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.
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.
Dear friends, I am very happy to announce the release of my new book, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, co-authored with Donald Low, with contributions by Linda Lim and PJ Thum, and published by NUS Press.
Do you recognise the image on the cover? Scroll to the bottom of this post to find out more about it.
Availability in Singapore
Donald and I will be taking part in a discussion at NUS, moderated by David Skilling of the Landfall Strategy Group. Bookhaven will be selling copies there at S$20 per book (usual price S$24).
Date: April 22nd 2014
Time: 6:00pm to 7:30pm
Venue: Bookhaven, NUS U-Town. (see here)
Registration is free, but necessary as space is limited. Click here to do so.
For those who cannot make it on April 22nd but still want a personalised copy autographed by the two of us—at the launch price—please order through me directly by April 22nd morning, for collection at NUS Press.
Otherwise, the book should be available in all good bookstores, including NUS Press itself, by end April.
Digital versions (Amazon, Apple, Kobo and B&N) will be ready by end April. We are still working out the Google Play delivery. Worldwide hard copies should also be available on Amazon by July 31st—although they are notorious for delays with hard copies.
Do check back here for updates; or click the “Follow” button at the bottom of this page to receive my blogposts automatically.
What is the book about?
The book is a collection of essays on Singapore, each dealing with a different policy or social dimension—including history, meritocracy, social security, housing and identity.
More important than the specific topics, perhaps, is the spirit of the book. Each essay challenges one or more assumptions of the Singapore consensus—from vulnerability to elite governance—and suggests policy alternatives, some fairly radical, to the limited and narrow options that are often presented in public discourse here.
Will greater welfare necessarily harm Singapore’s competitiveness? Does Singapore need high immigration in order to keep growing and raise living standards? Are ethnic classifications—Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others—and quotas in HDB estates necessary in order to maintain ethnic harmony?
A traditional Singapore establishment viewpoint would respond with a resounding YES to all of the above. In the book we skewer these and many other sacred cows. Continue reading
This year’s Singapore Budget has garnered accolades for its focus on lower-income groups and the so-called Pioneer generation. One glaring omission, however, is in efforts to redistribute wealth. That is a missed opportunity; Singapore needs to address its drastic wealth inequality in order to, among other things, reduce social tensions, improve social mobility and maintain its commitment to building a fair and just society.
The distinction between income and wealth inequalities is important. In Singapore, a person can have immense wealth—inherited property, for example—with very little traditional income. This creates the somewhat perverse situation where some very wealthy people also own HDB flats and qualify for huge healthcare subsidies while simultaneously investing in stocks and second properties, furthering their wealth advantage over the poor. In order to properly address social inequities, both inequalities—income and wealth—have to be reduced.
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
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.
Introduction Continue reading
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.
Dear friends, it gives me great pleasure to invite you to the launch of my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore. Please click here to read more about the book.
Time: 8-930pm, September 26th
Venue: Recital studio, Esplanade, Singapore
Space is limited. If you want to come, do RSVP to Riya at email@example.com
SR Nathan, Singapore’s former president, will be the guest of honour. The book launch will be followed by a panel discussion between Manu Bhaskaran, Donald Low and myself.
Please click on the image for more details. For those who cannot make it but are keen on the book, we will have at least two more book readings in Singapore at later dates. Stay tuned.