The Playful Parents

Love at Play

When Culture and Bribery Fears Collide


As far as I can remember, the giving of mandarins to teachers has been a Chinese New Year custom. As a little child, I brought those bright round citrus fruit to my school to wish my teachers a Happy New Year. I don’t remember if I ever got any back from my teachers, but that was still what I was taught as a child to do.

Then when I became a teacher myself, my primary pupils would tot these down to school and our staff room would be fragranced with the tangy fresh scent from the many mandarins we received.

We of course would do our utmost as teachers to return the gesture and send children back with a pair of mandarins as well.

Fast forward to the present.

Now as a mom of a preschooler, I thought it would be a nice and appropriate gesture for me to prepare mandarins for my son to take to school for his teachers.

So we got out a roll of colourful cellophane paper, fuzzy bumpy pipe cleaners, red ribbon and sticky tape.

And we wrapped pairs of mandarins into little handy packs little hands could carry like these:


Our Home-wrapped Bags of Kums:
Do these look like bribes to you?

I was secretly feeling a little pleased that we had managed to prepare something simple for his teachers.

This morning my boys were so excited about bringing the oranges to my eldest son’s school.


Alas! We were not prepared for the controversy and reception we got for these oranges.

The first thing the school administrator said, eyes wide with fear, was: Oh! But we cannot accept these gifts. You have to take them
back! We have to fill up paperwork to declare these.

I was of course going, ” WHAT?!

The principal came out and her reflex response was exactly the same as the administrator’s.

Not a word of appreciation of my son’s effort but rather the concern that these would compromise their professional integrity and contravene their administrative guidelines. If they accepted them, they would have to fill in forms to ‘declare’ these gifts.

I was just plain shocked. Not offended really but stunned that such a thing would happen.

I am not sure how to describe what I did next but I ‘insisted-begged’ her to let my son just bring those mandarins and allow him to at least present them to his teachers. But I said, to save her the pain and hassle of paperwork I would take them back after.

I admit I had to be the ‘difficult’ mum then because I wanted to protect my son from such a rejection. The other adults present may not have thought anything significant about turning away these mandarins but I did.

This is a cultural tradition I have been taught from young by my parents and even school teachers to do.

Though I am pretty ‘banana’ and ‘kantang’, there is still a bit in me that wishes to preserve my cultural roots.

And so, they quite grudgingly allowed my son to take in those mandarins. But then, they stuffed those heavy oranges back into his bag and he carried them


Kums Returned…because Professional Integrity Is More Important, and these Gift-wrapped Mandarins could be misunderstood as bribes.

So now, I do wonder as I stare at these bags of mandarins, sitting on my table at home, about a few things:

1. Was I wrong to have my son bring these mandarins to school?

2. Should I have just apologized for my oversight and take home
the oranges instead of insisting they allow my son present them to his teachers? I must admit I really didn’t want to deal with tears and a broken heart this morning if I took them away from my son who was excited about giving them to his teachers.

3. Can we no longer expect schools to help uphold and teach our children some of these cultural practices?

4. Has such cultural traditions become less common in Singapore schools now?

5. When does bureaucracy get in the way of education?

What do you make of this episode?

How would you have responded in such a situation?

Yakking Along With's Talkative Thursdays


  1. I think that teachers and public servants in general are very wary, since quite a few people in high places, including school principals, are embroiled in corruption cases. I guess it’s a case of “better be safe than sorry”.

    • Sure I understand that need to be careful. A point of interest to note is that MOE itself doesn’t seem to have any regulation about teachers in schools having to declare oranges during the CNY festival season. Also teachers’ day gifts have a max of $50 before declaration is required. (Yes, I know this isn’t MOE school per se but it does fall under its purview by nature of its entity).

      I am wondering if my son’s school could have instead chosen to share with the children in the class and eat them?

      That would allow the children to still engage in the traditional custom of giving mandarins, and have some festive fun.

      And opening up the mandarins to eat in front of the class could also give the management assurance of mind that there were NO gold nuggets or cash hidden inside those oranges.

      A few other FB readers of mine pointed out to me that the wrapping does make the oranges look a bit pricey-er than the $0.60 each pair was worth.

      So on hindsight, maybe I should not have wrapped them up at all so can see that these were authentic fruit with no ‘funny’ things hidden inside.

      Corruption cases from last year have been all about sex-for-jobs or sex-for-grades or paying for sex with a minor, haven’t they?

      Makes me sick to think that 8 oranges could have been taken as a form of proposition or bribery. Not from a preschooler NOR his parents.

      Like this then we should perhaps look into regulating our elected MPs’ activities during festive periods e.g. distributing oranges, ang pows, food bags to residents too eh?

      PLEASE. All I am asking is that some sensitivity, some sensibility, some reasonable-ness to be exercised in the implementation of management policies.

      Can we try not to kill off the spirit of giving, graciousness and our culture because of bureaucracy?

  2. Hi Sarah, the KUMs look really pretty!

    I’m sure E put in a lot of effort into wrapping them up. While I can understand the school’s logic, because other parents might feel that they would need to do the same in case your son gets better treatment because if the gifts, and then it might spiral into a competition on who gives what, I would totally have done the same as you, as a parent. As a mum, all I want to do is to protect my kids and their feelings.

    In their innocent minds, they will it be able to understand why someone would refuse their gifts (or it want to play with them at the playgrounds) so it’s my job to make sure they’re protected from the harsh truth.

    Never mind, now we know. Next time, can give to friends! :)

    • Adora, actually I still don’t get the school’s logic, really. I have yet to find another school that bans orange exchange during CNY. I undeerstand Teachers’ Day presents. Anyway, like I said, I understand stat board rules ( a pain but ok). But must be so ungracious? That is the thing I got most annoyed with.
      And like you said, Mother Bear instinct la. Can these little minds really understand WHY their oranges are refused (and after Mummy and Grandma taught them that it is a sign of respect and a traditional custom) so ungraciously?

      Give to friends? Not going to try. Just last week, my little boy made something for his friend. He tried to give it to the girl in class but she shrugged him off a few times. I saw it from outside the class window. The teacher spoke quite sternly to him, and his face crumped. He would have cried if he didn’t see me outside. The teacher told me after school that he finally gave it to someone else because she told him, ” Your friends can say ‘no’ to your presents.”

      Now, I just wonder whatever happened to teaching children how to receive gifts GRACIOUSLY?


  3. Wow this is pretty extreme, Sarah! Where I am, we (teachers) are allowed to accept oranges and even the occassional hongbao during CNY, and also gifts at Christmas, Teacher’s Day etc.

    To think that your son’s gifts of oranges to his teachers were met with such bureaucracy instead of a thank you and a smile makes me sad. It can’t be wrong to want to put a smile on your teacher’s face :(

    • Harlie, I know. Makes me very sad as a mom too.

      Shocking isn’t it?

      At some point one does have to ask if policies are put in place to further the cause of education for the children’s interest? Or to protect people’s butts at the expense of the children?

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