Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hired Hand or Owner

PM Lee Hsien Loong's remark about how the poor in Singapore is still better off than the poor in the USA sparked an outcry of indignation by netizens. A picture, posted by The Online Citizen, of an elderly Singapore woman digging through a rubbish dump made its round provoked further debate.

Two lines of argument emerge from the comments. The first can be roughly summarised as a flat rejection of the existence of the hardcore poor in Singapore as being an acceptable state of affairs. Propoents of this view believes there are more than sufficient resources to help these people and there is no excuse why we don't impose welfare on them so that no one is hard up.

Another line of argument is that we must not become a welfare state. Many of these people do not want, consciously or unconsciously, to be helped. They are entrenched in their ways and any effort to try and lift them out of their poverty cycle is futile. Instead they should be respected and left alone. Some would even view them as deserving of the fate that they have brought upon themselves. One commentator suggested asking the woman in the picture how she feels. Another suggested that she is merely doing an honest day's work scavenging through rubbish dumps to find recyclable items that can be sold for money.

I myself have often is it right that I am enjoying a standard of living that is fairly comfortable when there are others who do not even have a quarter of what I earn? Often when I walk past the elderly at MRT stations I ask myself why doesn't someone help them out. Instead of standing at the underpass trying to sell tissue paper, why doesn't 7-Eleven or Cheers, hire them to help sell their wares and pay them a commission, or something? Why aren't they roped in by some companies to man a stall and so that they can make a legitimate living.

My wife suggested that some times, these people are unwilling to be helped. She offered her own experience in giving chances to those who are not so successful to do better by giving them business. However, time and again, these people do not seem to cherish the opportunities handed to them and, through their dysfunctional habits, sabotage themselves by not stepping up to the plate, delivering what they promised, and so on. What is one to do in such a case?

There is a saying that if someone takes advantage of you the first time, it is THEIR fault. However, if they manage to take advantage of you the second time, it is YOUR fault for being stupid enough to let them.

What is the Biblical approach to this conundrum? I believe it has much to do with your relationship to the person you are trying to help. The Bible distinguishes between the shepherd (or the owner) and the hired hand. If it is someone you are tasked to help, say an subordinate, or a customer, or a student, and that person refuses your help, it is perfectly reasonable to give that person the "three strikes and you are out" treatment.

However, we would approach someone we love or care about very much quite differently. We would not give the same ultimatum to, let's say, our parents, our siblings, or spouse. (At least we should not, although some do.) The reason is simply because we do not treat someone we care about like a case at work. Instead it is a totally different relationship where this verse applies: "Love is patient, love is does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered...[but] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7,13). In short, we do not give up on someone we love.

When we come across a delinquent student, a recalcitrant employee, a stubborn member of your constituency, or a difficult church member, what is your mandate from above towards that person? Is he or she merely one of the many sheep you are tasked to manage (John 10:13)? Or are you a shepherd with the love and ownership so that you are even willing to leave the 99 to search for the single lost one (Matthew 18:12)?

A hired hand's priority is to keep the system working, keeping in mind what is best for the majority, to keep the bottom line steady. That is a manager's mentality. For a manager, the "three strikes and you are out" is a perfectly acceptable mode of operation.

However, if one sees oneself as called to "feed my sheep" (John 21:17) one will see beyond the unwillingness of the person you are trying to help, and stand by that person all the way despite his or her resistance, much like the father of the prodigal who never gave up hope and faith.

Does that person deserve it? Of course not. Did the prodigal son deserve his father's welcome? Do we as Christians deserve God's forgiveness? Is that not the whole point of a gospel of grace. You receive even when you do not deserve. And you likewise give even when the other party does not deserve it.

If we help only those who help themselves, then we are operating on the basis of works, not grace. Giving up on people who are not willing to try betrays a hired hand mentality on our part.

So what do we do?

It was Steven Covey, in his book the "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", who shared the story of how a manager and the leader differs. At a lumber site, the if you need a sharper saw, you ask the manager. If you are hungry, thirsty, or in need of whatever supplies, you ask the manager. Is this leadership? The answer is obvious no. This is mere maintenance of status quo, or management.

So where is the leader? He is up the tallest tree, scouting where to harvest more trees, giving directions where to go next.

If our job is merely to maintain status quo, we are mere managers. A true leader will inspire, will exhort, will provide direction, will lead. How do you know if you are a leader? The easiest answer is to look back. If no one is following you, you are not a leader.

Coming back to the poor and needy in our society. Many, if not all of them are in their poor state because of one set of disadvantageous circumstance or another. Many are born into poor socio-economic families with lousy habits and attitude. Some are offered a ticket out via things like educational and employment opportunities. But the fact remains that many are stuck in their self-destructive ways and need help in breaking the cycle. This is where shepherds are needed, not managers, which are aplenty, be it in the church, the educational system, the work place or in our social network.

Who will leave the 99 sheep (which pretty much messes up our KPI) in order to pursue the single lost sheep? What is to be our attitude towards the stubborn woman who continues to dig through rubbish dumps or the tissue paper seller at the underpass? Do we say they had their chance, let them reap what they sow, or do we go all out to win them over like the shepherd going all out of his way to recover that single troublesome sheep?

These people do not need more handouts, more rules and discipline, more advice and rebuke. They need encouragement and inspiration to come out of their destructive lifestyle. In short, they need a hefty dose of agape love.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills.

"It's interesting that hard skills are considered better than soft, but when people go into management, it's the soft skills that ... make the difference in career success." C. Thomas Howard, director of the M.B.A. program at the University of Denver, explaining in a New York Times story (23 Feb. 1997).

Many students in my school seem to view the Communication module, which I facilitate, as an optional and unimportant module. So don't even begin to talk about the Culture module.

However, recently I got an MSN message from one ex student who is now working as a early childhood trainee teacher. She said something to the effect of "Mr Chen, you were right. Communications is more than just talking. I'm glad I took the course from you. Working life has so much politics."

That made my day.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Froh! Froh!

Glad, as His suns fly
Through the Heaven's glorious design,
Run, brothers, your race,
Joyful, as a hero to victory
[Schiller, from Ode to Joy]

Last night's SSO performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony must surely be the best SSO concert I have ever attended, and I am talking about almost 2 decades of being a regular of the orchestra.

I am glad I managed to win the tickets from 92.4 FM as it was completely sold out as early as a month and a half before the concert date.

Although the tenor took the Alla Turca section a tad too fast and the flute accompaniment got carried away and played a too loudly, it did not diminish my enjoyment of it. Somebody in the audience really did not like the 2nd movement and hissed at the end of it. True, it was a bit dodgy at times, but I honestly did not find it that bad. And the bass singer (I was astounded how young he is) at only 32 did not have as rich a voice as an older singer might have, but he was good! And one thing is confirmed...Asian singers seem to always produce a 'flat', tinny sound instead of the rich timbre of European singers.

However, despite these flaws, never before has the SSO succeeded in moving me so; at times nearly bringing tears to my eyes with the delicate lyrical section by the double basses and celli and at other times sending my heart racing by the rousing tutti. The choir, despite the high As did not sound like they were screaming as I had feared and the overall effect was astounding and majestic. My heart soared with the choir

Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Freude, schöner Götterfunken

It was music making at its best.

Did you know?

There is no synonym for the word synonym? Hahah!

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Today's lesson on communication noises was interesting.

My students pointed out how Psychological Noise (which include Cultural and Religious bias) can be a problem even with a simple thing like a Zebra crossing. To us in Singapore, a zebra crossing is a zebra crossing, for crossing the road. In Africa, zebra crossing may mean an actual herd running past you.

The word 'malu' means 'shame' in Malay. 'ma lu' in Chinese means 'road'. So the Road to Shame must surely be the Malu Ma lu.

Likewise, dog is 'anjing' in Malay, but 'an jing' is 'peace' in Chinese. So is a quiet dog an 'anjing an jing'?

What took the cake must be the response from the class when I told them how my late mentor Dr Douglas once remarked that exclamation marks should never be used 'unless it is an actual ejaculation.' I pointed out to the class that the Biggles books, written during the early part of the 20th century for boys were full of 'ejaculations' of the verbal type.

Din, my student pointed out that is must surely be a 'semen-tic' noise.

Very punny.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


As usual there was a long queue for bus 902, the shuttle to RP. Sure enough some kid would saunter up to their friend already in line, strike up a conversation, and then neatly inch his or her way into the queue. If the queue jumper is near enough, I usually reprimand them and they would slink to the back in shame and join the queue at the back.

Today one girl cut into the queue right in front of me and started talking to the person immediately ahead of me.

"Excuse me, are you trying to jump queue?" I asked sternly.
"No, my friend here was queuing for me!" she replied defensively.
"Got such thing, ah?" I exclaimed, flabbergasted.
"Yah wat!" the recalcitrant individual had the audacity to reply, and continued with the line to board the bus.

I was at a loss for words!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

When s**t hits the fan

It's a basic principle. When things go wrong and someone tells you about it, that person wants:

1) help
2) reassurance/encouragement
3) comfort/sympathy

They are NOT asking for advice on how to solve the problem. That can come later.

It's amazing how often people forget that.