"This is a very tricky topic as it is too generalised and you can't score high marks unless you have read widely and are able to link topics on loss," I said. I knew he did not bother to read the Straits Times Newspaper to be more aware of current affairs and be knowledgeable or visit the National Library even once a week, as he had better things to do, like computer gaming and watching television or going out with friends. All these activities cut off the time for research and self study. So, it was a foregone conclusion that he would not have a powerful command of the English Language.
"It was the only topic of the four I could write about. I wrote more than 600 words. It was an exposition essay requiring 350 - 600 words. The other topics were public ban of smoking, advices I had received, how to fit in a group and sights and sounds of a school event.
"What did you write?"
"I wrote about relationships," the boy pointed to the examination paper where he had scribbled the outline of his essay. The outline was less than 20 words.
Three examples on loss of friendship and love were scribbled. This was insufficient content in an essay. I felt an instant sadness as I knew that this boy could excel in his studies but he did not know how.
His mum believed in not hovering around him like a hawk, ensuring that he studied the hours and go for tuition, unlike other Singaporean mothers. It was too late now. His academic foundation was wobbly judging from numerous red marks in his examinations in the past four years of secondary school. Somehow, below par performances in examinations did not bother this boy as he believed he would do well at the "O" level examinations and qualify for studies a junior college. It was youthful optimism untainted by the too many failures and disappointments of adulthood.
"How many marks did you get out of 40 maximum?" I asked this strappy sixteen-year-old boy whose face had been burnt chocolate brown by the four years of National Cadet Corps marching under the hot tropical sun. He was one head taller than Nurse Ann and looked more like his mother.
"I had 23 marks," the boy whispered as he knew I had always expected him to perform well academically since he was in primary school.
"That would be 58% and would be not good enough to help you qualify for the top ten junior colleges," I said. English Language was a core qualifying subject and every mark counted in this preliminary examination. Students who had excellent results from 5 subjects including English Language would get enrolled into the junior colleges earlier by three months while the others would have to wait and if they are disqualify, there was the polytechnics or institutes of education.
"It is difficult to write a high quality essay on 'Loss' unless you read widely," I said. "Many junior college students would not be able to score well in this topic too, unless they had read widely and are able to elaborate more on 'Loss' generally and link them politically, socially and economically. Many of such topics require that you give a variety of illustrations rather than just personal loss of friendships."
Why did the teacher give a question on "Loss"? Could it be related to some significant events recently?
Events such as the September 11 2001 loss of lives, properties and share values. This would be world affairs. The corporate corruption of Enron causing loss of confidence in shareholders who now don't buy much shares leading to loss of capital for companies would be economics. So would the US$30 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to help the Brazilian economy from a country going bankrupt, leading to loss of jobs.
In Singapore, the loss of a life to liver failure of a Singaporean woman who took Slim 10 dieting pills would had social consequences. Pet loss of newly purchased puppies due to viral diseases are very traumatic to the new owner who loses money as well as suffer grief.
Most Secondary Four boys will be caught at a loss of words when given essay questions to write as they don't read widely and hence cannot link events to "Loss".
They don't like to read the essays in the newspapers and hence do not have a powerful vocabulary to tackle essay questions well. They love tabloids, Archie comics, television and computer gaming. The majority of teenagers do not go to the Library.
The school teachers in Singapore are kept busy with high numbers of pupils taught per student and had to teach more than one subject and do administrative and extra curricular activities. Some of them get hoarse voices and had to go for voice training after five years of teaching.
It would be an unusual teacher who had the high energy to teach the boys from bottom classes good English as such boys are really not interested in studies. Nurse Ann's son was in the bottom class because he had chosen a biology subject which was only taught in this class. Nurse Ann did not comment much. She was a believer in positive reinforcements. No discouraging remarks. No brutal frankness as this will de-motivate the boy.
The telephone's ringing interrupted my thoughts on "Loss". Mr Tan, an industrialist, said, "Do you remember me? I have to export my dog to Myanmar as I can't keep him in Singapore. Can you issue a veterinary health certificate?"
I could not remember Mr Tan. There are many Singaporeans with the surname of Tan. "Well," Mr Tan said, "Do you remember the dog whose two balls popped out of his scrotal bag, after a vehicle accident and you castrated him?"
I could remember this uncommon case. It was at least two years ago. A skinny cross-bred was all I could recall.
"Please bring your dog to the surgery for the health examination," I said.
Mr Tan wanted a certificate without the need of an examination because the dog would attack people. It was a strong dog and was hard to control in the car. "It will save you time and I will still pay your professional fees," he said. "You had seen the dog before."
Certifying an animal for health without inspection is a loss of professional integrity for a veterinarian. There would be such requests for many veterinarians.
"I need a dog licence but it is difficult to apply for one," Mr Tan continued. He was fluent in the Cantonese dialect but he was knowledgeable about the rules and regulations. His dog was over 40 cm at the shoulder height and over 10 kg in weight and would not be permitted to be kept in his (Housing & Development Board) HDB apartment. The HDB industrial park operator also prohibited the keeping of dogs by tenants. Therefore, he was in a fix even though he wanted to export this fearless dog.
This dog was intelligent. He would be the sentry to watch out for the dog catchers while the others would nap under the container. Once he saw the blue cranky Land rover moving in, he would warn his mates and they would disappear. For the past three years, he had evaded capture. I was glad that he would be exported as capture of a stray dog meant death for him.
I told Mr Tan that I would apply the dog licence for him as it could be done electronically. The cost of a new licence for a male dog was $20.50. He gave me fifty dollars. It seemed like easy money. Just click on the mouse and email the form. The licence would be posted to Mr Tan.
It was not simple to apply electronically. There was a need to download the Acrobat software so as to read the form electronically.
Then, the form had to be downloaded and printed out. If I wanted to pay electronically, I had to get the form approved by the licensing authority first. Then I had to download a software called e-wallet and register myself. This was to avoid fraud. To pay, I must buy a cash card reader machine which could read my cash card. That would set me back by one hundred dollars if such cash card reader machine is still available for sale.
How about payment by credit card as in amazon.com when you buy a book? It was not possible to pay by credit card directly.
The whole application journey was unbelievably tortuous. In the end, it was easier to ask Nurse Ann to take a taxi to get the licence directly.
I had to make a house-call without charging Mr Tan, to make sure that there was a real dog before getting the licence. This whole process was a money-losing proposition.
At the industrial park factory, the dog, kept in Mr Tan's office, leapt straight onto me, ready to attack. Mr Tan had forewarned me and I was ready.
The dog was in excellent health and had no problems with his operation. I asked Mr Tan to lift up his tail so that I could check that he was castrated. I could remember the unique accident case but not the identity of this dominant dog.
I did not ask Mr Tan, but I guess he would be fined $500 if he was found with an unlicensed dog and in any case, the industrial park operator would penalise him for breach of tenancy agreement and evict him.
Mr Tan loses a good dog but I am glad that this sentry will have a safer life in a nice house in Myanmar without having to be on guard for his life as the dog catchers intensify their rounds each time a Singaporean complains about stray dogs.
Fortunately shot guns are now no longer used in Singapore after a man sleeping amongst stray dogs was shot and died. Singapore loses top talents to other countries as the world globalisation provides more opportunities for emigration. Losing a top dog owing to bureaucratic obstacles and penalties would be of concern only to the industrialist who loved dogs.
A brief history of dog shooting in Singapore
Humane treatment of stray dogs and dog shooting in Singapore