Go with a smile!

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.

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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.

2 Comments:

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.

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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.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Works Well With Others

I can't really tell a lot of things about my life. Maybe there's a big void there or something. I can name 2-3 years of my life when I lived life with a great intensity – well maybe I dreamed dreams with a great intensity. But other than that, I couldn't really say it's been really that great. I could count on one hand the number of times I did pursue dreams with a passion. To devote myself into a 5 year or a 6 year chase would be a little out of character. I don't even remember being passionate or hungry about things. If I did it, it tends to be a bit like a procession. I wouldn't dash madly towards a goal.

Sometimes I wonder about whether my childhood would have been a little nicer if it had been guided a little better. In my earliest years, the one most responsible for my life until I was about 13-14 was my mother. She was a strict disciplinarian, which was a little unusual because she could be a little sloppy in her general life. But she probably was more attentive to the little details than the larger picture. I tend to think that she was completely clueless when it came to the larger picture in life, about asking the hard questions about what things really mattered.

Maybe there was a bit too much focus on grabbing more money. Playing the stock markets, having me make good grades, making sure that you never got played for a fool. Piano lessons. Swimming lessons. Making sure I got drilled on my assessments books, which were invariably 2 or 3 years ahead. Once they worked out that I was good at mathematics, they were always demanding 95 or higher for me. (Well this was primary 1-3 and it wasn't completely unreasonable.)

I don't really remember much of life around that point in time. But that was probably also the zenith of my mother's influence in the household. But it was a time which I was quite uneasy with. There was a lot of Japanese culture going on around that time, and the 80s was a time when it seemed that the world was willing Japan to succeed. But it was a very scary existence for me – the hard work, the drilling and the conformity that it entailed. The relentless drive towards economic success – I guess that was what slavery was like. You sorda knew that it was excessive, but you were never allowed to question authority. The Japanese had a one track mind when it came to the Samurai running the land. Then after Commodore Perry, they had a one track mind when it came to modernizing and westernizing. Then after that, their one track mind led to the military conquest of the rest of Asia, which was probably one of the most hare-brained operations ever.

Those years were unpleasant for a number of reasons. I had a piano teacher I didn't really like. I didn't like the people I went to school with – maybe they were too yuppie-ish, took themselves too seriously, too conservative. Later on in my life, I might be able to find some common ground with them, but they weren't people I'd have gravitated to. My next door neighbour, the one I might have become great buddies with – was an asshole. I went to my grandmother's house every Sunday, and the fact that both my parents were still close to their siblings was a wonderful thing. But my mother was the only English speaking person among her Chinese speaking siblings, and we were always the odd one out among the cousins. So you can imagine – I spent 2-3 years of my formative years not having any real friends.

After Primary 3, I got selected to go into the gifted program, and maybe my mother let up on the strict discipline, probably believing that that program would be pushing me however they wanted to. And I was doing quite well, probably because the work they were assigning played right into my strengths. That strength was to make that logical leap, that hidden connection that not everybody was smart enough to make.

For the first few years, I thrived. I found that I could be a class clown. (It wasn't possible in my old school because everybody was so ultra-serious.) I don't know if I had any real friends, but I'm sure I was in the upper half of the class where popularity was concerned. It was pretty good, being a class clown who was good with schoolwork.

But the transition towards secondary school would be difficult. First, my mother had a bee in the bonnet that once we reached 13, we were all going to turn into James Dean from “Rebel Without a Cause”, and we had to be clamped down on. It was already difficult enough being the average 13 year old, struggling with his change in identity. It was an uneasy and confusing time. When I did have fun, that came with the guilt that I wasn't putting in all my effort into doing what I was supposed to do. It became a bit hellish. Then maybe my grades started falling because we were reaching the stage where people were supposed to knuckle down, and get more disciplined and study harder.

Around that time, after my first week in secondary school, she got word that I was using a lot of strong language in school. So she got my father to beat the shit out of me, and there was even talk about me being a juvenile delinquent (this was barely 2 years after I had topped my class). Something snapped, I fell into a spiral of depression, and my grades fell even further. To them, it was more proof that I had grown lazy, complacent, and rebellious. So there was more getting the shit beaten out of me. In truth, it was not that complicated. I probably just needed somebody to tell me that everything was going to be OK, I just needed to calm down and do what I had to do. I just needed to understand the higher purpose. Years later, I ended up explaining this to my parents, and they looked at me blankly. How is it possible that our disciplining you could have a negative effect on you? Boy were they dumb.

But no higher purpose was forthcoming, It was just the same thing: do this because we say so. There was one or two terrible years of screaming and shouting, crockery getting smashed against the wall stuff. Eventually, this situation resolved itself by crumbling. My mother was at a loss, so she just decided to do nothing. Naturally, following that, the situation improved. They gave up trying to control and micro-manage, and it just became, do whatever you need to dig yourself out of that hole. The years that followed that turned out to be some of the best years of my life.

You see, there was always a permanent tension going on in my life (and this is one of the currents of tension going on in my household, there were a few.) The different parts of my life were not really in harmony. If I was told to attend music classes, it was because they got to decide that I attended, I didn't have any say in the matter. I liked music, but I hated practicing piano. This shit went on for 10 years, I worked my way up to grade 8, kicking and screaming all the way. I suppose it was an achievement, but also probably the seed for a lifetime of resentment and anger. The assessment books, I hated them too. I hated the way they piled up: if I didn't do the previous week's allotment, the “debt” would pile up. There was no debt forgiveness. Well maybe she did turn a blind eye after a while.

Eventually, there was a pattern that went on in my life: I would just do whatever I wanted. There was no agreement, no negotiation. But I had to sneak around and do it. I could play computer games for 1 hour in the afternoon, but I had to make sure that I did not get caught. My sister made quite a bit of mileage out of blackmailing me and I hated her for that. But things were falling apart, somewhat. There was to be no co-ordination between us. I could do something that was planned out by my mother. If I did something on my own, maybe I could get away with it because I was not tightly policed. But I would have to keep it a secret, and therefore I would have to think and act like a criminal. I was able to amass a sizable collection of cassettes and go wandering around after school on afternoons every other day. But they were almost always solitary activities. That would start me off on a lifetime of being a wanderer and a daydreamer.

I would have been nicer if sometimes my mother would ask me what I would like to do, and we could co-operate on achieving those things together. But that never happened. Everything was an order from above. But I suppose that pattern followed me through my life. I always had an uneasy relation with authority figures. Maybe I also had an uneasy relation with friends. I would say that based on the social aspects of my upbringing, it didn't prepare me well for my ability to work with other people. Then again, it's always a problem when your parents aren't good at a certain something, and if it's on you to work out how to do it.

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Saturday, April 01, 2017

Patriarchal and Tribal Racism

The rise of the alt right in the USA and of far right parties in Europe have been met with dismay. When I was a teenager I used to seeth at the skinhead Neo Nazis and David Duke. But what happened in the 90s is almost pretty quaint. Of course, there was nothing to sniff at what was going on in the Balkans back in those days, or in Rwanda. But back then, we could still count on the Western countries to behave civilly towards the other people who lived in their midst. Those were pretty quaint days.

Still, while I don't want to give any excuses for the way that a virulently racist form of populism has emerged in the US and Europe, I can start to understand the frustrations of the white people who have been losing ground for the last 20 years. One day, they were citizens of the most powerful country in the world – actually the most powerful that ever existed. Then following the five big disasters of the first decade (9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, Great Recession), suddenly they looked like a huge disaster in the making.

Especially as a result of the Great Financial Crisis, foreclosures of homes, predatory lending and emergence of this phenomenon called the “working poor” - people who work for a living but live from hand to mouth – the entire lower middle class of America (white ppl form a sizeable amount of that) are in a fairly bleak situation.

So they'll look around them and see that some – not all – black people are ahead of them in the pecking order, some LGBT ppl are ahead of them, some Asians are ahead of them. It wasn't so long ago that many of them remembered what life used to be like. You could “work” for a living, and back then you just had to show up, do just enough, and you'd be comfortably off. Ahhh, the 80s. No wonder there's such a nostalgia for the 80s. You'd have a job, a car, 9 to 5, a nice house in the suburbs. You could be completely mediocre and unremarkable but you could still say you worked for a living and that would feel good.

Things are different now. You got to be exceptional and differentiate yourself from competition from the rest of the world. You got to be smart and talented, or sly and crafty. And a lot of people got left behind. That's why Trump's message resonated with so many people – not just “make America great”, but “make America great again”. Make NAFTA go away. Make the Latino and Asians go away.

The problem is that when the 99% of the people are left behind, you need to pull them back up. But it's very very hard to do that. And the working class whites don't get a lot of love – there's no compelling narrative. They don't get any sympathy because they were supposed to be the privileged (until they stopped being privileged) and now they get blamed – fairly or unfairly for being amongst the most racist demographic in America. They pay for the sins of their fathers, and in a way their forefathers were responsible for some of the most awful episodes against people of other races – slavery of blacks, genocide of Indians, and exclusion laws against the Chinese.

While I still believe that white privilege exists, I don't think it exists to the same extent that it used to. And because of that, I think we need to rethink a few things about race that we're used to.

I think there are two dimensions of racism. First is patriarchal racism. This means that there is a master race, oppressing many of the other less privileged races. For the last few hundred years, there's been more than a hint of that in the relationship between white people and the others. But there is another dimension, and that is what I'd call tribal racism. Under this system, people are prejudiced towards other members of their own tribe, and against members of other tribes.

In a way, due to the preferential treatment for peoples of their own groups, both forms of racism are very similar. But under the tribal racism, there is some acknowledgement that it is possible for less privileged races to be racist against those with greater privilege, and there is an acknowledgement that this is no less of a problem. Tribal racism is recognising that even when you do away with the problems associated with patriarchal racism, even if the races are equal in standing, even if there were no slavery and relative privileges, there will still be problems between races.

That's why the rise of the alt-right is a reaction to this. There is a lot of toxicity in the discourse, it is very nasty, and it is downright racist – racist as in patriarchal racist. But they have one point, and that is that it isn't right that black people have advocate groups, Jewish people have advocate groups, and they're the only guys who aren't allowed to have advocate groups. That can't be right, although they are paying the price for the mental association with the KKK and burning crosses.

In Singapore, it's pretty clear that the Chinese are the privileged race. But there are Chinese assistance groups. There is this notion that Chinese is both a majority group and a minority group, and it depends on what context you see it.

I have a little bit of sympathy for White people who think that their culture is eroding. After living in a western country for some time – and I don't even consider myself that well integrated – I begin to appeciate what a good thing it was to have grown up in an environment where people have some notion of what their culture is. I think America does not have that at all. You could end up feeling like you're lost at sea for a long time.

And because of globalization, it almost makes it seem as though holding on to something you call your own tribal identity is a bad thing. That is the message of the melting pot. At least if you're a White American, you have a great deal of influence over your own culture. (But remember that American pop / rock music, whether performed by white or black people, has a dominant African American influence). But it's pulling in many different directions now, and there can be a bit of confusion about who you are. If you are a stickler for the rules, and a follower of norms, it can all feel very disorientating.

Everybody knows – or at least this is the conventional wisdom, that in the middle of this century, white people will be less than half of the people in America, that America is turning into a truly multi-racial country. Nobody really knows what it means, and a lot of people are anxious. Every culture has anxieties that they're going to be cast away into oblivion. People are going to see that Australia is swamped with Asians, Europe is swamped by people from the Middle East, and North America swamped by people from everywhere else, and because several White majority places have some of the most open immigration policies, the character of these societies are changing too quickly for their liking.

But I'm not here to do a rah rah thing on White nationalism. I'm just here to point that everybody has their own problems. If you slam the door on immigrants, people assume (correctly) that you are racist. But if you open your doors wide, you might end up with a big mess and you don't necessarily want that either. I don't think white nationalism has to be equated with racism. I think everybody has the right to talk about which parts of their culture they're proud of.

Yes, white privilege still exists, and by and large, in spite of the great steps backwards many white ppl have made over the last few decades, they're still doing better than most other groups of people. But gradually, we can no longer see everything through the prism of white privilege, even though now, more than ever, that notion has gained currency. It is ironic that at this point in time, when this idea has gained more and more traction, it has increasing been the case that it's no longer sufficient to describe the reality.

I would say the way to go forward is that people have to manage this aspect of tribal racism. Manage the kinds of issues that arise when White, Black, Asian and Latinos meet each other as equals. Not necessarily as monolithic group to monolithic group, but people have this way of mentally sizing you up when they see you for the first time. Yes, it has become possible for other groups to be racist against white people. Yes, you have to be a little careful lest you dismiss certain groups of people as “white trash”. Yes, you would want to extend a helping hand to people who are left behind. Communities that face high unemployment, or underemployment, or the opiate scourge.

There needs to be some kind of acknowledgement that the USA is one country united, but very often that does not appear to be the case. It is very difficult when people do not associate certain groups of people with the American flag. There is this unspoken assumption that you're don't really “belong” yet if you're not white. People don't really associate the government of the USA with the nation of USA (not like Singapore). So there's not really much that can be said or done to change peoples' perceptions top down.

The difference between patriarchal and tribal racism is that for the patriarchal view, it's almost impossible for black people to be racist towards white people, because it's almost impossible for the less privileged group to do anything that would harm the more privileged group. Whereas the tribal view acknowledges that wrong can be done on both sides.

It is still very much the case that white people in general live better than black people in the United States. But there are huge enough swarths of white people who are living in times of severe economic duress, and they're apt to compare their plight to a few privileged blacks, especially those in the entertainment industry who are the most visible. And the political will for making life better for minorities is simply not there, as contrasted to what we had in the 60s, when life was good for the vast majority of white people, and that was when they started thinking about levelling the ground for first black people, and then women.

Then again, for Americans, the civil rights movement which was an alliance of the white liberals and black civl rights leaders took place because the white liberals had this abstract concept of fairness. But there wasn't this consciousness that they belonged to the same nation as each other, and perhaps that was a fatal flaw in the civil rights movement. It was a lot of “we'll make things fair for you, and for everybody, but after that we'll leave you alone.” In Singapore it was different: the government wrote it into the pledge that Singaporeans are Singaporeans, “regardless of race, language and religion”.

You would never have the Singaporean equivalent of a Colin Kaepernick kneeling before a US flag. The language of symbols is very different. A Singaporean minority would still complain about unfair treatment, but their allegiance to the flag would not be in question, (although for the last 10 years, it has to be said that the allegiance to the Singapore flag has been, to say the least, extremely compromised). There was a time when Singapore nationalism has always been big enough to embrace everybody. Amongst those who eventually became citizens, you did not question their right to belong, although in the recent years, there have been a lot of citizens who left and a lot of foreigners who came in.

In America, though, the nation is almost too large for you to grasp. There will always be a large swarth of Americans who “aren't really American”. There will always be some people who you suspect don't belong, because you don't ever get to know them or see them. That is the difficulty for Americans. That is the reason why it's easier to make divisions amongst Americans.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

5 years

I don't know if I'm being superstitious or not.

Interesting things have happened to me every 5 years.

When I was 5, I started my music education.

When I was 10, I got admitted into the gifted program. It's important for me because before that my life was a little bit of a blur, and I was a little mediocre compared to afterwards. This was an environment where I thrived a bit more.

When I was 15, it was one of the most incredible years of my life. That was also the year that I ended my formal music education, and started to collect pop albums instead. It was also the year when I decided I was going to be an engineer, that I was going to excel at music, mathematics and creative writing. I've stopped the creative writing for now, so there are the other two.

When I was 20, I won a scholarship. This meant I would study in Snowy Hill and end up working for the Factory.

When I was 25, I graduated from Snowy Hill and started work at the Factory. The first few years of my work were pretty crappy.

When I was 30, I got my first real assignment, after I was sick and tired of chow kenging through my work and my life. I'd say this assignment marks the time when I got tired of jerking around with my bosses and my bosses got tired of jerking around with me. I'd like to think that by the time I left the Factory, it was on good terms.

When I was 35, I was already in "Mexico". That was the year of my long job search and it was eventually successful.

This year I turn 40, and I hope there's a pattern, and there's going to be progress in life.

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