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Our group did an exercise to help us hone our observations skills. We were to station overselves in a place (home, train station, kopi tiam, hospital, airport, etc) and just observe using our senses and write down our observation. Here’s mine.

It is 7.30 am. I take forever to get myself dressed. I am both half asleep and hungry. Armed with a pen and scratch paper, I make my way to the nearby coffee shop. I expect to see a crowd – that was the way it was when I went there two months ago after it was newly renovated. The newness has died down. There are fewer people than I expected.

The upgraded coffee shop is clean and airy – miles of improvement from the dark, cramped and dirty looking shop that I remember. Half the stalls are still dark. The poh piah seller arrives and begins turning on the lights to prepare for a hopeful business day.

The permanently fixed tables have orange tops and backless chairs. I am spoilt for choice as to where to sit.

I scan the backlit sign boards that show mouth-watering familiar local favourites like char kway teow and chicken rice; iced lemon tea, lime juice, half-boiled eggs and kaya toast, but my mind is already made up – it’s oily crispy roti prata for me this morning. There is no queue and I get my order very quickly.

I plunk myself strategically. Good morning senses.

There is a quiet hum of the fast spinning ceiling fans above. Mental spoons clink again the cups as customers stir their kopi or teh. The kopi counter is crowded with cups and canned drinks. A neat row of cigarettes of every brand are in the display just above the counter. Coffee servers in blue and white stripped polo shirts and a Tiger beer logo ply around to take orders. Read the rest of this entry »


My friend and nominator  Shirley Leong surprised me in August 2008 when she called to say she was nominating me for the Mediacorpradio Lifelong Learner Awards.  It set me reflecting on my learning journey. Maturing without losing innocence, curiousity and the adventure spirit of a child keeps me fresh and alive as a person and as a writer.

In 2003, the Management Development Institute of Singapore where I did my diploma in Mass Communications (MC) published an article which I wrote I wrote about studies which has the seed of what I am elaborating on here…

One day my Mass Com classmate Bob and I were travelling together on the MRT to go for our exam. Bob asked me, “What questions did you study?” He meant what questions did I spot?
I told him, “I studied everything.”
He was very shocked. He said, “Everything?”
I said, “Yes everything. I didn’t go back to school to pass an exam, I went back to learn. So I’m learning.

I did poorly in secondary school because I was playful and couldn’t find meaning in what I was studying for. My poor grades were something I lived to regret for a long time. When the opportunity came to go back to do my MC in my 40s, I was thrilled no end and saw it as a gift, a second chance. Many people go to the university to get their education, I learned along the way that there is such a thing as formal and informal education.

Mark Twain is attributed to have said, “Never let school interfere with your education.” That was a great comfort and inspiration to me. I have never let my learning become limited by “school” as we know it.

According to, the word university comes from the Latin universitas, “the whole,” from universus, “combined into one.” I got my education mostly from the University of Life.

An interesting thing I discovered, about the word “school” while writing this post: the word school traces back to Greek skhole “lectureplace,” but earlier it meant “leisure,” “learned discussion,” and “study.” I like the original meaning of school… leisure.

In the 90s, I took a series of ten-weeks evening classes at the Singapore Bible College. I found out that my favourite teacher, an elderly lady, had gone back to the university in her 60s to upgrade herself. I made it my aspiration then never to stop learning. says the term disciple is derived from the New Testament Greek word μαθἡτἡς“., coming to English by way of the Latin discipulus meaning “a learner“. There are many people I know who have stopped learning.

Another friend once told me, “Never reject a new experience if it is not morally wrong.” Well I have not accepted every single opportunity but for the most parts, I have tried as much as I can to at least try it once.

What are some skills I have learned along the way?

Mostly through informal learning, short courses, networking, personal reading, I’ve learned to use the computer, use graphic design software like Adobe Photoshop, inDesign, Macromedia Dreamweaver, Adobe Premiere etc. I can take photos and make digital stories, videos, design websites, do blogging, cross-stitching, cook, write, speak Filipino…

Some of the things in the recent years that I feel a great satisfaction over: getting my articles published in The New Paper, Today paper, Chicken Soup for the Singapore Soul, and publishing my book, “How the Moken Sea Gypsies got their Book“. (I did my own layout and design too!)

What has helped me in my learning journey?

Understanding my learning style has made a big difference in getting me where I am now. While I was playful (and irresponsible) during my school days, I believe that a small (I emphasise small) part my failure had to do with the one-track way in which lessons were being taught.

For instance, I realise that I am a hands-on person. When I wanted to learn how to make websites, I started out asking questions from friends who knew how to make them. From the things they taught me, I started trying them out on my own. I borrowed many books from the library and learned by trial and error. In all I tried about four different types of software: PageMill, FrontPage, DreamWeaver, and now WordPress.

I also did a lot of surfing on the internet. There are so many resources out there, even video tutorials.

When I felt I had hit the ceiling, I enrolled in an evening class. By they, I knew exactly what I didn’t know. I went to class with my ammunition of questions. I don’t think my teacher liked it very much. He said I asked too many questions. I didn’t let the school determine everything I wanted to learn because I knew to some extent what I wanted to know.

I also realise the value of formal education having gone back to do my diploma. Being in a routine, being with people who are pursuing the same disciplines, having systematic teachings, taking exams are helpful for me.

There is a saying, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Right now, I am part of a small writers support group – this is also very helpful for me. We keep our writing passion going. There is celebration when one succeeds. It inspires the rest of us to press on. And, there are friendly jokes and gentle reminders when we slack.

What keeps me learning?

I learn because I enjoy learning. I derive much pleasure when I can do things.

But I also have a bigger reason that keeps me learning. Recently I read a quote (I forget its source now). It said,

Success is when you add value to yourself.
Significance is when you add value to others.

When I went back to school (MDIS), I made two decisions that would steer me through my course — To be the best student that I could be (my only competitor was myself) and to serve my classmates. I believe I did them both in my 15 months of studies.

I don’t want to just be successful. That becomes meaningless after a while. I want my life to have significance. That to me is real success.

My other role model is Aunty Say Bay, a 74-year-old anthropologist — I had the privilege to write her biography. She never stops learning and she is always thinking about others and how to make them succeed in life.

Some things I have done?

Gone for community service trips to serve the poor and then later leading a team to build houses for 2004 tsunami-hit victims in Thailand. I have always said, “I have more ideas than I have life to live.” I can’t help thinking and dreaming about things I can do to build people up and then being a catalyst to encourage others to do the same. I know what it’s like to fail and to feel like a failure.

I don’t think I have done much in terms of “productivity” or “making more money” etc. But I like my life as it is: making a difference in the lives of other people.

Many years ago, I took up piano lessons. I played the drills and the scales but I couldn’t hear the music. I find that ironical because my father and his siblings loved music. It was always a part of my life.

I think a good teacher is one who can help the student to have a love for the subject, whatever that subject might be. And then, they should give them basic skills on how to learn on their own and how to find resources. I think if a teacher can do that, they have set their students up for life and they would never stop learning.

To all those who have gone before me, taken time for me, and believed in me. Thank you.

I hope I never stop being a learner.

For her exemplary learning journey, Angeline Koh, our fellow writer here in the Writers Coffee Lounge was awarded last night as one of the 16 winners for the Lifelong Learner Awards 2008 at Meritus Mandarin Hotel jointly organised by MediaCorp Pte Ltd, Singapore Workforce Development Agency, NTUC, and SPRING Singapore.


(Angeline Koh, currently on overseas trip, was represented by her nominator Shirley Leong (third from right).)

The Lifelong Learner Awards, now on its seventh year, recognises individuals and companies who “persevere in upgrading their skills and taking on new challenges to stay relevant at work…who proactively put in place a culture of lifelong learning at the workplace…”

Angeline Koh, one of the writer contributors of Chicken Soup for the Singapore Soul, and author of the book How the Moken Sea Gypsies got their Book published in 2007 was nominated by a friend Shirley Leong, who took notice of Angeline’s pursuit to learn and motivate others as well.

Congratulations, Angel! We are proud of you!

Here’s a short article about Angel on Today newspaper (19 Nov 2008):

1Growing up, Angeline was so playful that she neglected her studies. She coasted through secondary school before enrolling in a vocational institute to study advertising art after her O levels. Six months later, she was asked to leave. Discouraged by the expulsion, Angeline felt that she was a failure.

To add to her misery, her thyroid condition worsened. But that period served as a wakeup call to Angeline, and she not only discovered her creative talents, but also her calling at a Christian organisation that specialises in people development, The Navigators Singapore.

During that time, she took up various courses to upgrade her skills, including a diploma in mass communication which she completed in 2002. Her hard work has paid off and today, she is the organisation’s communications director.

Of her journey to success, Angeline said: “I believe that one should never stop learning and that is how I got to where I am today.”

The Feng Shui Detective is the first of a series of novels featuring the detective work of feng shui master C F Wong. The author, Nury Vittachi, was originally from Sri Lanka but now lives in Hong Kong.

C.F. Wong, at 56 years, is an established China-born geomancer who has settled in Singapore. Assisting him in what he does are Winnie, his nail-conscious secretary and Jo, an apprentice he is obliged to take under his wing. Wong uncovers more than just negative chi’ energy in his assignments which take him to surrounding Asian regions. As a sideline, he writes snippets of oriental wisdom, which he hopes to compile into a book.

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The week hasn’t ended yet but what a fabulous week it has turned out to be so far. Just one more day left to the Asian Storytelling Festival. This evening, Aurelia and I attended author Nuri Vittachi‘s talk on “How Asia will become the world’s hotspot for cultural creativity.” We were impressed not just by the talk but also by his warmth and personal interest he took in talking to his audience — us included.

When Mr Nuri Vitatachi was about to leave the Arts House with author Dilip Mukerjea, he turned around said to Au and myself. “Come join us for dinner. I’m paying. I insist!” Here’s proof…

Aurelia, Angel, Nuri Vittachi, and Dilip Mukerjea

Nuri gave us each an autographed copy of his book, “Twilight in the Land of Nowhen” and Dilip gave us each a copy of his autographed book, “Taleblazers.” WOW!

Nury Vittachi (born 2 October 1958 in Ceylon) is a Sri-Lankan author and journalist. One of his most well known works is the comedy-crime novel series The Feng Shui Detective, which has been translated into French, German, Portguese, Italian, Indonesian and other languages. He has had regular slots in more than a dozen publications, and several television channels. He is also noted for playing a key role in founding the Asia Literary Review, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, the Man Asia Literary Prize, and is advisor to a number of other literary festivals in Asia.

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