Happy Birthday, Singapore

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Dear friends, I published an essay about Singaporean nationalism and patriotism on Mothership.sg, one of Singapore’s newer alternative news sites. Incidentally, I sit on the advisory board of Project Fisher-men, a social enterprise that owns Mothership.

Click here to read it.

Oh Roy, my heart goes out to you

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At a book event at BooksActually two weeks ago, I was making a point about Roy Ngerng—that what he insinuated about Singapore’s prime minister was clearly wrong, but I still sympathised with his predicament—when Jen Wei Ting, moderator, good friend and fellow scribbler, interjected and switched topics.

I later realised why. Roy was actually there, standing in the back. Some of my former colleagues at The Economist had just been interviewing him, and decided to drag him along to the event. (Click here to read the piece they wrote, which gets to the heart of “the Roy Ngerng case”.)

Wei Ting had perhaps wanted to cut me off before I said anything too critical about Roy. She needn’t have worried. Roy and I met after the event and he told me he had enjoyed the talk. I regret not taking a photo with Singapore’s latest enfant teribble; just for the heck of it, not that he needs any further attention.

What a meek, innocuous figure he cuts. With his disarming smile and diffident touch, he looks hardly capable of harming an ant, much less the great and mighty Lee Hsien Loong. Roy’s appearance and demeanour may seem irrelevant here, but in what is quickly turning into a PR disaster for the government, they will fuel the perception of an irascible prime minister bullying a harmless, hapless citizen.

My heart goes out to you, Oh Roy, not for your defiance, but for the deep-seated informational, data and communication asymmetries and imbalances that underpin this country’s drastically unequal social power structure.

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On S377A and gay rights in Singapore

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I will once again not be in Singapore for this year’s Pink Dot celebration, scheduled for 5pm, June 28th at Hong Lim Park (see here).

Aside from being our biggest civil demonstration, and looking like a rather fun party, of all the illiberal policies in Singapore, nothing offends my sensibilities more than the continued criminalisation of male homosexuals.

As I mentioned at the launch of Hard Choices (see here), I strongly believe that the presence of this law is a stain on our collective moral conscience. In the same way that future generations of humans may wonder how the world took so long to get ecological sustainability right, I am certain future generations of Singaporeans will ask how a developed, democratic, aspiring global city took so long to guarantee fundamental rights to a minority group.

Of course gay rights, just like ethnic rights, women’s rights, and every other human right, is a function of the social norms of the day. But this is the 21st century: while the rest of the developed world wonders whether or not to legalise gay marriage, some Singaporeans cling onto atavistic fears, dressed in cultural relativism, about legalising homosexuals themselves.

Though I have spoken publicly about this bigotry many times and touched on it in Floating on a Malayan Breeze, this is my first article or blogpost on the matter.

I actually didn’t think it necessary to write this—since many more enlightened souls have already spoken—but two people recently convinced me to do so. But since so much has already been written in Singapore and overseas, I will limit myself to what I believe are under-explored areas on the issue. This is not meant to be a comprehensive essay.

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June 11 event at Books Actually, Tiong Bahru, Singapore

Books Actually

Dear friends,

I will be appearing at a Books Actually event on June 11th, where I will speak about both my books, Floating on a Malayan Breeze (see here) and Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (see here). Session will be moderated by Jen Wei Ting, good friend and fellow UC Berkeley alumna.

Books Actually is one of Singapore’s only independent bookstores. As you know they all are, unfortunately, buffeted by rising rents, shifts in consumer tastes (video games, aaargh!) and industry upheaval. So, do come out and support them, even if not on this day, then any other. (Fine. I like my games too.)

For those on Facebook, do visit the Event page (click here).

Otherwise, here are the details

11 June 2014, Wednesday
7.30 pm at BooksActually
(№ 9 Yong Siak Street, Singapore 168645)

Synopsis
Floating on a Malayan Breeze uncovered fresh insights about Singapore and Malaysia’s contrasting development, while Hard Choices brought together a selection of critical essays rethinking various aspects of Singapore’s fundamental policies, putting forward a more liberal vision of the city state.

Hear the author, Sudhir Vadaketh discuss the social and political changes occurring in Singapore today, from democratisation to immigration. He will also share thoughts on the writing craft; and the challenges and opportunities as a writer in Singapore.

IPA Slideshow Night Singapore April 30th 2014

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Fisherman, Kuala Kedah, Malaysia

Dear friends, I will be taking part in a presentation on Wednesday organised by the Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA), bringing together two expert photographers, Bernice Wong and Samuel He, and one terrible one—I’ll be speaking about travelling in Malaya.

When: 730pm, Wed, Apr 30th

Where: Bellwethers Bistro Bar, 120 Desker Road Singapore

Of great interest to me is the location of the Little India bar, Bellwethers, which is on Desker Road, a street I remember visiting at night in the 90s, to observe illegal card games, “blue tape” sales, and all manner of Lady Boys.

My co-panellists profiles before. Click here for more info. Hope to see you there!

1) BERNICE WONG / Photographer
http://bernicewsf.com/
Bernice is one of Singapore’s most promising young photographers working on social documentaries. Bernice will share her projects and her journey as a young photographer diving deep into the world of documentary photography.

2) SAMUEL HE / Photographer
http://www.samuelhe.com/
Samuel is an independent photographer, formerly of The Straits Times Picture Desk, working with still and motion photography projects. Samuel will share his projects and transition from a full-time job as a Straits Times photojournalist to the hard-knocks world of independent photography.

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PLUG & PLAY is an informal night of curated slideshows, dialogue and exchange. Selected photographers, artists, writers and craftsmen are invited to share their work (in-progress or completed) with an intimate audience in a cosy, informal setting. If you’ve got an interesting story or project to share, there is an audience. Consider Plug & Play an informal ‘dry run’ showcase of your work to friends.

This PLUG & PLAY Session will be held at Bellwethers Bistro Bar, 120 Desker Road Singapore. Special discounts will be available for food and drinks on the night.

Who should attend? Fans, followers, practitioners and friends of Photography & Art in Asia.

Produced by Invisible Photographer Asia
http://invisiblephotographer.asia/

Venue sponsored by Bellwethers Bistro Bar.
http://www.bellwethers.com.sg/

FREE Limited Seating – First come, first serve.

On racism and xenophobia in Singapore

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“Do you think that the hatred Singaporeans feel towards foreigners is because of an identity crisis, as you suggested, or because the government has failed to provide sufficient basic services, like housing and transportation?” a young Filipino journalist asked at last week’s book launch (see here).

The crowd released a collective gasp when they heard the word “hatred”. I was shocked. I mentioned in my reply that it was too strong a word to use. Regardless, the fact that she said it bothers me, and has prompted me to share some thoughts.

These are casual observations and musings that build on the one serious analytical piece I’ve written on race, Chapter 8: Colour Matters, in Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore.

As such, please treat each of my main statements below as postulations, to which I invite discussion and debate. Any thoughts and responses are much appreciated.

Note: Though racism and xenophobia are somewhat distinct, they often get conflated in contemporary Singaporean discourse. I will therefore sometimes discuss them collectively.

1) In Singapore, the moderate voices far outweigh the racists and xenophobes

In the immediate wake of the Little India Riots, there were some anti-South Asian racist and xenophobe rants. However, there was an instant backlash from voices of moderation. Same thing with the furore over the mooted celebration of the Philippines Independence Day in June this year. In both instances, I was heartened by Singapore society’s collective rejection of racist and xenophobic strands.

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Second book launch: Hard Choices

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Dear friends, I just wanted to share some thoughts from my second book launch this past Tuesday. If you want to find out more about the book’s content and cover, please see my earlier post here.

I really enjoyed the launch. As in, it was genuinely fun. Lots of banter up on stage between Donald Low, my co-author, David Skilling, the moderator, and myself before the event. Engaging conversation and audience questions throughout on a range of important and sometimes emotive subjects, from Goh Keng Swee’s doubts in 1972 about Singapore’s emerging economic model to the recent uproar over the mooted Philippines Independence Day Celebration in Singapore this June.

If you are keen to see what you missed, here is a 22min video of the session.

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Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus

Hard Choices Front_Ver 2

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 morning, 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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