Hello. My name is Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh. Thanks for visiting my blog.
I am an Indian Singaporean, born in the late 1970s at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital—Malay for “Cow Shed Hospital”. I have lived here most of my life, aside from a six-year stint in the US from 1999 – 2005, when I spent four years on the West Coast completing my Bachelor’s degree, then two years on the East for my Master’s.
I live in Singapore with my wife and two cats, and am currently trying to make it as a full-time writer. As such, I would love to hear any thoughts and comments you have on my writing—both this blog and my books.
The first one is Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore (see here). The second, a collection of essay co-authored with Donald Low, is Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (see here). I am presently working on my third book, tentatively titled From Kerala to Shaolin (see here).
Do feel free to email me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter (sudhirtv). You can also add me as a friend or subscribe to my Facebook updates.
For those interested in engaging me as an editor, writer, speaker or moderator, you can access my bio here: Sudhir Vadaketh.
I guess that’s all I really need to say about myself. But if you would like to find out more about me, then do read on.
After I graduated from university, I joined The Economist Group in Singapore, where I worked from 2006 – 13. For any wannabe writer, as you can imagine, this was sheer bliss. Some of the many highlights included: the analysis and writing of numerous global research projects, including the global city competitiveness index and an international ranking of preschool environments; and publishing my first few articles for The Economist newspaper—what the rest of the world calls a magazine. (Click here to read more about my work there.)
While there, I also published my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore, a socio-economic narrative on the two countries. The book’s publication, and moderately successful critical reception, gave me enough confidence to leave my job to write full-time.
My literary and research interests are about the way grand political and social systems influence ordinary people’s lives, their worldviews, and their interactions with each other. In my writing, I love to explore issues around business, ethnicity, economics, food, gender, happiness, identity, politics, religion, society and sports.
My current favoured genre of writing is creative non-fiction, as it is known in the literary arts world. I love planning offbeat trips around which I can tell a story about a country, or people. For my first book, my best friend, Sumana Rajarethnam, and I cycled around Malaysia for 30 days on a daily budget of 10 ringgit (about US$3) each. I used that bicycle journey as the narrative thread for the book (see here for more details).
For my next book, I intend to tell a story about China and India using martial arts as the narrative thread. I completed the primary research in 2013, spending six months travelling overland more than 20,000km from South India to North China. I am now in the process of writing this book, and hope for it to be published by the end of 2015 (see here for more details).
The plan is for me to write a few books on Asia’s great societies—after China/India, I have an idea for an Indonesia story—afterwhich I hope to transition to fiction. But the publishing world is a fickle one, and I am still some distance from being comfortable and settled as a writer.
Today I spend about 70% of my time working on my book (which pays me nothing), and about 30% doing freelance work to pay the bills. Of course I would love if my book royalties one day paid the bills. I am so far away from that. There is every chance I may have to return to the regular working world in the next couple of years. But for now I’ll keep trying!
In my free time, I like to jog, cycle, swim, read, listen to music, watch TV and movies, cook and eat. I also enjoy fiddling with the latest gadgets and toys out there, from digital cameras to Playstation consoles.
Above all, my life revolves around people. My dear wife, Li Ling, firstly (pictured). And my parents and siblings and nieces, Amaia and Aurelia. Also my friends, and all the other wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing or meeting, even just once. It is from people that I draw most inspiration in life. More than anything, I enjoy spending time with other people and hearing about their fascinating exploits.
Although I am proud to be Singaporean, and Indian, my identity and sense of belonging have always been in flux. In many ways, I consider myself a global citizen or rather, to dispense with that cliched, possibly elitist term, a “child of all nations”, in a nod to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the late Indonesian author, one of my favourites:
I realized I am a child of all nations, of all ages, past and present. Place and time of birth, parents, all are coincidence: such things are not sacred.
I have always drifted on the margins of Singapore society. This is probably because of my race and character.
When considering race, it first bears mention that ethnic harmony and multiculturalism are two of Singapore’s great successes, particularly considering the race-conscious road Malaysia, our socio-cultural twin, embarked on.
That said, Singapore is far from the multiethnic utopia that some might proclaim. From a very young age, I have felt ostracised ethnically. This is the result partly of occasional racial slurs and partly occasional majoritarian communal behaviour by the Chinese.
I remember an incident in army when, after a long day of slogging in the jungle, my platoon was huddled in front of our only television set, deciding what to watch. As the only non-Chinese, I insisted that we watch something in English, which I could understand. While some Chinese supported my position, most argued that we should watch a Chinese serial, which was more popular amongst the platoon—even though it had no English subtitles. And so we did.
This is just one example that highlights the typical, utilitarian pragmatic Singaporean position. While basic minority rights are guaranteed, our preferences and habits are sometimes disregarded for the sake of the greater good.
A modern socio-economic manifestation of this is that numerous small business owners in Singapore, from coffeeshops to furniture malls, have hired service staff who speak only Mandarin, never mind that the Malays, Indians and other minorities will have trouble communicating with them. Any potential loss of minority business is assessed as less than the cost of hiring/training English-speaking staff. And so, an illiberal practice for a multiethnic country is justified—as ever in Singapore—on pragmatic, economic grounds.
Finally, the last and possibly most important racial reason why I have existed on the margins of Singapore society, is that I do not fall neatly into any of Singapore’s traditional ethnic buckets. “You’re Indian? But most Indians have black skin?!?” is something I have heard, in various permutations, my entire life, even to this day. In the classical Singaporean mindset, Indian necessarily refers to Tamilians, who usually have dark skin.
My father is a third-generation Singaporean Malayalee, people who hail from Kerala in South-west India. The Keralites, as they are also known, are Dravidians, of similar ethnic stock to the Tamilians of neighbouring Tamil Nadu, and hence they also tend to have darkish skin tones. There are a fair number of Malayalees in Singapore, many of whom are Muslims—so-called mamaks—including the roti prata chefs.
My father’s family is Christian. Kerala’s Christian tradition dates back two thousand years; legend has it that St Thomas, one of the twelve apostles, sailed to Kerala and converted people there. In other words, to repeat a favourite chest-thumping Christian Malayalee dictum, Christianity reached India before Europe. (Some historians disagree.) My late paternal grandfather was a priest in Singapore’s Mar Thoma Church.
My mother could not be more different. She is a first-generation Singaporean Marwari, people who hail from Rajasthan in North-west India, about as far as you can get geographically and culturally from Kerala. My mother was born a Hindu; most of her family is vegetarian. And being North Indian, of so-called Aryan stock, she has fair skin. She migrated to Singapore in 1974, essentially eloping with my dad who, being a Christian South Indian, was not a favoured pick.
Therefore, I look neither here nor there, a bit of an Indian rojak, darker than most of my mum’s family but lighter than my dad’s. In Singapore, I have been mistaken for everything from Arab to White. People only regard me as a local after they’ve heard me speak.
Of course, I am not the only Indian in this predicament. My sense is that most North Indian Singaporeans have felt, to some degree, like cultural misfits in Singapore. The only North Indian group that is widely accepted and instantly recognisable—because of its critical mass and distinctive dress—is the Sikh Punjabis.
Aside from race, the other reason why I have never fit comfortably into the Singapore mould is perhaps because of some basic characteristics—particularly, as I have oft been accused, my habit of speaking out of turn and for not having any natural deference to authority.
For example, when I was in St. Andrew’s Secondary School in 1993, I was appointed editor of the Saints Gazette. Keen to address some more controversial issues, in our first issue I commissioned a piece on “Reassessing the usefulness of detention class (DC)”. Back then, for minor misdeeds, teachers would send students to DC on Saturdays, where they would sit in a classroom, without being able to lean back, just staring straight ahead at the blackboard. It was a complete waste of time.
We suggested in our piece that DC should be revised to forced study time—errant students would still have to sacrifice their Saturday mornings, but they would come back to school and learn something, rather than just being put through pointless physical labour.
When our principal, Harry Tan, somehow found out that we were going to publish this, he immediately banned the Saints Gazette. Although some sympathised, not a single teacher was able to stand up for us. My very first attempt at editing a paper had ended before a single publication. It was a galling, humiliating experience, and my first personal insight into the climate of intolerance and fear that exists in this country.
Below is a photograph that pretty much sums up my secondary school life. Unable to listen anymore to my annoying chatter, my E Maths teacher taped up my mouth.
Singapore has gradually liberalised over the years. Nevertheless, I continue to occasionally run up against intolerance of my views and opinions. The latest incident involved my very first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, which was published in 2012. Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) refused to support it, somehow deciding that the book had the potential to “undermine the authority of the Singapore government”. This shocked me, and many others who have read the book, in which I try to paint a balanced picture of Malaysia and Singapore.
Thankfully, the NAC awarded me a grant for my second book, tentatively called From Kerala to Shaolin, which I am working on now. Perhaps because I am writing about China and India, they are less worried about me offending anybody in Singapore. Nevertheless, it is sad that for my first published book—a landmark for any budding author—my own country decided not to back it.
Sad, but not altogether surprising, as it is just the continuation of my long experiential arc dating back to the Saints Gazette. I will, no doubt, keep pushing for greater freedom of speech in this country. Singapore’s authoritarian controls in this area have undermined the quality of public discourse and stymied our efforts at nurturing knowledge workers, who thrive on the free exchange of ideas.
Finally, the point about me not having any natural deference to authority. Throughout my life, with my parents, schoolteachers and army sergeants, this characteristic has led to some uncomfortable tensions. It was only in the US, when I enrolled in a liberal-arts university for my undergraduate education, that I felt truly free, academically and socially. Education suddenly became fun.
My guess is that I will always feel uncomfortable in extremely hierarchical organisations and societies—hence, something about the Singapore experience has always jarred. By contrast, I seem to do well in flatter structures—hence I thoroughly enjoyed my seven years working for The Economist Group, a British firm with a fairly laissez-faire culture.
One final struggle in Singapore that bears mention revolves around career choice. 99% of Singaporeans I have met cannot understand why I would “waste” an education from a good American university by choosing to write. “Do you know how much you could make in banking?” is a refrain I have heard repeatedly over the past decade, by people oblivious to the fact that I love Word, not Excel. (OK, actually Word sucks. Using Scrivener these days.)
I remember when I was working on my first book—people would often ask “What exactly are you doing?”, to which I’d describe my ideas for a story about Malaya. If I was speaking with somebody from overseas, particularly American friends, we would quickly launch into a creative or intellectual conversation, for example about Malaysia versus Singapore, or about the relevance of a bicycle journey to modern travel literature.
However, if I was speaking with a Singaporean, the conversation would almost always quickly veer to the pragmatic: “How many copies can you sell?”; “Are you intending to make a living as an author?”; and so on. I soon just switched off.
In a country as materialistic and financially-focussed as ours, it is not easy choosing the less lucrative path. There are times when I wonder if I should not be concentrating my energies on accumulating bags of money, as so many around me are doing. Yet I always find inspiration in the growing number of Singaporeans who are shunning the pre-determined paths our strict, Asian, authoritarian society dictates in order to chase their dreams.
Therefore, for all these reasons—race, character, career—I have never felt completely at ease in Singapore. But India is certainly not home. For all my pride about my heritage and roots, I am just too different to “India Indians”; I always feel and behave like a foreigner when I’m in India, unable to speak its languages, frequently cut down by Delhi Belly.
I also have mixed feelings about the US. Having lived there for four years, San Francisco and the Bay Area will always have a special place in my heart. Yet there are many things about the US, from individualism to notions of fairness and standards of governance, that I have difficulty reconciling myself with.
In many ways, I guess, I feel most comfortable in South-east Asia. My personality seems to gel easily with Indonesians, Malaysians, Thais and others here, even if we can’t always speak the same language.
In this big, bewildering world, then, Singapore, my birthplace, is home. There are many things to celebrate about Singapore, including our food, rule of law and tolerance. But there are also many obnoxious things here, including our crass materialism and dry, boring creative atmosphere.
Like many other liberal-minded people in Singapore, I am shocked at the rapid rise in income and wealth inequality in this country. Singapore has become a Rand-ian paradise, every man and woman for themselves, all other ethical and moral considerations subservient to the worship of the golden calf. (OK, fine, perhaps that last sentence was laced with too much Indian drama….but you get the picture.)
It is worth mentioning that I come from a privileged background. Both my parents are doctors in Singapore; I cannot remember a time when I could not buy or have something they deemed necessary for my upbringing and development. All seven of us—parents, siblings, niece—live together very comfortably.
I mention all that only so you know my perspective when I talk about inequality and the need to reduce it. I speak as somebody aware that I lucked out in the birth lottery, and am no more deserving than the next bloke of all the blessings that have fortuitously come my way.
Inequality, then, is something I think about every day. It is just one of a number of global trends—along with the rise of a global plutocracy, digital divides, government overreach and corporate abuses—that bother me greatly and influence my writing. Nevertheless, I’m not sure if there will be much change within my lifetime, least of all in Singapore, which is dominated by a narrow corporate, political and social elite.
Sometimes I think I prefer to be cynical about Singapore because then I’m not so disappointed when the conservatives and traditionalists win another battle. But the truth is that there is a persistent optimism that stirs within me.
Faced with the stark reality that no country is perfect, I still dream, foolishly, that Singapore can change enough to lead the world—towards a future society where equality and fairness reign, where colour doesn’t matter, where people can love whomever they want, where relationships trump all else, where waste is minimised and wonder maximised, where “crazy” is a virtue and “busy” a vice, where anybody can speak about anything, where politicians serve people, where one can eat both Laksa and Lasagna.
As China and the US compete in the Great Game, Singapore is in a unique position to serve the world: at once, both the most Westernised Asian society, and the most Asian English-speaking one. If we can only reduce the yawning gaps in society…we’ll be one step closer.
So, dear reader, assuming you’re still awake after that tedious self-exploration, happy reading. I look forward to hearing from you.
Do feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter (sudhirtv). You can also add me as a friend or subscribe to my Facebook updates.
p.s. since I have spent too much of your time talking about bothersome humans, let me leave you with my two favourite creatures. Top photo is of Princess Bluebell “Blooby” Victoria Homas and bottom is of Comrade Gorbachev “Gorby” Marx Homas.