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Wed, Nov 25, 2009
The Straits Times
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Kids do say the darnedest things
by Eisen Teo

IN SINGAPORE, a journalist gets used to hearing the phrases 'don't quote me please' and 'no comment'.

Coaxing quotes out of Singaporeans afflicted with natural shyness or a suspicion of strangers is no easy matter. All too often, I observe my newsmakers warily eyeing what I'm scribbling in my notebook as I talk with them.

But one group remains unaffected by this fear of expression.

They open up frankly and without prejudice. They deliver the best zingers, one-liners and truisms.

And, oh, they are barely 10.

Part of my job on the youth beat entails frequently covering events organised for primary school pupils.

On a recent assignment to cover 35 mentors in their 50s to 70s who accompanied 81 primary school pupils on an afternoon tour of the Marina Barrage reservoir, 60-year-old retiree Jimmy Lim had his hands full with 16 Primary 5 pupils from Gongshang Primary.

When he pointed to the rippling waters of the Marina Reservoir and said, 'We are going to drink this water', a boy cried out excitedly: 'Newater, Newater!'

Another chimed in: 'Time to jump into the sea!'

Then there was the educational tour of the Botanic Gardens by National Parks Board staff a week later.

When the two guides, who were in their 20s, instructed the 30 children aged four to 13 not to hurt any insect or creature they came across, one shot back: 'How about mosquitoes?'

And when the group was later introduced to a 100-year-old rubber tree from Brazil, another cheeky child popped the question: 'How much firewood can I get if I cut it down?'

Then there are the sit-down interviews.

Gems like 'when I grow up I want to build an air-con dome around Singapore', 'the giraffe nearly kissed me today', and 'my English teacher is more scary than the lions at the zoo' never fail to crack me up.

But these gems need careful mining: I insist on sitting the children down next to me, smiling a lot and using informal language - as opposed to towering over them sternly, asking them question after question.

And most of all, it is an exercise in patience, especially for a representative of Generation Instant Gratification.

I have to let them ramble on, even about the (seemingly) most frivolous things, waiting obligingly for great quotes and interesting insights into how a 10-year-old thinks.

I try not to forget that in 10 or 15 years, they will become my readers, newsmakers and stakeholders, as their youthful energy propels this country forward.

If we want to engage them and understand them, be it as a parent or any other organisation, we should take their light-heartedness seriously, and stop dismissing them as just 'kids'.

And yes, I sometimes do wish every last person I interviewed possessed the frankness I find so easily in a Primary 4 child.

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This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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