Thursday, November 06, 2003

Buying Toys For Learning


Have you noticed how people in Singapore have a fascination for buying "educational" toys for young persons here?

Recently, I visited a neighbourhood toy shop to buy a present for a friend's daughter.

While I was there, a middle-aged woman walked in and asked the shop assistant: "Can you recommend me an educational toy please?"

The shop assistant showed her a casino set. To the shop assistant's horror, the woman exclaimed: "This is not educational! This is gambling and bad!"

I started laughing to myself. The woman, obviously, had come to the shop with a fixed mindset of what "education" is. As a result, she was hoping that the shop assistant would be able to read her mind and understand what she was asking for!

I also asked myself: "Is there such a thing as a 'bad' toy?"

I remember reading the wise words of Dr Keith Sawyer, Assistant Professor of education in arts and sciences at Washington University in St Louis: "Parents can relax a little bit. There aren't really any bad toys or bad kinds of play."

Dr Sawyer suggests: "Whatever toy you buy your child, don't just put her in a room with it and let her play with the toy by herself and think she's going to get anything out of it. The child will get the most benefit from parent-child interaction surrounding the toy or game."

I reflected about how I, as a shop assistant, would have responded to the woman's initial request for an "educational" toy.

I would have said: "Madam, every toy in this shop has an educational value."

The real question is, depending on the child's age, what kind of learning you want to give to that child. And the more important question is how much the child will, with proper guidance, enjoy playing with the toy - and that is the "fun" factor in the toy.

Thus, if you wish to teach a child strategic thinking, you could, for example, buy the child a set of toy soldiers. Or if you wish to give the child a jumpstart in culinary skills, you could buy him a masak-masak or kitchen set.

But here's a word of caution based on my own childhood experience: Never try to impose on a young person what you think he will like. Chances are you will convert him into a young rebel!

For example, my father recently bought a quiz-book for my teenage brother. I went "oops" when I saw the present because I received one of those when I was a teenager and I knew that the book was soon to be banished into the storeroom.

Predictably, my brother thanked him for the quiz-book and left it in the living room for aesthetic use over the next two days. The book is now safely tucked away in a cupboard that is rarely opened, along with other exiled presents.

Perhaps a good way to avoid such situations would be to just buy a voucher for the young person and let him take responsibility and ownership for what he likes to read or play with.

As Phil Phillips, author of Turmoil In the Toybox, shares: "Toys should reinforce, not contradict, the positive values we are trying to instill."

After all, the toys we buy for someone can have an impact on that person's development.

I remember getting the board game Risk from my family when I was in primary school. I loved it!

The game taught me to question rules and appreciate better the value of taking risks. I developed the courage to take such risks. I also got a basic introduction to negotiating and forming strategic alliances. All these valuable lessons, in turn, enabled me to manage the unfortunate situations when I failed to achieve what I desired.

Recently, a friend shared with me how the toys he played with as a child had had a great influence on his life. My friend has had a deep fascination for cars since he was very young.

Today, he is, at least in my view, a very successful businessman. He runs two car-wash facilities. He also buys and sells cars. He participates frequently in motorcar races. And he is an avid collector of radio-controlled cars.

Do I now hear you asking what I bought for my friend's daughter?

Well, I bought her a punching bag. Not because I want her to master the art of self-defence to combat any potential rapists, murderers or molesters. And not because I want her to grow up a fighter so that she will be able to appreciate and battle the sexual discrimination that is so rampant in Singapore.

But more because I want her parents to teach her to look at a punching bag creatively. For example, the punching bag could easily be a bolster. And the gloves that came with the punching bag could as easily be placed above one's fireplace during Christmas, instead of socks.

This way, Singapore would be blessed with one more advocate of Mahatma Gandhi's positive values of non-violence.

So the next time you buy a gift for a young person or anyone else, consider the learning value you would like to impart on that individual.

Then, buy a gift that would convey that value in an enjoyable manner.

Dharmendra Yadav

Monday, August 25, 2003

'Ang moh is better' mentality


In July, I read, with great interest, a speech by Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad about how "Asians face the possibility of once again being colonised" by people of European origin, including "those who migrated and set up new nations in America, Australia and New Zealand".

Reading that speech, I thought it applied to Singapore too, albeit somewhat differently.

When I returned from the United Kingdom recently, I called a top company in Singapore and asked to speak to its director of human resources (HR). I was connected to an officer in the HR department, who asked me four to five questions before saying that the director was on leave.

About 10 minutes later, I called the company again and spoke to the same officer. This time, I spoke in a posh British accent. The officer put me through to the HR director immediately.

Two days later, one of my friends, a senior manager in a British company in Singapore, told me her European colleagues enjoyed more leverage with her boss. While she was expected to make appointments with him, her colleagues could just walk in and meet him on an ad hoc basis.

In a British consultancy firm in which I had worked, our Singaporean partner company, which dealt a lot with Government bodies, told us to use our European consultants in preference to our better-qualified Asian consultants.

Her reason: "Oh, HR practitioners in Singapore, especially Government-related ones, prefer Europeans."

These examples - which I believe are not isolated cases - demonstrate how the colonial mentality remains firmly entrenched in the Singaporean psyche.

After 38 years of independence, we still kowtow to the Europeans and kick other races in the butt and everywhere else.

Is this what it means to live in a country that has gone from Third World to First? So, a meritocracy happens to be one where white is good and off-white bad?

Why do we choose to buy imported silver when, for the same price, we can purchase gold locally? Could this be why there is growing resentment against the so-called "foreign talent" in this country?

In June, a former Business Times journalist gave me a dressing down about an opinion piece that I wrote in this newspaper relating to foreign talent. His passionate arguments convinced me that Singaporeans are not against genuine foreign talent.

He suggested that Singaporeans are really against those lowly-qualified smooth-talking foreigners who take away jobs that could be filled easily by better-qualified locals - a point which I failed to highlight in my commentary. (Well, better late than never.)

Moreover, why is Singapore's biggest employer - the Government and its related organisations - allowing such practices to thrive?

During my last visit to the Civil Service College, I ran through publicity materials that were available in the waiting area on the ground floor. These were brochures for training courses provided to Singapore's civil servants. It did not take me long to realise that European trainers delivered a majority of these courses.

Perhaps, this is a flawed basis for one to make a conclusive observation. But the very fact that people are talking about this shows that it is important for the Government to respond to such allegations robustly - not only through words but also action.

The Government should only use a foreign service provider if a local equivalent is unavailable.

Indeed, this became the mandate of the board of directors in the British consultancy I worked in. When our Singaporean partner requested European consultants, the board - comprising mainly Europeans - took an Asian-oriented approach.

The board noted: "We will only use a European consultant if you can show us why our Asian consultants cannot deliver what is expected of us."

As importantly, every Singaporean must ask himself two fundamental questions:
o How differently do I treat a European and a non-European?
o What are my reasons for treating them differently?

When I asked myself these questions, I found that I, too, had preferred Europeans in that I could not see myself working for a non-European company. It is now my personal goal to work for a non-European company.

It is not just the non-Europeans who allow such questionable practices to prosper. Some Europeans take advantage of this, too.

For example, my Malaysian neighbour told me recently: "My Australian director often boasts that his Singaporean clients buy the company's products just because he is European."

During my former British director's last visit to Singapore, an American woman approached him. She wanted him to employ her.

She said: "Your company will need a European face if it wants to make money in Singapore."

The examples of blatantly discriminatory practices that I have highlighted suggest that anti-discrimination legislation is long overdue in this country.

Such legislation will not eliminate the "Europeans preferred" syndrome totally. But legislation, coupled with education, will reduce its incidence.

When we tackle the "Europeans preferred" syndrome effectively, it will not matter if four out of five or one out of 10 newly-created jobs are going to foreign workers.

This is because Singaporeans can then be more certain that someone is being appointed based on merit. A true meritocracy means white is good and so is off-white.

Come on, MPs, do something about it!

Dharmendra Yadav