Letter from India: Gatka

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. In the interest of clarity, although I wrote most of this letter when in India, I am actually clicking “Publish” when in S Africa, where I am visiting my wife for a few days.

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A continuation of Letter from India: Philosophies

Buses

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By the time Kirit and I reach Punjab, buses have broken our backs. Unable to secure a seat on any northbound train, we board a series of overnight buses—Pondicherry to Hyderabad; Hyderabad to Nagpur; Nagpur to Indore; Indore to Jaipur; Jaipur to Chandigarh; and, finally, Chandigarh to Amritsar—collectively taking more than 50 hours over some 3000km, greater than the distance from Hong Kong to Singapore, or Houston to San Francisco.

In Indore we break our journey for a few days, visiting my Nani’s house every day for home cooking. Then, as if to compensate for those comforts, our karma delivers the bus from hell. We have two “upper sleepers” on a “Non-AC bus” to Jaipur. This doesn’t sound too shabby, but when we board we find a dirty, old interior. The faux leather plastic on my bed’s “headrest” is completely worn, exposing the spongy foam beneath. Every time I lift my head up, I find little bits of black foam clinging lovingly to my hair. The bed itself is sandy. That is partly its steady state, and partly my doing, as I keep my soiled slippers up there with me, rather than down below on the even filthier bus floor, where they might get trampled on by even filthier slippers.

Across the aisle, on a double-sleeper on the other side of the bus, are my travel companions: an elderly man and his white terrier, “Kutta”, literally dog in Hindi. Kutta is actually quite cute, but he annoys me by barking sporadically and also because I’m envious of his royal diet: burfi, which I look at longingly, every time the man places one delicately in Kutta’s mouth. Kutta’s bark isn’t the only aural pain. At every available opportunity our bus driver blares his irritating horn, which in India can range from the multi-layered melodious to the fart-like. The racket is worse than anything those post-South Africa 2010 Vuvuzuela nuts conjured. I regret booking a sleeper in the front of the bus.

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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.

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

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

Reimagining the Singapore Armed Forces and National Service

(This is a continuation of “Singapore’s outdated national security policies”)

Fighting the real enemy: Reimagining the Singapore Armed Forces

Why does Singapore Singapore Armed Forcesstill need such a large standing Armed Forces? If we accept the argument that Singapore’s security threats have evolved over the years—and no longer includes “potentially hostile Muslim neighbours”—then our country needs to adapt, and prepare itself for today’s threats, not yesteryear’s. Continue reading

Singapore’s outdated national security policies

Synopsis

Singapore’s national security policies aresingapore_flag outdated and in dire need of revision. These policies are heavily influenced by the paranoias of the 1960s, when a vulnerability fetish gave rise to a siege mentality amongst Singaporean leaders that persists today. But Singapore’s main security threats now are not other states but non-state actors, specifically pirates and terrorists. 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:

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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