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Learning to Unlearn: Conversations With James Seah and John Krishnaputra

Conversations with James Seah and John Krishnaputra

By Carolyn Oei, 03 September 2017

When I was 24, or thereabouts, I hated every minute that I spent poring over lecture notes and past assignments; all in aid of clearing the Bar exams. I swore never to sit another exam, ever again.

And I haven’t. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped learning. Over the last 10 years alone, I’ve taken my French to the Intermediate level, taken proper Malay lessons so I would stop speaking pidgin Malay, done a basic level sign language course and learned how to use a bloody smart phone. I’m GenX and actually still like writing in a notebook with a pen.

Instagram Stories, algorithms, emojis; mere child’s play.

For James Seah, a blogger based in Singapore who turns 70 on 28 September (many happy returns!), all that new-fangled gobbledegook is indeed child’s play.

James Seah blogs to express himself. Photo: James Seah

Seah started his blog, Blog To Express, in 2007 and describes himself as a “recycled teenager learning to blog”. Well, amen to that because Seah is essentially an archivist and his blog is a trove of history lessons on Singapore. Incidents like the Bukit Ho Swee fires, for example. These are close to his heart because he was born in the estate. There were no less than three fires that swept through Bukit Ho Swee over a period of 40 years – in the mid-1920s, 1934 and 1961. In 1968, one last fire obliterated all remaining squatter huts. Bukit Ho Swee wasn’t HDB (Housing Development Board) heartland it is today. Back then, it was largely a squatter colony littered with makeshift huts. 

History and nostalgia are what interest Seah, so much so that he started a Facebook group – Ways Done In The Past – that is a repository of memories, “to pass to my children and grandchildren for posterity.”

Seah is also on Instagram (@thimbuktu).

So, why did Seah bother with navigating his way through technology to have an online presence in aid of history and nostalgia? Why not stick to plastic photo albums and anecdotes at weekly family dinners? 

He replies, “Because some things we learn in the past have to be unlearned and we have to let new things teach us. Education is endless as long as a person is alive.”


John Krishnaputra is, by any definition, a Renaissance man. Crowned the Over-45 Singapore tennis champion in 2015, Krishnaputra is quick to remind anyone that “oikonomia” in Greek is the art of managing a household and he thinks that the word ‘modern’ is rude. 

“Being ‘modern’ essentially means that you’re disconnected from the earth, from Nature. Everything is so industrialised that there’s nothing human anymore,” he laments.

The son of a Buddhist father and Catholic mother, Krishnaputra was the quintessential troublemaker as a schoolboy in Medan, Indonesia. He can’t remember ever studying for a test or exam and when he failed high school, his parents shipped him off to Brockwood Park School in England. Krishnaputra spoke hardly any English then.

Krishnaputra credits Brockwood for turning things around for him – for one thing, it was there that he learned how to make organic tomato chutney. The school was founded in 1969 by Jiddu Krishnamurti, an educator and philosopher, and its key tenets are an awareness of self, equality and nurturing “a spirit of responsibility, co-operation and affection”.

John Krishnaputra chose to experience life through travel and work. Photo: Carolyn Oei

Now 54, Krishnaputra recalls his alma mater and explains, “At this avant-garde, almost experimental school, I was introduced to environmental activism in early 80s by my English teacher, Jim, who managed to convince us students to attend a landmark peace demonstration against the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles by the US at Greenham Common air force base. The demonstration, which started with a few very concerned mothers, later swept across society and the deployment was cancelled! The school taught me that life experiences could be had either through further education at universities or travelling or working; whatever the call of the time.”

He chose travel and work.

In addition to tennis, Krishnaputra is enamoured of anything to do with Nature. In 1999, he packed his bags for New Zealand and enrolled in a permaculture design course. “Permaculture is like geomancy; it’s ergonomic!” he exclaims.

I bring up the topic of how badly designed I think Singapore pavements* are and Krishnaputra throws his arms up in despair, “This sort of design demonstrates a lack of awareness – and rigidity – at the policy level. They think it’s OK because it’s Confucian; efficient, easy to clean, stiff. That’s not natural.”

Singapore pavements are notoriously unfriendly in that turns or bends are designed at severe right angles. Who walks like that?! Photo: Carolyn Oei

Krishnaputra knows how to make soil. And he can solve practical problems like how to rid a homestead of carpet grass without a lawnmower, “That’s my lifelong learning – survival skills. The ability to make soil is undervalued; some people call it dirt!

“In this age of 'disruptions' both in relation to ecosystems and the economy, permaculture design is a lifelong skill and knowledge set, much like integrated sciences studies that offer a significant perspective change for living or riding current transitional planetary phases.”

He describes ‘disruption’ as finding yourself in a state where you can no longer practice your way of life. It’s annoying, it leads to fighting and something new emerges. That something new is the Luddite Revolution, as Krishnaputra calls it, referring to the Luddite movement of 1811 in England, “We’re kind of there again.”

Yes, I think we are: small batch, artisanal, handcrafted, homemade, organic. After a lifetime of learning, we’ve come full circle.


1.     James Seah

Blog To Express 

Bukit Ho Swee fires

Ways Done In The Past Facebook group

On The Red Dot interview

2.     John Krishnaputra

Brockwood Park School

Permaculture Research Institute