Modified Nature: Friend or Foe?

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If you have not already read by now (where have you been?), we are confronted with something as worrying as Ebola, if not more. The Zika virus. Spread by mosquitos, originating from the Americas, and still spreading. Today, the World Health Organisation labelled it a global emergency.

With unprecedented scale and speed of the spread, I read recently on the New York Times that a possible solution to fight this virus is using mosquitos. Armed with a genetically modified gene, these mosquitos are meant to “attack” those with the deadly Zika virus and prevent further spread.
We do need extraordinary ideas to fight scenarios such as these but I do fear. I fear the law of unintended consequences.
To modify nature to fight nature leaves room for the modified to become the ones we need to fight in the future.
These mosquitoes are genetically modified by commercial companies with commercial interests. Will our safety be compromised in their quest for speed because they want to be the first to market? While reducing the population of mosquitos as a whole is good (80% in small tests – NYT), will the sever reduction do major damage to our ecosystem?
It is good to see new approaches like this, not just for the Zika virus but even for the fight against dengue. But the worry is the enemy we don’t know. And in this case, would the enemy be the nature we create? I believe that science allows us to create solutions for problems. The worry is the potential compromise that corporations make in the name of crisis but underpinned by profits.
I do hope authorities not just in Singapore but in areas affected do their utmost due diligence. We can take a faulty car off the road or shut down computer mainframe. But if it’s modified nature, it’s a different ball game completely.
#randomworries #zikavirus

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Don’t Let Terror Win


Wherever we are in the world today, we either woke up, went to bed or got a lunchtime tweet to the breaking news about simultaneous terror attacks in Paris. 11/13 will now be murmured in the same breath as 7/7 and the date that began this new era, 9/11.

My daughter, all of age 9, asked me why the world has guns and that it’s so sad that so many people died. I wanted to say how great her question was and that the world has no place for guns but the reality isn’t so. We live in a world that the same guns that is meant to defend people, are now used to murder people. It is a sad state of affairs.

But this post isn’t about guns. This post is about what I shared with Maegan to her next question. “Why do people do all these bad things?”

For me, this is a fact. Terrorism isn’t about religion. It is about extremism. No religion I know asks people to kill another. People ask people to kill using religion as proxy. Religion has no part to play. Whether they shout “Allahu Akbar” or anything else.

Terrorists do bad things to others because they don’t like how we live our lives.. They don’t like our embracing of freedom. They want to strike fear so that our lives will change. Because if we do, they win.

If we begin to alienate innocent muslims whose religion have nothing to do with these crimes of terror, however much these terrorist claims it is, if we live our lives in fear of our neighbours who look different from us, if we stop being who we are, peace loving and with cultures embracing people, the terrorists win.

The best response I told Maegan is that we must live our lives normally. We must not be cowered. We can heighten our awareness, we can be more vigilant, and we can do more to achieve pursue peace. But we must not give in to fear, however scary it might be.

Because when we embrace the freedom we have as people of a free world, we say loudly to the terrorists with one voice that you can strike us in the hearts of our cities, but you will not strike at the heart of our common humanity.

My heart goes out to those who lost their loved ones in this barbaric act of terror. May their loss not be in vain. We must not let terror win.



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Happy Teachers Day Mrs D!

I stand by a simple principle.

No one person or situation can take all the credit for success nor for failure. When one person succeeds or fails, it is a confluence of people, situations and circumstances. I cringe when I see ads that promote students getting seven A1s with quotes that say they succeeded because of a company or program. I really don’t think it happens that way in life.

The program played a part. We all do. And to me, that’s the beauty of life. It truly does take a village to raise a child.

Parents who are involved in the lives of their children, teachers who value the growth of students more than how much they can score in exams, trainers who are interested in the changed lives of young people more than how much their program will earn them, a society that encourages risk-taking for young people to be willing to try new aspects of life knowing that when they fail, they have people around them who will be there for them when they stand up again. That’s a great village to be in.

But it is also important to recognise individuals from time to time who played a big part in our lives. In the Maori language, the word is called “Mana” or Honour. For the Maoris in New Zealand, Mana is a sacred word. It is bestowed on someone. It is earned and rightfully, the stories told. The idea of honouring someone is one that I would encourage us to do from time to time.

Mrs Regina Davamoni is one such person for me.

Mrs D was my Secondary 2 form teacher who taught me English and Literature. She was also my teacher-in-charge of our Literary, Debate and Drama Society where we had tremendous fun creating plays, rehearsing lines and reprimanded for bad english.

I was one of those with bad english. In particular, grammar. As you can see from my blog, some things haven’t changed 🙂

I remember Mrs D for many things.

One of which was the day where she had enough of my excuses of not handing in homework and sent my chair, my table, my bag, my books and me down to the quadrangle where the world would walk me by. I remember that day very well.

I also remember the day where she read my composition to the class, proud that I wrote a piece that was worthy for public reading. It doesn’t happen often, actually only once. I remember that day very well too.

Most of all, I remember something that she did for me which still today, I didn’t think she needed to but she did.

Mrs D pulled me aside after class  and told me the importance of grammar and how bad I was at it. She said that if I didn’t brush up on my grammar quickly, I would continue to do badly in the future. She then asked me if I was willing to put in the effort. I did.

She came back the next day with 3 grammar books. For those of us in Singapore, you would remember the green, red and blue coloured books titled English Grammar for Primary 4, 5 and 6. She told me this is where I needed to start. Believe you me, it didn’t do my self-esteem any good but from Primary 4 grammar I started my journey of learning English again.

What was special for me wasn’t the fact that she bought the books or took an interest in me getting better in my grades. What was special for me was the she bothered to mark my additional assignments. Chapter after chapter, book after book, she took me through Primary 4 grammar through Primary 6 grammar. She marked each one each time.

Today, I have the privilege of adding Author to my bio with my book published two years back by the National Youth Council titled “Youth Sector Organisations: Starters Kit”. I think she might fall from her chair if she found out that her student who was sent to the quadrangle, who needed Primary School grammar lessons at Secondary Two authored a book.

Today, I have the privilege of speaking to young people in Singapore and different parts of the world, from Afghanistan to USA, each moment treasured because the opportunity to share my thoughts with people is one that I never thought would be possible.

Mrs D made that difference for me. She gave me the foundation I needed to do what I do today. She probably don’t remember all these stories but I do. That’s what really matters.

She isn’t the only person who made a difference in my life. There are many who did. My parents, my siblings, my friends, my officers in the Boys’ Brigade, my pastors in church, etc. They all did. They were the village the raised me.

But this Teachers’ Day, I like to honour one person who made my life just that bit more special.

Happy Teachers’ Day Mrs D! 🙂


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The LONG Interview – The Straits Times 6 July 2012


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Draw Something. Learn Something

The phenomenon of Draw Something is nothing short of remarkable. 

A mobile game on both iPhone and Android platform pits two friends or players together to guess each other’s artistic expression of a word that one chose each round.

The objective of the game is simple. Have fun guessing each other’s drawing and in the process, earn as much coins so that you can buy more colours to make your drawing better and more creative, and in turn, make it easier for your friend to correctly guess the word.


What fascinates me isn’t about how wildly successful the game is. How wildly successful is it? Well, game maker Zynga just bought the company for US$180,000,000. Yes, for a company with 35 failed mobile games but one hugely successful one.

For me, what fascinates me is the concept of win-win that is hardly the case in most games available today.

In what is a deviation from a standard formula of win-lose scenarios, where one pits himself or herself with another friend to see who comes out on top thereby increasing his pot of rewards significantly while the friend is left with nothing. The sense of achievement is derived either from how much coins you have compared to your friends, or a leaderboard where you see your ranking compared to your friends.

Win-lose scenarios are nothing more than a mirror of real life which makes games a whole lot more attractive.

In business, one will seek to out do the other by creating better products or simply by offering the same product at a lower price to attract and retain customers. Or in corporate office where one colleague would seek to outdo another so that when the time comes for promotion, he stands a higher chance of winning.

Even in schools where your scores ranks you on a leaderboard compared to others, a competitive student would consider not sharing their knowledge or expertise so that they gain an upper hand in the final results, move them up on ranking, and perhaps, scoring a better chance of that scholarship or prize.

The problem with Win-Lose scenarios is that competition almost always results in more competition and that everyone will certainly lose one day. Not a matter of if but a matter of when. Odds are while one can consistently win when he pit himself against others, he will inevitably meet with a competitor better than himself and thereby lose.

Win-Win however allows everyone to gain just that much more. It does not mean we remove competition but rather, we compete to help everyone become better. The goal is to win more than the other instead of not to lose.

Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says “Win/Win is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody, that one person’s success is not achieved at the expense or exclusion of the success of others. Win/Win is a belief in the Third Alternative. It’s not your way, or my way; it’s a better way, a higher way.”

At Halogen Foundation Singapore, we have for the longest time resisted the temptation to compete with corporate vendors of leadership development on price. Even while we are a charity, our pricing indicates the quality and value of the program because it truly reflects the amount of investment actually put into every product and program.

As with any competition, you have market forces moving to lower prices to gain an upper hand in terms of sales and market share. Our internal staff deliberated long and hard and we decided that if we were to compete of price (which we certainly can by raising more funds), we would perhaps win more market share. However, the net result of it isn’t another company losing market share. It is the students who benefits less from the programs being offered because however much anyone cuts cost, the tangible loss is the quality of the program. 

A company would have to remove books that would have originally been packaged together with a program, or sell without an assessment tool which would have been a huge benefit for the student, or hire a lesser quality trainer because he costs less for the company.

All in all, it isn’t the company who loses money. It is the student who loses a quality experience.

To me, there isn’t such a thing as Win-Lose. Rather, there is only a polar opposite of Win-Win and that is simply, Lose-Lose. The beneficiary loses, the company lose, and the competitor loses.

Which is why the premise of Draw Something for me is refreshing. In order to win, two parties must work together to ensure the guesses are answered correctly so that they both win more coins.

At some stage, you choose a lesser value word (one coin instead of three coins) because it makes it easier for the other party to guess. The goal of the game therefore isn’t about one player winning but both players winning as much as they can.

As time goes by, the pair of friends goes on to win more rounds. And as more rounds are won, another interesting phenomenon happens, the appetite for risk decreases because no player want to be responsible for choosing a hard word that the other cannot guess, thereby stopping their winning streak.

A mental calculation happens for the players. Should I risk 140 rounds’ worth of winning for just two additional coins? Probably not. That decision isn’t based on how much I want to win but rather, he takes into consideration the other party’s interest and ability, juxtaposed with their current level, and then decides on a course that is mutually beneficial.

By all accounts, Draw Something is really quite a phenomenon – a two-player game that conditions people to be counter-intuitive and learn about Win-Win. And all these while achieving the one thing all games seeks to be – Fun.



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Goodbye Steve.

A simple tribute to Steve

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It’s time to embrace the democracy we crave

I was in the US when Singapore elected our seventh President. The closest margins we’ve ever seen (not that it was a lot of history to go by). A win by a mere 7269 votes. A win nevertheless that elected Dr Tony Tan as President of the Republic of Singapore.

What amuses me (and to a certain extend concerns me) is the aftermath of online chatter after.

Many are claiming that Dr Tony Tan didn’t win by a majority and over 60% of Singaporeans voted against him. I wonder what these group of people will say if Dr Tan Cheng Bock had won by that same margin. Would they say the same thing or will they celebrate that he won democratically?

So often, we choose the scenario we want and if the outcome goes against  what our wishes are, we focus on the negativity and ensure that no party would enjoy the victory. In a certain sense, there will be only one loser in such a scenario. Everyone.

I suspect if one could choose an ideal democracy, they would like to have the ability to vote in a elections like the US Presidential Elections where we have televise debates, in a run-off format like the FIFA elections or ballot where candidates are eliminated till the final person win with a majority, a Parliamentary system  like the UK where robust debates happens in the chamber and the effectiveness of the Singapore system where things works well and decisions are made. That’s me just guessing. However, that’s not what we have.

We have a first-past-the-post system where in a parliamentary system where there is one winner, regardless of the vote count as long as it’s a simple majority. 2.4m Singaporeans voted and the result is final and definitive. Calling for the system to be changed just because one didn’t win doesn’t make democracy better. It cheapens it.

Perhaps it’s time to embrace the democracy we so crave. Part of democracy is the plurality of decision-making where we give the power to the people to decide our own fate by way of national vote. We did that on May 7 and we did it again on August 27. That’s our democracy in action.

Some would complain that our General Elections wasn’t as democratic because one party created a system that was unfair thru gerrymandering but yet at the same time, celebrate that an opposition party winning a GRC. And now, in the Presidential Elections, Singaporeans voted as a country and elected, albiet by a narrow margin, a President and yet, people claim it’s not democracy because over 60% of Singaporeans voted against him and yet would celebrate if another candidate of their choice wins by the same margin.

We cannot pick and choose democracy based on our whims and fancy. We cannot speak ill about people or systems just our choice candidate or party don’t win. And we definitely cannot shout to the world that our country is not a democracy just because we don’t get our way.

That’s not how a democracy works. That’s bigotry.

Perhaps it’s time to embrace the democracy we crave. Accept all the splendor and all the ills of the system in which we have. Learn that my online neighbour can have a different view but it doesn’t mean he does not believe in the betterment of Singapore. Perhaps it’s time to agree to disagree on issues that we will be on opposite ends and at the same time, seek to work together on issues we agree on. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that there are two sides to every coin, two perspectives to every situation and so often, both views could be equally compelling and right.

That is democracy is it not?

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