June 11 event at Books Actually, Tiong Bahru, Singapore

Books Actually

Dear friends,

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

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

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

Otherwise, here are the details

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

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

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

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Letter from India: People

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.

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A continuation of Letter from India: Kalarippayattu

The best part about being on a long research trip is that I get to meet so many fascinating people. Every day. All the time. It is actually both a blessing and a curse, because I spend hours agonising over which people to spend more time with, which ones I may develop into character profiles for the book, which ones must be interviewed right there and then, which ones can wait till a later trip/phone call, etc.

As I went through the first editing process for Floating on a Malayan Breeze in late 2010, I had to omit, with great sadness, many different characters about whom I had already written. There was “Penang Lyn”, who ran Sweet Manna Matchmaking, helping, among others, Singaporean Chinese guys looking for Penang Chinese girls, in demand because they are apparently less materialistic than KL and Singapore girls.

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kinitv: Interview about Malaysia and Singapore

Dear friends, Temily Tianmay of kinitv, part of the Malaysiakini group, interviewed me via Skype a few days ago. We spoke about Malaysia, Singapore, the recent Malaysian elections, ethnic relations, corruption and my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze.

Floating on a Malayan Breeze: US book tour, April 2013

Dear friends, as I enter my last two weeks Book Coverat The Economist Group, am getting increasingly nostalgic. I’ve had a wonderful seven years here, the longest I’ve spent at any institution–so feel like I’m losing a small part of me.

Thankfully, as part of my transition to full-time writing, I’ve got a great trip to the US to look forward to. Am very happy that this book tour has come together, partly because the US remains the most important market for English-language writing. Exciting!

For all of you based in the US, I’d love to see you sometime, perhaps at one of these events. For those based elsewhere, if you have any friends in these cities who might be interested in Malaya or my writing, please do share this page with them. Tell them to come support a Malayan author 🙂 Continue reading

Floating on a Malayan Breeze has been sent for a second print run!

Dear friends, I wanted to share someBook Cover good news about my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze. Barely two months after the launch, the book has been sent for a second print run. The first run of 1,750 is almost gone. That is small beer for an international book, but pretty good for a niche topic–when I first signed up with HKU Press, an editor there told me they’d be happy if we sold 1,000 in the first year.

So I wanted to thank all of you for your support. Couldn’t have done it without you (mean that quite literally, heh). Thanks in particular to Riya de los Reyes, Allanjit Singh, Kj Tan Kane Juan, Peter Schoppert and Sumana Rajarethnam, who have helped immensely in terms of marketing and digital publicity.

Also, the book has finally reached Western shores, and we will be starting our marketing push there over the next few weeks. For those of you who have read the book, or parts of it, I’d really appreciate if you can write a review on the Amazon site. We have no reviews and ratings at the moment, so page looks a bit naked. Even 1-2 lines will suffice. See link here. Thanks so much! 🙂

Select conversations: 4pm, Sat Dec 1st, Select Bookstore, 51 Armenian St

Dear friends, if you’re free and keen to find out more about my recently published book, do come down to Select Bookstore this coming Saturday. I’ll be taking part in a “Select conversation” with Sharon Siddique, my dear friend and mentor. Aunty Sharon was one of the few people who encouraged Sumana Rajarethnam and me to go on that bicycle trip around Malaysia in 2004, so am very happy to be taking part in an event with her. 🙂

If you’re on Facebook, please RSVP on the event page here. If not, just turn up! Hope to see you then.

Here’s the blurb from Select:

In Select Conversations, two (or more) authors and thinkers engage each other and the audience on books and related topics. Come join us for a thought-provoking and interesting experience in this free-flowing and spontaneous session.

The first Select Conversations features Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh and Sharon Siddique, two keen observers of Southeast Asia.

Sudhir is Senior Editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit. A Singaporean, he spent six years at Berkeley and Harvard. His 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. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Economist and The Straits Times. His first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, was published in 2012 and has drawn excellent reviews for its observations about Singapore and Malaysia.

Sharon is a noted authority on religion and social issues in Southeast Asia and has published extensively on these and other topics. Formerly Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, she now consults for governments and business enterprises. Her latest book – Batam: Whose Hinterland? – has just been published. She has over 35 years of experience in research and analysis of critical issues on Southeast Asia and her works include not just influential academic texts but also popular books on local heritage. Her recent books include Southeast Asia: The Diversity Dilemma, Mind the Gaps: Singapore Business in China, and Singapore Shifting Boundaries: Social Change in the 21st Century.

Malaysia Star’s review of Floating on a Malayan Breeze

Dear friends, The Star wrote a couple of pieces about the book in today’s papers. First is a straight up book review written by Neil Khor, a friend of mine, who is a social historian and senior fellow at Think City, which manages the George Town Grants Programme. You can read Neil’s review here.

The Star also published an interview that Rouwen Lim, a reporter there, conducted. You can read that here.

Singapore’s population policies: Book extract in the New Straits Times, Nov 5th 2012

Ahead of my book launch in KL this Saturday, Malaysia’s New Straits Times (NST) has published an excerpt from my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, today.

Over the past few weeks, NUS Press, one of my co-publishers, and I had been lobbying the Malaysian media channels, trying to get them to feature us. Last week, NST confirmed the passage they would like to run.

When I saw which one they chose, I almost fell off my chair laughing. It’s the bit where I discuss Singapore’s flawed population policies and Lee Kuan Yew’s belief in genetic determinism. Of course, NST has also cut out the bits of the passage where I talk about Malaysia.

I’m very happy that they chose this passage. It’s one of my favourites. But it’s also quite reflective of Malaysia’s mainstream media–delighted to see a Singaporean asking tough questions of his country! I suppose it would have been politically impossible for them to run one of the passages where I scrutinise Malaysian policies. In any case, I’m sure the Malaysian audience would appreciate this more–so, from a purely commercial/marketing point of view, a good passage to attract Malaysians to my book launch this Saturday.

You can read the edited extract that NST has run on their website here or on this PDF file: NST Nov 5

Or you can read the full original passage from my book below. This is from pp. 237-40 of the book:

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Throughout our journey, we met Malaysians, rural and urban, who couldn’t believe that we were still single, at the grand old age of 27. As far as they were concerned, we had not planned our life well. We had not given enough priority to starting a family.

Do we Singaporeans value family life less than Malaysians? Quite possibly. After numerous conversations about girlfriends, marriage and children, my sense is that there are cultural and developmental reasons for this.

My anecdotal evidence suggests that Malays treasure big families and family time more than Chinese and Indians. Many Malays I met, including Isa and Kamal, are extremely proud of their big families. Much of their life revolves around their extended families.

I found this to be less so for the Indians, even less for Chinese. This is not to say that Chinese and Indians don’t care for their families, just simply that having a big family, and maintaining close ties with the extended family, seems less a priority than it is for Malays.

When we were cycling through Terengganu, we stopped at a tiny kampung for a breather, and two very old Malay men immediately chatted us up. They were certain that all the differences between Malaysia and Singapore could be summed up in a neat parable.

Orang Melayu, bini dulu, baru cari harta.
Orang Cina, cari harta, baru bini.

Malays find a wife first, and then wealth.
Chinese find wealth first, and then a wife.

It is interesting to compare total fertility rates—the average number of children a woman is expected to have—among the different ethnic groups in the two countries.

In 2010, Malaysia’s total fertility rates were: 1.5 for Chinese, 1.7 for Indians and 2.6 for Malays. Singapore’s were: 1.02 for Chinese, 1.13 for Indians and 1.65 for Malays.

Thus, in both Malaysia and Singapore, Malays have the highest total fertility rates among the three major ethnic groups. There could be cultural and economic reasons for this. In both countries, the Malays have lower average household incomes than the Chinese and Indians. As incomes rise, people tend to have fewer kids.

This would partly explain why Singapore’s fertility rates are today so low. This is a socio-economic phenomenon the world over, particularly with the other East Asian Tigers—Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan—who have all recorded torrid economic growth alongside plummeting fertility. (Similarly, the fertility rate in Malaysia’s more developed states, such as Penang and Selangor, is lower than other parts of the country.)

What is most surprising, perhaps, is that by 2010 the total fertility rate of Singapore’s Malays was almost as low as Malaysia’s Chinese. Malay fertility rates in Singapore have dropped drastically from 2.54 in 2000 to 1.65 in 2010.

Perhaps there is something unique about Singapore’s pressure-cooker, rat-race, materialist society that has deterred young couples from having children. It is expensive to bring up children in Singapore, particularly with all the extra tuition, expensive pre-school classes, and other personal improvement programmes that parents today deem necessary.

But government policy has also greatly influenced Singaporeans’ family values. In Singapore, love and procreation have become somewhat manufactured; transformed from individual decisions and responsibilities into a national obsession. The government has indelibly shaped every Singaporean’s conception of love, marriage and children.

In the 1970s, fearful of a population explosion, our government told people to “Stop at 2”. As expected, we followed orders. By the early 1980s, it became clear that we were not replacing ourselves sufficiently and so, in a 180-degree turn, the government started to promote bigger families. Tax breaks were offered to parents who had a third child. It didn’t make much of a difference.

By 2005, our total fertility rate had slumped to 1.26, well below 2, the “replacement rate” required to maintain a stable population. Our government, desperate, pulled out all the stops: more tax breaks, longer maternity leave, and vociferous public campaigns.

Almost from the day he stepped into office, our prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has been urging Singaporeans to make babies. In the space of one generation, the Singaporean family psyche has been switched from big families to “Stop at 2” and back to big families again.

However, our government has tried to manipulate the population in a much more classist fashion—encouraging university graduates to marry other graduates rather than non-graduates. This reflects Lee Kuan Yew’s belief in genetic determinism.

In 1967, he said that about 5 per cent of the population “are more than ordinarily endowed physically and mentally and in whom we must extend our limited and slender resources …” Later, in 1969, he worried that “less economically productive people in the community are reproducing themselves at rates higher than the rest.”

Presumably, our government believed it could improve Singapore’s gene pool. In 1984 it implemented a programme that tried to increase the fertility of university educated women while offering subsidies for the voluntary sterilisation of poor and uneducated parents.

Singapore even set up a couple of government agencies to further this agenda. The Social Development Unit (SDU) was formed in 1984 to promote marriages among graduate singles, while Social Development Services (SDS) was set up in 1985 to promote marriages among non-graduate singles.

Sometimes it seems like our eugenics policies were implemented in a bygone era rife with classism. Actually, it was less than 30 years ago. We grew up in a society where eugenics influenced love.

Lee Kuan Yew’s views on this haven’t changed much. In 2008, he told 700-odd delegates at a Human Capital Summit that Singaporean graduates who marry nongraduates “will worry if their children will make it to the university”.

In Singapore, something so natural, so carnal, so innately human as love is transformed into a more structured, formal process. It seems like the only thing the government has yet to do is teach Singaporeans how to give head.

PAP fans love to boast about the party’s forward thinking and successful longterm planning. But when its history is eventually written (by somebody neutral), the PAP’s misguided population policies of the 1970s–80s will tarnish its legacy. Many of Singapore’s current socio-economic problems—including inequality, public transport squeezes and xenophobia—have their roots in our low birth-rate, and the government’s attempt to address it with sudden, unsustainably high immigration.

Put another way, when it comes to population policies, the current PAP leadership has created new problems by trying to correct the old problems that are partly the doing of the 1970s–80s PAP leadership.

Malaysia’s government, on the other hand, does not try to manipulate its population dynamics so meticulously. However, Malaysia’s religious police do frequently try to peer into the private love lives of Muslims in the country, to ensure that unmarried couples are not engaging in illicit physical activity—what is known as khalwat, literally “close proximity”. These khalwat raids can be quite sudden and brutal—Islamic officers are known to barge into people’s houses and rooms, looking for immoral activity.

This points to one of the great paradoxes of Malaysian society. The Malay Muslims are afforded special economic rights, but they cannot enjoy certain personal and social freedoms such as the ability to drink and engage in physical relations before marriage. On the other hand, the Chinese and Indian non-Muslims are considered second-class citizens politically, but then are able to lead much freer lives than the Malay Muslims ever can.

It does appear, however, that the Singapore government’s constant intrusions into the bedroom may have been counterproductive. At best, they have failed to achieve their goals. At worst, love, marriage and sex, glorious expressions of the human condition, have been reduced to numbers, policies and projections. Procreation becomes a mechanical response, a “national service”, akin to paying taxes.

SG Population

Which begs the question: have we all spent enough time thinking about what makes us happy? For those of us who want huge families, have we really thought hard enough about what else we could be doing with our time if we had a smaller family? Conversely, for those of us who want tiny families, are we missing out on one of life’s basic joys?

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It’s interesting to compare this passage to the one that Singapore’s The Straits Times (ST) chose to run a couple of weeks back. Incidentally, ST had asked me to select a passage for their extract. NST read through the whole book and chose one they liked.

Op-ed in Malaysiakini today: Peaceful revolutions in Malaysia and Singapore

Below is an Op-ed I published in Malaysiakini today. Steven Gan, one of the founders of Malaysiakini, has become a friend over the years. He is one of the interviewees in my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, in the section where I discuss Malaya’s changing media landscape (pp. 98-102).

For Malaysiakini subscribers, do access the Op-ed directly on their site here.

For others, you can read it here:

The peaceful revolutions in Malaysia and Singapore Continue reading