Go with a smile!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

College admissions Scandal

I used not to wonder about this, but some of the things are getting less and less important. When I was in my younger adulthood maybe I was too concerned about things that maybe didn’t matter. Maybe I was just having a scattershot approach to all sorts of random knowledge. Maybe I was just following sports to kill time. Maybe I was just watching too many movies and not caring. Maybe I was just blogging. It’s surprising how many things you do and at the end of the day the rewards are just fleeting.

There was an admissions scandal going on. People were bribing their way to get their kids into good colleges.

I got into Snowy Hill relatively easily. OK, it’s never easy to get into Snowy Hill and I had to do a few things and prove to people that I’m remarkable. But it wasn’t as hard - I almost got in by accident. All our school lives, we were told that we had to excel. That we had to have a good ECA record. This got me half the way up the hill. Then I remember being told that JC2 was one of the most crucial years of your life. Which was really good advice. Getting good grades for my “A”s, and then applying to college in the States. Getting into some, not getting into some. And then somehow bundling up my experience and my ECAs and managing to convince at least one scholarship committee that I was worth the hassle.

Perhaps there was a more level playing field then. Of course there are important things like hard work and talent. Those two things have always been indispensable to get ahead. But these days, it seems as though you’d need a little something extra.

You needed to have somebody to tell you how to be more focused. There was quite a bit of a gap in this regard. At times I could tell my parents were really focused on my getting good grades, and pushing me towards a few of the ECAs that they had selected for me: music, swimming, etc. At other times - and this is something that I can say with the benefit of hindsight - they really were blind to some of the things that my school had to offer. Like there wasn’t any co-ordination between the two parts. Especially given that I didn’t handle becoming a teenager very well, and they didn’t either.

After getting into college, it seemed to me that somebody had switched the rules. But actually it was more like I hadn’t really mastered a few rules that I really really needed. No matter, it seemed good enough to show that I had done well in my first 20 years in life, it opened a few doors for me.

These days, though it seems impossible that I’d have gotten into Snowy Hill that easily. There was some luck involved. My involvement in music - that was because my parents sent me to music classes, and I discovered that I had some aptitude. I had some ability in mathematics. Then my involvement in the literary arts was my own thing. By the time my college applications came around, I had checked quite a few boxes, although, to be honest, there was that bit more of promising potential than actual fleshed out possibilities.

I am really grateful that when I was younger, I could just follow my passion and it would lead somewhere. That I mostly did what I wanted to do by “doing well” and it led to good things - Snowy Hill, mostly. But I was probably fortunate or not fortunate. Of the 3 universities I really wanted, maybe I had a less than 50% chance of getting into them - I got into exactly one of them, Snowy Hill. Maybe these were the ways the odds worked out. I hadn’t really given much thought into what lay beyond my “A” levels, was never coached in essay applications. The one thing that went well for me was that I was in a JC that was successful in sending kids to good universities, and that I had impressed my teachers enough that they were willing to write letters for me. Considering what a hassle it was to get my letters during my second college application, I can imagine what a wonderful thing it was.

It was therefore very humbling to arrive in Snowy Hill and find that it was full of people who had worked all their lives to get there. I had spent all my focus on my own grades and exams and college applications were literally an afterthought, and for some reason, it just ended up that one of the biggest problems in my life was solved for me like that.

That brings me to the college admissions cheating scandal. It’s just terrible that college has become such a racket. Admission rates are going down. Tuition is going up. It’s getting tougher and tougher to get into a reasonably good college. There have been admissions fraud cases in the past. They may not have been prosecuted, and some overseas students may have sought to get into the door via the sneaky way. This is one of the first times we’ve had Americans caught red handed inflating their kids’ CVs to get involved in this stuff.

You can go read the news and get all the gory details about how they cheated and how they had all their CVs inflated, but when it comes down to it, it’s really that things have gotten so crazy in this arena of late that you’ve had to resort to this. It’s really sad that this is America, and if nothing else, it still could say with some pride that the universities were the best in the world, and people are doing this.

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Saturday, March 09, 2019

The end of the end of history.

The big epochs of our history took place in 1989. We saw a transformation of the post cold war order. We thought that the US had won the cold war. As with World War 2, the end of the cold war in 1989 had 2 theatres. One epochal event took place in Berlin, where the wall was breached and opened up. Moscow signalled that it would no longer be enforcing the Berlin wall. In rapid succession, there were revolutions in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania. Basically for the countries nearest to the West, the Eastern Bloc collapsed. It seemed for a long while that the western way of life would triumph.

In 1991, the Soviet Union fell and split up, and by then people saw this as being inevitable. There were probably at least 3 dimensions to the whole thing. First was the defeat of the communist bloc, that was the most obvious. Second, and this had been happening throughout the 80s, was the defeat of socialism and the denationalization of public assets during the Reagan and Thatcher eras. There was the dismantling of “big government”. And the implication of a world that was both opened up and turning hypercapitalistic was that people turned away from giving a damn about environmentalism.

Then right at the beginning of the cold war, something else happened: that was the Gulf War. It was a victory that briefly sent the popularity of George Bush into the stratosphere. After the disappointments of Korea, Vietnam, and the various military misadventures in Latin America and the Middle East during the Reagan eras, the US finally had something they could call a victory. But the first gulf war planted 2 bad seeds: first was the seed for the second Iraq war that would be widely seen as a self-inflicted wound, and second, because of the US airbases in Saudi Arabia, that would give rise to Al-Qaeda, and then ISIS.

2001 was a rollback of the triumph of the West. By itself it wasn’t as big a deal as how some conservatives saw it. Tightening up security and making sure that this stuff no longer happened was an OK outcome. The real disasters were that in response, Dubya started 2 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were ill advised, not good for the US or Central Asia or the Middle East. The timing was tragic because somehow that didn’t stop Dubya from having a second term. You have to say, though, that he wasn’t quite as destructive during his second term. But that was when all his weaknesses became apparent: his cavalier regulation of the financial bubble, the botched handling of Hurricane Katrina, and the wars going badly. He was one of the least popular presidents by the time is terms were over, and deservedly so. His narrow election over Al Gore should have been seen as one of the most consequential moments in American history, a sliding doors moment when you’d have to say that things could have gone one way or the other.

I’ve been talking about the big events that marked the sliding back from America’s shining hour of having “won” the Cold War. But it’s equally important to mention a few big trends that have taken place as well.

First is the widening income equality. Since the 1970s, America has stopped caring about sharing the economic progress between people of different economic classes.

Second is the expansion of the US police state, the rising number of people, disproportionally black, who end up in prisons. The prison state is the third racist system against black people, after slavery and Jim Crow.

Third is the first past the post electoral system that favours people who live on less populated areas, at the expense of people who live in the cities. That means the more urban Democrats always have a disadvantage against the Republicans when it comes to the elections.

Fourth is the cutting back of funding against policies that really matter, like education and social welfare.

Fifth is the rise of Asia. Not just China, but Asia as a whole poses a huge challenge to the notion that this is a world dominated by the West.

2008 was also a big epoch. A few things happened that year. First was the unfolding of the great financial crisis. Then there was the election of Obama which was supposed to be a good thing, but this gave rise to conspiracy theories and resentment against “elites” and the “birther” conspiracy theories. And most interestingly, there was the rise of smartphones, driven by the iphone, which fundamentally changed the nature of the internet.

Between 2008 and 2016, there were large social changes that took place with great frequency. I don’t know if I’m saying this because I’m growing old, but it seems that the changes are more frequent and less earth shattering. Maybe less earth shattering because I’ve already given up on things always staying the same.

During this period, there was the Tea Party, which raged and howled against the Democrats winning back the White House. There was Occupy Wall Street, a protest that went on for a long time against income inequality. There were protest movements that are receiving a lot more attention now than previously. There was the “Black Lives Matter” movement which at least addresses the inequities where cops who kill black people are exonerated by internal investigations. There was the MeToo movement. A lot of light was shed on sexual abuse that used to be covered up.

There was the legalization of Marijuana, which ironically came around the same time as Opioid abuse. And the movement for gay equality, as well as gay weddings.

There was the rise of cloud computing, of alternative energy and solar panels. Then there was the rise of fake news, aided a little (but not much) by Russian involvement. There were the Snowden revelations and the sudden realisation that we’re all living in a world where our data is collected, crunched and used to benefit the rich and powerful.

On the other side of the Pacific, Xi Jinping became the President of China, and this led to a China that seemed to the rest of Asia to be more imperialistic and aggressive. Probably does not have that much of an impact on the Americans. China doesn’t do much other than steal low skill jobs. And finally, at the end of 2016, it culminated in the election of Donald Trump and the rise of right wing populism worldwide. Previously, people like Netenyahu and Berlusconi would count as right wing populists, but now we have Turkey under Erdogan, Hungary under Orban, Philippines under Duterte, USA under Trump, Brazil under Bolsonaro, Russia under Putin.

Governance in the USA has been weaker, and whether you think the US has stalled or gone backwards, the rise of Asia and other countries has fostered the impression that the USA is no longer a superpower and has to contend with “merely” being a great power. The success of China is putting a big question mark over whether liberal democracy is the best way to run your country. The foibles of capitalism are apparent for all to see. In many ways, the last 30 years represent a rolling back of the optimism of the post cold war years.

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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Football is meh

Football is kinda pointless. I've said this before.

It was invented by the Victorian British, and as it gained popularity, it seemed to be really useful to give the working classes something to look forward to on the weekend, to distract themselves from all the tedium. Maybe that's why it became so popular near the Rio de la Plata, which had a lot of poor people (except for maybe a few decades in the early 20th century).

Like following football (and I probably stopped… I think it was a good thing that I was supporting Arsenal since 2007. It was a barren run, nothing of note accomplished, every year is average to good, but nothing to shout about. Even the FA cup wins are like 4th places - nothing more than consolations.)

World Cups are pretty meh after a while. Who are the really great teams? 1970 Brazil. 1974 Dutch (who didn’t win). 1982 Brazil (who also didn’t win). Maradona being a great player in a not so great side. The 80s and the 90s being littered with good but not great teams, the Swedes, the Danish, the Dutch (the 1988 side were great tho), the Romanians, the Bulgarians. France side at the turn of the century were great, Brazil 2002 was great. Italy 2006 won because nobody else was great. Spain 2010 was great. Germany 2014 won because they maintained a level of performance that got them to the semis time and again. And France won because nobody else was great. The Croatians…. Football was great for a while because it had so many great stories. But the problem with those great stories is that eventually you ran out of great stories to tell and you were back to square one.

Things in football are semi-ergodic. Stuff that has happened before will happen again. When Man City and Chelsea won the title, they broke 40, 50 year droughts. One of the most famous droughts in English football is Liverpool cos they haven’t won the league in almost 30 years, after being the most powerful football club for almost 20 years. But that might happen soon, especially after a few close calls. People thought they were getting close after Liverpool finished second in 2002. But they weren't the same after Houllier got that heart attack. Then Benitez came close in 2009, when Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Mascherano was at their best. It wasn't to be. Brendan Rodgers led Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling, Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge to a very close finish. If this team can hold their nerve, and if Man City doesn't get their act together, they may be in with a shout. Liverpool are different from Man City and Chelsea because it's not like some really wealthy benefactor turned up and pushed their team forward. But they are a well supported club with money and are perennial challengers. Liverpool's drought spanned almost the entirety of me paying attention to football so it will be quite an experience see them win the league since I was a kid.

Also, during 2002, you’ve had looked at the recent past and seen Argentina winning in 1986, reaching the finals of 1990, Brazil winning in 1994 and 2002 and reaching the final in 2006. You’d have thought that those two countries would have had a stranglehold on the World Cup, considering how strong the Argentina team of 2002 was (never mind that they never got out of the first round.) You’d have seen the Messi teams of 2006 to 2018, seen them reach the finals of WC 2014, Copa in 2015 and 2016. But as of 2018, Argentina has not won any major trophy for more than 20 years, and no World Cup for 30. Brazil is a second rate power. Pele was right in a way when he said that Africa would win the world cup by the early 21st century, but that’s because the French teams of 1998 and 2018 have had a heavy African diaspora component. In particular, 3 of the semi finalists in 2018 have a heavily migrant component, and at this moment, it seems that the council estates of Europe and the refugees from the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s are a great talent factory for football.

But there’s nothing really new in football. In the 1970s, there was the rise of the Brazilian flair players whose dazzling array of skills and tricks brought something truly new and exciting to the game. Then you had the Dutch innovations with total football, where all the players had overlapping multiple roles. And then football hit a bit of a snag with the defensive style dominating the 80s, most notably when the Brazil 1982 side, with plenty of players with dazzling skill being inexplicably knocked out by the second round. In the 90s, the game became faster and harder, and they tried to mix flair with well organised systems. In a bid to break up the ultra-defensive style, after a dismal 1990 world cup, the back pass rule was changed, and the goalkeepers were no longer allowed to trap and pick up the ball. In the 00s, the defensive style came back, but then in late 00s, Barcelona and Spain emerged with a style that had its roots in total football, where the ball was passed to death, and a strong team would try to utterly dominate and control a game without losing the ball: not only that, it would aggressively try to win the ball back from all the players, whether from the front or the back, this was the “pressing style”. Football was philosophised and analysed to death. Now, a lot of players would no longer have styles that were purely defensive, midfield or attacking. Forwards would cover the midfield and occasionally have defensive duties. They would no longer be waiting on the shoulders of the opposing defence to pounce on opportunities, but many of them would be playmaking as well. Midfielders had their duties blended with defence or attack. Defenders, especially wingers, might be occasionally tasked with bringing the ball forwards, maybe even . Most notably, in a role that was invented by Manuel Neuer (when he was still great), goalkeepers would occasionally perform a sweeper role, dribbling with the loose ball and playing it out, occasionally launching attacks in the process.

After all that, there's this sense of been there done that. Maybe there aren't that many more surprises in football. Maybe all the great ideas have already been articulated, and everybody else is just going through the same motions over and over again. Maybe I'm sick and tired of seeing the generations of great footballers go from hottest new thing to ageing has been with creaking knees. Maybe I'm old enough to have been alive when Maradona was a genuine football great rather than some sad sack doing lines on some party bus every World Cup and making a spectacle of himself.

If you were to view pre-war football in its context, there wouldn’t be much there. You couldn’t name any guy who was from before the war. You’d know a few funny stories, like the enmity between Arsenal and Tottenham, like Man City getting relegated the season after they won the league. Like the FA cup finals. We'd be looking at the old film reels of what existed, and we'd be wondering about the days gone by, and we'd be wondering why a lot of what we did see mattered. I still have this memory of the month before I took my "A" levels. For some reason, I spent half a day looking at a sticker book which happened to list the historical records of the premier league clubs. In some distant past, Newcastle, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield and Burnley were league champions. Some other clubs have never won championships before but they won FA cups. Aston Villa and Blackburn were actually really successful in the early days of the league. For some reason I was entranced. And yet today I struggle to think about why on earth that would matter, that I would give up half a day of trying to save my ass, in order to look at that particular hall of fame? Why did I care so much about that glory?

I made friends through football. There were people that I normally wouldn’t even have talked to if not for playing those football games on the court. I remember the stirring atmosphere at the old Kallang stadium, how exciting it was for Singapore to win its second Tiger Cup (never mind that our opponents Indonesia just got tsunami-ed in between the two legs of the final). But those memories aren’t going to last a lifetime. They’re just going to fade away eventually.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I'd have had the same attitude towards football as I would have had 10 years ago, when I was still playing on the basketball court. I don't mind the times when we played street soccer, although maybe I did end it all by walking out on them. Maybe it would be more meaningful to me if I still thought of myself as some guy in central defence who was an immovable force against anything you could throw at it.

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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Pest control and squatting

I got back home one day and I found brochures of the termite tent. They told us that they were going to fumigate the whole premises. The most important things were to store up the food and put them in air tight bags so that they would not suffer from the effects of the fumigation. It took me 2 whole afternoon to take all my edibles and eat all the fresh stuff and put all the packaged stuff into the storage locker.

I decided to go squat in my office for 2 days, partly to save money, partly for fun, and partly because I wanted to see what happened in my office after the sun went down.

The company I worked for previously resided in a work / residential loft. I had squatted there overnight once or twice before. It was easy. But that place was the analog of Singapore's Clarke Quay: the historic commercial center that turned into a slum and then got revitalised as a pub district. The downside of that place was it was touristy and there were always parties going on downstairs. There were pedicabs going around and blaring out music that was not only loud but extremely cliched top of the pops. It wasn't a great place to sleep.

First of all, I had to handle parking: no problem with that, because the office building allowed you to park your car there overnight.

Secondly, people worked at the office for 8 hours. It wasn't a place where people worked 70 hour weeks. Maybe our founders still do that but the staff don't. Our office was set up a little like what you'd get in a Google office, tastefully furnished. Most important to my plan was that there was a couch in the common area, and the common area was in a part of the office cut off from the rest. That means you could hang out in the common area and not be noticed by the rest of the office. The common area had a back door and then I could sneak out of it and get out of the building without being seen by whoever had barged in. It was the perfect plan.

Third, there was the security downstairs. There were two entrances and exits to the building. Security was covering the front. The back, which led to the car park was sometimes and sometimes not manned. I'm going to have to be carrying my bed sheets and blankets through all that.

Fourth, I need to be waking up early enough in the morning and getting the fuck out before anybody notices that I'm squatting for the night. And after that I had to leave the office to go squat somewhere else. And then I need to make my customary late morning appearance in the office and “start” the day.

Fifth, the bosses had installed a camera facing the front door, so all my entrances and exits had to be at the back door.

I was pleasantly surprised on the first night when nobody came to clear up the office. I thought, I'm going to have an easy night. I brushed my teeth and shaved and then I spread my bedsheet on the couch and looked forward to a relatively uneventful night. I turned in early for my standards, at midnight, having set my alarm for 6am. At 1 in the morning, the lights were turned on and I snapped awake. (Usually when you're sleeping in a new room, you sleep lightly). Fuck! It was the cleaner. How the fuck was I supposed to know that the cleaners came in at 1 in the morning? Hurriedly I crammed my bed sheet into the canvas bag and got the fuck out of there before anybody noticed me.

I had to spend the next hour, 1 to 2, in my car, hardly getting any sleep. Then I came back up, and noticed that the lights were still on. That was kinda funny. I got back in. I thought, maybe I'd turn in but you know what, let's go check Facebook for a short while. I did that. Then what do you know, the cleaner returned. So I had to sit at my desk and pretend to work for a while, stare at code. The cleaner would be like “who is this programmer who materialised out of nowhere at 2 in the morning to work? What a crazy motherfucker”. Then after 20 minutes, she finished cleaning the toilet and left, and it was time again for me to just spread out my bedsheets and finish up sleeping for the night. Thankfully after this I made it to 6 am.

On the second night, I thought, you know what, the cleaners' going to come in at 1 in the morning. So I started sleeping early, like at 10. Then she comes in at 11. Luckily this one is the one that I'm familiar with. So its not like she mistakes me as an intruder or anything. This time, I got caught but I was like giving a friendly “hi” and “isn't this a nice and wonderful night, you get a beautiful view of the city”.

I headed to the car again, with my tail between my legs. As usual, I had difficulty falling asleep. And what's more, I think I wrote a song or something So I went back up to just type it up on the computer, consequences be damned. The cleaner was looking at me, bemused. But still going about her business. Then she left. And it was time for me to sleep.

It was hard for me to sleep on the second night. I got up around every hour. At 4 in the morning, I even heard the door being opened and closed. Did the night watchman see me? The couch was facing away from the door, so I could have been invisible. Finally dawn came and I got up and left. I thought I was going to get myself a big American breakfast. But then I finally got the motivation to sleep.

I still don't know what the consequences of squatting are. I know there was somebody else who did it, but he was later fired for... well his output levels just went down and he was no longer contributing, so it wasn't necessarily about the squatting. He was using the office for internet and cooking, which was a little excessive.

This has been my first blog entry for dunno how long. I'm still marvelling at how much energy I had to blog back in the day. It's so hard to write a full essay these days.

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8:44 PM

 

Monday, July 02, 2018

Recent history of football and also why I should just stop being a fan.

There are certain indelible memories associated with football. My father and his family were football fans. For the first decade of its existence, the Kallang stadium was the site of epic Malaysia cup matches. Singapore vs Selangor would be our El Classico. For a region that had execrable standards of Football, we didn't have any problems at all filling a 55K seating capacity stadium. We still remember the football heroes of yesteryear – the Quah Kim Songs, the Rajagopals, the Samad Allapitchays, the Mat Noor, the Edmund Wees.

Against the backdrop, we were also tuned into the English league. Liverpool was the biggest club in the 1980s, and if my memory serves me right, that was one of the few times where a club dominated English football so completely and for so long. There were other sides that had great periods of 5-10 years in the distant past. Maybe Sunderland, or Aston Villa, or Arsenal, or Leeds or Everton. But probably none of them achieved the greatness of Liverpool during the 70s or the 80s.

My first consciousness of football was the 90s, and coincidently or not, that was one of the truly axial periods of the sport, where one era was washed away and another put into its place.

Before the 1990s, the pinnacle of football competition was international competition, and after that, it was club competition, more specifically European club competition.

Before the 1990s, Liverpool was dominant. After that, Manchester United. (at least until Alex Ferguson retired).

Before the 1990s, most of the football players played in their own country. After that, there started a great talent drain, whereby the best players would get scouted and lured to Europe's top leagues.

Before the 1990s, the European Cup was more egalitarian, and in a way that reflected the balance of power between the leagues in Europe. You had European champions from Portugal, Romania, Yugoslavia, Holland and Scotland. Belgium had Anderlecht winning a few of the minor European cups. But from the 1990s on, the champions always came from Germany or England or Spain or Italy. And even then, Italy is becoming a fading power, although with the amount of money going into a few clubs in France, you wonder if it's a matter of time that they'll be successful. Jose Mourinho has broken that pattern, winning with relatively unfancied clubs like Porto in 2004 and Inter Milan in 2010, but that's why he's regarded as one of the greatest.

In fact, in the last 10 years, the UCL has basically been an oligopoly of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, with only Inter Milan and Chelsea breaking the pattern (although those two aren't small clubs either).

In other words, wealth, power and glory became concentrated in fewer and fewer club sides.

Before the 1990s, football in England was still very much a working class sport. It was associated with hooliganism. Names of many of the elite football teams evoke decaying industrial towns: Leeds, Aston Villa (Birmingham), Newcastle, Sheffield, Nottingham, Blackburn. Today, though, the centers of gravity are London and the Northwest area of Manchester and Liverpool. You used to have standing terraces, and dowdy surroundings, now you have shiny football cathedrals but you have to pay through your nose for a ticket.

Here's an intriguing statistic: most of the clubs that are playing in the English premier league in 2018-2019 have voted for “remain”. The exceptions are Bournemouth, Huddersfield Town, Watford, Burnley and Southampton. And they are also the smallest stadiums in the premier league. These two things are related to the economic wealth of the surrounding area.

Before the 1990s, the Malaysia cup mattered. At least when Singapore were playing in it. It wasn't that uncommon to have 50K people in the National stadium. Sure, the Malaysia cup finals gets the Bukit Jalil stadium filled to capacity these days but the other matches – Singapore is the only place where you get the really large crowds, so you don't have that anymore. Maybe there was the resentment about Singapore always having the best gate receipts and the best players. After all, Singapore is a larger city, population wise, than any of the Malaysian cities.

Before the 1990s, Singapore had a FIFA ranking of less than 100. These days it's struggling to maintain a ranking of less than 150.

So what happened in football was a version of what Vladimir Lenin said: capitalism the highest form of imperialism. Even as football became more and more widespread, and more and more countries got involved, the power became more and more concentrated in Europe. Africa rose, and football also became massively popular in the Middle East.

in 1994, Colombia had a great team that may have gone very far in the World Cup, although they underperformed as a result of non-footballing issues. (Like death threats). The US reached the second round. Sweden, Bulgaria and Romania overperformed. It seemed like there was going to be a new world that was more egalitarian. That didn't happen. South Korea, Senegal and Turkey went surprisingly far in the 2002 tournament, but that was about it.

We've had 2 new world cup winners since then, but they were western Europeans. They were the French and the Spanish, and they were countries that always threatened to win the World Cup but didn't. There hasn't been a new football power outside of western Europe, and Brazil or Argentina.

Africa did make its mark in a fairly indirect way: the great French team around the turn of the century had many players of African ancestry: Zidane, Henry, Thuram, Gallas, Desailly. Ivory Coast and Ghana had “golden generations” but they failed to achieve much in the world Cup. Paradoxically, Europe secured its power by co-opting the best players from their minority communities.

It's likely that the dominance of European Leagues will make it very difficult for national teams outside of Europe to win.

For a short while, it seemed as though smaller clubs could break through in Europe's leagues. Ipswich and Portsmouth qualified for Europe. Deportivo and Valencia won La Liga. Leeds and Dynamo Kiev reached the semi-finals of the Champion's League, and Valencia. Arsenal, which operated on a tight budget, seemed poised to dominate the EPL for quite a while yet.

Then suddenly, Roman Abramovich came into the picture.

Now, to be sure, he wasn't the first sugar daddy of English football, not even in English Premier League era. Before him, there was …., who bankrolled their first (and only) English Premier League title. There was … who tried to get Newcastle United to spend their way to another EPL title, and nearly would have succeeded if not for their epic implosion in the run in in 1996. Later on, though, there were many clubs who became mid table sides for a few seasons, but got into serious financial difficulties a few seasons later when their fortunes nosedived and they got relegated.

It wasn't just England: in Serie A, AC Milan may have been one of the greatest clubs in the quarter century between 1985 and 2010, but its success was in a way bankrolled by Silvio Berlusconi. There was a time, in the 90s, when Serie A was the richest league in the world, the way that the EPL is today the richest league in the world. There was an elite of Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Roma, Lazio, Parma and Sampdoria, who between them attracted the best players in the world, a little like how a cabal of 6 clubs now control the EPL. And many of them had sugar daddies.

For England, the watershed was thus: first, there were the Heysel and Hillsborough stadium disasters. Then a commission came in and made recommendations, and that eventually led to the formation of the English Premier League. In the dark days of 1989, people were wondering if these were the end days of English football. They had already been banned from European competition for 5 years because of Heysel, and now you had Hillsborough (and with it the cover up of the police department.) Then came Arsenal's miraculous defeat of Liverpool in the league season finale, and then England's march to the semi-finals of the World Cup the next year to ensure that interest in football was not lost. Then the start of the English Premier League, where everything had this new modern gloss to make it look fresher, and suddenly the whole scene was rejuvenated. (Or maybe, to use a word from the future, gentrified)

A lot of people were saying, ““If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there.” This was a way of saying that it was a truly dramatic period in history. Well, I lived through more sober times, but no less dramatic: the end of the cold war, the rise of the internet, and possibly am living through the rise of artificial intelligence.

Personally, I witnessed the madness of the Malaysia Cup fever. Looking back, for the 20 years that followed the Separation, the Malaysians wanted us out of the competition. Probably they didn't enjoy our participation in the competition as much as we did, but from a neutral's point of view, how could you not love the siege mentality that was instilled in the Singapore team? Everybody knows that the referee would never give us the 50-50 decisions. And everybody knows you have to be twice as good to win, but we won 3 or 4 Malaysia cups since Separation.

In 1990, Singapore participated, and we got a young Australian called Abbas Saad. He became one of the boys. He arrived together with another Aussie called Alistair Edwards, who maybe didn't fit in so well: I still remember him moving to another team, scoring against us, and giving us the finger. But Abbas Saad played in the 1990 side, getting us to the final, where we lost to a Kedah that starred Sundram. In 1992, we inexplicably got relegated to the second tier, but the next year we qualified for the Malaysia cup anyway, and reached the final only to be beaten by our nemesis Kedah. And in 1994 – everybody knows what happened in 1994.

And there was English football on the TV sets as well. Incredibly it was my sister who became a fan, latching onto the rise of a club that at that point had been a sleeping giant of English football – Manchester United. And there was that fairytale of their goalkeeper Schmeichel inexplicably winning the European Championships with Denmark, in spite of their not having qualified in the first place. (But back in the day there were only 8 teams, so it was pretty easy for an underdog to win.)

I became fascinated by the history of English football – it was a source of endless fascination that in a bygone era, clubs like Newcastle, Blackburn, Sheffield United, Wolves, Burnley, Portsmouth and Ipswich had won championships. But that was the era before Liverpool's dominance.

In the early days of the English Premier League, it wasn't obvious that a select few clubs would dominate. Back then, you had teams like Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham, Aston Villa and Norwich ending up in the top 5. But then there were two challenges to Man United's dominance. The first one was successful for 1 season: Blackburn nipping the champion's slot after Man United failed to beat West Ham on the last day of the season. But quickly, Blackburn stopped being great: its only season in the UEFA Champion's league ended in ignominy, and when the funds dried up, the club declined. Manchester United's assistant manager Brian Kidd took up the manager's spot and ran the club into the ground and Blackburn got relegated.

The second challenge was more interesting but less successful. Newcastle were a colourful team managed by a colourful personality. They played exciting, attacking football and managed to reach the top spot at Christmas with a 12 point advantage, which they incredibly squandered to Manchester United. Newcastle would have a few more good seasons left, and they managed to get their hometown boy Alan Shearer for the rest of his career, but they were never the same team that threatened Man U's hegemony.

The other team that caught my imagination were Arsenal. The third and most successful team to challenge Man United's hegemony. Incredibly, and on a relatively tight budget, they put together a new team with a new philosophy. They cast off the dour image they had under George Graham, and instead of playing extremely defensive football, they played exciting, attacking football and pipped Manchester United to the title (albeit one that had Roy Keane injured).

But the following season was even more exciting, as Manchester United won the treble. They did not win the treble by steamrolling their opponents: all 3 of their trophies could have been lost if they were unlucky, which made their season so incredibly exciting.

The next few years were a little dull, with Manchester United winning the next two league titles, and Arsenal showing the first few signs of their mental fragility by not pushing them to the limit. Then Arsene Wenger put together his second great team, who won titles in 2002 and 2004, and were narrowly edged out in 2003. Everybody remembered that Arsene Wenger said that it was possible to finish a whole season unbeaten, but they forget that he actually said that in 2002, and lost his title in 2003, and it was pretty humiliating for him.

There's not much to say about the S league that replaced the Malaysian league / cup. Even if we were playing the Malaysian Cup, with the advent of English Premier League, people would have lost interest. Fandi, Malek Awab and David Lee couldn't go on forever. Abbas Saad was inexplicably banned from football in Singapore and Malaysia for god knows what. Their heirs were Zulkarnaen Zainal, Rafi Ali, Ahmad Latiff Khamaruddin, people with various degrees of likeability, but who didn't have the charisma of the dream team.

When I was studying in Snowy Hill, I used to lap up the results of football matches. It was fascinating to hear how Alex Ferguson figured out to manage his team. Up til now, people knew that he was great at making his footballers mentally strong, although you never knew if this was because he was good at instilling it in his guys, or because he was very quick to toss them aside when their winning mentality started to slip under the pressure.

Possibly 2003 was another watershed for English Premier League for many reasons. It was when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea. It was when the Leeds experiment of “living the dream” crashed and burned and put paid to anybody else's attempt to buy their way to short term success without a rich sugar daddy to back them up. It was the beginning of the end for Arsenal's glorious period (although their decline was so gradual that for many years afterwards they were always in the champion's league places). And it was the rise of the Chelsea / Manchester United duopoly.

I probably should have stopped watching football around this period, but there were still a few great stories after that. There was Greece winning the Euros, there was Liverpool winning the Champion's League, there was Manchester United claiming back the top spot from Chelsea and Alex Ferguson building his last great team. There was the rise of tiki taka and Lionel Messi, and their Champion's league victories in 2009, 2011 and 2015 were as decisive as you could imagine. There was the rise of the powers of the English clubs – between 2005 and 2012, there were 7 times English clubs reached the finals of UCL. There was the glorious rise of Spain, from a “promising team” in 2006 to the dynasty which claimed 3 major tournament titles between 2008 and 2012. There was the golden generation of Germany, who reached the semi-finals or better for every tournament from 2006 to 2014. But slowly football was getting less fun and more predictable. Emirates money would go into Arsenal (well at least they bought naming rights). Etihad money would go into Man City. Man City essentially became Abu Dhabi club. Russians bought Monaco. Qataris bought Paris Saint Germain. Americans bought Liverpool and Manchester United. Most significant was great amounts of money being funneled into Man City, which enabled them to knock Manchester United off their perch, especially as David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and even Jose Mourinho found it hard to fill Alex Ferguson's shoes.

The smaller leagues faded away and ceased to matter in European competition. There would not be a repeat of the Steaua Buchareset building up the core of the Romania team that would wow the world in USA 1994, or Red Star Belgrade winning an European cup. The moment a team like Porto won a Champion's league in 2004, their manager would be snapped up by a newly rich Chelsea, and he would buy up a few of his best players, then Deco would go to Barcelona, and Pedro Mendes to Tottenham. Arsenal similarly got dismantled, losing Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Ashley Cole soon after the Invincibles system. Leicester lost N'golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater after winning their title, although somehow they've managed to retain Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy.

There have been some nice underdog stories, such as Montpellier winning the French league, Iceland knocking England out of the Euros, Wales making a great run into the semi-finals. I enjoyed Chile building a great side – at least in the Copa America. (And hopefully Mexico goes deep in this World Cup). I liked Uruguay having some kind of a golden generation, with Diego Forlan overcoming his Man United misadventure to become a great striker, and Luis Suarez being a genuinely great footballer.

That said, you only have to compare the great footballers around the time of 2000 and compare that to now. Looking through the squads of Euro 2000, you had big personalities like Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Michael Ballack, Markus Babbel, Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Gheorghe Hagi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Fredrik Ljungberg, Hendrik Larsson, Rustu Recber, Hakan Sukur, Muzzy Izzet, Dejan Stanković, Predrag Mijatović, Siniša Mihajlović, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Zlatko Zahovič, Pep Guardiola, Fernando Hierro, Raul, Iker Casillas, Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Vladimir Smicer, Peter Schmeichel, Thomas Gravesen, Edwin Van Der Sar, Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, the de Boer brothers, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp and half of the French team. Elsewhere around the world, you had Javiet Zanetti, Pablo Aimar, Hernan Crespo, Diego Simeone, Juan Sebastian Veron, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Cafu and Gilberto Silva.

Football has always been a team sport, but nowadays people treat the footballers as cogs in the machine. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi are great because they helped to form a great machine. Somehow, over the years, the personalities of footballers are sanded over, or maybe they've just had to spout the same old media soundbites when they open their mouths.

I can hardly distinguish the players from each other. Ronaldo and Messi are the big names now. For whatever reason, maybe it's the culture, a lot of the players have become a lot more geeky, or they've been taught to be more disciplined and circumspect. It used to be that Balotelli was the clown prince of football, but after his nadir at Liverpool, he's mellowed down a lot. Pogba is a little flashy but on the field, I'm not exactly sure what it is he does. Jamie Vardy seems to have a personality, but he's just too marginal a figure. Neymar is talented but lives in the shadow of the other Brazil greats and is just plain unlikable. The only guy who reminds me of what football players used to be like is Luis Suarez.

Football has become more an analytical exercise, it's become less of a game with 22 people on the field, and more like a chessboard, where the real players are the managers who design the system. People start to discuss systems, or else they discuss the mental toughness of the players. People don't talk about individual flair anymore. The game has been about fine margins, about the shape or choreography of players.

Personally, I had been a big fan of football maybe during my last years in Singapore. I used to go down to a coffee shop late at night to watch a game on the TV, since from maybe the 2002 world cup onwards they started to put telecasts of the English Premier League behind paywalls. But I've started to look back on those days and wonder why I didn't do more productive things with my life back then.

Maybe I was rooting for the wrong club. Arsenal played the best and most attractive football with the Invincibles, and Arsene Wenger had a knack of always unearthing great players from every nook and cranny in the world. But the takeover of Chelsea with big money first ejected Arsenal from being real contenders at the EPL title, and later on the same thing with Man City put their position in the Champion's League places in peril. There was a season, 2007-2008 which promised so much, when it seemed that Arsenal were rejuvenating themselves. Sadly it all went to pieces. Player after player showed a flash of promise here and there and failed to reach the standards of their predecessors. Cesc Fabregas could play in the greatest Arsenal teams, but too many of them failed to make the cut. Hleb. Flamini. Denilson. Vela. Senderos. Walcott. Asharvin. Eboue. Bendtner. Aaron Ramsey. Then there were players who were half decent but were injured all the time, like Rosicky, Abou Diaby, Jack Wilshire, Eduardo, Vermaelen, Carzola, Van Persie. The goalkeepers were crap: Almunia, Fabianski and Szczęsny. Even Petr Cech became crap after joining Arsenal. Then there were people who left Arsenal for “bigger and better things” and ended up as squad members who didn't get games: Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna. There were players who were good in stretches, like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, but you wouldn't look at them twice now.

When I moved to America, it used to be a dream come true that you could just watch matches live on TV, until I got bored of it. There were too many things missing.

First, I always thought it was wrong that you would identify with a club that wasn't your hometown club. After Singapore left the Malaysia cup, that was probably the beginning of the end. Maybe Singapore's 4 ASEAN championships glossed it over for a while.

Second, maybe football looked more exciting when other people were discussing it, and you felt left out. But it was pretty meaningless when you found yourself staring at the green screen and you feel like you've seen it all before.

Third, there was just not atmosphere around football. You'd get some dude wearing a Liverpool shirt, but you'd get a blank stare when you start to talk about Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman.

Also, I wonder what I might have achieved if I weren't watching football all the time. Perhaps I'd have learnt more engineering. Perhaps I'd have formed a band and made music. Maybe I'm growing older and getting appalled at what I was up to when I had more time and energy than today.

Football in a way is something that reflects the working class. Perhaps there used to be some dignity of the working glass, but to be forever interested in some kind of a game for more than 10 years in a row is maybe pushing it. To be content with football is a bit like being content with a working class life, being a slave to the grind, doing the same thing year in year out.

You've seen it all before, the penalty box pinballs. The goalkeeper howlers. The beautiful cross field passes. The threading the ball through the eye of a needle. The offside trap defying passes. The incredible weighted passes. Maybe there's become nothing new in this world.

Maybe there is a sadness about the fates of the great footballers. Maradona, even in his best days, was a parody of a human being. Now he's a parody of even that, forever a party animal, chasing one last kick, one last high. Fat Ronaldo, who everybody loves, is just an oversized fat hulk now. Ronaldinho has flattered to deceive for so long you're starting to wonder if you were just seeing things when he did his party tricks. Xavi, one half of the Spanish metronome, has retired. Iniesta has admitted to suffering from depression at some point in his life. Cristiano Ronaldo is this narcissistic adonis everybody loves to hate. Messi is the boy wonder who didn't manage to grow up, who flubbed at the world cup finals, and 2 Copa America finals. Johann Cryuff is this rare player who became as great a manager as he was a player, but he ended up picking arguments with just about everybody in his life.

Or maybe it's just this knowledge that football is nothing more than some fancy shop window dressing, a promise of something impossibly glamorous, the idea that your soul could be, for one glorious, brilliant moment, united with thousands of other souls. Maybe it was the joy of watching adults behave like kids on a playground, and getting massively overpaid for it.

Or maybe it was something that had a little more meaning in my life, when I used to play street soccer.

Ultimately, though, I'm starting to understand why my father and his siblings used to be football fans and then gave it up. You have to be a member of a fan club. You have to be in some kind of a church. Otherwise it doesn't really mean anything.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Training safety in the SAF

Why we don't have a good safety culture.

lousy attitude towards manual labour
After leaving the SAF, I went to work at the factory. I've found that operational efficiency takes a back seat to workplace safety. It was a recipe for disaster. Workplace injuries were sometimes covered up. Deaths were sometimes met with a shrug. I saw people sometimes have to hobble around in a cast. It was probably bad in the old days, and it's not really improved at all since colonial days. The bad old days were the bad old days, before we had modern technologies. But since then, the work force started to become almost exclusively foreign workers, and there was less incentive to do good by them than for citizens.

lousy attitude towards national service
To be sure, I'm now grateful towards the SAF because it was my induction to the working class. It introduced me to working class people, working class attitudes. Before that, we were a bunch of bratty privileged students from prominent schools. I always had this attitude that I was biding my time, that national service had nothing to do with who I was as an adult, that I would leave that place and find myself in a situation that more closely resembled what JC and secondary school was like.

The worst part about the timing of national service is this: it's when you make the first of two transitions from JC into adulthood. There's one transition from JC to uni, it is a big one, and a second one from uni to the work force. National service, depending on how you look at it, either smoothens the transition for the first one, or it disrupts it. I felt that it disrupted it, but looking back, unit life should have prepared me to think seriously about what it meant to be a young adult.

Now, many of the guys are probably more than a little resentful that they're supposed to be in there while the ladies just go into university right after JC.

strict chain of command structure
The military is a hierarchical structure, and as it turns out, it's not democratic at all. Every layer is the judge, jury and executioner of the layer directly underneath them. You are not encouraged to bring your issues to a higher level, and there have known to be retribution towards people who have reported. When I was in the basic military training, I made two mistakes. One of them was that I asked an uncle, an old sergeant major, what he could help me with. He paid me a visit to the company line. I didn't understand what that accomplished, and did it make things worse? Another mistake was that I had left a training manual at home. Then my mother drove up to the camp and asked that it would be delivered to me. OK, I know you're cringing. That was really stupid. My PC tore a strip off me for that.

But there is a code that's pretty hostile towards whistle-blowers. A lot of the time, commanders just don't want to hear your problems. And a lot of the time, there is a good cop bad cop routine going on, whereby your sergeants tekan you, and the officers are more civil to you, but it was the officers who directed the sergeants to tekan.

No legal ramifications
The ability for conscripts to seek redress for training injuries is pretty limited. I don't think that people will sue the SAF and get what they want. I think it might be a problem if the army is sued left right and center, and the loss of a suit might just be a drain on govt money. But there is a lack of accountability and people just think that they can tekan their own soldiers as hard as they want.

viewing the SAF more as an operational organisation rather than a training organisation.
The SAF was an organisation that pretends to play a role in the defence in Singapore. One could quibble at this comment, but for me, if you're not fighting a war, if you're not regularly participating in real military campaigns, you're just pretending to be an army. There is a case to be made for Singapore's army to be extremely kiasee and never ever engaging in foreign adventures. (Although sometimes I wonder why this has to be). We don't have battle hardened troops. If we were to go up against the more experienced soldiers of our neighbours, we might not be able to defeat them.

But when we have “operational” troops in peacetime, this means that we don't have them engaging in missions where the outcome can be accurately judged. This aspect of the SAF is widely known and we often make fun of SAF personnel for this.

However, if we were to make training the main focus of the SAF, or at least we don't treat it as a second class task of the SAF, we put the emphasis more on doing activities where we can assess the outcomes. That means that training safety is put as an objective which is as important as “operational readiness”. (Operational readiness is in quotations because there's no way of knowing what it really is until somebody comes in to invade us).

To be sure, the incident in the Tuas View fire station is the civil defence, and they are most certainly an operational unit. And in a way that just makes this disregard for the well being of a fellow soldier (they are firemen but firemen are sorda soldiers) all the more unforgivable.

Sadistic 20 year olds training 19 year olds
Let's face it, a bunch of kids right out of JC or right out of Poly aren't necessarily going to be paragons of virtue. And they're barely aware of training safety, not experienced, and possibly not interested in very much other than finding out the limits of their newfound power.

Lousy communication skills
A lot of the sergeants or the training staff are not great teachers. They're speaking in English, and therefore not speaking in their most natural language. A lot of them have signed up as NCOs because for somebody of their socio-economic status, that is the best livelihood they could aspire to. And they were literally selected for their lack of faculty in English.

Of course, we all have memories of a few of those NCOs who are gifted teachers and storytellers, the ones who always get their message across so well we remember them years later. But we're not exactly ensuring that every single time, the message that needs to get through gets through .

Short term tenure of commanders.
The problem with a lot of the civil service is that those earmarked for great career progression are rotated through the ranks.

Attitudes towards injuries
There are a lot of false positives when it comes to training injuries. We are a conscript army, so we know that all the medical excuses that all the baby boomer presidents of the United States have come up with are all bullshit. Bill Clinton dodging the draft, George W Bush miraculously serving in the national guard, Donald Trump with bone spurs after attending a military academy. We call this chow keng.

And the proliferation of these malingerers make it very difficult for the trainers to figure out which injuries are genuine. Unfortunately, a lot of the injuries are genuine, and if the commanders think that you're faking it, and they push you back into training, that's too bad for you I guess. The fact that they'll never be held responsible for your sustaining permanent damage just makes it a little harder to take it.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Ten or Twenty Raffles Institutions

Something new has come up in Singapore. One of those issues is that people are wondering if Raffles Institution should be elitist. As with economic outcomes, on one hand we desire equality of outcomes, and on the other hand, we are concerned that when we strive too hard for equality of outcomes, the quality of the school – especially the one at the top – suffers.

It's been a tenet for a long time that RI is the elite school in Singapore. It's been around for almost 200 years, even if you consider that for the first 10 years it wasn't exactly active. It's one of the top feeder schools to Oxbridge, probably in the top 10, together with other schools like Eton.

As a person who has attended RI, here's the list of advantages you get from going there. (And this is on hindsight, because if you were to ask me when I was there donkey years ago, I wouldn't have been able to come up with this list.)

1. Classmates of high socio-economic status
2. Smarter classmates
3. Good ECA records
4. Name recognition when it comes to elite university admissions. (Although this will not help you much in getting into NUS)
5. More enrichment programs
6. Less disruptive environment. (It's not true to say that RI pupils aren't naughty, they're as bad as everybody else. But we do this in a way that doesn't affect our grades.)

There is this question about whether you're going to be a small fish in the ocean or a big fish in a small fishbowl. If you're a big fish in a small fishbowl, you never know – you could have gone to RI and found out that you're not just a big fish, you're a whale in the ocean.

But here's the flaw in the logic when it comes to RI being the best school:

RI takes in the highest scorers from the PSLE. Then these pupils are placed in an environment where all the ECAs are excellent, most of the students are excellent, the teachers – well they don't have to do that much to push the students, because the students can do it to each other. They have the best chances of getting into the best schools, they'll tell each other about all the opportunities there are out there. There's every possibility that a “mafia” will form up.

There are two problems that you can see already: first, this is about entry into a relatively closed and tightly knit group. And secondly, PSLE score is supposedly the criterion for entry into this tightly knit group.

Sometimes I wonder if this group can be widened. I don't think the problem is about RI people like ourselves getting the opportunities that we've been getting. The problem is about many other equally deserving people out there who aren't getting those opportunities. I don't know if there's a problem with expanding those programs to a larger number of people. Maybe elite programs don't scale up well. Your pre-U seminars, your Creative Arts Programs, your Science Research programs. But you should be exploring those things.

Another issue is that education is too narrowly focused on university admissions. University, or elite university is not for everyone. Ideally Singapore should be a kind of place where there are some trade schools that lead you to a path to success. (And you define what “success” is). They can be trained in setting up businesses, they can be accredited engineers, technical staff, foremen, coders. You can push them towards path that don't require universities. You don't need a degree to be an SAF officer. You can push people onto that track. SAF officers won't ever have careers as fulfilling as SAFOS scholars, but they won't necessarily be having shit lives either.

Do you need university degrees to be chefs, entrepreneurs, businessmen, operations managers? Not really. But what you need, in any case, is a passion to excel, you need soft skills, you need mental strength and character.

I thought about the RI education I had, the parts that were great. Interesting classmates. Thoughtful discussions. Gruelling physical feats. Exposure to the arts. Exposure to science and mathematics. I want to keep all those things intact, and I don't really want RI to lose what made it great.

And then I think about the parts of RI which were not so great. The public image we were asked to show to the world. It's not true that RI is really cruel to people who were struggling, but it was all tough love. If you weren't measuring up, people would scream at you, but they weren't necessarily going to pick you up when you fell.

At RI you could choose to excel at many ECAs, so maybe that was great. I'm still a little miffed that it was almost impossible to indulge in one or two of my favourite past times. But I managed to participate in a few things that I wasn't necessarily suited for, and I had to stretch myself in the process. It was weird. There were guys who never really fit in, but then later went on to be successful businessmen, or leading figures in Singapore's art scene. So that was the paradox of RI during my day: there were so many avenues for you to fit in, and somehow there were people who still didn't fit in.

So imagine how many RIs Singapore could have if we got better at bringing out the talents of all the students? I still remember Fandi Ahmad telling the story about how he got turned away from the gates of RI for having long hair. Who looks like an ass?

I credit RI with helping me stretch myself and discover abilities I never knew I had. Then again, I wish it could have been even more flexible. RI just wasn't good at teaching their students to empathise with other people. We produced a few good businessmen but I think that was in spite of his going to RI, rather than because of it.

We don't seem to be that short of people becoming critics of the government, though. So at least RI has done more than its fair share of producing rebellious people.

Up till the 1980s, RI was known as the elite government school. It was a place that took people of all backgrounds, and had no elite feeder primary school. It was non-sectarian, and not explicitly associated with any of the elite groups in Singapore. It was Singapore's school (actually for a long time it was Singapore's only school.) I wish they would remember this aspect of its own history.

It would be a great thing if you could build a more limited elite. Raffles Institution shouldn't be the top school year in year out. Instead, the top 10, or the top 20 schools should be operating on a relatively equal level. And it'd be better for your top students if you forced them to compete against each other instead of just pumping all the best ECA / enrichment programs to just 4 or 5 schools. You should challenge all the students to find their own way in life, or at least think of the day that would come when their academic achievements in school stopped counting for anything. So while you still wanted everybody to strive for the best grades, they had to balance that objective with some other things, and you challenged them to find for themselves what that some other thing would be.

What would these 20 schools be? You'd probably have the usual suspects (RI/RGS, HCI, ACS), maybe a few of the SAP schools, maybe even one madrassah to even things out.

One model, but that model is at the university level, is the University of California. You had Berkeley, who has always been the crown jewel of the system. And it seemed for a while that UCLA would be the only other well known school. But the other campuses in San Diego, Irvine, Santa Barbara, Davis and San Francisco would also excel in research. There were 3 layers in the California system, the University of California system, the second tier California State University system, and the Community Colleges. But the California system allowed people to transfer from a lower to a higher tier, so as to allow the best and the brightest a chance to move on up. And this always kept everybody else on their toes. It also meant that instead of having just 1 or 2 world class public universities, California has 5 or 6.

What we don't want is a system that people of higher socio-economic status can game. They can pump their kids with tuition all the way up till primary 6, and PSLE becomes a hurdle that you can only cross when you are really bright and really wealthy. Then there is a perpetuating class system.

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