In 2016, the government launched Skillsfuture (Portal), its most recent attempt to bolster Singapore’s famously pathetic productivity rate. It was promoted everywhere—in the papers, on social media, and in the darkness of my favourite cinema—as a means of helping Singaporeans reach their ‘fullest potential’ by ‘cultivating a culture of continuous striving towards excellence’.
Jargon aside, it sounded like a good deal. Every citizen would receive $500 worth of credit, and more importantly, the freedom to spend it as they please.
Skillsfuture’s chairman, Mr. Ng Cher Pong, hoped that this freedom would trigger a shift away from employer-led training towards a culture where individuals would ‘take ownership of their own training and development.’
He probably did not account for people like me, who had few fucks to spare for either national productivity or my own career. As a “writer”, the most beneficial courses were probably The Straits Times English Masterclass or something related to Digital Marketing, but I’ll be damned before I burn a weekend transforming myself into a more efficient slave for weekdays.
Luckily, Skillsfuture is a rather lax master. In the spirit of ‘ownership’, it allowed programmers to take cooking lessons while cooks can learn to HTML. There was nothing to prevent me from spending every last credit on the most random courses that just caught my eye.
And so I did.
Course No.1 was The Art of Breadmaking by Allspice Institute, a culinary school located in the same Bukit Merah industrial estate where a company once sent me on a course so it could collect a government grant for ‘entrepreneurship’ (such are the indignities of working for an SME).
Given this past experience, I half-expected to spend my day snorting yeast in a crack den.
To my pleasant surprise, it was nothing of the sort. The school lacked a glamorous location but its interior resembled every bit one of those those ‘cooking studios’ where tais-tais reconnected with their (likely non-existent) Peranakan roots by making kueh. There were spacious wooden tables, professional baking equipment with European-sounding brands, and wall-to-wall boxes filled with ingredients.
In the room beside us, a commercial of some sort involving shrimp was being shot. For the benefit of a camera, a chef in whites tossed handfuls of prawns again and again.
For the one-day, $126 dollar course, we would be making 3 types of bread: a Rye Loaf, Madeleines, and Banana bread. There were just two students, me and another guy who I shall call ‘The Rock’ because of his Hard Rock Cafe cap. An absent third student meant that we enjoyed a surfeit of both dough and attention from the bakery teacher, who had prepped the ingredients beforehand so we could focus on the more important lessons of kneading, mixing, shaping, scoring, and piping.
Even so, The Rock and I managed to fuck it up.
I can chop vegetables, fry bacon and toss a salad as well as any self-respecting metrosexual. But baking is whole different set of motions, entirely divorced from the familiar sensations of knife-work or grilling.
Furthermore, there’s no way to remedy your mistake. Chop an onion too roughly and you can fix it with a few more thwacks of the knife. Score a bread with uneven cuts and your only fix is to eat it and try again.
Luckily, The Rock proved no more competent and all our loaves bore the horrific scars of amateur surgery.
Verdict: Shaky fingers aside, the course was enlightening. I learned to stop kneading when the dough formed a translucent (“prata-like”) gluten windowpane when stretched between your fingers. I even learned the importance of gradually adding ingredients into the mixer.
However, I can’t help but feel a tad deflated because all of the recipes require specialised equipment that only true tai-tais can afford. You can’t make any of the items unless you have a proper mixer, a piping bag, some baking sheets, and ideally, a proofing oven for the yeast to work its magic.
After this crash course in bakery, my Skillsfuture journey came to a grinding halt.
Although the government has built a comprehensive, integrated portal for all your Skillsfuture-related needs, and while there is certainly no shortage of courses, signing up for a Skillsfuture class is no mean feat.
Many of the available programmes are ‘unavailable’ due to a lack of participants, and there will be detours aplenty as you hop from Skillsfuture to the websites of third party providers and back again.
Courses advertised on Skillsfuture’s ‘training exchange’ often disappear into thin air once when you’re redirected, and it’s not uncommon to face postponements, cancellations, delays, and the like after registration.
A Homebrewing (Mead) course that I was keen on got cancelled due to students’ conflicting schedules, and a ‘Creative Egg Cookery’ class vanished upon further enquiry via phone.
SkillsHQ academy, a school that focuses on drone pilot certification, hung up on me, seemingly unaware of their own advertisement for a course in Beginner Mixology.
On the ITE college’s programme, no less than 40% of the short courses were cancelled.
As a result, it was 2 weeks before I found another course that was running and actually interesting.
After all the focus on productivity, they forgot to mention that learning shit could be fun.
Learn To Be A Florist was the only course that lasted more than a single session, and at $110, it was the cheapest of the lot.
Class convened for 2 hours every Wednesday in the function room of a community club and there were 10 or so students, all learning to transform the leaves, flowers, and leftover stems into a floral arrangement worthy of display.
First, prune the plants of any defects so there would be ‘no pimples, no chicken pox’. Then cut off a section of the stem and make sure all of your tulips and sunflowers are of a similar height. After the centre-of-attention flowers are done, proceed to fill out your arrangement with leaves like Japanese Bamboo, wax, cypress sticks, and other leafy plants to serve as verdant backdrop for the flowers’ bold primary colours.
The downside is that my family didn’t care for the designs. I thought it was an admirable job, but I woke up the next day to find my parents had ripped apart my arrangements and put them in separate vases.
Once upon a time, in a fever of excitement, my mother brought home 7 (!) bonsai plants from a rather dodgy nursery. Over the course of a few weeks, the tea trees perished one by one until we were left with 7 naked stumps and a floor strewn with dead leaves.
Heartbreaking but not surprising, especially given our ‘spray-and-pray’ approach to gardening.
Thus, it was with a sense of profound fatalism that I signed up for the The Living Centre’s course: ‘Grow Herbs And Spices Successfully In Singapore Weather’. Given my family’s track record of plant abuse, it was probably more humane to just cook the basil.
The course was conducted in a small workshop right next to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. And unlike the other courses, The Living Centre enjoyed full attendance (!). In fact, getting a slot was difficult and I found myself being waiting fruitlessly for a vegetable-growing course before settling for herbs and spices.
It’s not difficult to understand why. This is the most insanely thorough course. Seated around a boardroom table that would serve as our garden-cum-classroom, the instructor, an Australia/Holland-trained agriculturist fed us with enough detail to make my head hurt.
Herbs are obtained from the leaves of plants (i.e. Rosemary) while Spices are obtained from other parts like roots or bark (i.e. Cinnamon). To grow them, 4 to 5 hours of sunlight are needed (Colorado State University Research) for the mature plant while indirect sunlight is a must if they are stem cuttings, whether grown in soil or water.
Never use pure topsoil which may originate from any random dirt farm in Indonesia. Use, instead, an arcane mixture of cocopeat (which holds water), perlite (which drains water) and vermiculite (which does both), because a more sterile mixture is friendlier for sensitive stem propagation whilst allowing you to control more accurately the water drainage and NAJKDFNASJKFKAFBDSALFafdafdafsdfdfsaf.
Honestly, I didn’t know gardening could be so complicated. After a morning of theory-crafting, I feel like a positive Neanderthal, stumbling out of the jungle and onto the Indus Valley.
Luckily, the afternoon proved a little simpler because it was a hands-on session. Using herbs and spices from nurseries, we planted seeds and stem cuttings for Basil, Rosemary, Mint and Thyme in our tiny pots to bring home. In-between watering the plants and cutting up mature plants, the other students besieged the instructor for advice on managing aphids and the nuances of watering Thai Basil, all while I struggled to retain the lessons of the morning.
After a tiring day, I stumbled out of the class with 7 pots and a sense of knowing even less than I did before; a feeling that I’m really just a bit too thick for the careful thought necessary to make a garden thrive.
This sense of ennui continued for about 3 days, until one fine morning, when I awoke to find 2 tender leaves sprouting from the dark earth (sorry, cocopeat) of my Basil pot. This was such an inspiring moment that I summoned my mom to the room and gave her a lecture about the power of applying scientific principle.
It was all very exciting until she reminded me that I had forgotten to water the plants yesterday.
500 dollars doesn’t seem like a fortune, but it’s quite a significant sum when you consider that it’s being dispensed to every man, woman, and child above the age of 25.
This is actually a crying shame because I genuinely enjoyed the baking, pruning, and watering that Skillsfuture put me through. It was relaxing and fun and strangely rejuvenating to try something new and to do something with my hands.
Perhaps this is the point Skillsfuture has missed. Like every other productivity fix that came before, all the emphasis is on employability, the future, career dividends, and keeping yourself relevant amidst violent economic change.
After all the focus on productivity, they forgot to mention that learning shit could be fun.
And this seems like a gaping flaw if the dream of lifelong, individual-led learning should ever become a popular reality.