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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Why has Singapore failed to prepare its citizens adequately for the knowledge economy? Part 2

Credit: www.hongkiat.com

This is Part 2 of 2. To read Part 1, click here.

 The Singapore model—why it struggles to produce knowledge workers

If we accept the argument that the average Singaporean worker will, compared to his/her paper credentials, underperform in a knowledge-based role, it is worth discussing some of the environmental and institutional reasons why.

This essay points to several factors: the nature of meritocracy in Singapore, the country’s pedagogical approach, the socio-political climate, and materialism.

Meritocracy Continue reading

Why has Singapore failed to prepare its citizens adequately for the knowledge economy?

Credit: www.hongkiat.com

One of China’s main challenges is “cultural habits that limit imagination and creativity, rewarding conformity….China will inevitably catch up to the US in GDP. But its creativity may never match America’s because its culture does not permit a free exchange and contest of ideas.”

– Lee Kuan Yew, Time, Feb 4th 2013

This essay argues that Singapore’s developmental model, while efficient at producing workers for most jobs in a manufacturing- and service-based economy, has failed to adequately prepare citizens for knowledge work. The average Singaporean worker will thus underperform in a knowledge role relative to his/her own paper credentials.

In particular, when compared to similarly-qualified workers from other developed countries, the average Singaporean is: less willing to challenge convention or question authority; more afraid to take risks/move out of comfort zone; and more likely to display a silo mentality with poor cross-collaboration skills.

This essay points to several factors that might explain these characteristics: the nature of meritocracy in Singapore, the country’s pedagogical approach, the socio-political climate, and the materialist culture.

Consequently, it is important for Singapore to enact specific reforms in order to better prepare Singaporeans for work in their own knowledge economy.

Among other things, this will boost Singapore’s overall productivity, lessen the dependence on highly-skilled foreigners and moderate resentment amongst Singaporeans against similarly-qualified foreigners who are currently being chosen over them for knowledge-based positions.

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Goodbye full time, Hello freelance

Though I am not given to soppy, soul-searching posts, I suppose there are times when life cries out for them. Up till a year ago, I was fairly certain I was going to spend the majority of my working life at The Economist Group, and now I find myself on the verge of leaving my job for the unpredictable world of freelancing. Easter Sunday is my last day.

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Everybody has quibbles about their job; and life is no different here. Yet I think we have it better than most. Laissez faire culture; good work-life balance; stimulating environment for a writer; flat corporate structure; and lots of interesting work. (See my other post, “Our work at The Economist Group”.) Continue reading

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

A few months ago I finished thisSteve-Jobs-by-Walter-Isaacson-1 wonderful biography of Steve Jobs, who–along with Muhammad Ali–is, I reckon, the most inspirational figure in recent times. These are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

“The juice goes out of Christianity when it becomes too based on faith rather than on living like Jesus or seeing the world as Jesus saw it.  I think different religions are different doors to the same house.  Sometimes I think the house exists, and sometimes I don’t.  It’s the great mystery.” Continue reading

My first ever book launch: The Ups and Downs

Dear friends, thanks for all the support and encouragement. It’s still a bit surreal holding my very first book in my hands. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday that Sumana Rajarethnam, my best friend, and I were telling people that we wanted to cycle around Malaysia on RM10/day, and most responded that we’re nuts.

But the anguish and self-doubt we went through then also seems very far away when I look at the book. Now, it seems almost self-evident that we would end up with something. “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” as Mr Mandela says. Not that writing one book is that big of a deal…but it was a mountain for us.

I thought I’d just share a few thoughts about the actual launch itself because the day was both exhilarating and harrowing. I will try my best to tell this story without it becoming a bit of a Sandiwara. Not easy, given the details you’ll read, but I’ll try.

I returned home on Tuesday morning from a 10-day trip abroad–a holiday my mum had planned in January, well before I knew about the dates for the book launch. I was in pretty good shape, went to work, and then returned home in the evening, looking forward to preparing my notes and slide deck for the launch on Wed evening.

When I returned home, I found out that my dad had been admitted to hospital. Nothing too serious, he had been down with flu on the last day of our holiday. But still cause for a little bit of concern. Given that he wasn’t too ill–“just observation”–the main disappointment here was that he would not be able to attend the launch the next day.

Soon after, I found out that my uncle in KL had just passed away. I wouldn’t say I was super close to my dad’s cousin, but neither were we far–I always had a good laugh with him whenever we met, and often sung songs together.

Regardless, these double shocks meant that despite being quite tired from the trip and the whole day at work, I just wasn’t able to sleep. I slept for 3 hours, and then woke up at 2am, and couldn’t get back to sleep. From 2-7, I was just lying in bed, a million thoughts racing through my head. “Should I postpone the event? Should I go to KL for the wake? Should I visit my dad in the morning?” etc. etc.

The most immediate problem, of course, is that I had a Channel News Asia interview scheduled at 8.20am. Up till about 7.15am, I thought I might cancel it. But I was also worried about the repercussions, especially after the planning the CNA production team had done–reading the book, writing up questions for the anchors, etc. If I cancelled, would CNA ever call me back? How bad would it look for the book if I wasn’t there? How many people would  I be letting down?

So, I got up showered, chugged two big mugs of green tea, and headed over to Caldecott. It seems like only a few people who knew me well could tell I was tired, so overall, not too bad. You can watch the interview here.

The next problem is that I had to go to work, but I could hardly sit up after the Live TV energy-boost had worn off. So, at around 9.30am, I spoke with my boss and applied for urgent leave. Always understanding, she told me to take it. I worked for about an hour, some urgent emails and calls, and then collapsed in bed.

I woke at around 2pm feeling fantastic. From that point on, the day was a breeze, actually. Sumana, my wife and I headed down to the Esplanade at around 5.45pm. The folks there were setting up, so we just hung around waiting.

The next few hours passed by so quickly. Before I knew it, some guests had arrived and were asking for the books and my signature. From then on, I was moving around, saying hello, signing books, getting dragged back into the studio and asked to “relax and prepare”. I didn’t really need to, because I am quite comfortable speaking in public. In fact, people around often have the opposite problem–getting me to shut up.

Many people asked me how I was feeling. I said great, but that I had had a real moment of crisis and panic in the morning. Before I could explain why, I was whisked off somewhere. It was all a lot of fun, but also quite chaotic.

The diversity of the crowd was wonderful. On the one hand, there were people who have known me since I was in diapers, and friends who had been there right from the start–they had bade farewell to Sumana and me in 2004, as we cycled off. I felt so happy that they were there to witness the end of the long journey. On the other hand, there were quite a few new friends–people I had just met, some others who I was meeting for the first time, people who have followed my blog writings and had come down to support me. I was humbled.

One of my big disappointments of the night was the organisation. There were long queues of people waiting to get into the Studio, waiting to buy the book, waiting to get my signature. I don’t think this is necessarily anybody’s fault, but just a confluence of factors.

The Esplanade is extremely stringent about all sorts of things. All guests must have a ticket before they enter. We are allowed to issue only 245 tickets (the capacity of the Studio). Guests are allowed in only after 730pm. etc etc.

On top of that, my publisher, NUS Press, was also a bit under-resourced for an event like this. I know they were all trying their best, but many guests entered the Studio feeling tired and frustrated after what must have seemed like an unnecessarily laborious entry process. As the author, I felt quite bad.

Note to other artists/authors: The Esplanade, while a lovely venue with a great location, has soooo many regulations and rules. It would take me an hour to list them all, but here is one: no outside mineral water bottles allowed because of product placement rules.

What did this mean for us? Well, Christine from NUS Press had brought 3 bottles of Evian water and placed it next to the panellists chairs. Before the event started, an employee from The Esplanade went around removing the labels from around the bottles. No big deal, but just another activity in the rush to set up. If you’re interested, The Esplanade has its own water–of course–that you are welcome to buy and use there.

Nevertheless, strict rules and guidelines can be the bedrock of efficiency. Another good thing about The Esplanade is that everybody there is very professional and competent, and their systems seem to be working perfectly.

So, once the guests had finally sat down and the proceedings were underway, everything went off flawlessly.

The rest of the evening went by in a blur. First Mr Nathan made a speech that had been largely written by Sumana. Then I spoke for about 20mins. Then Donald Low, Manu Bhaskaran and myself had a panel discussion, with lots of audience participation. (For those who are wondering why and how I asked Mr Nathan, Donald and Manu to join me, please read this other piece, The politics of personalities.) Then everything was over and I was outside signing books. And then, finally, I was downstairs at Sauce, having drinks with friends and family.

By that point, the stress of the early morning seemed so, so far away. It was quite thrilling, really, to be celebrating with friends, new and old. A good friend bought me a Flaming Lamborghini, something I hadn’t had for a long time. As the bartender lit the drink up, he said, “This will help you float on a Malayan breeze.” It did.

In a way, all this is a bit anti-climatic, because I had actually finished with the manuscript in April, and for the past month have actually been thinking a lot about my next project. That said, it still feels quite good to know that an 8-year project has finally come to an end. This is the longest piece of work I’ve been involved in. At many points I felt like giving up.

When I started it, I was single, still in college, and wondering what I was going to do with my life. Now, by the time I’ve finished, I’m married to my darling wife, working in a job I like, and….still sort of wondering what I am going to do with my life.

Now that it’s all over, I actually feel a bit of a void.

Tackling preschool challenges in Singapore

The Straits Times, July 20th 2012

Improving Singapore’s preschool environment can, over time, help to boost birth rates, reduce social inequalities and better prepare people for work in a knowledge economy.

These are some of the findings from a new report, Starting Well, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit and commissoned by the Lien Foundation. The research ranks the preschool environments in 45 countries.

Singapore ranks 29th, below countries such as Chile (20th) and Greece (27th). The Nordic countries top the ranking, with Finland (1st), Sweden (2nd) and Norway (3rd) rated as having the world’s most inclusive and high quality preschool environments.

Singapore’s poor showing in the report has provoked debate. A closer look at the findings suggests areas for improvement.

The index scores countries across four categories: “Availability” (25 per cent of total), “Affordability” (25 per cent), “Quality” (45 per cent) and “Social Context” (5 per cent). Singapore performs well only in social context, which looks at the broader socio-economic environment for young children, including their health and nutrition levels.

Singapore ranks 25th in terms of availability, largely because it has no legal right to preschool education. A legal right does not imply it is mandatory, but simply that government has an obligation to provide it to those who want it. The research argues such a right is an important sign of a long-term, stable commitment to preschool. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between the presence of a legal right and overall index performance.

For instance, South Korea (ranked 10th) enacted its Early Childhood Education Act in 2004. Among other things, it stipulates that the government “offers one year free early child education immediately before entering an elementary school, and requires the central and local governments to bear the cost for the free-education”. By contrast, Singapore has no similar Act supporting the preschool sector.

Singapore ranks 21st in terms of affordability, pulled down by relatively low government preschool spending and insufficient subsidies for preschool providers.

Finally, Singapore ranks 30th in terms of quality, with low scores for, among other things, student-teacher ratios and preschool teacher wages.

While Singapore has some excellent preschools, they tend to be expensive. More affordable programmes, including those run by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the PAP Community Foundation (PCF), are of varying quality. As a result, children of richer parents typically receive a much better preschool education and are subsequently more prepared for primary school, with greater social awareness, confidence and group interaction skills.

“From neuro-scientific research, we understand the criticality of early brain development,” Sharon Kagan, a professor of early childhood and family policy at Teachers College, Columbia University in the US, explains in the report. “Early childhood education contributes to creating the kinds of workforces that are going to be needed in the twenty-first century.” Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, among others, have attributed their achievements partly to their good preschool education.

So, what can be done to improve the preschool environment here?

First, the research suggests that Singapore must raise minimum teacher qualifications. Experts agree that a well-trained workforce is the most important determinant of quality. Singapore last revamped its preschool teacher requirements in 2008, stipulating that from 2009, new preschool teachers must have 5 ‘O’ Level credits and a two-year diploma in pre-school education (before that only 3 ‘O’ Level credits and a teaching certificate were required).

Though a good step, this progression is well behind other countries. In Finland, for instance, all preschool teachers have a three- or four-year bachelor’s degree in education. Greece, similarly, made the decision to turn kindergarten training into a graduate profession in the 1990s. Singapore must raise the bar aggressively while providing financial assistance to help current teachers retrain to meet the new requirements.

This adjustment has to be aligned with primary and secondary school requirements, and will have to be part of a broader push to raise the status and wages of all teachers in society. At the top end, preschool teachers in Denmark earn an average of nearly US$50,000 a year in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms-compared to less than US$19,000 in Singapore.

According to the Ministry of Manpower, preschool teachers are the lowest paid profession within the “Associate professionals and technicians” category, which includes, among others, social workers, display artists and dental nurses. The median gross monthly preschool teacher wage (S$1,840) was just 63% of Singapore’s overall median gross wage (S$2,925) in 2011.

Second, the research indicates a preschool teacher shortage in Singapore. The current student-teacher ratio here is 20 to 1, well above places such as Denmark (5.5), Canada (12) and Taiwan (12.6). Although there is some disagreement about what class size is optimal for better developmental outcomes, smaller classes are certainly more manageable for teachers.

While higher salaries should naturally attract more people to teaching, Singapore can also make strong efforts to attract qualified working professionals from other careers to transition into the profession, as the UK has done.

Third, there is a need to bolster parental awareness and involvement in early childhood education. The top performing countries have extensive parental education programmes to ensure that parents understand the importance and role of preschool, and can provide a supportive home environment, including adequate social, emotional and motor-skills training that is “age-appropriate”-matching the developmental level of children as they grow.

Other ways to improve quality include creating better links between preschool and primary school and putting robust data collection mechanisms in place to enable more accurate preschool programme quality assessments.

Finally, as these measures will result in higher costs, more public money will have to be spent. In terms of government spending per year on each relevant-aged child, exact figures for Singapore are not available, but it is understood to spend less than Norway does (US$7,620 in PPP terms), and less also than countries such as New Zealand (US$4,329), Japan (US$4,029) and Poland (US$2,635).

Singapore’s privatised preschool education sector is currently funded through subsidies given directly to families, who can then secure preschool places for their children-or a “demand-side” approach. In some countries, subsidies are given directly to providers, with specific mandates about the need to accept all children-or a “supply-side” strategy.

Singapore’s limited supply-side support is highly targeted. It is offered only to non-profit providers with no ethnic or religious affiliations who have the ability and reach to provide services to all children, including those from low- to middle-income families. Currently, only the NTUC and the PCF groups qualify for support, which is calibrated to help them keep their fees affordable.

While the Nordic countries have a nationalised, supply-side approach, the research shows that there are other countries, such as New Zealand (ranked 9th), that have achieved success with a private sector, market-led strategy, through subsidies both to providers and disadvantaged families.

A common assumption is that higher public spending on preschool will necessarily mean higher taxes and/or a diversion of public money from elsewhere. But a third way could be for preschool investment to come under deficit spending, with any possible tax hikes left for future generations, who are in any case the main beneficiaries. In other words, perhaps little children can pay for their own quality preschool when they grow up and start earning.

And yet they may not have to. According to the research, some studies suggest that preschool investment can yield annual returns ranging from 8% to 17%. These accrue partly to the children themselves—largely in the form of higher lifetime earnings—but more significantly to the wider community, in terms of reduced need for later remedial education and spending, as well as lower crime and less welfare reliance in later life, among other things.

In many countries, preschool investment often forms part of a broader package of family support to increase female participation in the workforce and maintain birth rates.

The research also indicates that greater preschool availability, affordability and quality can help reduce social inequality. This is not only because parents can work more, but also because quality preschool better prepares children for primary school, improving educational and professional outcomes later on in life, thereby enhancing their future earning potential.

There is currently much debate in Singapore about how best to address social inequalities. One possible way is by giving all children, regardless of background, their best shot at life.

(Full disclosure: I was the editor of the Starting Well report, which you can download here)

Why I like Sticker Lady

By covering up banal pedestrian fixtures, Sticker Lady has exposed a divide. As soon as she was caught, some labelled her a vandal, lumping her with brats who seriously damage public property for no apparent reason. But that ignores both the impermanence of her work and the laughter her cheekiness provokes.

Others try to vilify her by taking her art to its logical extreme, creating, for instance, photoshopped images of her stickers covering traffic lights, implying that the police had nipped in the bud some adhesive monster. But any idea taken to the extreme can be dangerous.

Still others have suggested that all “art” in Singapore requires approval. This misunderstands the very nature of art. One of the greatest counter-culture art festivals in the world, Burning Man, began in 1986 when 20 people burned an effigy on a beach without approval. Today, it draws some 50,000 people annually. Artists, creators and innovators live on the edge of society, pushing our collective boundaries. By boxing them up, Singapore clips their wings.

“Much of the Beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium,” Henri Matisse said. The genius of Sticker Lady’s work is that she adroitly treads the line between humour and inconvenience. Like all great street art, her little messages create inner dialogues between passers-by and hitherto inconspicuous public spaces. They force us to take pause and question the subconscious actions the urban madness breeds—“Will pumping the button twice really let you cross the road faster?”

Perhaps the most romantic aspect of Sticker Lady’s art is that it is truly Singaporean. One needs to be steeped in local culture to really grasp the nuance of “kancheong”. As Singaporeans struggle with an identity constantly in flux, pulled this way and that by global currents, it is wonderfully refreshing to encounter random reminders of what it means to be Singaporean.

Of course Sticker Lady must be punished, just like other public performers who break rules. But how so? If we let Singapore’s supposed vulnerability guide our instincts, then we might retreat to the pragmatism and safety of strict vandalism laws. Because we have to show that we treat all “vandals” the same, that we tolerate no nonsense, as we preserve the sanctity of our hallowed streets.

But we would miss a few opportunities. First, to show that, as a thinking, tolerant society, we know how to differentiate between alleged annoyances and criminals, rather than tarring all with the same brush. Second, to encourage people who want to push boundaries in a considered way—whether they be in business, civil society or art—to go ahead and do so. Third to acknowledge that, while we will always be a country run by the rule of law, we are compassionate and educated enough to periodically negotiate its application.

The way we treat Sticker Lady will reflect how far (or not) we have come. Ordinary Singaporeans will take their creative cue from the top. So, let’s slap her on the wrists and then pin a medal on her.