Happy Birthday, Singapore

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Dear friends, I published an essay about Singaporean nationalism and patriotism on Mothership.sg, one of Singapore’s newer alternative news sites. Incidentally, I sit on the advisory board of Project Fisher-men, a social enterprise that owns Mothership.

Click here to read it on Mothership.

Alternatively, it is reproduced here:

Every year in the days leading up to August 9th, a maelstrom of emotions swirls deep within me. I am never quite sure how to react to Singapore’s National Day.

“But why are you singing Stand up for Singapore?” asks my Chinese Peranakan wife, who is indifferent towards the patriotism, but wholly enthusiastic about the day off. It’s subconscious, I say, a reaction to hearing the catchy tune somewhere in July, the month of cheesy patriotic jingles in Singapore.

My fundamental problem with National Day has nothing to do with Singapore per se. Rather, I am generally skeptical about nationalism and patriotism, and their expressions anywhere in the world. Nationalism’s slippery slope to fascism — from Adolf and Idi to Perkasa — seems to far outweigh any benefits.

I prefer to exist, naively, in an idealistic parallel universe where borders are fluid and the oneness of humanity is cherished. With ethnicity, religion and culture already dividing the peoples of the world, why cloak ourselves with another layer of differentiation?

There are also particular, localised reasons for my ambivalence. And it is, indeed, ambivalence, not just doubt, because National Day has first always made me warm and fuzzy inside.

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On racism and xenophobia in Singapore

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“Do you think that the hatred Singaporeans feel towards foreigners is because of an identity crisis, as you suggested, or because the government has failed to provide sufficient basic services, like housing and transportation?” a young Filipino journalist asked at last week’s book launch (see here).

The crowd released a collective gasp when they heard the word “hatred”. I was shocked. I mentioned in my reply that it was too strong a word to use. Regardless, the fact that she said it bothers me, and has prompted me to share some thoughts.

These are casual observations and musings that build on the one serious analytical piece I’ve written on race, Chapter 8: Colour Matters, in Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore.

As such, please treat each of my main statements below as postulations, to which I invite discussion and debate. Any thoughts and responses are much appreciated.

Note: Though racism and xenophobia are somewhat distinct, they often get conflated in contemporary Singaporean discourse. I will therefore sometimes discuss them collectively.

1) In Singapore, the moderate voices far outweigh the racists and xenophobes

In the immediate wake of the Little India Riots, there were some anti-South Asian racist and xenophobe rants. However, there was an instant backlash from voices of moderation. Same thing with the furore over the mooted celebration of the Philippines Independence Day in June this year. In both instances, I was heartened by Singapore society’s collective rejection of racist and xenophobic strands.

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Five notes from The Malayan Forum

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I just wanted to share some thoughts from the interesting discussion I participated in last week, “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” (see here).

Background: “The Malayan Forum was set up in London by future leaders of Malaysia and Singapore. Primarily a platform for politics, the topics would however have extended to governance and other related aspects for future independence. Key to the premise was the joint stewardship of matters relating to the lands, and hence the term “Malayan” was used. The sessions seeks to interrogate and delineate the term “Malayan” in its myriad representations, and to consider the impact of the term on the socio-political landscape, and on the arts and culture, in the period leading up to the Merger. 65 years after its inception, the forum will question the relevance and legacies it has engendered over time.”

The wide-ranging discussion was moderated by Lai Chee Kien, a Singaporean architect and good friend whom I first met in Berkeley, when I was an undergrad and he was completing his PhD. Alongside was fellow panellist Tay Kheng Soon, also an architect, but much older, more established, and famous as a social activist from the 1960s. Mr Tay has, in many ways, been a leading voice of our national conscience, on everything from the environment to language. He has also played crucial roles in specific Singapore developments.

The story of how Mr Tay lobbied for Changi as the site of our airport—publicly disagreeing with plans by the PWD (Public Works Department) to expand the Paya Lebar Airport then winning in the court of public opinion, which infuriated PWD and forced it to change its plans—is interesting not simply as a window into the history of one of the world’s most recognisable institutions, but also because it harks back to a time of remarkable democratic activism and accountability in Singapore.

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Letter from China: Shaolin and Bodhidharma

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

Zhang Yong

Zhang Yong, one of the shifus at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center

A continuation of Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

The Shaolin Temple…at last

Two days after reaching Dengfeng, we visit the Shaolin Temple. After paying the RMB100 (US$16) per head entrance fee, we walk through the ticket counter, and soon pass one branch of the Tagou school on our right. We keep walking for another five minutes to arrive at the wushu demonstration centre, which has hourly performances. Even at 9 in the morning, some 30minutes before the first performance, a queue has formed.

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Letter from India: Trivandrum

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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As soon as I board the plane in Changi, I regret not having bought duty-free booze. Half the Malayali men around me are carrying sealed plastic bags full of whisky and beer. “Don’t bother with Changi, just buy my Heineken beer in Trivandrum airport,” was the message Babu Uncle delivered, in his desire to minimise my beer-carrying time. “Buy as many as they will sell you. Remember, Heineken.” Sure enough, when I get to Trivandrum’s DFS shop, they have only Anchor.

Food and drink is one way to delineate the two sides of my Indian heritage. My maternal relatives, Hindu Marwaris from Rajasthan, are vegetarians who don’t drink and generally lead austere lives. My paternal relatives, Christian Malayalis from Kerala, are prone to imbibe every delight known to man. I like to joke that when I visit Kerala, my uncles won’t let me into their cars until I’ve handed over the Johnnie Black and Dunhill. The next morning, the seven cans of Anchor are still sitting on the backseat of his car. Continue reading

Why has Singapore failed to prepare its citizens adequately for the knowledge economy? Part 2

Credit: www.hongkiat.com

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

Why has Singapore failed to prepare its citizens adequately for the knowledge economy?

Credit: www.hongkiat.com

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

Talking honestly about race

Dear friends, I published an Op-ed on Yahoo! today about630_SGdemoncratic the arrest of a Singaporean cartoonist last week. It’s depressing that the authorities continue to resort to harsh action to suppress commentary they dislike. Click here to read the article on Yahoo!

Or I have reproduced it below:

In order for Singaporean society to deal with race, religion and other sensitive issues in a mature way, they have to be discussed and debated publicly, not suppressed. Singapore needs to learn to talk honestly about race.

In that light, the most disturbing thing about the arrest last week of Leslie Chew, a Singaporean cartoonist, is that he appears to have been targeted for asking, through his cartoons, a very pertinent question: is there institutionalised discrimination against Malays in Singapore? 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

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.