May 4th: Interviewing Sonny Liew

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Dear friends,

on May 4th at 630pm I’ll be interviewing Sonny Liew in Raffles Place, Singapore.

Sonny’s graphic novel, “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, was arguably Singapore’s most important book in 2015. The Economist called it a “brilliantly inventive work” that “does not shy away from controversial periods in the nation’s history.”

We’ll be talking about Singapore’s history, life as an artist, political storytelling through graphic novels, and much else.

Join us!

Spaces are limited, so please do register here. Event is co-hosted by the Berkeley Club of Singapore and the Harvard University Association of Alumni in Singapore (HUAAS).

Tickets are available for alumni and non-alumni (“friends of”).

Hope to see you then.

Oh Roy, my heart goes out to you

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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

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

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.

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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.