Tag Archives: Singaporean

Love of Math

If you love math, you are a geek — with stock options in your future, but no cheerleaders. So getting a child to love mathematics is a questionable gift — are we really doing them a favor? Recently, a highly placed friend of mine asked me to look into it — not merely as getting a couple of kids interested in math, but as a general educational effort in the country. Once it becomes a general phenomenon, math whizkids might enjoy the same level of social acceptance and popularity as, say, athletes and rock stars. Wishful thinking? May be…

I was always among people who liked math. I remember my high school days where one of my friends would do the long multiplication and division during physics experiments, while I would team up with another friend to look up logarithms and try to beat the first dude, who almost always won. It didn’t really matter who won; the mere fact that we would device games like that as teenagers perhaps portended a cheerleader-less future. As it turned out, the long-multiplication guy grew up to be a highly placed banker in the Middle East, no doubt thanks to his talents not of the cheerleader-phobic, math-phelic kind.

When I moved to IIT, this mathematical geekiness reached a whole new level. Even among the general geekiness that permeated the IIT air, I remember a couple of guys who stood out. There was “Devious” who also had the dubious honor of introducing me to my virgin Kingfisher, and “Pain” would drawl a very pained “Obviously Yaar!” when we, the lesser geeks, failed to readily follow a his particular line of mathematical acrobatics.

All of us had a love for math. But, where did it come from? And how in the world would I make it a general educational tool? Imparting the love math to one kid is not too difficult; you just make it fun. The other day when I was driving around with my daughter, she described some shape (actually the bump on her grandmother’s forehead) as half-a-ball. I told her that it was actually a hemisphere. Then I highlighted to her that we were going to the southern hemisphere (New Zealand) for our vacation the next day, on the other side of the globe compared to Europe, which was why it was summer there. And finally, I told her Singapore was on the equator. My daughter likes to correct people, so she said, no, it wasn’t. I told her that we were about 0.8 degrees to the north of the equator (I hope I was right), and saw my opening. I asked her what the circumference of a circle was, and told her that the radius of the earth was about 6000km, and worked out that we were about 80km to the north of the equator, which was nothing compared to 36,000km great circle around the earth. Then we worked out that we made a 5% approximation on the value of pi, so the correct number was about 84km. I could have told her we made another 6% approximation on the radius, the number would be more like 90km. It was fun for her to work out these things. I fancy her love for math has been augmented a bit.

Photo by Dylan231

Graceless Singaporean

We Singaporeans have a problem. We are graceless, they say. So we train ourselves to say the right magic words at the right times and to smile at random intervals. We still come across as a bit graceless at times.

We have to bite the bullet and face the music; we may be a bit on the rude side — when judged by the western norms of pasticky grace popularized by the media. But we don’t do too badly when judged by our own mixed bag of Asian cultures, some of which consider the phrase “Thank you” so formal that it is almost an insult to utter it.

One of the Asian ways of doing things is to eat noodles like a mini vacuum cleaner. This Singaporean friend of mine was doing just that while lunching with me and our French colleague. I hardly noticed the small noises; after all, I’m from a culture where loud burps at the end of a meal are considered a compliment to the host. But our French friend found the suction action very rude and irksome, and made French comments to that effect (ignoring, of course, the fact that it is rude to exclude people by talking in a private language). I tried to explain to him that it was not rude, just the way it was done here, but to no avail.

The real question is this — do we paint a thin veneer of politeness over our natural way of doing things so that we can exude grace a la Hollywood? The thinness of this kind of grace echoes loud and clear in the standard greeting of a checkout clerk in a typical American supermarket: “How’ ya doing today?” The expected response is: “Good, how are you?” to which the clerk is to say, “Good, good!” The first “Good” presumably to your graceful enquiry after his well-being, the second expressing satisfaction at your perfect state of bliss. I once decided to play the fool and responded to the ubiquitous “How’ ya doin’?” by: “Lousy man, my dog just died.” The inevitable and unhesitating response was, “Good, good!” Do we need this kind of shallow grace?

Grace is like the grammar of an unspoken social language. Unlike its spoken counterparts, the language of social mores seems to preclude multilingualism, leading to an almost xenophobic rejection of other norms of life. We all believe that our way of doing things and our world views are the only right ones. Naturally too, otherwise we wouldn’t hold on to our beliefs, would we? But, in an increasingly flattening and globalizing world, we do feel a bit alien because our values and graces are often graded by alien standards.

Soon, a day will come when we all conform to the standards prescribed to us by the global media and entertainment networks. Our amorphous “How’ ya doin’?”s and “Good, good”s will then be indistinguishable from the prescriptions.

When I think of that inevitable day, I suffer a pang of nostalgia. I hope I can hold on to the memory of social graces judged by lesser standards — of gratitude expressed in timid smiles, affections portrayed in fleeting glances, and life’s defining bonds conveyed in unspoken gestures.

Ultimately, the collective grace of a society is to be judged, not by polished niceties, but by how it treats its very old and very young. And I’m afraid we are beginning to find ourselves wanting in those fronts. We put our young children through tremendous amount of stress, preparing them for an even more stressful life, and unwittingly robbing them of their childhood.

And, when I see those aunties and uncles cleaning after us in eating houses, I see more than our lack of grace. I see myself in my twilight years, alienated in a world gone strange on me. So let’s spare a smile, and nod a thank you when we see them — we may be showing grace to ourselves a few decades down the line.

The Worldly Malayalees

If an average Singaporean hears of the World Malayalee Conference, the first thing they would say is, “World what now??” Malayalees are people from the tiny Indian state of Kerala. They are not to be confused with Malays, although some of the things we associate with Malay (such as pratas and biriyani) can be traced back to Kerala.

Such cross cultural exchanges point to an important trait of Malayalees. They tend to fan out and, in their own small ways, conquer the world. They also welcome external influences whole-heartedly. They are perhaps the only people (other than the Chinese, of course) who regularly use a Chinese wok for cooking or a Chinese net for catching their fish. They even practise their own version of Kung-fu, and at times insist that the Chinese actually learned it from them.

International and cosmopolitan in their unique ways for thousands of years, Malayalees are a mixture of opposites, and Kerala a minor economic and sociological enigma. Malayalees enthusiastically embraced Christianity and Muslim religions when their initial missionaries and emissaries ventured outside their places of origin. But, they also welcomed Marxism and atheism with equal fervour.

On an average, Kerala has a per-capita income among the world’s poorest, but all other economic indicators are on a par with the world’s richest. In health indicators such as life expectancy, per-capita number of doctors, and infant mortality, Kerala manages to mirror the US at about a tenth of its per capita wealth. Kerala is the first (and perhaps the only) third world province to boast of better than 90% literacy, and is just about the only place in India and China with more women than men.

Singapore has a special place in the Malayalee heart. Among their initial ventures outside Kerala during the colonial era, Malayalees targeted Singapore as a popular destination. Perhaps due to this historical fondness, Malayalees found it natural to host their World Malayalee Conference here.

Singapore also has soft spot for Malayalees and their contributions. The conference itself will be graced by the presence of the President of Singapore, Mr. S. R. Nathan and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. George Yeo. President Nathan will launch the Malayalee Heritage and Culture Exhibition, and Minister Yeo will give a key note speech at the Business Forum.

The heritage and culture, dating back to well over two thousand years, is something every Malayalee is rightfully proud of. The Exhibition will showcase everything from cave engravings to ancient ship building technology.

Going beyond the historical and cultural affinities, Kerala also has been a business ally to Singapore, especially in raw seafood. Singapore, in their own right, has provided a steady stream of investments and tourists to Kerala.

Eco-tourism is indeed one of the top attractions Malayalees will showcase during the conference. Nature has been overly kind to Kerala, with the undulating hills of the Western Ghat generously usurping the Monsoons and jealously guarding the Malayalees against any possible plunder of their green riches. Blessed with a temperate climate uncommon to the tropical enclave that it is, and with the hypnotic beauty of the misty green hillsides and tea plantations, Kerala is indeed a paradise waiting, perhaps unwillingly, to be discovered.

This World Malayalalee Conference, with its cultural shows and heritage exhibitions, will display what Kerala has to offer to the world, from tourism and culture to business opportunities and talent pool. It will also showcase Singapore to the Malayalee diaspora and teach them a thing or two about administrative efficiency, cleanliness and business connectivity.