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The Ivory Bungalow: A Letter from a Father to Russell Tan

Picture courtesy of tyglobalist.org

By now, there have been many great responses written in response to Russell’s letter, many arguing with a sharpness of mind far greater than mine and expression of words far clearer than what I could write. “Why you can’t separate equity from equality” and “The Rafflesian elite owes society the greatest debt”  are but two great counter-arguments to Russell’s view. I am writing from the my view as a father.


Dear Russell,

By now, you should know that your letter to the Straits Times has gone viral. There have been all manner of responses to what you wrote. To be fair to you, I am not sure how much your letter was edited before publication, as I am aware they often do. Sometimes, the tone of what is written can be changed quite dramatically.

As a father of a young son and a baby to come, I was incensed initially by your letter. Yet, I am not as worried for your naivete (for you have much to learn), as I am concerned for your sense of entitlement.

Many have pointed out that your narrow definition of ‘merit’ needs to be re-examined. I shall not belabour the point. What is saddening almost to the point of laughability is the thinking that the so-called elite are in their social positions because of some innate awesomeness; and that by inference, everyone else among us who are not lawyers or doctors or investment bankers are nothing more than ‘menial’ workers. For this, I think maybe your school needs to open you up to more career possibilities.

Do not forget, Russell, for a moment that where you are at this point in life has never been just about you and your awesomeness alone. You would be nothing without the teachers who have taught you. You probably would not have done as well in school if you had to juggle your studies with housechores at home; thank God for maids! For goodness’ sake, even the menial school cleaner who swept your classrooms made it possible for you to study.

Ask any doctor, and they will remind you that they would not be able to do what they do without their able nurses. Lawyers need their para-legals, MPs their grassroots volunteers. Heck, I dare say even the Prime Minister would struggle a whole lot without his PPS. So, Russell, please don’t forget, for even a moment, those who have helped you get to where you are. I haven’t even brought up your parents yet.

Young man, you do not yet appreciate the complexities of this life beyond simplistic dichotomies. You probably read too many of those simplistic rags-to-riches stories that do not do justice to the real struggles those individuals have had to endure. You, in your ivory bungalow, do not understand the intensity of the struggle that low-income families go through to try and overcome the odds of life.

The myriad of factors around the success of one individual are multi-faceted. Is it not about one’s tenacity and determination? To quote our outgoing Transport Minister, “The short answer is ‘yes’, but it is not enough.”

Young man, you do not yet know the complexities of this life.

One day, when you are a father, perhaps then you would know setbacks, failure and the reality that not everything is within your control only because of your intelligence. One day, when you are a father, you might hope as many of us do, for a society that does not measure your children’s worth only by their grades. One day, when you are a father, I hope that your eyes would be opened to see all that is beautiful and precious about their children beyond their intellect and ability – but value the innocence of their love, the valour of their dreams and the unbreakability of your bond with each other.

One day.

In the meantime, I hope you do not get to become a doctor or a lawyer (or rather, not yet) not because I do not wish you well; but because I actually do. You see, I have a wider definition of ‘good’, for you. And for our society.




7 Tips when Searching for Infant Care

And so a while ago, some contingencies took place at home with the caregiving options we had previously lined up for baby when Mama goes back to work, and we had to consider other options on who to care for baby when Mama’s maternity leave ends. When the option of infant care popped out, I realised that there was a lot we did not know; and hence we visited several centres to find out more.

Here are some tips to look out for: 

1. Carer vs Baby ratio 

MSF ECDA (Ministry of Social and Family Development, Early Childhood Development Agency) requires a certain ratio to be strictly followed to ensure that all babies get adequate attention and care at the centres. The mandated ratio is 1:5, but some centres have policies of maintaining a smaller ratio to ensure better care.

2. Health Policies

Check in with the centre what policies they have regarding the maintenance of the centre. Make sure that temperature monitoring is enforced and ask about how frequently the infant area is cleaned and sanitised. While it’s a definite ‘yes’ that your child will catch lots of nasty bugs at the beginning of his time at the centre (this can’t be avoided, really), frequent sanitisation helps a whole lot.

3. Teachers

You know, the teachers are really the most critical link in the loop. Babies being so young and so vulnerable, I am sure all parents would want to be sure that they are in good hands: loving and caring no less.

Baby and his Infant care teacher

To be honest, among the ones wifey and I visited, there were some which scared the hell out of us. Babies were left unattended, crawling everywhere or just thrown into rockers to attend to themselves. The teachers seemed more interested in their Whatsapp group chats and chit-chatting with each other that they weren’t really bothered with the babies. These sights really broke our heart.

And how did we know? We appeared outside the centres un-announced (meaning, we didn’t make a prior appointment) so we know that the teachers were doing what they usually do instead of putting on a ‘show’ for visiting prospective parents.

4. Care system

What system does the infant care centre employ? As most would know, attachment is a critical component in ensuring the child develops healthily in his social-emotional domains. Some centres adopt a ‘permanent teacher’ system – one teacher is permanently in charge of a number of kids assigned to her. Others employ a ‘pool’ system, where all the teachers help to care for all the kids. Each has its own merits.

A ‘permanent teacher’ system allows a child to build a consistent bond with a teacher, and this helps with attachment. There is also less chance for ‘office politics’ among teachers to affect their care for the kids. However, woe be unto the child and the other teachers should this ‘permanent teacher’ be on MC, annual leave or even decides to resign.

A ‘pool’ system is good if all the teachers get along well with each other and are pro-active in helping out whenever any child needs attention. I believe the early exposure to a few different carers also helps the child to build a sense of ‘resilience’ towards meeting different people as he grows up. Also, I like the fact that the child can learn to interact with teachers of different ethnicities, backgrounds and religious faiths and learns from a young age that difference exists among people and is something to be respected and not feared.

5. Flexibility

While older children benefit from having routines and structures in place, infants are still developing physically and may have very different needs at different stages and from other children. At this stage, they benefit from having some measure of flexibility in their sleep, feeding and playing times as this can change from day to day. Also, it is likely that at whatever age you send your infant to the centre, he would likely have developed some form of daily routine with you already.

Check with the centre teachers how much they are able to accommodate your child’s current schedules so as not to mess up his sleeping and feeding habits which you have painstakingly built up. Of course, it won’t be fair to the teachers to expect them to give the same level of attention that you are able to give at home; but if they are hesitant or significantly resistant to follow your current schedules, then it’s probably good to re-consider.

6. Curriculum 

Let’s face it: a four month old only knows milk, crying and sleep. He is too young for ABCs – but he will become old enough along the way to start some basic learning before he goes to playgroup. Gross motor functions, developing listening and paying attention are all examples of children’s development at this age.

Ask about what the curriculum is like for infants: what are activities some of the infants do, or the kinds of toys they play with? Where are the emphases placed on?


7. Atmosphere

Most important of all is this one factor that trumps them all: atmosphere. 

When you step into the centre, what ‘feel’ does it give you? Is it full of energy? Do you hear singing and laughter? Do you see smiles? Does the place smell of unchanged nappies?

Of course, there will always be babies crying at an infant care centre; but pay close attention to how you yourself feel when you enter the place. Does it make you feel anxious and depressed? Or does it feel lively and energising? How do the teachers interact with each other and with the babies, especially if you make an effort to turn up unannounced? This will give you a good gauge whether the centre is a place your child will be well cared-for and enjoy going.


Having said all these, I do realise that often, parents are limited in their choices because of location or cost issues. As a social worker, I firmly believe that the family is of utmost importance. Even if you cannot settle for the best option you have sourced out, ensuring that your own family is one of joy, love and acceptance is the best gift you can give to your child.