The End of Identity?

Dear friends, what does it mean to be Singaporean? Can we even build a national identity when less than half of our total population was born here? I published an essay on IPS Commons today examining these issues. Please click here to read it.

A shorter version is available on Yahoo! Please click here if you have less time 🙂

Would love to hear your thoughts on this piece, good, bad, agreements, disagreements. Thanks




Article reproduced here:

China-born Feng Tian Wei’s Olympic table tennis bronze medal has sparked an outcry in this country about what it means to be a true Singaporean. Many Singaporeans say they feel no pride about the country’s first individual Olympic medal in four decades.

Yet the problem is not so much that Ms Feng has failed to integrate into Singapore. It is that the people who grew up in Singapore, myself included, have failed to integrate into Ms Feng’s Singapore — the Singapore of the future.

Native Singaporeans cling to a romantic notion of national identity that is now passé. For better or worse, the era of Singaporean national identity, the one that our founding fathers tried to establish, is fading.

From birth, an artificial nation

In many countries, national identity develops from a common tribal base, whether stemming from ethnicity, as in Japan, or religion, as in Pakistan. In some other countries, national identity is nurtured initially through a shared values system — for example, freedom and opportunity in the United States.

On August 9th, 1965, Singapore had neither.

“Some countries are born independent. Some achieve independence. Singapore had independence thrust upon it,” says Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, in his memoirs. “How were we to create a nation out of a polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia?”

As Mr Lee says, most modern states are the products of a drive to self-determination from a nation of people. In Singapore, the opposite happened. We were made a state, and then had to artificially create a nation.

Singapore hence tried to establish both a unique tribal base as well as a shared values system. The unique Singapore tribe comprises Chinese, Indians and Malays, who speak English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil and worship at temples, mosques and churches. Other dialects (e.g., Hindi) and religions (e.g., Zoroastrianism) that might belong to these three main groups in their homelands were occasionally tolerated, but sometimes, as in the case of Chinese dialects, actively suppressed.

Meanwhile, almost every other person from outside this polyglot tribe was welcomed into the new Singapore of 1965, but was stuck with the rather uncharitable, amorphous label of “Others”.

When Singaporeans first receive an Identity Card, which states our ethnicity, at age 12, we huddle and swap them around with our friends, poking fun at unflattering photographs and pontificating about exactly where young Mr/Ms “Others” is from. The message to “Others” has always been clear: please stay, but do remember that you are different from us.

‘Singaporeanness’ — poetry, pragmatism and patois

Singapore also ingrained a common set of values in people — hard work, tolerance, the importance of meritocracy, and the belief in pragmatism both in day-to-day behaviours and national policies.

In what is now a well-worn yarn, this combination of hard work and meritocracy, coupled with an open economy and good governance, propelled Singapore up the development ladder in a few short decades.

While the economy grew rapidly, Singaporean identity always remained in flux. It has not been easy creating an imagined community out of nothing. At no point in our history did “What does it mean to be a Singaporean?” have an easy, consistent answer. Depending on who you speak with, Singaporeanness can range from the trivial (“Our food!”) to the profound   (“Pragmatism”).

Yet even the famed Singaporean pragmatism has no consistent definition. At its meekest, it points simply to the habit of making rational rather than reckless decisions. At its most draconian, Singaporean pragmatism can refer to an austerity of action and thought where every single interaction is pregnant with cold calculation, where every calorie, it seems, must be expended only towards some higher economic purpose.

“Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford,” Mr Lee famously told students at what was then called the University of Singapore in 1968. This brand of Singaporean pragmatism is our brutal riposte to Europe’s joie de vivre. Even today, when fans of the fiscally prudent Singapore government thumb their noses at Southern Europe’s parlous public finances, the crux of their triumphalism is a preference for disciplined pragmatism over the perceived trappings of joie de vivre.

Tensions between Singapore’s various cultural narratives have always simmered below the surface. They came to the fore most prominently in the late 1990s, when a segment of Singapore’s population, led by Goh Chok Tong, the then prime minister, fought a misguided battle to dampen the use of Singlish in Singapore, claiming that foreigners may not be able to understand Singaporeans who speak Singlish.

The inevitable backlash was ferocious — which in Singapore means we all sobbed quietly to cabbies. Confused Singaporeans lamented the possible loss of one of our few truly unique cultural markers.

A country for migrants

And yet Mr Goh need not have worried. From the mid-1990s till today, a dramatic experiment in mass immigration as a means to counter low birth rates has meant that opportunities to use Singlish are dwindling.

In 1990, more than 86% of Singapore’s population was made up of citizens. By 2011, this had dropped to below 63%. More telling, given the high number of new citizens from abroad, is the fact that perhaps less than 50% of Singapore’s total population was actually born here.[i]

Put another way, Singapore is possibly the only country in the world where there are more migrants — including temporary workers, permanent residents and foreign-born citizens — than native-born people. Some like to call the US a country of migrants. Singapore is much more — it is a country for migrants.

The recent furore over “The Sticker Lady” dug up some old debates about vandalism and the nature of art. What was missing was a discussion about her linguistic choice and the market for it. Perhaps the reason Sticker Lady doesn’t have more fans in Singapore is because, well, less than half of the country even understands the meaning of kancheong. Perhaps, to the immense relief of English pedants, the 1990s will one day be remembered as the apex of Singlish.

Differentiation in the face of globalisation

Proponents of high immigration in Singapore point to the demographic make-up of global cities such as London and New York as exemplars. This argument is somewhat defensible from an economic point of view, but it also reveals the fundamental problem with Singaporean identity.

London and New York are global cities that are connected to much larger heartlands. No matter how cosmopolitan they become, there will never be any doubt about what it means to be, respectively, a British and an American. The identity of those countries is never in question.

Singapore, largely because of history and politics, is untethered from our most obvious heartland, the Malay Peninsula. Singapore is not a primary city for the Malay-Indo region, or for China, or for India. We have tried to position ourselves as the Asian jack of all trades, a developed world hodge-podge that is both all of Asia and yet not Asia at all. Again, while this may work economically, from an identity standpoint, contradictions abound.

This combination of globalisation, low birth rates and high immigration has essentially overturned the very essence of Singaporean identity that our forefathers tried to build. The traditional notion of “tribe” — Chinese, Malay and Indian — has been disrupted.

While diversity must be cheered, it would be callous to ignore immigration’s impact on feelings of identity and belonging. Singaporeans welcomed “Others” when they were a small minority; now that “Others” are flooding in, completely dissolving native-born Singaporeans in places such as Marina Bay, the core feels vulnerable.

“My Singaporean Chinese friends used to speak only English to me,” says Farouk Khan, a Singaporean who lives in Kuala Lumpur. “Now whenever we meet, they are always trying to litter their conversation with Malay words and phrases. They are trying to show that they are local Chinese, different from the Mainland Chinese.”

Some suggest that when Singaporean Chinese try to differentiate themselves from Mainland Chinese — or, for that matter, Singapore Indians from India Indians — it is because of classism or racism or some other prejudice. While perhaps true in some instances, the most basic instinct that is driving these actions is the loss of identity. Singaporeans are desperately clawing onto any vestiges of Singaporeanness.

The pro-migration camp does not seem to understand these grumblings. The common refrain is that many countries welcome migrants, and so Singapore should be no different. But this harks back to the earlier point about magnitude. While migration does occur globally, no other country has enacted such dramatic demographic change.

The seemingly irrepressible waves of migrants over the past two decades have affected Singaporeans’ job opportunities, quality of life and, most importantly, identity.

Failed by meritocracy

This is true not only in terms of our tribe but also values. Singapore’s meritocracy has long promised that as long as individuals work hard, they will enjoy the fruits of their labour, with the best workers rising to the top of the ladder. Here, again, mass immigration has undermined this contract.

At the top end, the perception is that the global elite has moved here with containers of cash in hunt of lower tax rates, and is creaming off the spoils of Singapore’s growth. At the bottom end, a seemingly endless stream of low-cost migrants from neighbouring countries has allowed businesses to keep wages low, squeezing out hardworking Singaporeans who face spiralling living costs.

In the middle, there are many stories about how the infusion of migrants has torpedoed Singapore’s meritocracy. One common anecdote relates to India Indians in the financial services sector, who prefer to recruit their old chums from back home rather than promote well-qualified Singaporeans from within.

Unlike many other countries, including Hong Kong and the US, Singapore does not require employers to look for locals first. For any particular vacancy, companies are free to hire from anywhere in the world (up to their foreign-worker quota). They do not even have to advertise the position locally.

As a result, over the past few years, there have been countless accusations of employers giving preference to foreigners over locals — the reasons vary, depending on the sector and seniority. In mid-level service jobs, for instance, employers can generally hire foreigners from less-developed parts of Asia at lower wages.

Singapore’s meritocracy was meant to reward people fairly for their efforts; but in the eyes of many locals, it appears to be performing less and less equitably. This, in turn, has threatened the very notion of Singaporean identity.

Ethnic integration — taking a page from Malaysia

Finally, mass migration has dented Singapore’s attempts at inter-ethnic integration. Recall that the entire thrust of Singapore’s national identity formation from the 1960s onwards involved a seeping away of ethnic, clan and communal identities and sentiments in favour of the higher, common Singaporean identity.

Don’t speak Hokkien, we were told, because we can’t alienate the non-Hokkien speakers. Don’t allow too many Indians or Malays to live in the same area, we were told, lest a ghetto forms. The Singaporean, a new glorious pan-Asian breed, was meant to rise from the ashes of ethnic and religious strife, to tower above the clannish impulses that govern lesser beings.

But somebody forgot to tell the new migrants. Ethnic enclaves have now formed, including a rather posh Indian one in the East Coast and a more humble Vietnamese one in Joo Chiat. Foreign languages and dialects are all the rage, echoing through the corridors of high finance down to the back alleys of coffeeshops. Ms Feng, to the bewilderment of her fellow citizens, has not bothered to learn English, despite having lived in Singapore for five years.

In terms of identity, it is as if native-born Singaporeans have been marshalled and spanked for years while migrants, including new citizens like Ms Feng, have been given carte blanche to be whoever they want to be.

It is interesting to compare the relative reactions to the two Malaysian and two Singaporean Olympic successes. Ms Feng not only won an individual bronze, she and her China-born compatriots also won the team table tennis bronze. For Malaysia, Lee Chong Wei won a silver medal in badminton, while Pandelela Rinong Pamg won a bronze for diving.

Singapore is regarded as having more harmonious inter-ethnic relations. Malaysia is often accused of treating minority groups, including the Chinese and Indians, as second-class citizens. But the different receptions accorded to the athletes speak volumes about identity in the two countries.

While Singaporeans ummed and ahhed about our paddlers, who belong to the majority ethnic group, Malaysians came together in overwhelming force to bask in Olympic glory, cheering two people from minority groups — Mr Lee is Chinese while Ms Pandelela is from the tiny Bidayuh community in Sarawak.

In other words, in Singapore there exists a degree of harmony and integration, but there are deep uncertainties about what Singaporean identity actually means. In Malaysia, by contrast, there is more ethnic and religious strife, often centred on disagreements about how Malay Muslim constitutional pre-eminence should be applied in society. However, even while Malaysians repeatedly re-negotiate this social contract, one might argue that they are more comfortable in their own skin — they have a stronger sense of identity.

Unweaning the need for guidance

There is perhaps also a lesson here about the state’s role in identity creation. Singapore has always had the stronger state and a more active, top-down national identity campaign. But the flipside is that the state might have always come across as overweening, moralising and paternalistic. This may have bred a certain dependence amongst the population, who seek guidance from above on all issues — from ethnic relations to whether graffiti should be considered art — that might be important for identity creation.

All the institutions, including those in the arts, media and civil society, that might have played a role in organic identity creation, have been co-opted or subdued by the state. In short, Singaporeans know who we are supposed to be, but have not been given much of a chance to say who we want to be.

Eschewing poetry might have helped focus Singaporeans on technical skills, but it probably also lobotomised our identity-creating instincts. How many Singaporeans still know the words to “Di Tanjong Katong”?

Global citizens vs. national citizens

With birth rates unlikely to rise rapidly, and immigration likely to continue, albeit at a more moderate clip, it will be interesting to see what happens to this fragile, embryonic, 47-year-old Singaporean identity. How can a country construct a national identity when less than half the total population was born there?

Some will argue that a person does not need to be born in a country to really feel at home. Perhaps. But it certainly helps. My mother moved from India to Singapore in 1974 at age 24. Though she has lived here for 38 years, and is very Singaporean in so many ways, she still doesn’t really understand the nuance of kancheong. People will always have one set of feelings for the land where they were born and grew up, and another for their adopted home.

Perhaps the reality is that Singapore cannot build both a national identity and a global city identity. The national identity served us well in our formative years, but the global city identity will carry us forward. We are actually in the midst of a transition from the former to the latter.

A global city identity is much more fluid, less rooted, than a national identity. People do not take up Singapore citizenship for the same reasons they take up, say, American citizenship.

In Singapore, it is not about ideals or dreams or what the country stands for. In Singapore, the impetus for migration is purely transactional — including lower tax rates, safer streets and the ability to invest in property. Migrants, many of whom now have a critical mass in Singapore, tend to live their own lives in their own silos. They interact with others, of course, playing, working and breaking bread together. But there is no larger, imagined community here that binds all the people in Singapore.

The migrants of today will probably never integrate like the migrants of yesterday. The world is more globalised and cognitive distances shorter. Migrants already think of Singaporeanness in terms of a global city identity, not a national one. Many will send their children to international schools — launchpads, it is hoped, for them to join the global elite. For these young ones, Singapore is just one of a patchwork of identities they hope to stitch together as they journey through life.

And that, strangely, represents the optimism in this identity story. There are few countries in the world where race, religion and language are depoliticised to this extent, where it is so easy to set up a business, where people from all over the world can visit so seamlessly.

By unwittingly de-emphasising national identity, and ultimately nationalism, Singapore is creating a model for a future where nationhood, ethnicity and religion should not matter. Each must be celebrated, but remain secondary to the higher human identity.

In other words, while there may never be a larger, imagined community within Singapore, people here will constantly be thinking about the larger, global imagined community.

Some suggest that the Singaporean’s greatest strength is as a global interlocutor. In this rapidly evolving multi-polar world, we can find common ground with more people than any other nationality. Simply, we have more cultural touchpoints with more people.

The Americans, so the argument goes, find it easier to deal with Singaporeans than with any other Asian. The Chinese, similarly, have less trouble communicating with Singaporeans than with people from other English-speaking countries. According to George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister, Singaporeans are experts at “code switching” when they move from communicating with, say, a relatively introverted Asian to a gregarious Westerner.

Embracing a global identity

This transition from a solid albeit nascent national identity to the more fluid global city identity will have implications for mindsets, personal interactions and national policy. For instance, instead of viewing India Indians with suspicion for their allegedly cronyistic recruitment policies, Singaporeans must start to realise that this might actually be how many cultures operate.

Not every society adheres devoutly to a strict paper meritocracy. Connections and networks matter, as do non-traditional interests and pursuits. “The India Indians are much better at looking after their own kind,” admits one disgruntled Singaporean banker friend. “Singaporeans are more adversarial, afraid that others will get ahead, so we do not compliment or praise each other as much publicly.”

With a national identity lens, Singaporeans might complain more about India Indians screwing up our meritocracy. But from a global city identity standpoint, Singaporeans might be more eager to absorb lessons, and ultimately beat the India Indians at their own game — both in Singapore, and possibly in India. This is not to condone cronyism; rather, more a recognition that societal structures and incentives will always be different the world over.

Similarly, if we embrace this global city identity, Singaporeans should not care if Ms Feng never learns any English. She does not have to sound like us to be one of us. Her time is probably better spent smashing balls than reading Shakespeare.

Letting go of outdated policies

From a policy point of view, this transition from a national identity to a global city identity has many implications, but most directly for integration. In a global city, it makes little sense, for example, to maintain ethnic quotas in HDB housing estates, when all over the country little ethnic enclaves have formed.

These quotas were useful when Singapore was emerging from the turbulent 1960s. Today, they are archaic, paternalistic and, perhaps worst of all, condescending. The policy’s effective — though certainly unintended —  messaging today is: “Foreigners and rich people do not have to integrate because they can take care of themselves. But Singaporean HDB dwellers must, lest you gang up and fight.”

Becoming a global city, therefore, requires some fundamental changes in mindsets and policies. In any case, regardless of national policy, this transition is underway. Every year sees more mixed marriages, as cultures and languages blend further. There are many stories of professionals leaving their jobs to pursue alternative careers or go to cooking school, embracing joie de vivre at the expense of pragmatism. Organically, from the ground up, Singapore’s identity is evolving.

Prioritising social inequity

But there remains one major problem with this transition from a national identity to a global city identity. Many have been left behind.  Social inequality has risen rapidly over the past two decades.

The only way for all Singaporeans to accept the pros and cons of living in a global city is if we can actually participate in it. Indeed, if Singaporeans from all backgrounds had shared in the city’s growth over the past decade, any supposed xenophobia would have been muted.

Addressing inequality — including in education, employment and income — remains this global city’s greatest priority. Though the government clearly recognises this and has begun to take steps to address this, it will not be easy reducing social inequality. Singapore faces global trends — such as economic and technological change — that have created a winner-takes-all global market economy, where wealth is increasingly concentrated at the top.

Domestically, meanwhile, mindset changes are needed. But it will not be easy convincing Singaporeans to embrace a more redistributive socio-economic model after decades of severe allergy to welfare.

And yet the alternative is dire. If Singapore is unable to reduce social inequality, lower-income citizens will become increasingly disenchanted both with their economic prospects and their sense of belonging in this global city. That could lead to serious social friction of the sort that Singapore has never before witnessed.

All roads lead to a global city

Given globalisation and the ongoing shift of economic power from the West to the East, it seems likely that all the global cities in the world — including Dubai, London, New York and Singapore — will experience some form of identity convergence.

Global cities will start to look and feel more and more like each other, from the kinds of shops that set up to the nature of business activities in the city. They will attract people from the same talent pools. These global cities will be similar, but each with a local flavour.

So, the end of (national) identity, but the start of something new? It is doubtful, though, if a global city identity can ever inspire fervour like a national identity can. In this new global city future, Singaporeans might never cheer for one of our own the way Malaysians of all stripes celebrated their Olympians.

But Singaporeans won’t worry too much about such things; we will just join the Malaysians in cheering Mr Lee and Ms Pandelela. After all, a winner is a winner, no matter what country — or city — they’re from.


[i]. Singapore’s National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) was unable to provide me with the data for the percentage of Singapore citizens born in Singapore. This is its official response: “The number of Singapore citizens, as at December 2011, is 3.27 million. We do not provide a breakdown in terms of local-born or naturalised citizens, as we regard them all as Singaporeans.”

Based on this, I do not know if the government does not have the data or if it has the data but does not want to release it to the public. In any case, I have performed a very rough calculation based on other publicly available data to arrive at a rough ‘guesstimate’ that 45.8% of Singapore’s total population (residents and non-residents) was born in Singapore.

Percentage of citizens in total population, 2011: 62.2% (from government sources)

Percentage of citizens that are born in Singapore, 2011: 73.6% (my own calculation)

Therefore, percentage of total population that was born in Singapore, 2011: 45.8%

For more detail on the assumptions in my calculation, please refer to this page.

Book interview: The Kent Ridge Common

Dear friends, a student reporter from The Kent Ridge Common, an independent online publication run by NUS students and alumni, came to interview me the other day. In his words, we “chatted for a little over an hour about everything under the sun, from education to economics, from interests to career.” Please click here to read the interview.

What percentage of Singapore’s total population was born in Singapore?

For a piece on identity that I will be publishing on IPS Commons–with the excerpted version on Yahoo!–I needed to figure out the % of Singapore’s total population that was born in Singapore. I am interested in this number only as a discussion point for identity, nothing else. (Please read the article to see my argument.)

Singapore’s National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) was unable to provide me with the data. This is its official response: “The number of Singapore citizens, as at Dec 2011, is 3.27 million. We do not provide a breakdown in terms of local-born or naturalised citizens, as we regard them all as Singaporeans.”

Based on this, I do not know if the government does not have the data or if it has the data but does not want to release it to the public. In any case, I have performed a very rough calculation based on other publicly available data to arrive at a rough guesstimate that 45.8% of Singapore’s total population (residents and non-residents) was born in Singapore.

Here are my very rough workings and assumptions:

In theory, the way to calculate the two should be

Singapore-born citizen population, 2011 = Number of Singapore-born citizens in 1965 + All newborns from 1965-2011 – Newborns who did not take citizenship – All deaths of Singapore-born citizens from 1965-2011 – All Singapore-born citizens who emigrated 1965-2011.

Foreign-born citizen population, 2011 = Number of foreign-born citizens in 1965 + All new naturalised citizens from 1965-2011 – All deaths of foreign-born citizens from 1965-2011.

However, the above data sets are not available publicly.

So, given what I could find, I have decided to calculate

Foreign-born citizen population, 2011 = (Number of citizens in 1970/ 2) + (All new naturalised citizens from 1970-2011: 3*naturalised from 2001-2010) – (All deaths of foreign-born citizens from 1970-2011: Half of the first number)


In 1970, foreign-born citizens comprised half the total citizen population

All deaths of foreign-born citizens from 1970-2011: Half of the above number

New naturalised citizens from 1970-2011–3 times the number of naturalised citizens from 2001-2010. If the absolute number of new citizens was consistent over the years, I should multiply this by 4.2 for the 42-year span–but I have applied a discount, given the assumption that absolute naturalisations would have been higher in 2001-2010 than the other years.

The number of foreigners (i.e. non-Singapore citizens) born in Singapore and now living in Singapore is negligible. This assumption is used in my final calculation, the % of Singapore’s total population that is born in Singapore, i.e. I assume there are no non-citizens born here and still living here.


So, from government data, we know that:

Total population, 2011:5.26m

Total citizen population, 2011: 3.27m

Number of citizens in 1970: 1.8748m

New naturalised citizens, 2001-2010: 131,142

So, to repeat my guesstimate equation–

Foreign-born citizen population, 2011 = (Number of citizens in 1970/ 2) + (All new naturalised citizens from 1970-2011: 3*naturalised from 2001-2010) – (All deaths of foreign-born citizens from 1970-2011: Half of the first number)


Foreign-born citizen population, 2011 = (1.8748/ 2) + (0.131,142*3) – (0.4687) = 0.862126m

Local-born citizen population, 2011 = 3.27m-0.862126m = 2.407874m

So, the percentage of Singapore citizens born in Singapore, 2011 = 2.407874/3.27 = 73.6%

And, the percentage of Singapore’s total population that was born in Singapore, 2011 = 2.407874/5.26 = 45.8%

So, that’s about it. Obviously this is a very rough estimate. If any of you can spot any errors in my calculations, or have better methods of calculating this, please let me know.

And, to reiterate, the only point of doing all this is for the discussion on identity. It seems to me that for the basic argument in my essay–that it is difficult to construct a strong national identity when only less than half the population is born in a place–I have a fairly big margin of error: 45.8% is well below 50%.

Look forward to your thoughts.

Response to Law Minister’s comments on Singaporean meritocracy

Dear friends,

The past week has been an interesting experience in terms of indirect “engagement” with the government. First, last Thursday, I published a letter in ST’s Forum page, “Scandals exposed flaws in our system” (reproduced below). In it, I pointed out that there may be some potential problems with Singapore’s Darwinian meritocracy. On Sunday, the ST published an article, “System in place to reduce corruption” (reproduced below), in which Law Minister K. Shanmugam addressed my comments head on, concluding that my statements are “absurd”.

On Sunday afternoon itself, I replied to ST Forum with a further explanation of what I meant. Yesterday night, Wednesday, ST Forum confirmed that I should consider alternative publication options for this second letter (reproduced below). I do not want to read too much into why ST decided not to publish my letter. It is the National Day period after all, with many more important items on the agenda. The ST Forum editor has always been very open and straight in our communications.

But since many of you called on me to respond to the Minister, I thought at the very least I should reproduce the whole trail below. Note: The timing of this post has absolutely nothing to do with National Day. I am simply writing this the day after ST Forum confirmed that the letter’s “exclusivity” to them has lapsed.

I also do not want to comment too much on the nature of engagement by the Law Minister. I think all readers of this can make up their own mind as to whether the Minister’s form of engagement is constructive or destructive for our country–or, perhaps, somewhere in between.

I have heard both sides of the story. On Sunday morning, a senior former journalist told me, “I see the Law Minister is using the same old tactics against you”. On Monday morning, a younger, more junior current journalist told me, “I see this kind of vigour in political engagement in other countries particularly in the UK, and sometimes I think, why shouldn’t we have it in Singapore too – as long as citizens are allowed to criticise and respond with equal candour and vigour?”

Perhaps we are in the midst of a long transition, from a gentler form of engagement towards a more robust one, where the government is willing to accept “candour and vigour” in equal measure. Time will tell.

ST Forum: Scandals exposed flaws in our system, Aug 2nd, 2012 (my first letter)

Although deputy editor Zuraidah Ibrahim makes many good points in her commentary on Sunday (“Scrubbing out sleaze in Singapore”) on recent corruption scandals, in particular, the need for a more watchful, engaged public, I am surprised by one of her conclusions that “everything that has happened in the past six months has shown that the system still works”.

In fact, the scandals have exposed some flaws.

Singapore has prided itself on an elite system of talent selection and career progression. Meritocracy and intense scrutiny together produce only the best leaders, or so we have been told.  The sex-for-business allegations against the former chiefs of the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Singapore Civil Defence Force, if true, suggest otherwise.

Singaporean meritocracy may, in reality, inflate the egos of those who succeed such that their sense of entitlement and privilege can supersede their better judgment. Meanwhile, their followers, by virtue of finishing second or third, may lose the self-confidence and gumption needed to keep No. 1 on his toes.

In other words, our Darwinian selection system is partly behind the inordinate power structures one might find in Singapore organisations.

Second, although Ms Zuraidah cheers the effectiveness of Singaporean justice and vigilance in bringing these cases to light, she admits that the probe into the National Parks Board’s Brompton bicycle purchase was prompted only after Internet grumblings could no longer be ignored.

Hence, here again the system would have failed if not for the tireless – and purely voluntary – work of netizens.

It is good that the public is having a lively post-mortem on these scandals. We must be honest about the potential problems in our system if we are going to address them.

System in place to reduce corruption, ST, Aug 5th, 2012 (ST article)

Law Minister raises issue in response to feedback and questions from public
There are corrupt individuals in Singapore, as in all societies, but the difference is that an effective system is in place here to keep a tight lid on graft, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said last night.

He also defended Singapore’s system of meritocracy, dismissing the notion that it was a reason for the recent spate of high-profile corruption cases involving public officers.

He told 1,800 residents at a National Day dinner in Chong Pang that he was raising the issue of corruption for two reasons.

First, a letter writer in The Straits Times Forum Page last Thursday referred to recent high-profile corruption cases and suggested that meritocracy was a possible cause of graft. Letter writer Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh argued that meritocracy “may inflate the egos of those who succeed such that their sense of entitlement and privilege can supersede their better judgment”.

Dismissing that suggestion as “absurd”, Mr Shanmugam said: “If the gentleman is right, that in order to reduce corruption, we must do away with meritocracy, does it mean that less meritocracy means less corruption?

“So the table of countries with the highest corruption, they must all be highly meritocratic, and all the countries which rank high on meritocracy must all rank high on the corruption index as well?

“It’s an absurd statement and you can show the absurdity by drawing these conclusions.”

He said the second reason he was raising the issue was that in recent months junior college students and undergraduates had asked him repeatedly why Singapore had so many graft cases if it is supposed to be a clean country, and high pay for public officers should eradicate corruption.
His answer: It is human nature.

“In every society from time immemorial, corruption, falling for temptation, basic vices – these have existed. You see them referred to even in the scriptures, whether you take the Bible or any other scriptures… (or) any history book from the ancient times,” he said.

“It’s because it is basic human nature. We in Singapore somehow are not special, superior beings. We are also human… There is no society in the world, in the past or the present, in which every person is totally clean.” But Singapore was different from other countries, he said. The political leadership had in the last 55 years “emphasised moral rectitude and correct conduct in public service”.

“And if anyone breaches that, he is likely to be found out and severe punishment is certain for those who are guilty,” he added.

Also, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, which reports directly to the Prime Minister, is highly effective. It relies on insiders, internal audits and tip-offs, such as in the case of the National Parks Board’s purchase of Brompton foldable bicycles.

Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao first raised the alarm and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan ordered an internal audit that uncovered discrepancies, “long before specific issues were raised by netizens”, he said.

Likewise, an internal audit uncovered irregularities involving former Chief of Protocol Lim Cheng Hoe, said Mr Shanmugam, who is also Foreign Affairs Minister. “We have created a system which is highly effective. It cannot eradicate bad behaviour but it can substantially reduce corruption… and bad behaviour.”

He said his 20 years practising law taught him that rules and systems cannot eradicate fraud and bad conduct. Singapore will always have its share of corrupt people, he said, citing the late minister Teh Cheang Wan, former minister of state Wee Toon Boon, and former Trade Development Board chief executive officer Yeo Seng Teck.

But corruption here will not be like in other places where people face corrupt officials in their daily lives. He said: “That is why year after year after year, we rank as one of the cleanest, least corrupt societies in the world and we will continue to be so as long as we have this system in place.”

Asked later by reporters about talk that the quick succession of graft cases before the courts was timed after the General Election in May last year, the minister rejected such allegations as “groundless”. He said the cases took place and were found out at different times based on internal audits and tip-offs.
He said: “To suggest there is a linkage to the elections is just absurd.”

Unpublished letter to ST Forum in response to Minister’s comments, Aug 5th, 2012 (my second letter)

I am happy that Law Minister K. Shanmugam has addressed the recent corruption scandals and the possible role of meritocracy in them.

When I wrote to your paper last week, I was merely pointing out potential problems with a Darwinian meritocracy such as ours. I did not suggest that we must “do away with meritocracy”–that would indeed be absurd, as the Minister points out.

The more nuanced point is that we need to maintain meritocracy, but calibrate it such that it reduces the professional gap between the winners and the losers. It should not inflate the egos of those who rise to the top, nor reward them excessively–the two, of course, being linked. They must have a wider sense of civic responsibility and recognise that their ascent is due not only to their individual efforts, but also a range of societal and institutional factors. Calibration could involve, among other things, changes to the relative status of different professions in society, a flattening of organisational structures, as well as new methods of performance assessment, for instance a shift away from a heavy paper-grade focus.

It’s worth noting that other countries are also debating the relative virtues of meritocracy right now. In his recent book, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy”, Christopher Hayes unravels the problems with American meritocracy. “Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within the institutions that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumbing to the temptations of corruption,” he says.

Singapore’s meritocracy is different from America’s and hence has unique strengths and problems. We need to scrutinise them, together, instead of assuming that our system is working fine.


That’s about it. In my upcoming book, “Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore“, I discuss both Singaporean meritocracy as well as the government’s new form of engagement–how genuine do Singaporeans feel it is? Stay tuned for more details of the book launch.

If you have any thoughts about the pros and cons of Singapore’s meritocracy, or government engagement, please do leave a comment here, anonymous or otherwise. Thanks!

(Image/diagram credit: Michael Weiss, see

Our work at The Economist Group

Many people, particularly in Singapore, have asked me what exactly happens at The Economist Group, both globally and in the Singapore office. I think this is partly because quite little is known about the people behind The Economist, our flagship “newspaper” (most of the public calls it a magazine), since there are no by-lines on articles. But it’s also because we are a very small organisation, both globally (<1000 people) and in Singapore (30 odd employees).

The other, more Uniquely Singaporean reason, is that few people in Singapore get to meet journalists who are not on the government payroll.1 So our experiences with journalists, and media organisations, are much more limited than in other vibrant economies. The common assumption is that Singaporean journalists write only for Singaporean outlets. But there are a few of us who work at foreign media companies. So I thought it might be a good idea to describe our work for those of you who are interested.

First, though, I wanted to share one of my highlights from the past six years working at The Economist Group. Nothing editorial, a bit quirkier, but arguably of greatest personal and societal significance. Dan Martin (right), Tony Nash  (centre) and I decided to run in the 2010 Standard Chartered (Half) Marathon to raise money for Sanctuary House, which provides foster care for kids in Singapore. It helps to provide care when parents are in jail, when they’ve been temporarily stripped of their rights by the government for things like abuse or mental incapacity, or when adopted kids need to stay with someone until their new parents can take them. Thanks to the support and generosity of our colleagues and friends, we managed to raise S$15,238. Even better, The Economist Group matched every single dollar. So, we ended up giving more than $30K to Sanctuary House, which hopefully helped a lot of kids.

Before describing our actual editorial work, it’s worth mentioning that there are two main units within The Economist Group. The biggest is The Economist itself. Most people know The Economist newspaper, but other publications that sit alongside it include “The World In..” and “Intelligent Life”. The second biggest is the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), where I work. The EIU provides macroeconomic, political and business intelligence (research) mainly to corporations, but also to other organisations, including NGOs and governments, around the world. Aside from The Economist and the EIU, there are some other smaller units, such as EuroFinance and CQ Roll Call, that are part of The Economist Group. In terms of ownership, The Economist Group, a privately-held company, is 50% owned by The Financial Times, which is owned by Pearson. Employees own a large chunk of the other 50%.

Though there are many similarities between the two units–The Economist and the EIU–there are some important differences. First, editorial is independent and separate. An example of what this means in practice is that it is possible that The Economist predicts a Romney victory while the EIU predicts an Obama victory. No contradiction in this fictitious example. Second, our target audiences are different. The Economist is targeted at the mass intelligence market, i.e. people. The EIU’s main audience comprises companies, governments and other organisations. That said, some of the EIU’s stuff, for instance the recent report on preschool education, garners a lot of attention among the general public.

What exactly do I do? I will start with my official job, before describing some of the contributor and freelance work that I’ve done within the Group. From 2006-2010, I worked at the Economist Corporate Network (ECN), which is a senior-level advisory service, i.e. Economist editors/economists organise roundtable sessions for C-suite execs and share our thoughts on business, political and macroeconomic developments around the world. I really enjoyed my time here: I learned a lot about Asia, the global economy, politics, policies, governance, issues that businesses in Asia, but particularly South-east Asia, face. Got to meet lots of interesting people working in Singapore. Got a lot of experience making presentations on politics, business and macroeconomic issues, in front of 60-year old CEOs. And, most importantly for me given my dream of being a writer, I got a lot of training in writing, most notably from Graeme Maxton and Justin Wood. Unfortunately, I can’t share examples of my work here as it is all only for ECN members.

From 2010-today, I’ve been working at the EIU’s Industry and Management Research Unit (aka “Sponsored research”; aka “Thought Leadership”). Companies and organisations commission us to conduct large pieces of research that are then published publicly. Thus I have had to spend my time writing, editing and managing these giant research projects, some of which take 4-6 months to complete. Some projects I write; others I edit. Just depends on the topic and staff availability. To be clear, for each of these projects, I am just one of a team of editors/economists/statisticians/designers pulling it all together. Though challenging, the one great thing about this job is that it allows me a deep-dive into many different topics over the course of a year. Tons of intellectual variety.

There are many different research pieces that I think may be of interest to the wider public, and you can view them all at our Management Thinking site (click here). The two that received a lot of global media coverage recently are the pieces that we did on Global City Competitiveness (pictured) and on Global Preschool Education. As a Singaporean, it made me quite proud that both these influential global pieces were conceived and largely executed in Singapore. As mentioned, we had a big team working on both, including my colleagues at Custom Research who built the large, exhaustive, complex Indices. My role was editor of the reports.

Finally, contributor work. One of the great things about the Economist Group is that many of us have the opportunity to freelance and contribute across the entire Group. This can involve making presentations to moderating discussions to, of course, writing. This not only adds a lot of variety to our day-to-day job, it also helps boost our income–we typically get paid as freelancers. In other words, when The Economist commissions me to write an article, they treat me the same way they might an external contributor, even though I work for the sister company, the EIU. So, we don’t get any special favours. We have to prove ourselves the same way. But we also get paid a little bit when we deliver.

Though I have freelanced for many parts of the Group, I will just discuss my work for The Economist, because that’s what people often ask about. Also, I can’t really share my other work as it’s not published publicly. As you might imagine, given my dreams of being a writer, publishing my first piece for The Economist was really quite thrilling. I remember the day, January 17th 2009, and the Cover–all the more since my hero Obama was on it (pictured). Mine was a piece entitled “Muting the messengers”, and was about Vietnam’s crackdown on the press (click here to read). The final copy bears only a passing resemblance to what I submitted to our then Asia editor, Simon Long. Haha–but that’s part of the learning, I suppose. 🙂 (Incidentally, Simon is now our Asia columnist, Mr “Banyan”, and is one of the reviewers of my upcoming book on Malaysia and Singapore.)

The piece I am most happy about is something I wrote on the AWARE saga (click here to read). This time, my copy wasn’t edited much, i.e. I had done a better job. Simon and some of the other journalists told me they really liked it. As part of the research, I interviewed Braema Mathi, a former AWARE president, as well as Alex Au, who those of you in Singapore will know well, Mr Yawning Bread.

So that’s about it. It’s been really fun seeing The Economist Group grow in Singapore. When I joined in 2006, we had about 20 employees. Of those, there were two of us in Editorial–i.e. people producing content–my British boss, Justin Wood, and myself. The rest of the staff were in Sales, Marketing, Admin and support functions, e.g. IT.

Today, there are some 30 employees in Singapore. Of those, there are now nine people in Editorial. Of the nine, five of us are Singaporean.

In other words, over the past six years, The Economist Group has shifted more editorial responsibility to Singapore, i.e. there is more content being generated here. And, there are many more Singaporeans responsible for that content. That makes me happy as a Singaporean, and also as an employee–The Economist Group is in the midst of a long transition away from being a British-heavy organisation to being a truly global one. Hopefully it doesn’t lose its dry British wit.

UPDATE: I left my job at The Economist Group in April 2013 in order to focus full-time on writing my second book. Please read my blog-post, Goodbye full time, Hello freelance.


1 A senior Straits Times journalist who I know does not agree that Singaporean journalists are “on the government payroll”. Fair enough. I was just being a bit cheeky. Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) is a public company, though it is controlled by Temasek, our sovereign wealth fund, through a rather byzantine web of government-linked companies. The government also has direct control over SPH’s management shares. You can read more at this article published by the World Bank. (Some silly accusations there, but some interesting points too). Mediacorp, our other media company, is 100% owned by Temasek. So, if I wanted to be perfectly accurate, I should say that all Singaporean journalists are on the payroll of Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. In some shape or form.

Post-bicycle trip, starting to write. Aug–Dec 2004

Dear friends, I won’t spend too much time discussing the actual bicycle trip here, as many of those stories have found their way into the book–please read it!!! 🙂 

However, I shall chat a bit about the period immediately after we returned from the trip, and as the actual book writing began. When we got back to Singapore, after 30 days on the road, living on RM10 (US$3) per day, we were obviously tired physically, but we were also energised. We had fabulous memories! Lots of good stories! Photos! Reams of illegible handwriting! We had a book to write. A few weeks later, we were on a plane back to the US to start the Fall semester of Masters’ programme second year.

All along, Sumana and I had been pretty confident about writing a book. We had written articles and papers our whole lives. Surely just a small leap? Then, as we actually sat down and tried to make sense of all our notes, the enormity of the task stumped us. How foolish we were. There were just so many questions. Do we write a straight travel narrative, a historical memoir, or do we attempt some form of gonzo journalism, inserting ourselves liberally and comically within the story? First person or third person? Chronological or thematic? Do we just touch on the lighter issues, such as beaches and Singlish, or must we address those thorny cans of worms, such as race, religion, and where the best durians are found?

Then, what tone do we want? Academic? Casual? Journalistic? To answer these questions, as with any product I suppose, many people told us to figure out who exactly our audience is. Gosh, we hadn’t even thought about it. All we knew is that we wanted to write a story about Malaysia and Singapore from the ground-up. For too long we had been listening to our governments, and our governments only. Who would read our book? No idea. Everybody, we hoped.

But how would we coordinate? Sumana was based in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Who would write what? How would we work together? Who edits first? Too many bloody questions.

And so, in this blur of uncertainty, we decided to just do what we do best. Write. So we wrote and wrote. We remembered and recollected all the crazy, funny stories–Puru, the former Motorola executive who had retired to his own beach chalets in Cherating, Pahang. He let us stay two nights, and regaled all us with all sorts of ridiculous stories, all the while sneaking off to get high away from the prying eyes of his wife. And the glassy-eyed Uzbek who had let us stay in a mosque in Sungai Golok, a border town in Southern Thailand, where bombs were going off every few months, and Muslim men from ultra-strict Kelantan were soliciting Thai hookers every night.

To augment each story, we had written historical and political essays next to every one. That’s what the reader wants, we were convinced.

By Dec 2004, we had exchanged stories. They read beautifully. We patted each other on the back, laughing at the memories.

We let a couple of other friends read our work. They hated it. Too academic. Not insightful. Missing the forest for the trees.

Shit. It would take another three years for us to find our voice…

ST Forum: Scandals exposed flaws in our system

Unless there’s some paywall, you can probably read the original on the ST site here.

Aug 02, 2012. The Straits Times

ALTHOUGH deputy editor Zuraidah Ibrahim makes many good points in her commentary on Sunday (“Scrubbing out sleaze in Singapore”) on recent corruption scandals, in particular, the need for a more watchful, engaged public, I am surprised by one of her conclusions that “everything that has happened in the past six months has shown that the system still works”.


In fact, the scandals have exposed some flaws.

Singapore has prided itself on an elite system of talent selection and career progression.

Meritocracy and intense scrutiny together produce only the best leaders, or so we have been told.

The sex-for-business allegations against the former chiefs of the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Singapore Civil Defence Force, if true, suggest otherwise.

Singaporean meritocracy may, in reality, inflate the egos of those who succeed such that their sense of entitlement and privilege can supersede their better judgment.

Meanwhile, their followers, by virtue of finishing second or third, may lose the self-confidence and gumption needed to keep No. 1 on his toes.

In other words, our Darwinian selection system is partly behind the inordinate power structures one might find in Singapore organisations.

Second, although Ms Zuraidah cheers the effectiveness of Singaporean justice and vigilance in bringing these cases to light, she admits that the probe into the National Parks Board’s Brompton bicycle purchase was prompted only after Internet grumblings could no longer be ignored.

Hence, here again the system would have failed if not for the tireless – and purely voluntary – work of netizens.

It is good that the public is having a lively post-mortem on these scandals.

We must be honest about the potential problems in our system if we are going to address them.

(Photo credit: Andrew Loh )

Preparing for our bicycle trip, May-June 2004

Once Sumana and I had made up our minds to spend 30 days cycling around Malaysia on RM10 (US$3) per day each, we had to prepare ourselves physically, emotionally and intellectually.

Physically, because we had no idea how our bodies would react. The most we had ever cycled was some 50km around Singapore. What would happen when we tried to cycle 80km every single day continuously? So, we just started cycling around Singapore. First,with nothing on our bikes, then with our panniers mounted and filled. When I look back at this period, the one enduring memory is of Singapore’s roads–they were far less congested back then, just a few years ago in 2004, and motorists were much more patient and aware of cyclists. After a 7-year hiatus, I started cycling seriously again last December, 2011. Oh boy. There are times now on Singapore’s roads I feel like one of those runners in Pamplona, panting, sprinting foolishly alongside raging bulls, unsure who is supposed to tag who.

Emotionally, because as cocksure as we pretended to be, we were still scared. At a larger level, what if this whole trip was just a bloody waste of time? We weren’t looking forward to failure, stumbling back to Singapore to face the chorus of told-you-so’s. At a more prosaic level, the daily uncertainties worried us. Would we really be able to live on just RM10 a day? Where were we going to sleep every night? How the heck could we get through a month without home-cooked food? Worse, a month without drinking?

And intellectually, as we dusted off our Malaysia history books and Kamus, the Malay dictionary. Sure, we had gone through 12 years of Malay as second-language in Singapore’s schools. Sure, we had passed Malay at ‘O’ and ‘AO’ Level. But in early 2004, having just spent 4 years at undergrad in California, Sumana and I spoke better Spanish than Malay. And so, painful as it was initially, we started reading Malay newspapers, talking to each other in Malay, and watching Mat YoYo.

So, in short, we passed those days in May and June 2004, after we had returned to Singapore from Year 1 of our Masters programme in the US and before the start of our bike trip, mostly cycling, worrying, and trying to memorise the Malay phrase for “hungry cyclist”. It was actually quite fun.

One of the toughest trade-offs we faced was between our bicycles’ simplicity and performance. Our intention was to travel as inconspicuously as possible. We had chosen to cycle, after all, partly because we didn’t want to be seen as the Rolex-touting Singaporean barrelling through Malaysia in a Mercedes. We certainly didn’t want a high-tech, flashy mountain bike.

However, our desire for simplicity had to be balanced with the need for a machine that could get us through thousands of kilometres of Malaysian sand, jungle, road and mountain. In the end, we erred on the side of performance.

As a result, amidst thousands of single-geared bicycles, our 24-speed Giants stuck out like sore thumbs.

We also wore ridiculous helmets—shunned even by Malaysian motorcyclists—another sure sign that we were slightly out of mind, and definitely out-of-town.

The other major dilemma revolved around our pre-trip dietary plans. I was fairly convinced by the “protein diet” craze that had swept the US, and so decided to cut down on carbohydrates. The aim was to slowly reduce my food intake and therefore shrink my stomach to prepare for our journey where we would be eating much less than normal.

Sumana, a student of the camel school of consumption, had decided that the only way to prepare for reduced consumption was to eat as much as possible and thus fatten himself up to pre-empt the effects of weight loss. We took to our diets with dogged determination, intent on proving the other wrong. The result of all this waffly nutritional science is that Sumana often felt hungry and I weak.