boy's companion. In the heat of the chase, the 2 boys got separated and Little Boy was caught and turned into a Virus. Little M had successfully eluded his captors by being really fleet-footed. Unfortunately for loyal and faithful Little M, he came back for Little Boy, and Little Boy caught him.

"Trust no one." said Little Boy seriously again "I made the same mistake as Little M once before."

The moment a partner has gone out of your sight for even a moment, there is absolutely no guarantee that he'll still be human when you see him again. Little Boy can't run very fast so he employed subterfuge to elude predators and more subterfuge to catch his prey.

Once, he saw 2 boys from afar. One was ready to take off in the other direction. The other stayed behind to assess if Little Boy was dangerous. Instead of running, Little Boy sauntered up to the boy who was waiting around and began chatting nonchalantly. The one who had run off then decided that Little Boy was not a Virus, and came back. And so, Little Boy caught 2 boys together.

However, if you're a human, trying to run away from Viruses, then you should do the counter-intuitive thing by running TOWARDS the Viruses as if to catch them. Then they'll think you're a Virus too and will leave you quite alone. After a while, as feint turned into subterfuge and back into a feint, everyone was on high alert. Hearts beating. Pulses racing. Danger lurked at every corner of the school buildings.

"It's so easy to win isn't it? All ya gotta do is hide somewhere until everyone else has been caught?" said I.

It turns out that Little Boy had tried that trick once and then decided that playing the game was worth more than winning it. "What is the use of winning the game if you have to fall asleep behind the flower pot whilst every one else is running around having tons of fun eh, Mom?"

Ok... I am sure readers will agree with me that there is in Little Boy's last statement an important life lesson... which I can't quite put a finger on, but I do know it is valuable and important... and it DIDN'T come from any MOE syllabus, nor was it tested in the PSLE.