Teachers’ Day 2019: Bet You Didn’t Know (Part 1)

Reading Time: 11 minutes

By V Shivani (20S06R), Val Yeo (20S03O), and Ng Jing Ting (20A13A)

These interviews were first featured, in shorter form, in our special Teachers’ Day 2019 Print Edition. Here are the full interviews.


Mr Ong dedicates his life outside of being a Physics teacher to magic.

What is the most rewarding part about being a magician/teacher?

I think, firstly, there are intersections between the two career paths. Of course, when you look at it from the outside, it looks completely different. The difference I would say is that when it comes to being a teacher, for the most part, every teacher has similar experiences: good classes, bad classes, good students, bad students. For magicians, there’s many different ways you can go about doing it. When I was younger, I wanted to go into performing magic, but as I grew older I realised that performing magic as a profession is actually really tiring. I’ve got many friends who started out magic with me and it was fun, and when they made it their jobs, you can tell they got really tired of their job, because having to do something like “Hey everyone! Blah blah blah…” [makes some magic show gestures] every single day is very draining. So the way I get joy from magic nowadays is more from doing the background work. For example, nowadays I do more of inventing stuff for people. I like inventing new tricks and writing books to publish and sell, and that’s how I get joy from it. I lecture to other magicians (which is where the intersection comes in as well) and consult them to help them with their shows. If you like analogies, you could say I’m more of the dance choreographer and no longer the dancer.

As for being a teacher, I’m very passionate about physics and science communication. There are many teachers out there that are passionate about physics at the level where they really know everything. I don’t think I know everything about physics, but I would say that I’m incredibly passionate about telling kids about physics and trying to enthuse them. To see a student who maybe wasn’t very interested getting a good grade or getting interested is the most rewarding part of being a teacher.

How do you find the “work-hobby” balance between being a magician and being a teacher?

Surprisingly okay, actually. I’ve had experience teaching in the secondary school side, Y1–4, and teaching at the Y5–6 side, and the workload is about the same, but at the same time I feel like I’m having an easier time teaching here. The students are generally more motivated, they know that in two years’ time is the ‘A’ levels, so they work harder and there’s less hand-holding. I’ve had time on my hands to go to the gym a little bit, and when I go home, I just make sure I work on my magic. I get all my work done in school and then I just go home and relax. The balance has been pretty good actually.

How do you handle messing up a magic trick in front of an audience?

Aw man, I have so many bad stories of messing up. I once did this trick which involved smashing styrofoam cups, to figure out which one had a nail under it. The trick went wrong and resulted in an injury. It was super embarrassing. When you mess up something, honestly just end with it and move on. There are some ways where you could just salvage it and pretend it’s just part of the trick, but when it’s something like the person going “Oh! My hand is bleeding”, then there’s no salvaging [it]. That’s why nowadays I just do card tricks—if you fail at a card trick, you can just do it again.  

The funny thing is, I read this quote somewhere from a magician [who] said that when we watch a show on stage, whether it’s a musical or a rock concert or a magic show, what we want to see really is human connection. We want to connect with the person on stage, and sometimes the most human form of connection is when we see someone mess up, when we see how they react to messing up. Very often when you see someone mess up on stage—like if the person sings a wrong note or plays the wrong key on the piano—and they stop for a while, and they just compose themselves and they play again, people clap because they feel like they’re seeing a real person on stage. They’re encouraging and they want you to succeed. I think a good magician always has the spectators on his side. The spectators will always want the magician to succeed, so when they mess up the spectators will go “No, no, no! It’s ok, do it again.” They clap and the show goes on.

Who is your role model as a magician?

There are many names that most people don’t know because they’re either very old magicians or they’re not in the limelight. Magicians in the limelight—it’s probably David Copperfield. That’s how I got started, watching his shows on TV. But for those who are interested—and if you are reading this article right now, you can go and Google these names. I like Joshua Jay a lot; he’s a friend of mine and you can find his views on YouTube. There are some older magicians like Alex Elmsley, and there’s John Bannon from Chicago. There are a few other magicians I can think of off the top of my head: Stewart James is one, from Canada, brilliant inventor in the background, completely unknown to the outside world [though] he’s invented over a thousand tricks in his lifetime.

What do you think of the way magicians are portrayed in the media?

I think magic is getting very popular. If you watch shows like America’s Got Talent (AGT), it used to be that only singers would win because they’re marketable. In the first few seasons, magicians would just be boo-ed off the stage. Simon Cowell would be like “Oh, this is horrible”. But the moment they realised that magicians and magic acts get viral views on YouTube, they realised that actually there are a lot of people who want to watch magic, and it goes really viral compared to just singing videos.

Nowadays, [there are] a lot of magicians winning these competitions. There’s Shin Lim and Eric Chien, who are friends of mine, Mat Franco (the winner of AGT’s ninth season), and they’ve won because people realise magicians are marketable, so I think magic is becoming cooler and cooler. Magic was like this weird, mysterious thing, but now it’s very hip if you watch Now You See Me. It’s always good to have magic at the forefront of pop culture, whether it’s portrayed positively or negatively, because people will be aware of magic, and they’re more likely to hire magicians for their events.

Mr Ong working with magicians in the UK.

How do you feel about your huge following on Instagram?

For those who are reading this article, go follow me on Instagram @harapanong. It’s currently at 19.2k followers. Shameless plug aside, I feel pretty proud about it. I started posting the magic that I like and it just grew really quickly from there—it was insane. I don’t buy followers or bots to like my posts. It has opened many doors for me; I can find magicians to hang out with in every country because they know me from Instagram.


What speed would you need to swim at to cover 1.5km in under half an hour? For Mr Teo, this isn’t just a Maths problem to solve in class.

What inspired you to attend the Ironman triathlons?

I completed an Olympic distance triathlon in 2008 comprising a 1.5km swim, a 40km bike course and a 10km run. I then decided to up the ante, challenge myself further, and take part in Ironman in 2009.

How many Ironman triathlons/marathons have you attended thus far?

I’ve completed seven Ironman triathlons thus far (every year in 2009 through 2014, and in 2016) and done four marathons (in 2008, 2011, 2013 and 2015). I’ve also completed two ultramarathons in 2011 and 2013: the ultramarathons were 12-hour races to complete as many 10.5km loops in MacRitchie Reservoir as possible in time span of 12 hours. In 2011, I completed seven loops and in 2013, eight.

Do you have a special work out schedule you follow when you prepare for the marathons/triathlons?

Training for the ironman triathlon is progressive, and preparation usually takes about six months. I followed a routine on a daily basis, usually 2x swims, 2x cycling and 3x run. At the peak, I would swim 4km or cycle 180-200km or run 32km. During the school holidays, I would train twice a day, and sometimes even do a short distance triathlon. There are ways to vary the training so as to break the monotony of just a swim, bike or run. Just to clarify, training workouts are on a daily basis, so in a week I do 2x swim, 2x cycling and 3x running.

What’s your best timing for a marathon/triathlon?

My personal best marathon timing was 3h 48min. My personal best Ironman triathlon timing was 11h 36min.

Do you have an accomplishment in this area you are proud of? 

I had to balance work, family, and sports. With the amount of time needed for each, I had to be focused and disciplined, and couldn’t afford [to waste time]. I suppose I am proud that I managed all three back then and, of course, I had good family support in seeing me through those years.

Do you partake in these marathons/triathlons alone or with your family or maybe some friends who share the same interest?

I started off training on my own but, over the years, I got to know more people and train closely with a group of friends regularly. My family travels with me overseas during my races, and we spend the time after the race holidaying.

Other than the physical health aspect, personally, what benefits do you think running marathons/triathlons have?

Ironman triathlon training builds focus and strengthens the mind. Ever so often, sleep tempts you to go back to bed or the tired legs lure your mind to give up a training session. You learn to teach yourself to grind through every session, despite the fatigued legs and arms, and know that every session clocked is a session stronger than the previous. And, as mentioned, [you definitely become] a better time manager.


Her subject may be words, but Ms Tan also has a way with her hands.

We understand you have many hobbies outside of school. Do tell us more!

My current addiction is leather tooling. But I also weave, embroider and dye fabrics. I also make jewellery. That’s all I can remember at the moment, but there’s more.

How did you get into dressmaking? Do any pieces hold a special meaning?

My grandmothers are both seamstresses, so I grew up making stuff with their scraps. I really enjoyed sewing, so I kept going. My entire wardrobe is handmade. There is usually a story behind each piece; I buy fabric when I travel, and people give me fabric as presents. I have also been bequeathed fabric by a number of people. 

So you dreamt of becoming a dressmaker…?

I wanted to be a palaeontologist (that is, a scientist who studies fossils—yes, as in dinosaur bones). I played with toy dinosaurs as a kid because I could use them to stomp on my brother’s toy trucks. Dinosaurs are fascinating! 

Well, I became a historian, so I reckon I’m not too far off from my childhood ambition. 

You were a student in RI back in the day. What was the craziest thing you did in school?

I don’t think we were particularly crazy… Oh, I know! We were in the old campus in Mount Sinai and it was right next to Ghim Moh Market, so we used to sneak out during breaks to get ice kachang. Once our Maths tutor (Ms Chen Yee Chien) had to go look for us at Ghim Moh and we had our Maths tutorial there. 

Is there anything you’d like to say to your 17-year-old self?


You were also a student at Warwick University. How was the overseas experience?

I did a course called “History and Culture” that allowed me to take half my modules in History and half from anywhere else in the Arts faculty. I liked the flexibility and learnt a lot from the experience. I did History of Art and Literature mainly. I also tried some Philosophy courses but I was rubbish at that because I couldn’t concentrate hard enough. One of the modules I enjoyed the most was a course called the European Novel. The texts included Middlemarch, Anna Karenina (I love Tolstoy!), Germinal, and the like. The length of these books can be really intimidating but they’re so amazing once you get into them, and the course gave me the opportunity to do so.

Going overseas… I guess the biggest challenge was learning to fend for myself. In Singapore, you have a safety net of friends and family to give you psychological assurance and logistical/practical support. Leaving that and being on my own was scary, but it really helped me to grow as a person. And there certainly was some kind of culture shock. Dealing with people who have been steeped in a completely different culture their whole lives and who have very different ideas about the world makes you revisit some of the things that you take for granted. It was a good experience overall! People in the UK are very inclusive, and I had a lot of fun. 

Which sector did you work in before teaching? What made you return to teaching?

Just before coming to RI, I did policy work at MOE. So I was your typical civil service minion. I quite enjoyed that; it gave me an insight into how the government operates. Doing things outside my comfort zone like audit or international relations was very eye-opening too. I eventually returned to teaching because one of my friends told me about a vacancy to teach Lit here and I thought that I would enjoy it—and I do!

If financial security were of no importance, which unconventional career path would you have undertaken?

I’m very boring—would have done research. Research builds knowledge, which is important for society. I like playing with ideas. And I really enjoy the thrill of the chase—when you get into the archive and follow your sources, they tell you things that you don’t expect, and it’s really quite exciting. Historical research is also, in a way, quite personal, because the sources really speak to you from across time and space. I was genuinely moved by some of the stuff I was working with. Like Ralph Josselin’s diary (about everyday farming and family life in a rural 17th century community in Essex, England)—I actually teared up at that. 

What do you have to say to people who believe that studying Literature (and the Arts in general) is a waste of time?

Literature is about life, in all its messy particularities. It keeps you grounded. It insists that nothing can be reduced to absolutes—so you must learn to be comfortable with ambiguity and appreciate the full range of human experience. It’s also an invaluable refuge—something you can return to throughout your life as a source of comfort and inspiration.  

And I don’t think it’s fair to say that any subject is a waste of time. We need a variety of approaches to understand our world and each discipline offers a unique angle. It’s natural for people to focus on what they’re most interested in, but it’s best to keep an open mind because the other disciplines have a lot to teach us as well.

Is there anything unusual that you carry in your bag?

A Swiss Army knife. You have no idea how useful it’s been.

What are some of your pet peeves?

I hate it when people get takeaway meals and don’t bring their own containers, or when they throw away those takeaway boxes instead of washing and recycling them. It’s so wasteful!

What are some things at the top of your bucket list right now?

I don’t maintain a bucket list. I believe that if there’s something you want to do, you should just go and do it. If you’re really keen, you’ll make the time and put aside the resources. That being said, there are things I’d like to do but which I haven’t done because they’re not achievable. I’d like to own a farm but it would collapse for sure!

Any parting words?

JC is a very special time. Enjoy it!

332120cookie-checkTeachers’ Day 2019: Bet You Didn’t Know (Part 1)


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