Singapore’s scientific pioneers: a new book I worked on

scientific pioneers

Who built Singapore?

Politicians are oft celebrated, but there have been many others. This fabulous new (free!) book honours 25 scientific pioneers, including the person who greatly improved our IVF success rate as well as the only non-white in the Internet Hall of Fame: a Singaporean who essentially connected China, India, and many other non-English speaking populations to the Internet.

These vignettes are brilliantly written by Grace Chua, Juliana Drum, Shuzhen Sim and Rebecca Tan (who says scientists can’t write??? 🙂 )

I had the pleasure of editing their smart prose—one of the best freelance gigs I’ve ever had.

They have made the science very accessible, so I hope you can share this with young, aspiring scientists, or students wondering what to do with their lives.

You can download the book here.

I also have a few limited hard copies that I would like to give to some budding scientists. Email me (sudhir.vadaketh@gmail.com) if you’d like one for yourself or your child, niece, etc.

Image credit: Gorgeous photos taken by Cyril Ng and Bryan van der Beek.

Georgetown Literary Festival, Penang: Nov 28-30

Penang bless car

Dear friends,

I will be appearing in two events at the Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang, one of my favourite kampung-like cities in the world. It’s my first time at this festival, so quite thrilled. Friends, food and fun aside, I’m looking forward to meeting Rehman Rashid, whose classic book, A Malaysian Journey, partly inspired Sumana and my own bicycle trip around Malaysia in 2004.

For general information about the festival, click here.

The two panels I’ll be speaking on are:

A Sense of Place

Saturday 29 November, 12.30pm, Lightbox @ The Whiteways Arcade

A sense of place is one of those qualities readers look for in a book, but what exactly does it mean? A poet, a travel writer, and a novelist discuss the varying effect that spaces and places have on their writing.

Panelists: Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (Singapore), Shivani Sivagurunathan (Malaysia), Marco Ferrarese (Malaysia)

Moderator: Bernice Chauly

(click here to visit page)

&

What Are You Hiding?

Saturday 29 November, 10.00am, Gallery 2 @ The Whiteways Arcade

1 in 6 writers have self-censored. In this age of sedition, in this era of surveillance and sousveillance, of big brother and little brother, many a scribe has chosen to not write on topics that might subject them to scrutiny – both by society and by the government. Join these authors as they explore the act of self-censorship and the effect it has on both the writer and the writing.

Panelists: Ooi Kee Beng (Singapore/Malaysia), Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (Singapore), Leila S. Chudori (Indonesia)

Moderator: Sharaad Kuttan

(click here to visit page)

I hope to see you there. My wife and I will be in Penang for four days, so if you can’t make the panels but still want to meet, do send me a note at: sudhir.vadaketh@gmail.com

P.S. The picture above is of the Shree Muniswarar Kuil, or temple, in Penang. In a longstanding island tradition, Chinese, Malays, Indians and many others alike drive their new cars or motorbikes here to bless them. It is a quaint testament to the island’s cultural and religious heterogeneity.

Oh Roy, my heart goes out to you

royss2

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Second book launch: Hard Choices

Hard Choices Front_Ver 2

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

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

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

Continue reading

Cheeky Harry cartoon from Malaysia, 1983

Dear friends, given the recent hullabaloo over the arrest of a Singaporean cartoonist, and the fact that it’s Labour Day, I thought I might share a somewhat naughty cartoon that pokes fun of Lee Kuan Yew’s handling of workers (Pekerja), the opposition (Pembangkang), minority cultures (Kaum minoriti) and Chinese education (Pendidikan Cina).

This is the front cover of the Feb 1983 issue of a now defunct Malaysian bilingual monthly publication, Nadi Insan. This hangs on the “Press Freedom Wall” in Malaysiakini‘s KL office.

No disrespect to the old man; but I always find it interesting to see depictions of Malaysia and Singapore (and our leaders) by the other side.

Nadi Insan

I have so many questions about this cartoon: Did LKY do something particularly nasty in late 1982 to provoke this cover? What exactly does the caricature represent? It seems like he’s wearing a sumo outfit, but with the face and fangs of one of those scary Indonesian monsters. Comments, thoughts much appreciated. Continue reading

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

Amanat: The right lessons from her legacy

As 2012 draws to a close, most Singaporeans’ heartsdelhi_protests_petals_295 are filled with sadness, not joy. All the triumphs and moments of elation this year—from our country’s first individual Olympic medal in more than 50 years to the broader Asian pride we feel every time somebody horses around to the Gangnam Style—have been rightly overshadowed by the shocking, abhorrent gang-rape of Amanat, the Indian lady who passed away in Singapore after having been flown here for medical treatment from Delhi, the scene of the crime. Continue reading

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:

———————————————-

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?

———————————————-

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.