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.


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.

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.

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…