The Seed Initiative

Hi! We’ve recently started a Social Arm for Irwin’s Study, as a way to be a blessing to others in our society. =) I’m calling it ‘The Seed Initiative’ and it’s a movement that seeks to provide seed funding and mentoring for social projects that want to make a positive different in our worlds. It doesn’t matter how big or small the project; it’s the heart of giving and the desire to be a blessing that we are looking for! =)

Our website is www.theseedinitiative.sg, where you can find out more about the Purpose, Principles and Projects that drive this new initiative.

Do help us spread the word and let others who may be interested know about this as well. =)

We are blessed to be a blessing to others! =)

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Happy Birthday, Singapore! =)

This year’s National Day is a special one for Irwin’s Study as we were interviewed by 8 Days & i-Weekly on our views of how to use General Paper (GP) to get 18-year-old students interested in Singapore issues. Check out our interviews in English and Mandarin below! =)

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How do we walk the Road to Character?

Every once a while in my reading journey, I stumble upon a book that is so irresistible because the writing touches you deeply and challenges the paradigms in your head that the reverberations of its ideas still echo after I put the book down. ‘The Road to Character’ by David Brooks is one such recent book. I must admit upfront that I haven’t finished reading the entire book, but the reason is that it is such a moving book that I’m going to ration my reading of it so that I can take time to savour and reflect on the gems found in this tome.

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David Brooks is a New York Times journalist and has taught undergraduate courses at Yale University on ‘humility’, which is also the subject of this book. He says,“I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it. ” Responding to what he calls the culture of the Big Me, which emphasizes external success, Brooks challenges us, and himself, to rebalance the scales between our “résumé virtues”—achieving wealth, fame, and status—and our “eulogy virtues,” those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed.

We all possess two natures. One focuses on external success: wealth, fame, status and a great career. The other aims for internal goodness, driven by a spiritual urge not only to do good but to be good – honest, loving and steadfast. The inner self doesn’t seek happiness superficially defined; it seeks emotional commitments without counting the cost, and a deeper moral joy. Individuals and societies thrive when a general balance is struck between these two imperatives, but we live in a culture that encourages us to think about the external side of our natures rather than the inner self.

The impetus for writing this book came because Brooks found himself living in a shallow mode. For years, he remained focused on getting ahead and reaping the rewards for his efforts, placing his career before his character. Finding himself at a crossroads, Brooks sought out men and women who embodied the moral courage he longed to experience. Citing an array of history’s greatest thinkers and leaders – from St. Augustine and George Eliot to Dwight Eisenhower and Samuel Johnson – he traces how they were able to face their weaknesses and transcend their flaws. Each one of them chose to embrace one simple but counterintuitive truth: in order to fulfil yourself, you must learn how to forget yourself.

I’m not certain if Brooks is a Christian, but as he weaves his book, and in the last sentence in particular, I think he is not very far off from what Jesus himself said some 2,000 years ago: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)

To live, we have to learn first to die.

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[2015 GCE A-Levels GP Essay Question #1] – There is no such thing as bad publicity?

After posting this year’s CGE A-Levels GP Paper 1 Essay Questions, I received so many responses and thoughts about the different questions, which was a pleasant surprise. I even had some friends who are eager to write essays on some of the questions to ‘hand up to me’ for me to mark their essays! =D

As promised in my earlier post, I will be sharing some insights and content ideas for various essay questions (especially those that I personally find more interesting! =) in the coming posts, so here are some thoughts for Essay Question #1:

 

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Can publicity ever be bad? Or is any kind of publicity always welcome? At first glance, it seems that this must not be true, for who wants negative publicity? Yet, in our current world of viral news and 24/7 media updates, no news is actually viewed by some to be…bad news. As a recent study from Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests, negative publicity can actually increase the sales of products when a product or company is relatively unknown as it stimulates brand awareness. Interesting examples include how after the movie ‘Borat’ made relentless fun of the nation of Kazakhstan, Hotels.com reported a 300% increase in requests for information about the country, and a wine described as “redolent of stinky socks” by a prominent website saw its sales increase by 5%!

“Most companies are concerned with one of two problems,” says Alan Sorensen, associate professor of economics and strategic management at the business school and one of the authors of the study. “Either they’re trying to figure out how to get the public to think their product is a good one, or they’re just trying to get people to know about their product. In some markets, where there are lots of competing products, they’re more preoccupied with the latter. In that case, any publicity, positive or negative, turns out to be valuable.”

Looking at 240 fiction book titles reviewed by the New York Times, investigators found that positive reviews, not surprisingly, always increased sales by anywhere from 32 to 52%. For books by established authors, negative reviews, also not surprisingly, led to a 15% decrease in sales.

However, the interesting twist comes when we examine books by relatively unknown authors because negative publicity had the opposite effect – increasing sales by a significant 45%! Follow-up studies affirmed the reason: Even bad reviews drew attention to works that otherwise would have gone unnoted. Moreover, the “negative” impression bad reviews created seemed to diminish over time.

“This suggests that whereas the negative impression fades over time, increased awareness may remain, which can actually boost the chances that a product will be purchased,” explains Sorensen, who authored the study with Jonah Berger, PhD ’07, now a faculty member at the Wharton School, and alumnus Scott Rasmussen, BA ’03, a Stanford undergraduate economics and mathematics undergraduate at the time the research was being conducted.

The research indicates that new entrants may have little to lose when it comes to publicity of any kind — the key is simply to get seen. “Smaller [motion picture] producers,” the authors write, for example, “may want to allow, or even fan, the flames of negative publicity.” Indeed, bad press, they suggest, may even serve as a form of direct marketing that can “slip under the radar” and be unrecognized as such.

Of course, brand names, on the other hand, have more at stake, as McDonald’s saw when a rumor circulated that it used worm meat in its hamburgers: Sales decreased by more than 25%. In 2009, after months of scathing media reports of cars that could accelerate out of control, Toyota had an extremely expensive problem on its hands. Recalls, fines, and plunging sales resulted in losses to the auto manufacturer in the neighborhood of $2 billion.

 

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(General Paper Resource) A fascinating insight into Singapore by DPM Tharman (Part 1)

I believe that General Paper (GP) can be a powerful platform to increase civic awareness and social conscience, so whenever we discuss current affairs during GP class, I always strive to bring Singapore’s issues, situations and perspectives into the conversation. In this way, students would at least be aware – and hopefully, more interested – in what’s happening in our own country. In my constant search for GP resources for my students, a transcript of a recent interview by our Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the 45th St Gallen Symposium early this month is a rare gem. So here are the highlights of the interview:

1. Advantage or Disadvantage?

When examining a nation’s rise (or fall), we cannot ignore the hand that a country was dealt in the beginning. Yet, DPM Tharman stressed that historical origins need not be straitjackets that proscribe our development. An attitude of mind, a force of will, and the struggle for survival can transform what he termed “permanent disadvantage into continuing advantage.”

An attitude of mind. We converted permanent disadvantage into continuing advantage. What disadvantage did we have? We were not a nation that was meant to be. A diverse group of people coming out of colonial migration patterns, very different origins, very different belief systems and religions. We were small, no domestic market, decolonisation had happened suddenly and the British withdrew their military forces quickly, and impacted a very large part of the economy. We were surrounded by much larger neighbours to our south, about 50 times the size of Singapore, and at the very outset, objected to the very formation of Singapore and Malaysia.

We had every disadvantage you could think of for a nation. We did not expect to survive, we were not expected to survive. But that, to (founding Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew and the pioneer team of leaders, was converted to advantage, because it forces you to realise that all you have is yourself. The world owes you nothing. And that mindset, thinking of yourself as not having the advantage of size or history and that you’ve got to create it for yourselves, turns out to be a phenomenal advantage.

2. Economic vs. Social

What is Singapore best known for around the world? Most would think it’s our standard of living and affluence, but DPM Tharman believes it is something else that is more fundamental and which underpins our economic success story.

People think of Singapore as an economic success — that’s what sort of catches attention easily — per capita gross domestic product and so on. But what was really interesting and unique about Singapore was social strategy. And most especially, the fact that we took advantage of diversity — different races, different religions — and melded the nation (to one in which) people were proud of being who they were, but were Singaporean first and foremost.

3. Government intervention in people’s lives

Successful multiculturalism doesn’t just happen automatically. It requires careful government management which may be seen by some as intrusive (even non-libertarian) but absolutely critical because if nothing was done from the outset of Singapore’s independence, “the natural workings of society would likely have led to mistrust, discomfort, bigotry and what we see in abundance in many countries in the world today.”

The natural workings of society would not have led to that happening. Not just in Singapore, but anywhere in the world. The natural workings of society would likely have led to mistrust, discomfort, bigotry and what we see in abundance in many countries in the world today. The most intrusive social policy in Singapore has turned out to be the most important. And it has a level of intrusiveness that doesn’t come comfortably to the liberal mind.

[An example is] housing estates. Eight-five per cent of Singapore live in public housing. Because when it’s 85 per cent, it covers the lower-income group, the middle-income group, the upper-middle-income group. These are middle-class housing estates. But every single block of flats and every single precinct requires an ethnic balance. That’s intrusive, because you’re constraining. So once a particular ethnic group gets beyond a certain quota in that block or precinct, the resale market has to adjust. You can’t just get more and more of the same people concentrating themselves in the same neighbourhood. And I’d say when this was first done, I don’t think we knew how important it was going to be.

It was intrusive. And it turned out to be our greatest strength. Because once people live together, they’re not just walking their corridors together every day and taking the same elevators up and down; their kids go to the same kindergartens, the same primary schools. Because all over the world, young kids go to schools very near to where they live. And they grow up together.

The lessons coming out of Baltimore, the lessons coming out of France’s large cities, the lessons coming out of all our societies, show that neighbourhoods matter, place matters, where you live matters. It matters much more than economists thought. It matters tremendously in the daily influences that shape your life and the traps that you fall into.

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Amos Yee & the Scandal of Grace

It’s been a week since Amos Yee was bailed out by a Christian counsellor. For those who have not been following the news, Amos Yee is a 16-year-old guy who got into trouble with the law because of his online irreverent rants against the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew and against Christianity. The sorry episode sparked off much debate about freedom of expression, social media, freedom and responsibility – all of which are rich grounds for classroom discussion with my GP tuition students. But what struck me most was the action of Mr Vincent Law, the Christian counsellor who bailed Amos out (read full story here), and which deeply moved me.

Why did Vincent choose to do what he did? I have no idea, just like I have no idea what would prompt Amos to do all that he did which caused all the furore. Yet what I do know is that grace, like water, flows to the lowest parts. What Amos Yee did was uncalled for, unbelievable and unjustified. But if we think about it deeper, we realise that what the counsellor did was also uncalled for, unbelievable and unjustified. And that is where I believe the beauty – and indeed, scandal – of grace shines through so brightly. Because Vincent’s act of bailing Amos out captures what grace really is: sans condemnation, sans understanding, sans justification.

For me, what Vincent did was a beautiful picture of what my faith bears. The Cross takes all the offenses cast upon it, cradles them in its bowels, and transforms them in redemptive power to show the world of a more excellent way. Where else would we find such a display of grace and power; courage and humility; love and misunderstanding all rolled in one? For one who walks in the Way of Jesus, and gives us a glimpse into a different world where the economy of grace prevails, Vincent is a praiseworthy example, of which, I fear, we have too few in this world.

Some say that the counsellor may have crossed certain professional lines in doing what he did, but I can’t help but think of how Jesus himself crossed pretty many lines as well in order to reach out to a world that is dead in sin.

A Jewish rabbi was not supposed to dine with Roman tax-collectors – Jesus crossed that line.

A Jewish rabbi was not supposed to speak with Samaritan women at wells – Jesus crossed that line.

A Jewish rabbi was not supposed to allow prostitutes to wash his feet with perfume – Jesus crossed that line.

And the Son of God was not supposed to die a criminal’s death on a cross – Jesus crossed that line.

When I’m called to cross the line, I only pray that God gives me the grace and courage to do so.

O grace, what have you done?

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