Go with a smile!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Peace, prosperity and economic progress

Peoples' memories are short. I'm barely old enough to remember a time, in the 1980s, when WW2 was still being talked about, when people still remember the horrors and the savagery. This memory faded in the 1990s when the 50th anniversaries were commemorated.

Maybe this illustrates why it's so difficult for people to accept the moral equations of climate change and the destruction of the natural habitat. It's bad enough that the evil that men do come about as a result of starvation, war and disease. It is much harder to accept the destruction that comes about as a result of peace and economic "progress".


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Phases of the English Premier League

Manchester City have a plan for global dominance.

I think we can put the English Premier League in distinct phases.

The first phase (1992 - 1997) was the era of Manchester United's rise to become a hegemon. They faced off the challenges of Liverpool, Leeds, Aston Villa, Blackburn and Newcastle to become, by some distance, the richest and most powerful club in England. This would be the last time the league would be genuinely competitive.

The second phase (1997 - 2004) was the era of Arsenal and Manchester United rivalry, where almost every year both clubs would finish in the top 2 spots. Towards the end of this era, Roman Abramovich would buy Chelsea and pump in loadsamoney.

The third phase (2004 - 2011) is the era of Chelsea - Manchester United rivalry. Arsenal would fade away and become a second rate power. Chelsea would win 3 titles in this period. Manchester United would recover and Alex Ferguson would build the last of his great teams and he would retire thereafter.

The next phase (2011 - 2016) is a period of transition, and the massive cash injection into Man City is beginning to have its intended effect. Man United is going downhill following the departure of Alex Ferguson. Man City wins the title twice, but Leicester, Man United and Chelsea win one apiece.

It remains to see if this current Pep Guardiola era will be a Manchester United style dynasty, or if, like Mourinho, he will burn out like he did at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. It remains to be seen if Chelsea's last 2 titles are a sign of a club that will continue to be great in the future.


Sunday, December 03, 2017

Myth of the mid table club

You had the myth of the well-run mid-table club. I don't know much about what the Football league before the Premier League came about.

How many clubs have never been relegated from the Premier League? They are the big clubs: Arsenal, Man Utd, Everton, Tottenham, Chelsea.

There are the clubs that have a proud tradition, but they've had to go down at some point: Manchester city, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Sunderland, Derby County, Leicester. Well, we should always mention Leicester's shock victory in 2016, but you had to have a season when all the big clubs were in transition for that to happen.

You had a club like Coventry City, and it seemed to be on a wonderful roll. They had 30 consecutive seasons in the top flight, they have ppl like Gordon Strachan, Mustapha Hadji and Gary McAllister playing for them. They even managed to win the FA Cup one season. Then they had one bad season, and suddenly they were relegated. And after they were relegated, they never managed to get back up.

Every now and then, there'll be a club that seems to buck this trend. They'll have a miracle worker who seems to do very well and carry the club up over and beyond what they're capable of. There was Wimbledon, and they were the crazy gang who came up from the non-League and managed top 10 finishes and FA cup semi-finals. They even had a half-decent team at one point, who, contrary to their reputations as being rough tacklers and long ball players, played their football on the ground. They had Neil Sullivan, Robbie Earle, Marcus Gayle, …. Then one day, they managed to land a manager who seemed completely in tune with who they were: Egil Olsen, the manager of another over-achieving Norwegian side around the turn of the century, who managed to beat Brazil. No dice.

There was West Ham, who once had one of the greatest bunch of youths that England had seen. They had Rio Ferdinand, Jermaine Defoe, Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick. But not long after they were relegated in really unfortunate circumstances: They probably set a record for the highest number of points achieved by a relegated side.

There was Leeds United, who seemed like they were doing the right thing in getting youngsters together, they seemed like they had a young and exciting side. They bought Rio Ferdinand over from West Ham, they had Nigel Martyn, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Michael Bridges, Oliver Dacourt, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer, David Batty.

There was a year when they were challenging for the title and after that, they got into the Champion's League and went all the way to the semi-finals. It seemed as though they managed to break into the ranks of the big clubs – not that they didn't have a great past, they were one of the best clubs between 1965 to 1975, and they won a title in 1992. There was even a time when their chairman, Peter Ridsdale seemed to be one of the best chairmen in England. It was as good as it got for that bunch. They had spent heavily and gambled everything on being able to make it to the champion's league every year. Then one day they didn't make it, and it turned out that many of their deals were highly leveraged. When they failed to pay back their debts, the club went into a death spiral and they were relegated the next season. They sold their best players and even got a good price for Rio Ferdinand. But for many of the rest, it was a fire sale.

As it turned out, many of those wonderful batch of players played their best football for Leeds, with the notable exception of Rio Ferdinand. Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were charged with beating the shit out of a South Asian guy, and maybe they never reached the heights their Leeds career suggested them capable of. For whatever reason, Michael Bridges, Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell and Seth Johnson had recurring injury problems that prevented them from excelling. And that is a shame because quite a few of them were English and they could have made the so-called England's “Golden Generation” of the mid-00s even more golden.

There were clubs that seemed to have hot streaks for a few seasons. Derby had a few good seasons, and then faltered and got relegated. Sunderland had a few top 10 finishes, and also suffered the same fate.

One of the most notable “success stories” was Bolton Wanderers. They had a manger, Sam Allardyce, who used a combination of analytics, and being able to get the best out of players who were talented but either past their best, or seemingly unable to unleash their best performances elsewhere. Thus, he managed to get Fernando Hierro, Youri Djorkaeff, and el Hadji Diouf to play their best for him.

Then one day, Newcastle came calling, and Allardyce, tempted by the prospect of managing a bigger club, took it, only to find himself getting sacked after less than a season. He acquired a reputation for boring and predictable football, and this dogged him throughout his subsequent career. He was told to leave Blackburn and West Ham because that reputation for boring football preceded him. But in both of those cases, those decision backfired on their clubs.

Bolton seemed to defy gravity for a while, and it acquired a reputation for being a very well-run small club. In truth, this was mainly down to Sam Allardyce and when he wasn't able to get more funds out of his chairman, he quit and moved to Newcastle.

Another “success story” was Wigan Athletic. They seemed to defy their small club status after breaking through to the Premier League, and occupying the top league for the first time in their history. They struggled with relegation every year, but incredibly managed to win the FA Cup (and get relegated in the same year). Maybe this was down to the two managers they had while in the premier league, Steve Bruce and Roberto Martinez.

Ditto for Swansea City, who had a string of good coaches in Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers. They employed Michael Laudrup and he won the League cup, but he turned out t to be not such a good coach and was sacked. Garry Monk seemed to be another great coach, but after one great season, he was also found to be out of his depth. The next two coaches – Guidolin and Bob Bradley turned out to be disasters and they would have been relegated if not for the appointment of Paul Clement, who saved them from relegation last season. They're no longer the miracle workers who end up in the top half of the table, and a lot of their best players got sold off to other clubs. At the moment, they're deep in relegation trouble, and they're probably in a position that reflects their true status – perpetual relegation fighters.

A word, then, for the overachievers in the current premier league. Bournemouth is a club that's already overachieved by being in the premier league – one of the few clubs that has a stadium of seating capacity less than 20000. They had a manager who excelled in the last 2 seasons, but time's catching up with them.

Southampton is a more interesting case. They've had a string of coaches who are pretty good, although they've not done much other than introduce many of those coaches to bigger clubs. Alan Pardew improved the team while they were in the lower leagues, but it wasn't good enough. Nigel Adkins brought Southampton to the Premier League but it wasn't good enough. Mauricio Pochettino was good enough but he got lured to Tottenham where he's done a great job so far of moulding one of the most promising and exciting new sides of the top 6. (Tottenham and Man City are the only 2 new additions to the elite in the last few years and Tottenham did it without spending a ridiculous amount of money). They got in Ronald Koeman and after having kept Southampton in the same position, he was lured over by Everton where he screwed up and got fired. Claude Puel also kept Southampton in the top 10 but he was also fired for still not being good enough. Southampton's hirings and firings look extremely harsh but they should be commended for so far being a mid-table side.

Then there's Leicester, who was a side which like Southampton spent the first decade of the century in the wilderness after being a constant fixture in the EPL during its first decade. People remembered them for their League cup wins under Martin O'Neill. They rose quickly through the tables under the new ownership, and after having spent much of the season at the bottom of the league, suddenly produced championship form during the last few weeks to secure a place in the next year's league. (Although there were a few hints of this early in the season when they thrashed Man U 5-3, still one of the most remarkable results). The coach who got them there, Nigel Pearson, was fired, some felt, harshly for his bizarre behavior (and he's been out of work mostly since) but he laid the groundwork for what came next, the most incredible season by anybody in the premier league – their title winning 2015-16 season, and basically this is the season that Newcastle should have had in 95-96, when they used a combination of a water-tight defence, devastating counter-attacking and most of their title rivals being in transition to win the title in the most improbable fashion.

But after that, they had a really wretched title defence, and inexplicably Claudio Ranieri, who very strangely never won a league title before anywhere in his career (even though he had a few second place finishes), ended up getting his side into a relegation scrap and fired in the next season. (interestingly, this was the second time a coach who won the title the previous season got fired the next season – previously Jose Mourinho who won the title with Chelsea, and who replaced him at Chelsea more than 10 years earlier, was the one who got fired for a bad title defence.

He was replaced by Nigel Pearson's assistant, Craig Shakespeare. Shakespeare guided Leicester to safety, and after another bad start to the season, it was Shakespeare's turn to get fired, and instead the job was offered to Claude Puel, himself the victim of a harsh firing from Southampton.

You could complain about the firings being excessively harsh, but you would not complain about the results from a club like Leicester. Perhaps they felt that it was best to bring in different coaches with different approaches. Of their title winning team, they lost Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante, but apparently they managed to retain just about all the other big names. Coincidentally, Leicester's title win was also similar to Chelsea's of 2017 in the sense that it was based on a system that other teams in the league found difficult to counter. Leicester had their counter-attack strategy that was executed to perfection. Chelsea had their 3-4-3 that funnily enough, only came about 5-10 games into the season, thereafter Chelsea climbed to the top of the table and stayed there.

And then there is Stoke, a team which for whatever reason never got relegated in the last 10 years. For their first few years, they were the archetype for a certain type of team: the disciplined, tight defence who played boring long ball, but were hard to beat and they got their results. Then Tony Pulis was replaced by Mark Hughes, who tried to introduce some flair into the team, and they still look like a mid-table side, although a few bad results will probably put their place in the premiership in danger.

Tony Pulis was later hired by Crystal Palace as a rescue expert, and he got them out of relegation trouble and after that left the club. Then he went to West Bromwich Albion, who also played football the Pulis way. But after a few bad results, he got fired.

The English Premier League used to have mid-table teams. Not anymore. Now there is only the elite – Man U, Man City and Chelsea, who are capable of winning titles, and Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal, who are not. Outside of this six, anybody can get relegated at any time. It used to be that Aston Villa, Newcastle and Everton were exempt from this, but Aston Villa just got relegated, Newcastle just got promoted from the League Championship, and Everton has had to fire Ronald Koeman for a string of bad results. If I'm not wrong, only the elite clubs plus Everton have never been relegated from the Premier League, and were there since the beginning.

Every club outside the elite has a rough idea of what it takes in order to survive, and possibly every club is equally capable of doing it. It used to be that only Bolton had cracked the code of what it meant to be an over-performer. Now people roughly agree on a few things:

1. When you are a top performer as a player or a coach and you emerge at a club outside of the big six, they might try to poach you. Because of that, overperforming does not last long. This is one good reason for trying to get an good older guy at the end of his career, because nobody would want to poach him.
2. Having a good analytics and sports science team is very helpful for you to achieve success.
3. Having an experienced hand as head coach is very important. Premier League clubs seldom give inexperienced coaches the time and space needed to learn on the job. One of the best ways is to take a club from the championship up to the premier league and make him stay there. That's how managers like David Moyes, Alan Pardew, Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce made their names. But now, they are part of a manager merry-go-round, and they're probably taking up places that might have gone to a younger English counterpart. Put it simply, it's not that easy for a younger Englishman to rise up to part of the elite.


Sunday, November 05, 2017

A New Building

I don't really have a lot of memories of the first few days in the new building. It was a grand structure. It was originally supposed to be Bishan Junior College. (Thank god it wasn't, because it would probably have met the same fate as 5 or 6 Junior Colleges getting closed down.) I think RI took the spot because they were getting chased out of Grange Road, or there wasn't any room for Grange Road to expand, I don't know.

It was a large building. Everything smelled fresh. I still remember when the running track always smelled of rubber. I did not participate in the move, something that I regretted forever. My mother booked a holiday without discussing it with me, and I was somewhere in South Korea when it was time for that great white contingent to march / take the MRT from Grange Road to Bishan. But ultimately, I found, it did not matter.

1990 was an unhappy year for me for many reasons that I won't elaborate at this point. But I knew that there was something in the air: some kind of change. People called it a New Decade. The 21st century was approaching. But it was an alignment of stars. Lee Kuan Yew was stepping down. RI was moving to Bishan, and experimenting with independence. The Cold War was ending. And we were moving into a new house. As per the title of that Burt Bacharach song, a house is not a home. What we had was a house, with concrete walls, workers doing random stuff here and there, patching things up. What we had was a house, and we were going to turn that house of ours into a real home.

I remember even walking through the drains around the running track when they were new. Empty fields where the soil has yet to settled, that have since been turned into huge gardens. Even a foot print or two being left on top of the ceiling.

We knew we were some kinds of pioneers, and that we would leave some kind of a mark on this new chapter in the history of the school. Perhaps this was illusory, and perhaps nobody really cared when we graduated.

But new lives, and new universes were beginning to flower. New sensations were being awakened in all the souls who passed through there. New questions were asked. New frames of references were pondered over. All that is awe inspiring. The principal called himself “headmaster”, in a throwback to Victorian days. Maybe that was toned down. But he had oratorical skills, and although I hardly listened to most of his speeches, I remember the part where he said that many of us had the seeds of greatness within us, and that individually, we were all forces to be reckoned with, and RI was also a place where this potential was let loose, and the combination could be an explosive one.

I think of all the things some people have done since leaving the RI of that period. We had somebody turning into one of Singapore's most prominent playwrights. We had somebody turning into one of the top artificial intelligence researchers. We had somebody founding a famous gaming company. Somebody reaching the top of Everest. Probably lots of stuff I don't even know about. We had people believing that they could do anything they wanted to do. Myself, I passed through life in a bit of a daze. I started on the wrong foot, but by the end of it, I felt that I, too was capable of quite a few things. It felt like the doorway to the rest of my life.

When I first entered that school, it felt like something – if not awesome, then pretty intimidating. It was an atmosphere of fear and dread, and I didn't feel like I could step out of line. Maybe RI could do that to you. Something was always going to give. Raffles Institution is a place that moulds you into a certain character. But sieteocho never allows anybody to mould him into anything. So what eventually transpired was some kind of a compromise.

There was a hint of the British public school system about that place. In case you didn't get the message that it was an establishment place, it's called “INSTITUTION”. Not institute, institution. Characters were moulded. Whatever people wanted society to be, you made people in RI into a certain type of character, and then you held them up as examples to the rest of society. So you had a lot of the “good old boy” and the “good old chap” and the British bulldog spirit and the “Raffles Spirit”. It wasn't a bad moral example by any means, but I sure as hell wasn't going to follow it to a T.

I knew there was the RI that showed its face to the world, and there was the real RI, and there was also the RI that I remembered. All of these three version are different, and I can only talk about the one that I encountered. I'm wondering if those days seemed great to me because I was young and seeing things for the first time, or whether they were really great. Make no mistake, a lot of it was dreary and boring. Because I didn't really fit the mould, I wasn't the centre of attention. Because I neither excelled or fell behind, I wasn't paid much attention to. RI did all sorts of things we thought were vain and silly, and only looking back, I might understand that they had an image to upkeep, and that was how society really worked. But I still think that those things are vain and silly.

It's a privilege to be able to say that you were one of the people who moved the school. At that time it was the second move in less than 20 years, but there may never be another move as long as I live. You could contrast this situation with anybody else. Anybody who's lived in an aging housing estate – and RI is not too far away from Toa Payoh – would know that a lot of schools either get closed down or moved a lot. MacRitchie Primary School is gone, Braddell Secondary School, Westlate Primary and Westlake Secondary were folded into Guangyang. Everybody gets the opportunity to live a rich and fulfilling life (obviously rich here means rich in experience not money) but not everybody gets the super smart classmates, the better facilities, and perhaps quite significantly, not everybody, when asked “where did you go to school”, will be able to point to something that is eternal and still exists. Not every famous school remains famous forever. The natural thing is that the fortunes of schools will ebb and flow. But some schools have an alumnus so powerful that they'll be propped up, no matter what. So yes, my memories of the school are personal, and there's a part that has everything to do with the road that I travelled myself. But there's this other part that somebody else will help prop up, no matter what. That other part will be tethered to this crazy mystique that certain groups of people will work hard to cultivate and foster, no matter what.

A new building, and a doorway to the rest of my life. It seemed intimidating to me at first, and by the time, I graduated, I seemed to have done well enough to keep pace with the crowd. I don't think I excelled, but I didn't do too badly either. During those years, my first crush, my first full length play, an above average record in mathematics competitions, my first cassette collection, my first forays into philosophy, my first rope crawl, my first pull up, my first time behind a wok, my first hike of more than 15 km.

Those were glorious days. My mind was being opened and stretched. Yet somehow, looking back, I wondered if I still had underachieved. Back then, because there was so much I hadn't yet learnt, there were so many questions I never asked because I didn't know to ask them. That's why sometimes, I might meet an old friend from back then, and just pepper him with questions. He might do something unexpected from what I remember from our old days and I'll be wondering if I had missed something because I wasn't looking closely enough. Perhaps in part because I was sleepwalking through those days, in many ways I was learning a lot about the meaning of life, and in many ways, there are lots of clues that I missed out on. That's the argument for putting smart kids together - because the smart kid will learn more and learn more quickly, and if you're not smart, you're going to be taking the place of somebody who will learn better than you. Then again, there are counter arguments to this, and other than the obvious social justice argument, there is: are the ones with the best PSLE scores necessarily the ones who learn the most from their peers? Many people look back upon their lives, and a lot of them are like "if I only knew back then what I know now". But then again, what if I were to travel back in time to those school days and listen in on all the conversations that people had with each other, and find out that I'm none the wiser?

Like the famous Roy Batty once said, “all these things will fade in time like tears in the rain.” Those were some of my most vivid experiences – not to say that I didn't have some of them later on in life. But maybe things are always different when you see them for the first time. Maybe that's why some people struggle with midlife – because your supply of “first time”s are coming to an end, and your memory of those “first time”s are fading fast. And maybe that's also why I might have to write this essay today, because there will come a time when I won't be able to do that anymore.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Lee Kuan Yew's Not Good 1980s

The 80s were not a great period for Lee Kuan Yew. Most of his mistakes were made during the 80s.

1. Closure of Nantah. Nobody could have predicted that today, 35 years down the road, China would be poised for world domination. But cutting off that channel to Chinese culture, to our fellow SE Asian Chinese, to the mainland is just plain stupid. Pissing off a significant proportion of the Singaporean Chinese is just plain stupid.
2. Speak Mandarin campaign. OK, this was in 1979. This may have been in anticipation of the rise of China. (Which made it curious that Nantah was closed around the same time, and most likely this was more political than for Singapore's good.) This cut off some of our ties from the past, and I'm still pretty pissed off about it up til today.
3. Special Assistance Plan. This was a push to get people who excelled in both Chinese and English to succeed in the school system. Well and good. But how come there wasn't an equivalent scheme for the Malays and Indians? Yes, you had advanced Malay, advanced Tamil. That was it.
4. Dealing with Devan Nair. Devan Nair should never have taken the presidency, because that opened the door for JBJ to enter parliament. But once he was in the Istana, they should have tried to ease him out in a better way than trying to drug him and discredit him as an alcoholic was simply buffoonish.
5. Elected presidency. Making the presidency an elected one has repercussions that extend all the way until today.
6. Operation Spectrum. 'nuff said.
7. Asset enhancement. This opened the door to the property price bubble that carries on until today.
8. Designating his son an eventual successor. Lee Hsien Loong is not a terrible prime minister, but there may have been better candidates, although we'd never know. Sometimes I think about what it might have been like if it were George Yeo or Tharman Shanmugaratnam being the PM instead of him. Then again, I'd take him over Teo Chee Hean anytime.
9. Productivity movement. It wasn't successful. Possibly because we didn't push on technology hard enough. Possibly because we weren't allowing people from outside of the system to succeed.
10. Graduate mother's scheme. This may have started the reintroduction of the class system into Singapore.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write very well and are really incisive. Can you write about what happened to George Yeo and Tharman?

7:05 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

I don't have a very good idea about what happened about George Yeo. I'm observing from far away. In Aljunied, there was a big gamble, and it failed. In 2011, it was clear to everybody that - because of what previously happened to Eunos and Cheng San - Aljunied was the GRC where the PAP's hold on power was its weakest. The PAP had 2 options. One of them was to just give it up, and put in relatively junior people. The other was to shore up the defence and put all your good guys into Aljunied. Looking back, they put all their good guys into Aljunied. George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hwa, Ong Ye Kung and Zainal Abidin Rashid. And it was a gamble that they lost badly, and they lost 3 ministers and 1 speaker.

Then on nomination day, Low Thia Khiang took the bold but risky move of moving from Hougang to Aljunied. To see why it was risky, think about what would have happened if they lost Aljunied. Then Yaw Shin Leong would have been the only opposition MP in Singapore. And we know what happened to him afterwards. The WP might have been forced to fire him and probably Png Eng Huat would still have won but it'd have been pretty weird.

Maybe George Yeo was put in that position because he's the guy that everybody likes but not necessarily the one you want in your cabinet? It's funny that he's an old friend of Teo Chee Hean, because I can't think of anybody else in the cabinet who's less like him.

Regarding Tharman Shanmugaratnam, I'll just repeat what the PAP said: he was not the cabinet's favourite candidate. Lee Kuan Yew was instrumental in planning for the future prime ministers. Perhaps that was in line with his philosophy of keeping his family in the center of political power in Singapore. For whatever reason, Lee Hsien Loong is less keen on that. The real story of Oxleygate is that the Lee dynasty is over, and that's a little eerie because the predictable politics of Singapore is over.

There are 3 things that count against Tharman: first, he is Indian. Second, his politics don't gel well with the rest of the cabinet, and third, he's not that much younger than Lee Hsien Loong.

2:34 AM


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

How Society Falls Apart

The rapper KRS-ONE's name stands for "knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everyone". It is one of the tenets of the enlightenment that knowledge will win out in the end, that people will discuss the issues of the world and agree on the best path to take. But the enlightenment is breaking down.

Consider the biggest challenges of our day and age:
1. Climate Change
2. Economic Inequality
3. Rise of the Machines
4. Political deadlock
5. Withering away of liberal democracy
6. Fragmentation of society into tribes squabbling with each other / tribalism disguised as identity politics.

None of these problems can be phrased in black and white terms. None of these problems have the same moral clarity as what we had in the Great Depression or WW2 ("Hitler is Evil, Imperial Japan is evil, end of story").

For every one of those problems I've listed above, there are sufficient people out there who deny that this is a problem. There used to be gatekeepers of information who ensured that the general public were fed real facts. These institutions are crumbling. Even the Singapore govt who used to exercise such tight control over print media has decided to downsize.

People are fed lies and smears on a regular basis. We saw voters go to the polls to dismantle the EU. We saw how Hillary was maligned to the extent that a business-as-usual the-devil-you-know candidate lost to an orange freak show. Old systems that are tried and tested are dismantled rapidly and replaced with Frankenstein entities. There is a consensus emerging that destruction is almost always better than preserving that which is flawed and imperfect.

Trump is polarising debate within America to an unprecedented degree. He'll do something stupid or crazy in the press. Then obviously his detractors will say that some old norm has been breached. And his defenders will come out in droves and get even more convinced that there is a vast conspiracy that is rigged against them. Both sides increasingly see each other as a foe to be vanquished by fair means or foul.

People think that they are engaging in passionate debate, but what's going on is a gladiatorial hate fest, something akin to a football match, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. People turning up for entertainment, turning up to vent their emotions, but almost never getting anything done. Fan clubs for the young and energetic to spin their wheels until they become old and spent, all the while preserving the incumbent power structures.

We used to have institutions. Even as we reviled the Big Evil Behemoths of the Fortune 500, they were in a way a reassuring presence. If only due to their longevity, they made the world we lived in predictable and manageable. Now, they're being disrupted left, right and center. Now, they're gone. Hanjin is gone. Toshiba is gone. Sharp is gone. Sony is gone. Olympus is gone. The Big Three automobiles will still be around, but it's hard to see how they're going to survive if and when the self-driving car gets onto the road. Coca Cola and McDonald's are no longer the movers and shakers of the corporate world that they used to be. They're stagnant. They could go the way of Sears and Toys r Us.

Interesting times.


Friday, September 29, 2017

Rise of China (and its impact on Singapore)

Like many other people, some of us have been viewing the rise of China with quite a bit of consternation. At first, we welcomed it, because China had suffered so greatly under Mao. Then China entered the WTO. This was the world that Bill Clinton built, and we were under the spell of neo-liberalism and “globalisation” back then, thinking that this would make a better world for us all. (It didn't.) Well at least, Singapore stood to benefit from a world where trade was growing at a very rapid pace. Things looked very very rosy for us for a while: We were in a way China's gateway to the West, and we were the West's gateway to China.

I don't know if it was a high watermark, but Singapore was chosen to host a talk between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-Jeou. Maybe it was arranged before Xi Jinping took over.

In the years since Xi Jinping took over, China's views of the world has darkened considerably. In the past, it has bided its time, and you could say that it has tried to fit into Pax Americana. Pax Americana is a international political system that has existed in East Asia since the end of WWII and victory over Japan. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan (latter two are not really countries) will be brought into the international trade system. Open economies would be promoted.

In 1984, there was a meeting where China and the UK met up and it was agreed that Hong Kong would revert to China in 1997 and the political system would stay in place until 2047, and after that – well who knows.

Then something strange happened. The pro-democracy movements in South Korea and Taiwan gained traction, and both countries became democratic. Philippines became democratic – well at least in form. Singapore and Malaysia have always been nominally democratic. Back then when Hong Kong saw that both China and the rest of Asia were authoritarian, they were probably like “well what the hell”. Then, one by one, all the countries started liberalising politically and they realised that China was the only one who was hell bent on remaining authoritarian. That infamous vigil in the wake of Tiananmen served to set the tone between China and Hong Kong.

So for Singapore over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk on the Chinese internet about how Singapore was some kind of a traitor. There was the detention of the Terrex vehicles in Hong Kong, in transit while being shipped back from Taiwan. There was the non-invitation to the recent Belt and Road conference.

It's quite possible that this hostility has been building up towards Singapore and many of the overseas Chinese for quite some time, and that no action was taken by China until the successor to Hu Jintao was found. As you may recall, they were trying to choose between Xi Jinping and Bo Xilai, and probably they didn't want to act until they had chosen the next leader.

Singapore has never had an easy relationship with the mainland. In the Qing dynasty, people who migrated out of China to the south would face execution when they got caught. Singapore was an overseas base for Sun Yat Sen when he was trying to set up a successor to the Qing dynasty. Singapore, together with the rest of the Nanyang, helped to fund China's war effort against the Japanese, and got the brunt of the Japanese wrath when it was the Nanyang's turn to be invaded. Then there was the Malayan emergency, where the side that was allied with Communist China – the leftists in the PAP and the Malayan Communist Party – lost the struggle for supremacy in the 50s.

Lately there has been a debate between Bilahari Kausikan and Kishore Mahbubani. Kishore Mahbubani criticised recent acts by Singapore that put it on a collision course with China, citing the cautionary tale of Qatar, who meddled too much in peoples' affairs for their own good. Bilahari Kausikan replied and said that power has a “use it or lose it” nature, and that Singapore has always played a role larger than its size suggests, and should continue doing it in the future.

Without commenting on which side of this debate I'm on, it's good to ask ourselves, what is Singapore's place in a sino-centric world? Rather than think about how to deal with conflict with China, how do we find our place in a world that revolves around China?

For that, we have to look into our past. Singapore was formed as a colony as a means for the British to wrest away some influence from the Dutch. That means, in spite of its status as a Chinese majority country, Singapore has always been an agent of western influence in Southeast Asia. Singapore can be seen as a giant Chinatown, in the sense of a Chinese enclave in a foreign part of the world, but it is also it is some kind of British Council.

Chinese people in Southeast Asia have this reputation as being the Jews of the East, not only because Chinese people have this big business network, are traders, are more erudite, have a reputation for sticking to themselves, are foreigners, have this reputation for being miserly. But also because we form a symbiosis with westerners in that we act as some kind of middlemen in dealing with the natives.

In part, Singapore's western orientation was a very convenient way to deal with the issue of getting Malays, Chinese and Indians to get together, and very effective. If everybody speaks in English, we won't need Malays to learn Chinese or Chinese to learn Malay or whatever combination. The Indians had already taken to communicating to each other in English, so why not Singapore?

So Singapore has always been some kind of a cultural Trojan Horse. The British used it as their Southeast Asia base. Japan made it the headquaters of their Southeast Asia operations. After World War II, it was always one of the places most amenable to Western influences, and it was no surprise that the US built their Changi Air Base here.

And herein lies the problem. Lee Hsien Loong once gave an interview where he spoke on a variety of issues, and he was asked about the relationship with China. As I recall, he said something to the effect of “China doesn't like it that we run a US base on our island. But we are a sovereign nation.”

So I guess, there are three aspects of Singapore that China doesn't really like.

First, China doesn't like that Singapore is allied with the West, (never mind that this has always been the case since before 1949). Second, China doesn't like that Singapore is a part of “greater China” that operates independently from the mainland. (For the same reason, it doesn't like this about Hong Kong and Taiwan.) And third, China doesn't like that Singapore is moving towards western ideals like freedom and democracy, because this is a threat to the mainland.

China has always favoured the old system of imperialism, where it extracts tributary from the surrounding countries. In the “world system” theory of Immanuel Wallerstein, the world is divided into strong states (“core”) and weak states (“periphery”). Cities grow more powerful in relation to the rest of the world. It used to be that Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore were the core, and mainland China was the periphery. Now what they desire is an inversion of this.

Singapore has always had an influence out of proportion to its size, but even that is an accident of history. It has always aligned itself with the dominant superpower of the period. That meant the British from founding to WWII. Then the Americans thereafter. In fact, in order for life to continue as it was, you'd have to align yourself with China.

This has been its greatest strength and weakness. Singapore has been a reliable ally of the United States. Even up till now, especially from the 90s onwards, when the power of the British really started to wane, the US cultural influence on Singapore has been growing and growing. But now it is at its apogee, and there isn't anywhere to go but down. Suddenly things are different.

I've always felt that our biggest weakness was that we never truly got along with the other southeast Asian countries. Yes, we're friends. Yes, there is some form of kinship with them. Yes, we will never have the relationship with them that the Israelis have with the Palestinian Arabs. But there's always this feeling that we're always treating them as flyover territory, that we're not completely invested in helping them move up in this world, that we're looking down on them, that we're always SMH at how venal and inefficient their governments are, that we're not that keen to be associated with them culturally. This was a mistake that we made over the last 50 years, and it will come back to bite us in the ass. If we were to let go of the American ties and switch over to the Chinese ties, it'll be good to have the Malay ties to hang on to in the meantime. Now, I'm not entirely sure that we have that.

China – it's hard to love China. But even more than that, it's even harder to get a grasp on who they are. I'm not sure I ever want to paint all of them with the same brush. Every thing that you could ever say about them, there will be an exception. For every brazen huckster, there is an act of uncommon gentlemanliness. For every xenophobe, there is another who's truly curious about what's going on in the rest of the world. For every ruthless thug, there is an idealistic do gooder.

The relationship between mainlanders – or PRCs as the Singapore government likes to call them, or Ah Tiongs, the derogatory term we've coined to add to our collection of keleng, angmoh and huangkia. They form the largest group of immigrants. They've flooded our schools, our universities, our workplaces. And worst of all, they've driven property prices through the roof. They've killed our factories. Yes, many of us are still doing fine in spite of this, but they generate a sense of unease. Of course, they've helped to grow our economy, they've helped Singapore become a great city, they've won us olympic medals, and most importantly, they've filled in on many jobs that Singaporeans are not willing to do. But the relationship with the natives is pretty tense.

Add to that, there is already a sense of unease about the schism between the sinophone Chinese Singaporeans and the anglophones. The flood of Chinese nationals has just seemed to exacerbate the problem. The sinophones are the most conflicted ones. They are fiercely proud of our shared cultural heritage, but at the same time they have the most to lose from being displaced by the newcomers. They are proud of the rise of China, but wonder about its implications on Singapore. And I'm not surprised if they are the ones who coined the term “Ah Tiong”.

And this is the reason why in spite of what has been a mutually beneficial relationship so far, for more than 20 years since we resumed diplomatic relations with them in 1990, this is something that's fraught with peril.

I guess many of us would be wondering – we've made a lot of sacrifices together, and we've given up a lot to the mainlanders. (Of course the mainlanders have also sacrificed a lot to the Singaporeans but each side only cares about what they've lost). Then how could it be that after this shared journey together, China still feels that we haven't given them enough? Could it be that nothing will ever be enough?

Singapore has never had to balance its relationships with so many other people before. It used to be that you made sure that you had a good relationship with the western alliance – US, UK, Australia, New Zealand – everything would turn out fine. Now, we have to balance our relationship with the western alliance, with India, with China, with SE Asia.

Even the things that we think are unbiased are not really unbiased. The US has basing rights in Singapore, but China doesn't. That's not unbiased. English is the official working language. That's not unbiased. Our legal system is based on what the British handed down to us – also not unbiased. Even our whole-hearted support of the current Bretton Woods system of running the world is not unbiased. The WTO is based on norms established mainly by the western powers. Our deference to international law is deference to international norms. If China wants to upend these norms, or even if they want to operate with a parallel set of norms, we're going to be in their way.

Furthermore, the way that China operates is not something that favours small but more liberal states. There's still a lot of centralised planning, and there's this emphasis on cookie-cutter projects where Chinese companies can earn a lot of money and hopefully bring development to other parts of the world.

China likes the idea of dictatorial strongmen with big projects. In a way it's the anti-America, who doesn't like to spread democracy to the rest of the world. To be sure, very often America pays only lip service to democracy and ends up endorsing dictators. But that is still very pro-democracy.

And sometimes we wonder if one road one belt weren't just a lot more predatory foreign investment, predatory lending in the service of making China even richer. I don't know the answer to this, but you only have to read the infamous book, “Confessions of an Economic hit man” in order to get the answer to this question.