Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus

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Dear friends, I am very happy to announce the release of my new book, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, co-authored with Donald Low, with contributions by Linda Lim and PJ Thum, and published by NUS Press.

Do you recognise the image on the cover? Scroll to the bottom of this post to find out more about it.

Availability in Singapore

Donald and I will be taking part in a discussion at NUS, moderated by David Skilling of the Landfall Strategy Group. Bookhaven will be selling copies there at S$20 per book (usual price S$24).

Date: April 22nd 2014
Time: 6:00pm to 7:30pm
Venue: Bookhaven, NUS U-Town. 2 College Avenue West, Singapore, Singapore 138607 (see here)

Registration is free, but necessary as space is limited. Click here to do so.

For those who cannot make it on April 22nd but still want a personalised copy autographed by the two of us—at the launch price—please order through me directly by April 22nd, for collection at NUS Press.

To order, send an email with your details, including autograph instructions (if any), to sudhir@post.harvard.edu. The S$20 is payable to NUS Press upon collection there (see here).

Otherwise, the book should be available in all good bookstores, including NUS Press itself, by end April.

Digital/Worldwide

Digital versions (Amazon, Apple, Kobo and B&N) will be ready by end April. We are still working out the Google Play delivery. Worldwide hard copies should also be available on Amazon by July 31st—although they are notorious for delays with hard copies.

Do check back here for updates; or click the “Follow” button at the bottom of this page to receive my blogposts automatically.

What is the book about?

The book is a collection of essays on Singapore, each dealing with a different policy or social dimension—including history, meritocracy, social security, housing and identity.

More important than the specific topics, perhaps, is the spirit of the book. Each essay challenges one or more assumptions of the Singapore consensus—from vulnerability to elite governance—and suggests policy alternatives, some fairly radical, to the limited and narrow options that are often presented in public discourse here.

Will greater welfare necessarily harm Singapore’s competitiveness? Does Singapore need high immigration in order to keep growing and raise living standards? Are ethnic classifications—Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others—and quotas in HDB estates necessary in order to maintain ethnic harmony?

A traditional Singapore establishment viewpoint would respond with a resounding YES to all of the above. In the book we skewer these and many other sacred cows. Continue reading

The Burning Man: A geographical analysis of a new-age pilgrimage

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At the top of “6 o’clock”, a main street in Black Rock City, Nevada

The folks at UC Berkeley’s library have just kindly dug out my Geography Undergraduate Honours Thesis from 2002 and scanned it. I had somehow lost every single copy, a depressing combination of hard-drive crashes and absent-minded post-graduation packing.

It was interesting for me to reread it now, both for reminiscence sake and to ponder how my writing has changed over the years.

The Burning Man is a yearly festival in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Dessert that I have now attended thrice: in 2002 when I was walking around with a notebook interviewing people; in 2003, sans notebook, to partake in all the art, joy and partying that I had missed the year before; and in 2009 when my sister, brother-in-law, cousins and very good friend wanted to go for the very first time.

The Burning Man is very close to my heart, partly because of the great art on offer and partly because by living for a week in “the gift economy”, where money can’t buy you anything, one learns to appreciate labour and human interaction outside the mental confines of commerce. (One also learns to appreciate just how long the human body can go without a shower.)

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Five notes from The Malayan Forum

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I just wanted to share some thoughts from the interesting discussion I participated in last week, “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” (see here).

Background: “The Malayan Forum was set up in London by future leaders of Malaysia and Singapore. Primarily a platform for politics, the topics would however have extended to governance and other related aspects for future independence. Key to the premise was the joint stewardship of matters relating to the lands, and hence the term “Malayan” was used. The sessions seeks to interrogate and delineate the term “Malayan” in its myriad representations, and to consider the impact of the term on the socio-political landscape, and on the arts and culture, in the period leading up to the Merger. 65 years after its inception, the forum will question the relevance and legacies it has engendered over time.”

The wide-ranging discussion was moderated by Lai Chee Kien, a Singaporean architect and good friend whom I first met in Berkeley, when I was an undergrad and he was completing his PhD. Alongside was fellow panellist Tay Kheng Soon, also an architect, but much older, more established, and famous as a social activist from the 1960s. Mr Tay has, in many ways, been a leading voice of our national conscience, on everything from the environment to language. He has also played crucial roles in specific Singapore developments.

The story of how Mr Tay lobbied for Changi as the site of our airport—publicly disagreeing with plans by the PWD (Public Works Department) to expand the Paya Lebar Airport then winning in the court of public opinion, which infuriated PWD and forced it to change its plans—is interesting not simply as a window into the history of one of the world’s most recognisable institutions, but also because it harks back to a time of remarkable democratic activism and accountability in Singapore.

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Will Singaporeans live in economic ghettoes?

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This article was first published by Yahoo! See here.

Will Singaporeans be happy living in a country comprised of economic ghettoes? That was my enduring thought as I reviewed the animated rebuttals, common and official, to last week’s revelation by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU, my former employer) that Singapore is the world’s most expensive city.

These sorts of surveys should be taken with a pinch of salt. Many subjective decisions influence the methodology. So it shouldn’t really matter that much who is Number 1, 2 or 5. Rather, they should be seen simply as indicative of a larger issue.

However, as we nationalistic Singaporeans tend to do, rather than asking “How can we raise wages (and hence spending power)?” or “How can we make Singapore more affordable?”, many rose in a spirited defence of our apparent affordability, seeking to poke holes in a survey that approximates and compares middle- to upper-income price baskets across major cities.

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Talk on Malaya: Mar 15th 3pm

Dear friends, I will be taking part in a talk entitled “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” next week. It’s open to all—do come!

When: 3pm, Saturday, March 15th 2014

Where:
NUS Museum,
NUS Centre For the Arts,
University Cultural Centre,
50 Kent Ridge Crescent,
National University of Singapore
(Click here for directions.)

Alongside me will be moderator Lai Chee Kien and fellow panellists Tay Kheng Soon, one of Malaya’s most famous architects and Syed Khairudin Aljunied, a Malay Studies professor at NUS.

We will “reflect, weigh and provide contemporary perspectives on Malaya, using the Malayan Forum of 1949 as an entry point”.

The talk is being held in conjunction with a very interesting exhibition on “Malayan Art”.

“In 1963, Marco Hsu, art critic and regular columnist who contributed articles about the history of Art in Malaya, published a series of essays on the cultural history of the people of the Malayan Peninsula, which were compiled into a book published in Chinese in 1963, A Brief History of Malayan Art. The NUS Museum revisits the book on the 50th Anniversary of its publication with this exhibition. Using artists and artefacts referred to by Hsu, the exhibition highlights questions of cultural identity and nation building raised on the eve of the creation of a merged, independent nation.”

Malayan Forum

 

Should Singapore tax the wealthy more?

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This year’s Singapore Budget has garnered accolades for its focus on lower-income groups and the so-called Pioneer generation. One glaring omission, however, is in efforts to redistribute wealth. That is a missed opportunity; Singapore needs to address its drastic wealth inequality in order to, among other things, reduce social tensions, improve social mobility and maintain its commitment to building a fair and just society.

The distinction between income and wealth inequalities is important. In Singapore, a person can have immense wealth—inherited property, for example—with very little traditional income. This creates the somewhat perverse situation where some very wealthy people also own HDB flats and qualify for huge healthcare subsidies while simultaneously investing in stocks and second properties, furthering their wealth advantage over the poor. In order to properly address social inequities, both inequalities—income and wealth—have to be reduced.

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Letter from China: Shaolin and Bodhidharma

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

Zhang Yong

Zhang Yong, one of the shifus at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center

A continuation of Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

The Shaolin Temple…at last

Two days after reaching Dengfeng, we visit the Shaolin Temple. After paying the RMB100 (US$16) per head entrance fee, we walk through the ticket counter, and soon pass one branch of the Tagou school on our right. We keep walking for another five minutes to arrive at the wushu demonstration centre, which has hourly performances. Even at 9 in the morning, some 30minutes before the first performance, a queue has formed.

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Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

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Chinese Muslim, People’s Park, Xi’an

A continuation of Letter from China: It’s Wu-dang!

Despite Wudang’s serenity and peacefulness, our week there leaves us quite tired, due to a combination of 12hr days, relentless interviews and photo shoots, mountain hiking and cab shortages. Thus we are glad to board the Sunday morning bus to Xi’an, via Shiyan, the closest big city to Wudang, where we have a one-hour stopover.

Foreigners frequently stumble over the intonations and pronunciations of Chinese words, especially when reading from the “Pinyin” versions, i.e. written in the Latin alphabet. But in that one week, as we are trying to navigate a route out of Wudang, I experience more lost-in translation moments than ever before with “Xi’an” and “Shiyan”.

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Culinary post from China: Xi’an and Luoyang

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

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Biang biang mian

This post is a culinary addendum to Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

I go to Xi’an, that ancient crossroads of people and trade, expecting some of the best food on this trip; and it doesn’t disappoint. The Muslim quarter, in particular, is a veritable treasure trove of bites and eats. I do, however, recommend wandering off the main alley (pictured) and exploring some of the side lanes—more locals, greater variety, better prices.

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Letter from China: It’s Wu-dang!

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

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A continuation of Letter from China: Guangdong and Fujian

Depressed in Shanghai

In early November, I return to China for the last major leg of the trip, a six-week journey—the longest so far—that will take me from Shanghai – Nanjing – Wudang – Xi’an – Shaolin – Weifang – Beijing.

Even though the hallowed Shaolin awaits, I am not looking forward to this trip. I need all my discipline to board that flight from Singapore to Shanghai on Nov 6th.

There are several reasons for this. The first is simply fatigue. After more than four months on the road, having covered more than 15,000km overland, I am just bloody tired. I am tired of searching for cheap hotels and the most cost-efficient overland journey. I am tired of packing my bags every four days and moving to the next place. I am tired of carrying around my voice recorder, camera, GoPro, phone and notebook wherever I go. I am tired of repeating my damn shpeel about Kerala and Shaolin. I am tired of looking at every person on the street as an interview subject. (I want to just look down and walk past you!) And I am tired of watching over my two team-members: as fun and independent as they are, I always worry about them, feeling somewhat responsible for their safety.

Continue reading

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