Advice for a JC1 Kid

“SO, do you have any advice for a JC1 kid? :p Like a “dear 18 year old me” kinda thing haha”

Sure, you asked.

  1. Meatbag management is priority number one. To do well in school you need your brain to function well, and for your brain to function well you need your body to function well. There are a few critical components that go into this: Sleep. Nutrition. Exercise. These are make-or-break and non-negotiable. If you’re serious about doing well, make these your priorities. Make sure you eat a hearty breakfast every morning. Do not fall into the trap of being sleep-deprived at school. Exercise regularly. If you’re a skinny dude, hit the gym and learn how to do squats and deadlifts. You’ll thank me later.
  2. Do your goddamn homework. It’s painful and stupid, yeah, but it’s less painful than if you don’t do it. Turn it into a game. Schedule time for it and respect your schedule– you’re training to become a high-functioning adult who can Get Shit Done. And reward yourself when you’re done. Enjoy that guilt-free stuff.
  3. Break things down into sub-components. If you schedule time for “study”, you’re not going to do anything. It’s too vague. You need to be very precise. Pick a specific subject in advance, and pick a specific topic in advance, and decide exactly what you’re going to do.
  4. Work backwards from the end goal. One thing me and a lot of my friends did stupidly was think of “studying” as “sitting around with books”. That’s like training for a marathon by putting on your shoes and just walking around as you feel like it. That doesn’t work. Exams are an ordeal, and you need to train for them. For your A Levels, you’re going to have to sit on your ass and focus for 3 hours at a stretch. That’s something you need to slowly work your way up to. Do practice papers and zero in on your weak spots.
  5. Choose your friends wisely. It’s going to be tempting to just hang out with whoever is familiar or cool or likeable. The smart thing to do is to seek out people who are driven and work hard. The earlier in life you do this sort of thing, the more you enjoy the compounding benefits over the years.
  6. Have a good social life. I’d recommend reading things like How To Win Friends and Influence People and The 48 Laws Of Power. Young people are usually socially inept unless they’ve got really enlightened parents and families to help them out. Even then, every adult looks back on their teenage years with some cringe. If people tell you secrets, KEEP THEM. If you make promises, keep them. Don’t say mean or nasty things about anybody. Be kind, friendly, helpful. If you find yourself about to have sex, please use a condom. The peace of mind is worth it.
  7. Pursue your personal interests with intensity. Whatever it is you like to do. Guitar? Basketball? Draw manga? Write fan-fiction? Whatever it is that you like, DO IT. Do it hard and do it good. Manage it like a project, set targets and goals, be prolific. You won’t regret this. Some people in their 20s have awesome skills. Some simply don’t. And it boils down to how much focused effort they put into whatever they were doing.

Good luck! And don’t take it all too seriously. It’s important, but it’s not THAT important. Be nice to your parents if you can manage that. Become a person people respect and admire and rely on. It’s worth it.

My journey from underachieving student to moderately competent adult

An older friend told me that a parent wanted to talk to ‘learn about my educational journey’ and ‘understand better what I do now’.  It occurred to me that that’s something that might be worth writing down for others as well. Here goes.

I was born in 1990.

Books:

I grew up reading a lot of books of all kinds. My mom would take me to the library every week or so. I would read books about dinosaurs, natural disasters, space, ancient Greeks and Romans and Egyptians and so on. My “I know it’s impossible” dream was to be an astronaut, I think, and I sort of assumed that I would be maybe a scientist of some kind, with the lab coat and cool tools solving puzzles. I loved puzzles. I had a book series called Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia that I would read over and over again, particularly the Space book. (I think that was Book 8.)

Chores:

I never had to do any. My parents were moderately well off and could afford a domestic helper. My parent’s logic was this: if I didn’t have to do any chores, I could spend more time studying. I think this was a well-intentioned bad idea. Kids should do chores and develop a sense of responsibility and ownership.

Video games:

My first introduction to video games I think was on the SEGA console. My brothers were playing racing games and fighting games. I played Street Fighter and a bunch of other games like that whenever I had the chance.

Computers:

At some point I fell in love with computers. I loved the Internet. Around this time I began to develop the vague idea of becoming a computer game developer or a web designer. I persuaded my parents to buy me books about HTML and Javascript. I learned a lot of HTML and a bit of CSS, but I never quite got through Javascript and C++ – it was too complicated for me at the time and I didn’t really see the point. I made some websites on free web hosting services, about my favorite games and jokes and so on.

Primary School:

I went to Opera Estate Primary School, which was where my older brother had gone to. I got into Digimon (but Pokemon not so much). I was into more computer games at this point– Red Alert, Metal Slug. I was still reading books. I would get very good results at school (high 90s, sometimes 100). I would read all of the textbooks entirely before school began, and everything was simple and familiar to me.

I think I was in P3 when I first learned from some classmates about pornography. It seemed really weird and I don’t know what I thought about it.

GEP:

In 1999 I took a test and did well enough on it to qualify for the Gifted Education Program. To me it didn’t really seem like a big deal, I did well on tests all the time and thought it was just normal for me. I think I assumed everyone else must’ve been the same as me, and if they weren’t doing well maybe they just didn’t feel like it…? I don’t know. Anyway, I think this was a big deal to my parents, particularly my dad, who was very proud and would tell anybody who’d listen about how smart his son was. (I don’t recommend doing this if you’re a parent.)

I enjoyed the GEP. I enjoyed how they challenged us and took us very seriously and treated us intellectually like adults. They’d also tell us things like “you’re the cream of the crop” and “you’re the future leaders of the country”, and it didn’t really occur to me to question that. I developed an unnatural, clueless, naive sort of  self-confidence or arrogance that would take me many years to unlearn. I don’t think I’ve completely unlearned it.

Homework:

I hated homework. I had never developed any sort of discipline or work ethic. I just wanted to play all the time and I didn’t understand why homework was necessary. It was just about decoding textbooks, which were very boring puzzles as far as I was concerned. In fact it wasn’t puzzling at all– it was just grunt work. I didn’t like it and I’d put it off. It was far more interesting to watch Anime on TV (which had interesting storylines and character development), or to play video games that rewarded you for completing challenges and so on.

I didn’t really have a clear mental model for what sort of career I wanted, or what sort of work or sacrifices I would have to do to get there. I was told that I was the creme de la creme, so surely I would figure it out along the way. I was going to do well whatever I did, so why bother? (Prophecies are bad.)

It’s interesting to look back at my report cards to learn more about what kind of person I was. I was typically attentive and engaged when the teacher was interesting, and I would be quick to participate, raise my hand, and so on. But I was also disruptive, I would crack a lot of jokes, talk to other people, read books under the table, etc.

I don’t think I was mean or nasty to anybody– I always felt really bad whenever I got anybody in trouble, or made a teacher frustrated or upset. I think many teachers have yelled at me over the years. Thinking about it brings back a familiar anxiety and discomfort in my stomach. I don’t blame those teachers for what they did, they were in a difficult place themselves and managing a classroom can’t be easy. But that’s how it is.

I kept spending as much time doing whatever I liked as I could. Sometimes I would get angry and upset with myself and stare at myself in the mirror, angry-crying, demanding that I start focusing on my schoolwork and pull my up grades and stop disappointing my parents and my family and the State (because GEP kids get more resources invested in them, I was brought to special meetings just to be told that) and Be A Good Kid. This would typically last a couple of days, maybe a week. But then it would be back to distractions, video games (my parents would try to keep them away from me but I would find workarounds. Sometimes I’d invent projects and other things and go to friends’ houses to play) and so on.

Secondary School:

It was sort of assumed that I’d end up in RI. I didn’t. I got 245 for my PSLE– which is criminally low for a GEP kid, you’re supposed to get 260+. My dad slapped me for it. I would go to Victoria School and I’d go there on probation– meaning if I didn’t do well enough at the end of the year, I’d be kicked out of the GEP. That was exactly what happened. For a brief moment I was given the impression that I would have to repeat Sec 1 in another school, but thankfully my Principal (Ang Pow Chew, good man) allowed me to go to Sec 2.

In VS I was in the IT Club but I didn’t really participate very much. I was excited for a while but eventually got bored and would avoid it. I began to develop an interest in Basketball, and I would research things like “how to get better at basketball”, dribbling techniques, drills, etc. Unfortunately VS didn’t have a basketball team (athletic resources were limited and funnelled into Soccer)  so I was mostly left playing at community centers and such after school. I would go to the gym from time to time but I didn’t know how to do the big things like squats and deadlifts, so I wasted my time doing bicep curls and tricep extensions. (Many years later I’d realize that squats and deadlifts are amazing and that I should’ve been doing them all along.)

I didn’t do great in Sec 2– I was probably in the middle third or maybe bottom half of the cohort. I attributed this to my disinterest in the way we were taught mathematics and science (chemistry and physics). It was just Not Interesting. I didn’t like memorizing things without understanding the rationale behind it. (Many years later I would find math and science utterly beautiful when learning about it from people who were passionate about it. Did you know that a parabola can always be described as an intersection between a plane and a cone? Why doesn’t anybody tell you this in school?)

I decided to pick 7 subjects instead of 8 in sec 3, thinking that I would use the extra time / free periods to do homework and study. Ha. Instead I would end up hanging out with most of the weaker students– smart guys (they did get into VS) but underachieving. We did have a bunch of fun. We’d skip school and go to LAN shops or play pool (I was terrible at pool, still am). On hindsight I think those were some of my favorite things about school, and honestly we could probably cut out a lot of the curriculum and people would still be fine. Just show them a bunch of really good videos by really passionate people in their fields and let them follow their curiosities. At least that’s what I would do for my younger self.

Anyway– I did do some studying in the final months towards my O’s. I got 14 points for my prelims, and assumed that that would mean I would get maybe 10 points for my O ‘s, which would get me into SAJC (which was where I wanted to go, because they had a cool uniform, a cool campus and a good basketball team). I got 14 points again and ended up going to TPJC.

Music:

My parents sent me to tuition for my O levels, but I ended up just making a bunch of friends there and didn’t study. Around that time I developed an interest in live music, and wanted to play in a band. I found a couple of bandmates and we started practicing, writing our own songs, doing gigs. I had a lot of fun promoting the band– coming up with the name, coming up with an image, talking to promoters, getting us to play gigs, corresponding with fans on MySpace and so on. It was way more fun and way more REAL than school. I started organizing my own gigs and we even made a bunch of cash from it– I think we made over $1,000 from our first gig, which was pretty good money for JC kid.

Junior College:

I found JC utterly stifling and fake, way worse than secondary school (I still miss and love VS). I picked up smoking. I would typically stay up late every night– I would blog, I think, and talk to friends outside of school– and go to school sleep-deprived like a zombie.

I had to repeat JC 1, which was a kick in the stomach from me. GEP student and now a repeat student. But I rationalized it away as “I didn’t do well because I didn’t study”. I tried to persuade my family that I would do better in Poly, but they would have none of it. So I just trudged along. 2007 was a really bad year for me. I liked some of my teachers, but JC in general felt like a farce and I wish I had never gone. My results weren’t good enough to get into any local Universities (NUS, SMU, NTU).

I used to skip school in my O level year and go to the Esplanade to study and get through overdue homework. I wouldn’t do nearly as much as I had planned to do. I would go to the Esplanade Library and pick out a bunch of Men’s magazines to read. I was particularly a fan of Esquire (and I particularly like Tom Chiarella, great writer). I began to develop the idea that I would work in the media industry some day. I might’ve written a blogpost about that somewhere– “I want to work in the media”.

I used to work at Shangri La Hotel when I was saving money to pay for my band’s CD, and I remember witnessing an media event thinking “I’d want to work in the media”. I’m kinda glad that didn’t play out, because I hear horror stories from friends in the media all the time these days. And at this point I have to say it’s utterly criminal how poorly we prepare kids to have the right sort of expectations about what a career is like, what working life is like.

NS:

Anyway. So I didn’t get into any of the universities, and it was time for NS. I was determined to make the most of my NS experience– I was hoping to chiong sua and become an officer. But I was given a temporary PES E status because they suspected I had Marfan’s Syndrome (for being very tall and skinny). So I couldn’t go to BMT straightaway– I became a storeman instead. I decided to use the free time to read and learn as much as I could, and threw myself into books about business and self-improvement and philosophy and everything else I was interested in. I built a community of friends (some from the music scene, some from friends-of-friends, Facebook was becoming a thing by now). I built a Facebook community. I started blogging regularly.

Blogging:

At some point I had written a blogpost about Singapore that got a bunch of comments, and that made me happy and excited (to get a bunch of comments) so I did more of that, and developed a bit of a reputation and a following. I decided that that was going to be my beachhead into my new life– that I was going to become some sort of blogger/writer type person. I figured that if I did it well enough for long enough, I’d get some interesting opportunities that I wouldn’t be able to imagine yet.

(I think some of this thinking might’ve been from some of the books I read, but I can’t quite pinpoint it to a single thing. The Internet always seemed like a magical land of opportunity to me, and I didn’t understand why other people didn’t see it that way.)

I decided that I was going to re-take my A’s as a private candidate, and document that process, and become a tutor for underachieving smart kids.

Eventually I actually got invited to the Istana to chat with the PM. The post I wrote about that got a lot of attention, and I got a bunch of invitations and job offers. This convinced me that I didn’t need to force myself to worry so much about the A’s– so I pretty much stopped studying and just kept blogging. (I did only slightly better than the previous time, I think, but with an entirely new subject and no teachers.)

Job:

I was planning to become an SIA flight steward, thinking I would make money and then blog in my downtime. But that didn’t work out. I went out for coffee with a couple of people who asked me, and one of them was the co-founder of a software company.  He asked me to manage their blog and social media efforts, which I agreed to mainly because I needed the money.

Turns out that I really loved the team and the working environment, and I’m still there 3-4 years later. I’ve developed my marketing and writing chops, and even manage other writers now. I’ve had several job offers since, but I’ve turned all of them down because I like where I am too much. (I wish I could clone myself. I suppose the next best thing I could do is train other people to do what I do– it’s really not that hard, it’s just applied common sense.)

So I’m in a pretty good place now, career-wise. I make a pretty decent amount of money, and I have the luxury of turning down job offers. My skillset is something that’s quite in demand, so I don’t really need to care about the economy or job prospects or whatever. There are several people who’d love to hire me tomorrow if I quit, which is something I honestly always believed would happen someday as long as I kept doing what I was doing. In the early days people would tell me that I was stupid, delusional, small-minded, didn’t understand how the world worked, idealistic, blah blah blah.

But at the end of the day it’s simple economics, isn’t it? If you can do something that people are willing to pay for, then you’re not going to go hungry. If you have design skills, writing skills, or best of all, if you can code, then you’re never going to go hungry. It might take a while to get good enough that people notice you and seek you out, but it works.

“Advice”:

Anyway so I’m guessing the reason my friend asked me about this is because a parent has a child who’s similar to me– really unhappy with school. What would I say to a person like that, or to their parents?

I guess the first thing I would say is– if you’re not happy in school, you’re probably not going to be happy working in the sort of job that school prepares you for. You’re not going to do well in the civil service, I think. So you shouldn’t try to force that, because then you’d probably be miserable and life is too short to be miserable at the thing you spend most of your time on.

Secondly– I wish I had spent MORE time pursuing my random little interests, not less. I wish I had also learned to code, and draw, and do design. Because those are very valuable skills in demand in the modern web age. Startups are a big thing now, and they’re not going to go away. People are constantly looking to build the next Facebook, and there’s a lot of money looking to invest in those things. What that means is that there are many young new companies willing to take risks on hungry young people who’re willing to learn.

That said, I did get lucky, the first person I seriously talked to turned out to be the real deal. There are a bunch of scammers and bullshitters who’ll try to get you to work for next to nothing. That’s why you should develop your bullshit detector as early as you can. You can increase your own luck by developing a body of work that you put in the public domain. The more work you do, and the more you put yourself out there, the more chances you

The worst thing about my life is that I never developed much discipline or work ethic. I don’t mean that in an exaggerated sense. I can foresee myself saying that on my deathbed, and that’s an outcome I’m desperately trying to avoid. The problem with smart, bullshit-sensitive kids is that they won’t develop discipline just because you tell them to. You have to pick something that THEY WANT TO DO, and then show them how discipline helps them achieve THAT. I think Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture covers all of this beautifully, so I’d refer you to that.

Life is really hard, but it doesn’t always have to be miserable. It can get better. Good luck.

On Kishore Mahbubani’s “Love Singapore”- We should start with Why.

Here’s a quick summary of Kishore Mahbubani’s The final Big Idea: Love Singapore, which kinda left a bad taste in my mouth:

  1. If we can Love Singapore with total commitment and conviction, Singapore can last another 50 years. (V: If.)
  2. Hotel Singapore: Singaporeans litter a lot. We expect foreign workers to clean up after us. We treat Singapore like a hotel, not a home. (V: Agreed. Why do we do that, though?) In contrast, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan clean up after themselves.
  3. Singaporeans don’t laugh enough. We score poorly on Happiness indices. We lack a cartoonist.
  4. It would be foolish to try to analyze the deeper sources of our relative unhappiness (V: I disagree), but the most obvious thing might be lack of physical space, which we can’t do very much about. (V: point taken. See janefyp’s comment.)
  5. We should encourage cartoonists, encourage history and narratives. (V: Agree. But we ban films like To Singapore, With Love instead of having a public conversation about it.)
  6. We should demonstrate our love for SG by living the pledge. This is why we have CDAC, Mendaki, Sinda. (V: Aside- why must helping the under-privileged be determined by racial lines? What do the resource breakdowns look like?)
  7. If Singaporeans donate to or volunteer to help less-privileged citizens outside their own communities, we could demonstrate through our deeds, not our words, that we love our fellow Singaporeans “regardless of race, language or religion”. (V: If.)

Here’s my central, biggest criticism of the whole piece:

All of the above address symptoms, not the disease. The what and how, but not the Why.

Kishore is effectively asking for a behavioral change. If we behave differently- “demonstrate through our deeds, not our words, we love our fellow Singaporeans”, then everything will be okay.

Here’s the thing. Anybody can ask for behavioral change. If you study hard, you will do well. If you save your money, you will be financially better off. If you exercise, your healthcare costs will go down.

If.

Philip II of Macedonia: You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army on your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people and raze your city.

Sparta: If.

Here’s my guess, though. Singaporeans aren’t going to stop littering, laugh more and start living the pledge just because Kishore says we ought to.

We can’t change anybody’s behavior until we understand the reasons why they behave the way they do.

It’s almost never because people are ignorant about what they “ought” to be doing.

No smoker thinks, “Oh wow, I had no idea that smoking was unhealthy.  If only somebody would write a Big Idea piece about how it’s important to Love Your Body! Oh, I would change my behavior then.”

That doesn’t work! In FastCompany’s 2005 piece Change Or Die, we learn that 90% of heart patients don’t change their lifestyle even when it means they’ll literally lose their lives.

“If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle.” – Dr. Edward Miller, dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University [source]

Why? Habituation. Learned helplessness. Depression. Fear. Anxiety.

So. Why do Singaporeans litter? Why don’t Singaporeans laugh more? Why don’t we donate and volunteer more? Why don’t Singaporeans love Singapore?

Lecturing won’t help.

Kishore said that it “would be foolish try to analyze the deeper sources of our relative unhappiness in a brief article like this”. I think it’s far more foolish to try and make headway on a problem without first identifying the deepest sources.

Kishore goes on to talk about how we live in cramped spaces, and we don’t have a cartoonist. But do cramped spaces make people treat their country like a hotel? I don’t think so. I think it’s a symptom of a mercenary, transactional meritocracy. “The Govt treats me like an economic digit, I am valued according to my economic contributions- my taxes pay the cleaners’ salary, they can clean it up.”

Re: cartoonists, I don’t think we have a lack of them, I think there’s a lack of demand for them. There are always some cartoonists, some musicians, some artists. Whether they rise to prominence or fade into obscurity is a function of the interest of everybody else.

I find myself thinking, “What would Singaporean cartoonists say, anyway?” and I’m instantly reminded of Colin Goh and his wife Yen Yen, whose story is very worth reading. They wrote that back in 2001, and I think it describes Singaporean culture with much deeper insight than Kishore does:

“While I enjoyed writing and drawing, never for a second did I think this might be a career. Worse, I felt compelled to downgrade their importance in my life. First was money, then pleasure. It was simply un-Singaporean to think one could get pleasure without money, or that working should be pleasurable.” – Colin Goh

That in turn reminds me of Lee Kuan Yew describing Singaporeans (or all humans, perhaps) as digits in a machine:

“At the end of the day, we are all so many digits in a machine. The point is, are these digits stronger digits than the competitor’s digits?” – Lee Kuan Yew [source]

I think that’s a valid, pragmatic perspective. Though it’s worth realizing that in the Information age, the strongest digits are those that find meaning and purpose in their lives, those that have a fundamental reason that they believe in. I think the pioneer generation of Singaporeans had that to a degree that many of us today don’t. (People tend to respond to this with “Ya lor! Last time people understood real pain. Kids nowsadays so soft.” But even that is really just complaining rather than trying to figure out a solution to the problem.)

Suppose this were a failing marriage.

All of this is like a spouse saying, “If you really loved me, you would help with the dishes. If you really loved me, you would take me out to dinner sometime.” And yes, a good relationship is partially about meeting and fulfilling all those needs.

But what if the person on the other end is tired, exhausted and drained? What if they’re thinking, “Jeez. Do I even love this person anymore? Life is so hard. Why do I have to put up with his crap? What do I even want, really? Am I stuck with him? This sucks.”

I think if we are to rekindle our love for each other, we ought to focus less on “What have you done for me lately?” and more on “What do we see in each other?” We ought to remind ourselves of why we’re here in the first place.

It’s easy for me to say this as a random person writing on the Internet, but I think what we need is some initiative, some leadership, some bold vision and a sense of possibility.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Update: I just noticed that Chee Soon Juan of the SDP actually put out a manifesto of sorts called “A New Vision For Singapore“. I find it kinda boring.

To Singapore, With Love: Does the MDA appreciate the Streisand Effect?

Here’s a thinking tool I’m trying out: Assume good faith. I’m going to assume that the MDA has good, smart people in charge and that they genuinely want what’s best for Singapore. You may disagree with the premise, but I think there’s enough “Wah, MDA damn stupid!” commentary out there. Also, it makes for more interesting, challenging thinking.

Let’s first assume that the MDA understands and appreciates the Streisand effect.

The Streisand effect is the idea that banning things makes them more popular. This is especially the case in the Internet age. When the State censors something, it’s the act of censorship that makes the work notable. [1]

So let’s assume that the MDA knows this, and they’re doing it anyway. They know that banning a film is going to make people talk about it more. Why do they do it, then?

The “simplest” explanation is that the MDA is just plain stupid, or selfish, and that they’re populated by old farts who don’t understand the modern media landscape, and that CEO Koh Lin-Net can afford a S$10m condo because corruption, nepotism and Evil Gahmen Forces.

Saying “MDA is Stupid And Evil!” is easy, but unhelpful and most likely inaccurate.

It’s simple and easy to express, but it raises a lot of other questions:

  • How and why such people get into such positions in the first place?
  • Why didn’t anybody else do anything about it?

To explain that, you’ll have to subsequently assume that the entire Government and Civil Service is in cahoots to screw over the populace. This is incredibly unlikely, in my opinion. Some of the most thoughtful criticism of Govt policy I’ve heard has come from people who work in the G themselves. [2]

What does the MDA have to say about the ban?

MDA has classified the film “To Singapore, With Love” as Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR)

MDA has assessed that the contents of the film undermine national security because:

  • Legitimate actions of the security agencies to protect the national security and stability of Singapore are presented in a distorted way as acts that victimised innocent individuals. Under the Film Classification Guidelines, films that are assessed to undermine national security will be given an NAR rating.

My questions:

  1. How do we determine whether or not an action is legitimate? Are we talking about what is legal, or what is right?
  2. Can we have a conversation about the legitimacy of such actions?
  3. Was it legitimate when Stamford Raffles installed Hussein Shah as the Sultan of Johore, effectively carrying out a coup? Serious question!
  4. Also, if the MDA says things like “distorted and untruthful”, what are we to measure the distortion against? What is the objective, canonical history of Singapore that these people are supposedly distorting?
  • “The individuals in the film have given distorted and untruthful accounts of how they came to leave Singapore and remain outside Singapore:
    • A number of these self-professed “exiles” were members of, or had provided support to, the proscribed Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). The CPM sought to overthrow the legitimate elected governments of Singapore and Malaysia through armed struggle and subversion, and replace them with a communist regime.
    • One of the interviewees in the film claimed that he had no choice but to join the CPM after he left Singapore when in fact, he was an active CPM member even before he left Singapore. Indeed, as another interviewee who left Singapore in similar circumstances admits, a number of Barisan Sosialis activists then were already members of the Malayan National Liberation League, the CPM’s political wing, before they fled Singapore with its help and subsequently joined the communist guerrilla forces.”

Okay, cool. These are genuinely interesting points worth raising in a discussion about Singapore’s history. These are points that should be raised perhaps even before any talk of censorship or national security.

  1. Could you be a little more specific, MDA? Which specific ‘self-professed “exiles”‘ (kinda snarky wording there, lol) are you talking about? Why not call out the specific interviewees? Clearly, you guys have watched the film.
  2. If “a number of” the interviewees were members of  the CPM, were others not?  If “a number of” Barisan Socialis activists were members of the CPM’s political wing, were others not?
  3. Is it possible that some interviewees may have been members of the CPM, or provided support to the CPM, without necessarily wanting to threaten the elected Government of Singapore?
  4. Could it be possible that “the elected Government of Singapore” didn’t have nearly as much legitimacy then as it does now? Could it be that things were messy and ugly then, and people could have legitimate reasons to believe that the elected Government at the time didn’t speak for them?
  5. Is it possible for us to have a legitimate conversation about communism as a way of self-organization in Singapore? I’m not personally a fan of communism, but I do think that banning a discussion has the unfortunate side-effect of inducing apathy.
  6. And I think an apathetic citizenry is the greatest long-term national security risk to Singapore. Could we have a conversation about that?
  • “In another attempt to white-wash their security histories, two of the individuals in the film conveniently omitted mentioning the criminal offences which they remain liable for, like tampering with their Singapore passports or absconding from National Service.”

Fair enough. My questions:

  1. Has the Government of Singapore every white-washed its own history, willingly or otherwise?
  2. Have there been any “convenient omissions” in Singapore’s history?
  3. Can we consider those things to be national security risks?
  • The individuals featured in the film gave the impression that they are being unfairly denied their right to return to Singapore. They were not forced to leave Singa­pore, nor are they being prevented from returning. The Government has made it clear that it would allow former CPM members to return to Singapore if they agree to be interviewed by the authorities on their past activities to resolve their cases. Criminal offences will have to be accounted for in accordance with the law.

“If they agree to be interviewed to resolve their cases… criminal offences.”

  1. Could we have a clearly ennumerated list of these criminal offences?
  2. Can the MDA say “gave the impression”, and then make statements about those impressions?
  3. What if we said that the MDA’s bans “give the impression” that Singapore is a stodgy, boring place to live, and that it’ll sabotage our sustainability as a knowledge economy in the long run?
  • These facts had been published at the time of these events, and are on public records, even though some Singaporeans today may be unfamiliar with these cases.”

This is all really a bland, politically correct way of saying that (some significant subset of) Singaporeans are misinformed and irresponsible, isn’t it?

That’s why they ban it, despite the Streisand Effect. To keep it out of the hands of the uninformed Singaporeans.

The Streisand Effect popularizes the film among the activists, slacktivists and ‘intelligentsia’, but it keeps it out of the hands of people who wouldn’t go through the trouble of obtaining the film. (The activists were going to watch the film anyway.) So there’s probably a certain realpolitik calculus that goes into these decisions.

One of the first reactions to such a statement would be “Wow, that is so bad. So horrible, MDA. So elitist-uncaring-face. Mocking us heartlanders from their $10m condos.”

But the more important question is- “Is it true?” If I search my heart, I have to say that yes, it probably is. Especially outside of the echo chambers of the activists, bloggers and ‘civil society’.

A large, significant subset of Singaporeans don’t know their own history. We don’t know what’s going on. And so we are subject to misinformation. This is a valid concern. And it needs addressing.

To achieve a superior outcome for Singapore, we need to spend less time bitching about the MDA for being draconian and more time making it impossible for them to say “Singaporeans are uninformed”.

1: We must recognize that a ban on films is a short-term, stop-gap solution that ignores the long-term problem. Merely objecting to such bans also ignores the long-term problem: uninformed Singaporeans.

I can sort-of accept the ban, much as I don’t like it when I contemplate it from my armchair. But I understand the rationale. Some Singaporeans are stupid and dangerous and must be kept away from subversive films, lest they steal their SAR-21s from their Army camps and try to overthrow the Government.

2: The long-term solution is to put these films in the spotlight and scrutinize them long and hard. We need to get better informed about our own history, if not now then at least in the long run.

It’s all in the public records, says MDA. Well, we ought to dig all of this stuff up and talk about it. This is what the National Conversation or Our Singapore Conversation should be about. About who we are. About where we come from.

Unless we do that, until we do that, our identities will remain fragmented and disparate, and Singaporean-ness will be reduced to some farcical, oversimplistic thing like HDB flats and Chicken Rice. And that’s not how we guarantee Singapore’s survival for the next 50 years. We need people with conviction. And you can’t have conviction if you don’t have a clear sense of identity and purpose.

Of course, the MDA won’t spearhead the “Search Your Soul, Singapore” movement. It’s not their problem. Is it anybody’s job description to give a damn about the state of public discourse in Singapore? The Government is responsible to prevent things from screwing up. Whose responsibility is it to make sure we don’t miss opportunities, that we don’t stagnate, and becoming boring and lobotomized?

Yours and mine.

So here’s my little proposal to thoughtful Singaporeans everywhere who don’t like the ban: Take the effort to read up about Singaporean history, and have conversations about it with others.

That’s the best act of rebellion against censorship. We have to become such a smart country that the MDA can no longer say “Singaporeans today may be unfamiliar with these cases.”

I think that’s in the long-term interests of the survival of our little sampan city-state. If we want to live into a future that is exciting and interesting, rather one that’s constantly defined by existential woes (which are completely legitimate, by the way!), we have to have passion and conviction about who we want to be. And that means knowing where we came from.

Notes: 

[1] For an interesting example of how advertisers and marketers can hijack the Streisand effect to their own advantage, consider how Sodastream purposefully got its Scarlett Johansson Superbowl ad banned.

[2] It’s just tragic that they’re usually afraid to air their views in case it affects their livelihoods. These are the most important voices in civil discourse, and they’re under-heard. Those of us who write are forced to attempt to represent them without actually walking in their shoes.

PM Lee Hsien Loong, on the purpose of life

“The purpose of life is not assurance and security, the purpose of life is to use that security in order to go and achieve something new and different, and do better than the people who came before you.

“I mean, that’s why you go to business school. Because you think you can do better, and you can do the business better… and actually it’s not just that you will make more money in the business, but you believe that you will come up with a service or a product or an idea which will change the world.

“That’s what you dream of.” – Lee Hsien Loong [source]

The problem with “6 in 10 Singaporeans think media regulations are balanced”

EDIT: I overgeneralized and misrepresented the out-group earlier by saying “they said they don’t care”. Technically, they didn’t say they care. Minor but significant distinction. It makes the whole thing a little bit murkier.

Here’s the article you’re most likely to encounter:
6 in 10 Singapore residents find film and arts content regulations ‘appropriate’: Reach

First, let’s dig up the actual press release. Straits Times isn’t the most reliable of sources. Google for Reach Singapore, and you land on their site. To their credit, the press release is right there (which I suppose is how/where the Straits Times got their information?)

Here’s a pdf of the press release. Here’s what popped out to me:

1: A significant group of the people polled don’t really care about the regulations.

[1] 33% of people didn’t say that the regulations didn’t matter to them, so I think can make some reasonable assumptions about how they might’ve voted. It’s pretty unlikely that they’d think “I don’t care about X regulation, but I think it’s too harsh.”

Frankly, if a person says that X regulation doesn’t matter to them, I wouldn’t be giving much (or any!) weight to their opinion. The information is useful, “Oh, roughly 33% of Singaporeans don’t really care about regulations”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have anything meaningful to say about media policy. Quite the opposite, I think.

2: The people who actually care about the problem felt that the regulations were restrictive.

[2] “Respondents who were frequent patrons of film and arts performances and who also saw the issue as an important one, were more likely to feel that current regulations were somewhat restrictive.”

This reminds me of the NLB saga, where the people who were most eager to pulp the books used the worst grammar, while authors and book lovers responded with tremendous emotion.

So we have a conclusion that implies everything is okay:

In summary, the study found that the majority of respondents felt that current film and arts regulations are balanced.

My question to you is, does the majority necessarily have a thoughtful, constructive perspective about media regulations?

6 in 10 Singaporeans think media regulations are okay, but 3-5 of them don’t really care! Meanwhile, the artists, filmmakers, playwrights, etc. are the ones who suffer. Or are unfortunately underrepresented, at least.

“As values and norms evolve with time, the challenge will be to gradually calibrate film and arts regulation in a manner that the majority in society finds to be balanced.”

Not all opinions are equal. My worry is that when we try to appease the crowd, we do so at the cost of our best and brightest talents. And we can’t afford to do that.

EDIT: On hindsight and after some discussion with friends, I think the most conclusive thing we can really say about the study is that it’s difficult if not impossible to draw any real conclusions from such a study. Everybody will just continue with however they felt about things prior.

The PRC guy at my coffeeshop

Original post on Facebook

There’s a PRC guy who works at the coffeeshop downstairs from my block. I first encountered him when I first moved into my flat, about a year and a half ago. He only spoke Mandarin then (I think).

He’d primarily clean tables and take drink orders. He was brash and came across as rude and unlikeable. He spoke loudly, roughly. When I tried to order from him, he’d respond in Mandarin- and my Mandarin is pretty bad but I’m pretty sure he was cursing me (or his fate). He’d then avoid me altogether. Which, you know, kinda sucks for me as a patron. But I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.‪#‎justminorityproblems‬

Yesterday though, he cheerfully came over and took orders from me and my wife. He was friendly. We ordered a milo and a bandung, and when it turns out that the bandung was a can and my wife wanted to switch to a milo too, he happily obliged with none of the frustration and confusion I got from him a year earlier. It was a pleasant interaction and we thanked him gratefully.

This morning I went down to buy breakfast and he was making drinks. I’m drinking his kopi as I write this.

All of this gives me a lot of thoughts and feels. It was so easy to judge him and hate him, filthy stupid foreigner, learn the language, why are you here. But he was probably scared, confused, felt abused and ostracized in an unfamiliar country. A year later, he’s a part of the ecosystem and I’m glad to have him around. And it’s pretty cool to see him learn a language, develop new skills, take more responsibility… all the sort of things that we tell ourselves that WE ought to be doing, while we enjoy our relative position of privilege.

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea that it’s healthy, interesting and fun to think that we’re all here to teach each other something. A student can teach a teacher, a child can teach a parent, and a migrant worker can teach this Singaporean. Patience, tolerance, kindness. It makes for a more beautiful world. And delicious kopi.

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