Opinions, Vanessa Tai

Do Not Click On Jennifer Lawrence’s Nude Pics – Vanessa Tai

Just because it’s there does not mean we’re entitled to look at them, says Vanessa Tai. 

By now, you’ve probably read the news about how an anonymous Internet user hacked into the Apple iCloud accounts of more than 100 female celebrities and uploaded their nude shots online.

I’ll admit it. When I first read the news, I was immediately curious to see what these pictures looked like. And I’m certain most people — man or woman — thought the same way. Our thought process probably ran along the same vein, “Oh, I’m not a bad person. I just want to see what the fuss is all about. Anyway, the pictures are already out there so the damage is already done. One more person browsing through them quickly isn’t going to hurt.” Or perhaps some of you had thoughts along the lines of, “Anyone stupid enough to take explicit pictures and leave them lying around probably deserves to suffer the ramifications.”

I get it, because those were my first few thoughts as well. But the more I thought about it, it dawned on me just how wrong this line of thinking is. By having thoughts of, “She shouldn’t be taking naked pictures of herself in the first place,” I was guilty of victim blaming. It’s the same attitude that makes people say things like, “She shouldn’t have been wearing that short skirt in the first place.”

However, aren’t we forgetting that everybody (man or woman) are entitled to consensually explore and engage in their sexuality in any way they deem fit? If this includes taking naked photos for their personal enjoyment or for a partner’s, that’s their prerogative. Agreeing to take a naked shot with a partner is not the same as consenting to have the whole world gawk over your naked body.

Let’s get one thing straight – these women had private, intimate images of their bodies STOLEN from them. This is not just another “celebrity sex scandal” or a “sensational scoop” for gossip magazines. These women did not consent to their images being uploaded and circulated online. This is a form of sexual violation and anyone who participates by viewing or sharing is complicit in this crime.

What J Law does in her private life should remain that way – private.

Unfortunately, this obsession with celebrities and their personal lives doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. As long as consumers’ demand for celeb-fuelled content continues, there will always be someone providing the goods, whether or not it’s legal or ethical to do so. But just because it’s there does not mean we need to go along with it or buy into it. Celebrities are not commodities for us to rip apart as we see fit. Yes, they may use their image for work but as consumers, we need to always be conscious of the difference between their public life (such as their shows, concerts, and legitimate interviews) and their personal life.

We Become The Person We Decide To Be

Here’s what I propose. The next time someone sends you a link to the images or asks if you’ve seen the latest leaked images, speak up and explain why we should not engage in this abuse. If it helps, you can send them a link to this article!

Images of naked women — especially those circulated without their consent — are not “harmless fun” for us to joke or gossip over. It is hurtful, humiliating, and most importantly, a crime. Whether or not the women in question are celebrities is irrelevant. The way we share our bodies must always be a personal choice.

So, don’t click on those pictures. Don’t be part of the abuse.

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 27-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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Opinions, Vanessa Tai

Stefanie Sun Doesn’t Owe Us Anything – Vanessa Tai

Singapore’s favourite Mandopop star Stefanie Sun was recently photographed at a local fast food joint dressed in casual garb. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t even be news. However, because certain people have taken it upon themselves to write how Sun has an “obligation” to dress up in public, Vanessa Tai now feels obliged to speak up. 

To be honest, I had no idea there was even a brouhaha over Stef Sun’s fashion choices until Debs showed me this newspaper article. In it, the writer criticises the singer’s choice of outfit, saying that Sun “has an obligation to put some effort into how she looks in public” as she needs to “set a good example for her fans, especially the younger ones.”

Let’s get one thing straight, shall we? Stefanie Sun is an entertainer. The only “obligation” she has — if we really have to use that word — is to entertain, and that is only if we have forked out money to attend her concert. Other than that, it’s really her prerogative to do whatever she pleases. Why?

Her choice of outfit has zero relevance to “setting a good example”

Since when did someone’s dressing become a reflection of their values or principles? Look, she wasn’t going onstage nor was she hitting the red carpet. She was grabbing FAST FOOD, for crying out loud. Ask any (level-headed) Singaporean and they’ll tell you what she wore was completely appropriate. If anything, I reckon her lack of self-consciousness and down-to-earth approach— especially after 14 years of being in showbiz — is admirable. In fact, after the photo of her popped up online, Sun posted a tongue-in-cheek response on her Twitter account. She posted a modified version of the same photo, with the words “So Beautiful OK” scrawled across the photo.

This ability to laugh at herself and shrug off detractors sets a far better example than any carefully-curated outfit choice will.

Image credit: Twitter.com/stefsunyanzi

Image credit: Twitter.com/stefsunyanzi

Her choice of outfit has zero relevance to her work 

In her 14-year career, Sun has bagged numerous industry awards and has legions of fans across Asia. Talent aside, I daresay the main reason for her success is plenty of determination and hard work. It certainly is not because of her sartorial choices. And anyway, what is up with this fixation on a woman’s appearance? No matter how capable or successful a woman is, she will still be judged on how she looks. Just look at how certain news outlets dedicate columns of print just to tear apart the outfit choices of women like Hilary Clinton or Angela Merkel. Here are two people with brilliant minds looking to make a positive contribution to society and all we can think about is how they chose to wear a pantsuit … really?!

If we are ever going to make positive strides in workplace equality, we need to stop obsessing about people’s appearance and focus on what can they bring to the table instead. In this case, Stefanie Sun’s talent and success as an entertainer is the only thing that matters. Everything else is irrelevant.

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 27-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

Opinions, Vanessa Tai

Can We Stop Asking This Question Already? – Vanessa Tai

It’s 2014. Why are we still fussing over whether a woman decides to have a child or not? Vanessa Tai is annoyed that such a personal decision is even up for discussion.

I was recently scrolling through my Twitter feed and a couple of commonalties jumped up at me. First, there was an article about Cameron Diaz having to explain her decision to stay child-free. Then, there was another article about Karen Mok releasing a statement to dismiss pregnancy rumours after she was photographed entering a gynaecology clinic in Hong Kong.

And I got all this from just five minutes of scrolling through Twitter.

Just today, I chanced upon yet another article that touches on this topic. In an interview for the July issue of In Style magazine, Zooey Deschanel talked about how she’s sick of the sexist double standards implicit in the question “Do you want kids?”. Deschanel says, “Like every woman is dying to give birth! I don’t think so. Nobody asks guys that. And you go into a supermarket and every tabloid is like, ‘Pregnant and Alone!’ [We are] stuck in the 1950s ideal of how a woman should live her life. This brings out the fiery feminist in me.”

Yes, yes, and yes! In this day and age where women have made such strident leaps forward in the workplace and society at large, why are we still obsessing about whether or not she chooses to be a mother???

Even among non-celebrity folks, people seem to think it’s acceptable to ask a married woman, “So, when are you having kids?” As if such a question is not intrusive enough; if the woman reveals she’s not planning to have any, she’s likely to face a barrage of questions and comments ranging from “Won’t you regret it?” to “You’re just being selfish.”

What I wanna say to these “well-meaning” folks.

The Decision To Remain Childless Is Not A Selfish One

There seems to be an automatic assumption that women who decide not to have children are just being selfish by valuing their freedom above all else. The problem with such an assumption is, not only is it reductive, it’s often inaccurate as well. People choose not to have children for a wide variety of reasons but more importantly, they don’t owe anyone an explanation. Even if a woman really chose not to have kids because she wanted more time for herself, that’s her prerogative and she should not be judged for it. In fact, isn’t it more selfish to bring a child into this world simply to fulfil certain societal obligations or as insurance against any future regrets?

Each of us has different wants and needs in life, and we shouldn’t be made to feel like we need to fit into the rigid boxes created by society. We are free to create our own rules.

Now, before anyone misunderstands, I am neither in the “Women should be mothers,” or “Women shouldn’t be mothers” camp. I’m in the “Women should be able to do whatever they want” camp, especially when it involves something as personal as her body. Being a parent is an enormous responsibility that involves huge chunks of time, money, and effort. It’s not an offhand decision to be bandied about casually at parties or during idle Chinese New Year chit-chat with relatives you only see once a year.

At present, I am neither married nor a mother. In fact, I’m still undecided if I ever want to be one. However, if I ever reach a point in my life where I have to make such a decision, I hope the people around me will respect that it’s a private decision between my husband and I. As it should be.

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 27-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. She gets really irked by people who can’t seem to mind their own business. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

Opinions, Vanessa Tai

Please Stop Romanticising Poverty – Vanessa Tai

Living in a first world country means most of us — thankfully — are sheltered from the misery of poverty. This is precisely why Vanessa Tai reckons we have no right to make assumptions about people who are living with poverty.

material world_poverty

The poor are not one homogenous group. They are made up of individuals with their own stories, hopes, fears, and dreams. Just like you and me.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for the longest time, but I could never quite find the words to elucidate my thoughts. However, a conversation I had with my mum last week changed that.

Back story: My mum is currently doing volunteer work with underprivileged communities in North Thailand. Apart from helping out at the welfare organisations there, she also tries to rally support from her social network in Singapore. What she usually does is to try and match Singaporean benefactors with the needy from these communities, such as single mums or abandoned children. While most Singaporeans have been especially generous with their support, there were several people with attitudes I simply can’t understand. There was one person who — upon seeing a picture of my mum with several of the beneficiaries at a rambutan farm — commented, “If they have rambutans, they can’t be that poor. There’s really no need to donate any money.”

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a post about how we should all dig deep into our pockets and give money to the poor. No, not at all. What I’m trying to say is we need to stop objectifying the poor and expect them to behave or think in a certain way. This objectification is probably in part due to pop culture where the working poor are often depicted as “uncomplicated, stress-free, pure, and moral.” Just think of movies like Slumdog Millionaire, The Help or Good Will Hunting, where the poor are portrayed to have triumphed over their struggles through sheer hard work and grit.

But the truth is, poverty is such a blanket word that covers uncountable lives and stories beneath it. It’s not fair to pigeonhole the poor and assume everybody is going through the same experience.

material world_poverty quote

Recently, there was a piece of news that was making its rounds on social media. Member of Parliament for Jurong GRC Mr Ang Wei Neng suggested sending Singaporean students for field trips to rural villages in neighbouring countries so as to “better appreciate our success.” In his speech, he said, “Instead of city lights, the students would enjoy a beautiful sky full of stars. Instead of air-conditioning, students would enjoy the fresh morning dew. Instead of morning traffic noise, the students would enjoy the sound of singing birds. After going through the relatively tough field trip, the students will hopefully appreciate the infrastructure in Singapore better.”

While I understand the intentions behind MP Ang’s suggestion, I can’t help but feel more than slightly annoyed. To me, this mindset reeks of condescension and self-righteousness. The poor are not fodder for us (from privileged countries) to gawk at, or “learn from”. To me, his speech reveals his romanticised view of poverty, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Numerous studies have shown that people who live with poverty have the highest chance of coming from broken homes, developing substance abuse, and suffering from violence. In addition, the chronic stress of living in abject poverty actually shrinks one’s brain, which affects powers of reasoning, decision-making, and self-control.

Nothing pretty about that, is there?

By romanticising poverty and expecting the poor to think or act a certain way, we are trivialising a very real problem. If we sincerely want to cultivate an attitude of compassion and gratitude, it should not stem from comparing ourselves to others. If we want to help, we help because we feel a genuine compassion to help someone get back on their feet, not because we want to massage our egos or because we feel guilty for being privileged. I get it, sometimes our purely altruistic intentions get mixed in with thoughts of how we are “doing a good deed”. And that’s normal. What’s more important is that we always catch ourselves and re-examine our intentions of wanting to help someone out.

We didn’t choose our lot in life, and we certainly didn’t choose the families we were born into. Whenever I encounter someone with less privileged circumstances than mine, I pause and think, “It could easily have been me in that position.” This thought usually helps reframe how I choose to behave towards that person. That way, I no longer just see them as a needy “money receptacle” but as an equal human being who’s deserving of my empathy, respect, and concern.

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 27-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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Opinions, Vanessa Tai

Sex Is Supposed To Be Fun – Vanessa Tai

Everybody thinks about it, some people talk about it, yet there is still so much mystery and confusion that surrounds sex. Vanessa reckons we would all be better off if we could all just be adults about it. 

When it comes to sex, everybody and their mother has an opinion – you should wait till you’re married, you should only do it if both of you love each other, you should have as much sex as possible before you’re married, and so on. I, too, have an opinion. Ready?

Sex is supposed to be fun!

These days, however, it seems to be shrouded with so many layers of hang-ups, “rules”, and expectations that it’s almost miraculous anyone still bonks. Whether you think you’re having too little or too much sex, there seems to be a constant worry that you’re not conforming to certain standards. I say, who’s to judge what’s normal or not? Going by the annual sexual satisfaction surveys commissioned by Durex, Singapore regularly ranks at the bottom of the table anyway. Don’t let all the statistics, movies or magazine articles (including this one) tell you how much sex you should be having. Only you know yourself best. You know what works best for you.

material world_sex is supposed to be fun-2

Sex is not a competition, and it is a very personal decision. Whether you choose to abstain from sex until you’re married or whether you choose to have sex at every opportunity, that’s really your business and no one else’s. You shouldn’t have to feel pressured or guilt-tripped into doing anything you’re not ready to. No one has to know your “magic number” or what you like to get up to in the bedroom (except the person you’re sleeping with, of course).

Here’s what else sex is NOT …

Sex is NOT a weapon 

I’ve had friends tell me how they withhold sex from their partners whenever they are angry with him or when they want him to do something for them. Sexual politics baffle me. If the only way you can get your partner to listen is by withholding bedroom action, then I’m sorry to say, you have some serious communication issues. Similarly, if you’re using sex to get what you want in a relationship, that’s also not healthy. If you’re having problems, you’ll need to talk it out like rational adults. Being manipulative about sex will just compound the problem.

Sex is NOT a conquest

Some women may think it’s a form of empowerment to have a different sex partner every week, but we need to be very honest with ourselves. What are you really looking for? If you’re 100 percent certain that sex is truly just a physical act for you, then more power to you. But if you’re looking for sex as a way to validate yourself or to boost your self-esteem, it’s just going to break down eventually. Trying to boost your self-esteem through the approval of others never works. It may take more time and effort but it’s infinitely healthier to build your self-esteem through other means – doing things that you’re good at, helping others out, or even seeking professional help.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, let’s just be honest. With ourselves and with the people that we intend to sleep with. Problems only arise when either party is not open with the other. For example, if both of you claim you’re in this casually but you’re secretly putting out in the hope that he may fall in love with you, you’re just setting yourself up for heartbreak and disappointment later. Before you have sex with someone, you need to be very honest with yourself (and your partner) what is it you’re looking for. If you’re both not on the same page emotionally, it may be wiser to sort through your issues before you have sex.

Of course, I’m not discounting the fact that feelings may change after the deed. Human beings are emotional creatures after all, and sex may give rise to certain buried emotions that you didn’t realise were there. When that happens, you need to have the maturity to decide if you want to have a frank conversation with the person you slept with, or if it’s wiser to move on and find other ways to manage these emotions. Some people may say we wouldn’t have such problems if we abstained from sex altogether, but I respectfully disagree. Problems arise in human relationships all the time, with or without sex in the equation. The more important thing is to tackle these challenges with a rational and levelheaded maturity.

At the end of the day, as long as you stay safe (please use contraceptives) and are always honest with your intentions beforehand, sex shouldn’t be such an emotional minefield. Let’s bring fun back into sex!

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 26-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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Are Women Being Too Sensitive? – Vanessa Tai

The video of Emma Stone calling out boyfriend Andrew Garfield on his “casual sexism” has been making its rounds on the Internet. While most people reacted positively, there was also a group of people who predictably thought Stone was being “too sensitive”. 

Writing about gender issues has never come easily for me, yet I return to it time and again. Why? Because sexism is still an issue we face on a daily basis. Sexist behaviour may not be as overt as back in the day, but it still exists in our day-to-day interactions. From your male buddies cracking a joke about your figure to netizens posting memes like, “Get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich”, everyday sexism is still alive and well in today’s society.

The difficulty in calling out such inappropriate behaviour is two-fold. First, it’s not always easy to speak up, especially in our culture of “playing nice”. Second, how do you tell if the person making the remark was truly being sexist or if it was just a misguided offhand remark? This is something I struggle with often, especially when in the company of men. In a group setting where everyone is cracking jokes and poking fun at each other, calling out a sexist remark makes you seem humourless or like a “crazy feminazi”.

Does calling out sexist behaviour in a group setting make you a party pooper?

Does calling out sexist behaviour in a group setting make you a party pooper?

There have been times where I did speak up only to get shut down by people who said things lke, “Oh c’mon, I was just joking,” or “Don’t be so sensitive. Not everything is a gender issue!” These remarks made me second-guess my convictions and wonder if I was really being oversensitive. That was before I chanced upon this illuminating article on The Good Men Project.

Titled “Why Women Aren’t Crazy”, the male author explains why remarks like these are a form of emotional manipulation. When somebody tells you to “Stop overreacting,” they are feeding into the stereotype that women are emotionally unstable, and need only the slightest provocation to set them off. The writer adds that such behaviour is akin to “gaslighting”, which is a term to describe manipulative behaviour used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy. In other words, when people tell you over and over that you’re being too sensitive, you start doubting yourself and your beliefs. After having our opinions undermined time and again, it’s no wonder most women practice self-censorship and stay silent on things that bother them.

However, as much as we wouldn’t tolerate racist or homophobic behaviour, we should not stay mute on issues of sexism. When handled with grace and dignity, I believe we can call out everyday sexism and still walk away with our friendships and relationships intact. How?

Examine The Context Of The Statement

In early 2013, President Obama came under fire for describing California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris as “the best-looking attorney general in the country.” Many people were outraged, saying the president was being sexist by focusing on Harris’ looks. However, if you read the speech where he made that comment, he also praised her intellect and accomplishments. The comment on her looks was made almost as an afterthought. His comment may have been misguided, but it was definitely not borne of sexism.

As with the recent interview with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, I genuinely do not think he was being sexist. Unfortunately, our culture has been so imbued with traditional gender roles that we tend to have moments where we still think “this is a woman’s job” or “that is so unmanly”. Women are just as guilty of this as men. In such situations, you can choose to let it slide but I think it may be interesting to start a lighthearted but invigorating discussion (as Emma Stone did). Some people may be genuinely unaware about such insidious gender stereotypes, and would be game to exchange ideas with you.

Ask yourself, “Is it the right time?” 

If you are in a group setting and you bring this up, will it cause the other person to become defensive? Or is the person in question too drunk or distracted at that point in time that they’re not going to hear anything you say? Also, will it be better if someone else brought it up? For example, given my reputation among my friends for being pro-equality, they may (once again) dismiss me as being an overreacting feminist. Sometimes, it might be better to get a sympathetic mutual friend to convey the message.

Then again, it also depends on how you raise the issue. In a recent Forbes article about calling out everyday sexism, one woman shared her experience with stopping sexist remarks in their tracks without destroying her relationships. She heard a comment in passing, turned to the two male co-workers and said calmly, “Inappropriate.” One of them responded, “Really?”

“Yes,” she said, and continued walking. The trick it seems, is in the delivery. When we hear an offensive remark, our automatic reaction may be to get shrill or preachy, or both. Don’t. Take a breath, and in a calm but firm tone, say, “Hey dude, that’s not cool.”

That’s it – no raised voices, no hard feelings, and a lesson learned.

Pick Your Battles

It boils down to how well you know the person. If you know your granduncle is never going to stop airing his screamingly sexist views, it’s probably a lost cause if you keep insisting on explaining to him why he’s wrong. As galling as it may be, perhaps this is one battle you don’t want to fight. But if the remark was passed by a friend whom you know to be an otherwise progressive and open-minded individual, it’s worthwhile taking him aside to quietly explain why his comments were inappropriate or offensive.

Because, as much as we really want to make every man understand how upsetting it is when they catcall us in public or make jokes about our figure or our abilities as women, we need to ask ourselves if they will even care. Are they willing to even question their culturally-inspired sexist tendencies? If a person refuses to even entertain the possibility that he/she may be mistaken, any form of argument is basically futile. My suggestion for dealing with such people is to mimimise interactions with them as much as possible. They’re just not worth your effort or emotional energy.

What are your experiences with everyday sexism and how do you deal with it? Share with me in the Comments section below!

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 26-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. She really hates the word “uptight”, and everything it represents. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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Why The Singapore Education System Is Everybody’s Business – Vanessa Tai

We’ve all had gripes about the local education system, but beyond just complaining, what else can we do to stimulate an environment of creativity? 

A local tuition agency recently made the news for a distasteful ad it ran in this month’s issue of POP Club, a magazine by local bookshop chain Popular Bookstore. The full-page ad, which was promoting an education workshop, included an image of a child being crushed under a truck with the headline, “Breaking news: Child trapped under 4 tonnes truck!” This is followed by a few lines of copy, asking “concerned parents” of children taking the GCE O- and A-Level examinations this year what they would do to “save” their child.

This is not the worst part. When interviewed by journalists, the founder of the tuition agency seemed to be clueless as to why the ad was creating such a furore. She explained that the intent of the ad was to convey to parents that their child’s future is “a matter of life and death”, and that parents have the power to change their child’s destiny.

Parents who’ve seen the ad have slammed it as “morbid” and “inappropriate”. And I agree with them. In fact, I’ll go one step further and say that this results-oriented point of view is a myopic one. It’s not new news that the Singaporean education system places great emphasis on results and paper qualifications, but I daresay the winds are slowly changing. If we want to be able to compete on an international stage, we need far more than just good exam results.

Why Everyone Needs To Care About Education 

As you’re reading this, you may still be a student or perhaps you’ve even been working for several years. You may have school-going children, or you may not. That doesn’t matter. Education isn’t just a phase in our lives that we leave behind when we start work. As American philosopher John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

In order for our society to thrive as learned and creative individuals, we need to inspire a culture where “alternative” education and careers are encouraged and celebrated.

Unfortunately, stressed out students are the norm in Singapore.

Unfortunately, stressed out students are the norm in Singapore.

In his series of TED talks on education, British education advisor Sir Ken Robinson talked about why our system of rote learning needs a complete overhaul. The public education system as we know it was created to meet the needs of 19th-century industrialism, so the subjects that were deemed most useful for work (for example, Math and Science) were pushed to the top. However, as we approach the golden years of the information age, we need more than just hard skills to excel in our careers.

Redefining Success 

As any seasoned career professional can tell you, paper qualifications can probably get you the interview but what determines whether you get the job (and the subsequent career progression) involves a whole slew of factors. These include having drive (also known as the hunger to succeed), a good learning attitude, and of course, experience. In this pragmatic article, the CEO of Black Marketing declares, “Singaporean qualifications don’t mean a thing without experience,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. How many times have you met someone who has an impressive list of degrees and MBAs but little to offer when it comes to real-world work projects?

Success doesn't always have to come from traditional careers.

Success doesn’t always have to come from traditional careers.

Local ministers have also voiced their concerns on this hive mentality when it comes to our definition of success. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan have echoed sentiments that “Singaporeans do not need to be university graduates to be successful”. In fact, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has openly said that Singaporean students lack drive, and that it’s a worrying trend.

The irony of these statements is, Singapore’s education system was built to create workers, not innovators or entrepreneurs. Thus, when students reach the end of their formal education, they’re often lost as to what to do for a living. It’s therefore unsurprising that Singaporean workers are the most unhappy in the Asia Pacific region. According to a recent Randstad World of Work Report, “23 percent of employees in Singapore feel unmotivated in their jobs and that their skills are not being used effectively.”

This is precisely why I am adamant that an education revolution is not just an isolated concern for students or parents of students. Government policies may not change overnight, or even within the next few years, but as concerned citizens of Singapore and of the world, we need to rally for a shakeup in the way we view education. As they say, “education starts at home,” so what does that mean for us? Here are some nuggets of wisdom from Sir Robinson that we can chew on as we interact with our children, our co-workers, or as part of our personal introspection.

1. Everybody learns differently

Playtime is one of the richest learning experiences in a child's life.

Playtime is probably one of the richest learning experiences in a child’s life.

Human beings are naturally diverse and different. What comes easily to one child may be a stumbling block for another. The problem with our education system is its rigidity and linearity. There’s this idea that education starts at a certain point, then you go through a track and if you do everything right, you will be set for the rest of your life.

We all know that’s not true. Life has a way of throwing different curveballs at us – economic crisises, getting laid off, job scopes becoming mechanised – and if we don’t build up a resilience early in life, it’s going to be tough to survive. We need to teach our children that it’s okay to fail, that in fact, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from failure. If one method of teaching doesn’t seem to be working, we need to be patient and tenacious enough to find another that works. Which brings me to my next point … 

2. Curiosity is the driver of human growth 

As Sir Robinson said, “Children are natural learners. If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will often learn without any further assistance.” Isn’t that true? As a very young child, my mother started reading to me, and it didn’t take long for me to get hooked. I visited the library and bookstore every week, and would spend long hours just reading. 

Conversely, when it came to Math and Science, I was completely averse to the system of “memorising and regurgitating facts”, and did poorly in these subjects. I understand, it’s not going to be easy to fight the system as an individual. But if you can come up with interesting and creative ways to teach the same principles, I assure you learning will come much easily. In secondary school, I had a Physics teacher who was passionate about the subject and he would conduct unusual experiments to help us remember Physics laws. That, combined with my friend’s patient (and very creative) coaching, I actually managed to do quite well for ‘O’ Levels Physics. 

3. Create a climate of possibility 

On the topic of alternative education, Sir Robinson said, “They’re very personalised. They have strong support for the teachers, close links with the community, and a broad and diverse curriculum, and often programs which involve students outside school as well as inside school. And they work. What’s interesting to me is, these are called ‘alternative education’. All the evidence from around the world is, if we all did that, there’d be no need for the alternative.”

How true!

As a society, we need to encourage our children (and each other) to pursue our dreams and passions, no matter how old we are or how lofty our dreams may be. There needs to be a culture of support where being a “musician” or an “activist” is not considered alternative, but part of the mainstream. Yes, there will always be a place in society for professional occupations such as doctors, lawyers, and bankers, but the human experience runs much deeper and wider than that. Equal importance needs to be accorded to “unconventional” education and career options, to the point where these options no longer become outliers but the norm.

Remember that memorable scene in Dead Poets’ Society where Robin Williams’ character declares, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 26-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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3 Reasons Why You Should Walk Everywhere – Vanessa Tai

material world_healthy

Project Get Fit 2014 starts today!

So you’ve resolved to get fitter this year, but are daunted by the prospect of joining a gym or running long distances. Here’s a tried-and-tested suggestion: try walking everywhere, as much as possible!

I love walking. If the time and weather permits, I try to walk as much as possible. This jaunty habit started way back when I was an undergrad in Australia, where the weather was cooler and getting around by foot was more convenient. When I returned to Singapore, I was soon consumed by working life and my main mode of transportation was taxis, so I hardly walked anymore.

However, ever since we started Material World, my time has become much more flexible, and I can better plan my routes beforehand. Now, if I’m not pressed for time, I eschew public transport to walk to my destination instead. So far, it’s been fantastic – rekindling this habit is almost like falling in love all over again! Still sceptical? Here are three reasons to convince you otherwise:

Excuse 1: “It’s too hot and humid in Singapore to walk.”

Granted, the weather in Singapore is not the most ideal for leisurely strolls in the park, but once you find ways around it, it’s really not that bad. I usually have a bottle of water, and a packet of wet wipes to keep me cool during my walk. Worried about sun damage? Just lather up on sunscreen, and you’re good to go. Or, simply find time in the evenings to go for a walk. Try this: after work, alight one or two bus stops before your usual stop, and walk the rest of the way home.

Excuse 2: “But it’s so boring to walk.”

I humbly beg to differ! When we walk from one place to another, we’re able to better take in the sights, sounds, and people around us. During my walks, I’ve discovered new eating places to check out, beautiful flowers I’ve never noticed before, and so on. All these are things that we may have missed when we’re on public transport (because our faces are likely glued to our smartphones), or even when we’re running (because we are moving too fast to admire anything). Walking literally forces you to slow down and smell the roses.

Excuse 3: “Walking is so inefficient. Running burns way more calories.”

If you’re looking to lose some weight, indeed running may be a more efficient form of exercise. A recent large-scale study conducted at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California concluded that running was more effective at aiding weight loss as compared to walking.

However, it’s worth noting that both walking and running share similar health benefits. In addition to the usual few that most people are familiar with – lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes – new studies have also found that runners and walkers had equally diminished risks of developing age-related cataracts when compared with sedentary folks.

Walking regularly keeps you mentally alert, even in old age.

Walking regularly keeps you mentally alert, even in old age.

My point is, I’m not advocating walking as a quick-fix to weight loss. In fact, I’m an advocate for walking simply because it’s an easy and proven way to long-term health benefits. And these benefits are not just physical too. Studies have repeatedly shown how walking regularly can boost our mental faculties and emotional wellbeing. One such study, conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, found that elderly adults who walked regularly were least likely to display signs of memory loss or dementia. Other studies have also shown the correlation between walking regularly and an improved mood, which doesn’t really come as a surprise, considering how walking releases natural pain-­killing end­or­phins to the body.

This new year, whether your resolution is to “be healthier”, or to “be more thankful,” or even to “be less angsty,” I assure you walking is one habit that can help you achieve your goal. Let’s make a deal – try it for a week or so, and report back on how you feel. I would love to hear from you!

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 26-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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5 Social Media Resolutions For 2014 – Vanessa Tai

Social media usage in Singapore is intense. Just take a look at the infographic below:


So, even as we make resolutions to lose weight, spend more time with our family, quit that gross habit … we should also consider making some changes to our online life. Because most of us are plugged in almost around-the-clock, it’s worthwhile examining how we can be better participants on social media. Here are some suggestions (please feel free to add your own in the Comments section below):

1. Be vigilant about your privacy settings

Yes, it can be tricky keeping on top of your many social media accounts. However, as we post more and more content online, it’s important that we regularly check our privacy settings. Not being on the ball with your privacy settings could lead to relatively innocuous situations like everyone on your Facebook knowing you have a penchant for listening to ’90s boyband hits on Spotify, to full-blown social media disasters (as exemplified by PR executive Justine Sacco). Which brings me to my next point …

2. Be more positive

While we may be tempted to fire off a string of passive-aggressive tweets about our co-workers, or rant on Facebook about the driver who cut our lane this morning, we should think about who’s going to see our posts. Everyone has their own battles to fight, and the world is angsty enough as it is. Do we really want to clog other people’s news feeds with our #firstworldproblems?

material world_social media

3. Be less hung up about numbers

Speaking of #firstworldproblems, is it really worth getting anxious over why that totally adorable picture of your pet/baby/boyfriend on Instagram isn’t getting as many Likes as it should? I know I’m not alone when it comes to incessantly refreshing my feed to see if anyone has Liked my post yet. If you do this too, please stop. One Like does not a validation make.

4. Be less of an armchair activist

Just as people Liking our posts does not equate with us being Ms. Popular, Liking a Facebook page for a social cause does not equate with social change. If we truly feel strongly about a cause, we should get off our computer chair and onto the ground to see how we can help. [Relevant: How you can keep the spirit of giving alive]

5. Be mindful that you’re talking to people, not robots

In an era where online debates are de rigueur, always remember that the person you’re arguing with is also a human being. Just like in real life, we should always aim to fight clean – that means no name-calling or personal attacks of any kind. And as much as possible, let’s avoid getting drawn into arguments with: (in this order) Internet trolls, people who are needlessly rude, and people who refuse to see another side of the argument.

What other social media resolutions should we adhere to? Tell me in the Comments section below!

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 26-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. She uses Hootsuite to manage her many social media accounts. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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The Secret To An Extraordinary Life Is Humility – Vanessa Tai

Most articles on leadership or self-improvement would tell you the secret to a successful life is having confidence, or a go-getter attitude. While that may be true in one sense, I believe the secret to leading a truly extraordinary life lies in an often-overlooked trait – humility.

What is humility?

#humblebrags are false modesty, not true humility

Humblebrags are false modesty, not true humility.

Here’s what humility is not: it’s not false modesty, nor is it low self esteem. It’s not a case where you think of yourself as ugly, stupid or worthless. It’s where you recognise your beauty or your intelligence, without placing yourself as more important than others because of it. A truly humble person acknowledges their strengths as much as they recognise their weaknesses, and is candid about both.

However, the paradox of humility is, the moment you think you’re humble is the precise moment you’re not. Humility is not something you can “achieve”. It’s a constant practice, something that we try to be mindful of from moment to moment.

Humility is having an others-first mentality instead of a me-first mentality. As CS Lewis put it, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking less about yourself.” If you consider how our first instinct is usually to look out for our own interests, and have a “What’s in it for me?” mentality, being humble is a wholly counter-cultural trait.

The Understated Power of Humility 

material world_leadershipWhich is precisely why it has the power to effect such enormous changes. In the 2001 management book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t”, author Jim Collins wrote that leaders of the most enduringly successful companies all shared a similar blend of fierce resolve and personal humility. These leaders never looked inwardly when dishing out credit; they looked outward instead. And when it came to taking responsibility for missteps, they looked inwardly at themselves instead of focusing on others.

In fact, the bestselling book by Dale Carnegie “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, which gives advice on being successful in business and relationships, actually contains a similar message. According to Carnegie, the best method to win friends and influence people is humility – praising others at every opportunity, being slow to criticise, admitting one’s own mistakes quickly, and not drawing attention to the mistakes of others. With over 15 million copies sold worldwide, wouldn’t you say Carnegie is definitely on to something?

Closer to home, Amy Yi Ou, an Assistant Professor at the NUS School of Business, studied 63 companies in China and found that companies with humble CEOs created a more empowering work environment for both top and middle managers.

Humility Can Improve Your Relationships With Others

Effective leadership aside, having an attitude of humility can also transform your interpersonal relationships. By putting the other person before yourself, by being willing to admit when you’re wrong, by being open to learning from him/her … you create a relationship that’s compassionate, patient, and ultimately one that’s far more contented than one where you’re constantly trying to outmanoeuvre each other.

What would relationships look like if we each put the other first?

What would relationships look like if we each put the other first?

When two people approach each other with this posture of humility, it would eventually ripple outwards to their respective circles of influence. Think about it – if someone has a “my way or the highway” type of attitude, or who’s constantly putting themselves down in the hope that you’ll prop him/her up with compliments, won’t you get tired eventually?

If we can create a culture where people listened more than they talked, where their first thought is not, “What’s in it for me?” but “How will this benefit others?”, don’t you think the world would be a far more pleasant place to live in?

But hey, I’m not naive. I know there will be plenty of people who believe humility has no place in a cut-throat, winner-takes-all society like ours. All I have to say to that is, I guess it all boils down to our own personal definition of a life well led. For me, an extraordinary life is one where someone sets aside selfish wants and desires to enhance the lives of those around them.

What does your vision of an extraordinary life look like? Tell me in the Comments section below!

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 26-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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Going Public With Your Feelings – Vanessa Tai

By now, you’ve probably read about Nicole Seah’s public confession on Facebook. The 27-year-old, who gained public fame during the General Elections 2011, wrote candidly about how 2013 was the worst year of her life. In her post, Seah talked about how she was burned out trying to juggle a full-time job with regular house visits and walkabouts, about receiving death and rape threats, and even suffering a physical panic attack. It was not all doom and gloom, thankfully. She rounded off her post with reflections on what she has learned along the way.

The reason why we tend to hold back from saying what we really feel.

The reason why we tend to hold back from saying what we really feel.

While a handful of cynics have dismissed this post as self-indulgent or even a carefully calculated political move, an overwhelming number of netizens have come forward to laud what they deem as “brave,” and “genuine”.

I belong in the latter group. Even if Seah had political intentions for posting this up, it was still a risk that she was taking. She was putting her reputation on the line, and it could easily have backfired. Supporters and would-be supporters of the National Solidarity Party (the party which she’s a member of) may have second thoughts about whether she’s mature or emotionally stable enough to run for political office. On the contrary, almost everyone who commented on the post or news of the post were thanking Seah for her honesty, encouraging her to keep going and, telling her she’s an inspiration.

Wise words.

Wise words.

Even if we are not in the public eye, it can still be difficult to talk about how we really feel or about the struggles that we face in our daily lives. I reckon this is especially so in the age of social media, where everybody tries to present their best (read: happy and successful) side. Whenever something upsets us, we have a tendency to try and get better as soon as possible. This emotional perfectionism leads us to think we always have to be rational and in control of our feelings all the time. Feelings of anger, sadness or anxiety are seen as being weak or vulnerable, as you may be afraid that you’ll get rejected or belittled if people knew how you really felt.

Opening up to a trusted confidante can speed up the healing process.

Opening up to a trusted confidante can speed up the healing process.

But the fact is, everybody goes through problems. (Yes, even those people with the perfect Insta-filtered photos!) Trying to put on a brave smile and sweeping your emotions under a rug is just going to make things worse in the long run. While you don’t have to take the Nicole Seah route and publish a public confession, it can definitely be cathartic opening up to a trusted friend or family member. In fact, research has shown that when you seek support from others during stressful situations, your body actually produces more oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle hormone”. What this means is, reaching out to others during stressful periods can improve your stress response and you actually recover faster from stress.

When you’re going through a rough patch, the first step to feeling better is to acknowledge your feelings. From there, you can identify the source of your feelings and let yourself feel the full extent of your emotions. If it makes you feel better, cry. Once you’ve unstuck those emotions and let them run its full course, you will be ready to pick yourself up and move on. In fact, I daresay you’ll be stronger and more resilient than before!

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 26-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. She’s guilty of the occasional bout of emotional perfectionism. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets

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The Unseen Poor In Singapore – Vanessa Tai

Recently, there’s been plenty of chatter in the news – both print and online – about the state of poverty in Singapore. In fact, a few weeks ago, one of the mainstream newspapers ran a feature on the poor among us. One story in particular stood out for me – this father of six has to work two jobs and survive on just four hours of sleep a day, all to scrape together $2,000 a month.

We may not see such poverty, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist

We may not see such poverty, but that doesn’t mean it does not exist.

While we may not see rampant begging or homelessness in Singapore, the disparity between the rich and poor is growing wider. In fact, according to data from the United Nations, Singapore now has the “second-most unequal economy in the developed world, behind Hong Kong”. More than 17 percent of households in Singapore have at least S$1.2 million in disposable wealth, whereas between 10 to 12 percent of households earn less than S$1,250 per month. In other words, 10 to 12 percent of households in Singapore are unable to “meet basic needs in the form of clothing, food, shelter and other essential expenditures”.

While several organisations have taken to rallying the government to define the poverty line in Singapore, a group of people have banded together to start the “Singaporeans Against Poverty” campaign. Their mission is to raise awareness of poverty in Singapore, so that regular Singaporeans like you and I can lend a hand to help our compatriots. Tang Lay Lee, who is in charge of Advocacy and Social Action for the campaign, tells us more.

material world_sgapWho are the people behind “Singaporeans Against Poverty” (SGAP)?
SGAP is an initiative of Caritas Singapore, the social action arm under the Catholic Church. Caritas Singapore is an umbrella organisation of 23 Catholic affiliates that reach out to the poor, including children, elderly, people with disabilities and mental health issues, prisoners and ex-offenders.

What was the purpose of setting up the campaign? 

The campaign was launched in October 2013, but the journey actually started a few years ago when Caritas Singapore was conducting research into our work with the poor. We discovered that not many people were aware that poverty exists in Singapore, let alone the causes of poverty. More often than not, it was scholars and analysts who were debating poverty and other poverty-related issues. SGAP was set up to encourage our community in Singapore to take ownership and responsibility for poverty in our midst. We believe it is not solely the Government’s job to solve or respond to the problem of poverty. Each and every one of us can make a difference.

One aspect of the campaign invites regular citizens to try living with $5 a day. What’s the purpose of this? How does this help the poor in Singapore?

material world_$5 challenge The $5 Challenge is a method used around the world to encourage people to be more empathetic towards the poor. It may not work for all, but it works for some. We hope that greater empathy will help people to recognise and respect the dignity of the poor.

What are some things that regular Singaporeans can do to help the poor in Singapore?

We believe the people in Singapore are creative and resourceful, and will be able to come up with their own ideas and initiatives beyond what SGAP is currently doing. However, there are plenty of options to reach out to the low-income group, whether it is through volunteering or simply by talking to the cleaners, security guards and others in our midst to find out more about what they’re going though. Through right understanding, the right actions will flow.

Dear readers, what are your thoughts? How else can we reach out to the underprivileged we encounter on a daily basis? Share with us in the Comments section below!

About The Author: Vanessa Tai is a founder of Material World who has previously worked on magazines Simply Her and Cosmopolitan Singapore. Now a freelance writer and a full-time contributor to this website, the 26-year-old dreams of attending every single major music festival before she turns 30. She firmly believes we should never romanticize poverty. Follow her on Twitter @VannTaiTweets.

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