Go with a smile!

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.


Blogger yeng chan said...

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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.


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.


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.


Saturday, April 07, 2018

Emotional shelter

I saw this article about parents being concerned about how their kids saw the world. There was this parent who thought that climate change was going to make this world a terrible one for people to live in. Then they started wondering about how they were going to break this news to their kids.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of a parent I would have been. And I'm starting to realise, with a start, that I may not ever get to find out, because the time window for me to be a parent is closing fast. I know what kind of parents I had.

First of all, I remember an article that I read somewhere, that said that the first two most important job of parenting is to provide material security and provide a sense of structure in the life of a child. There is no doubt that my parents have done this. In many ways, our lives were better than that of the ones they lived in their childhood. And yet....

I don't really think that my parents would have been that protective of me. In a way that's good, in a way that's bad. My mother's never hid her feud with my grandmother away from me. (My grandmother was living with us). My father never hid from me how tough his childhood was. They never stopped telling me that my adulthood was going to tough. (I'm an adult now and I'm a little surprised at how I don't get fucked in the ass every day like they said I was going to be.) They were never shy about pointing out my faults to me, that I wasn't gentle, that I couldn't relate to people. (Yet they never took any concrete action to correct any of these faults. That was really frustrating.)

They weren't terribly great at building up a rapport with either myself or my sister. Maybe living with my grandma didn't help. But they were genuinely clueless. My father was a good man, decent, hardworking, always trying to do the right thing. But I had a distant relationship with him. He wanted to be a good person, but he was just bad at communicating with people.

My mother... you know what, I'm going to list down the dickheaded things she did when we were young.

After she gave birth to me, she had post-natal depression. I don't know for sure, but it definitely seemed like it. She got into a big argument with my grandmother and then she ran away from home. A few hours later, my father went out to get her back. But her relationship with my grandmother would be tarnished for a long time.

She liked to see herself as being pretty. Young mothers still hadn't lost their youthful looks. When I was five, that was when my childhood memories were wearing off. She cornered me in a room, and asked me who was more pretty, Miss World or me. I couldn't get away, so I said that it was her. But that was some weird shit. Eventually, after some thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that it was very weird. But five year old kids shouldn't have to figure it out on their own.

There was this time when we moved to a place with low rise condos. The children would be out there, playing in the courtyard, and there was this French boy 1 or 2 years older than me, who would beat me and twist my arms. Then I was a little surprised when she scolded me for playing with our next door neighbour, and said that I should have been playing with the French boy instead.

There was this other time before we moved into the low rise condo, when we were still staying in a HDB flat. We were waiting for the lift, we stayed 1 storey away from the lift. She was going to send me to school. Then she was missing. I didn't know where she had gone. I waited for a while, and after 5-10 minutes, I was about to panic and start crying. (I was 6 at that time). Then she walked out from behind a pillar, she was just playing a prank on me. I stopped crying instead. I wasn't even mad. I remember that my dominant thought was “my mother is an idiot”.

Neither of my parents spoke Mandarin. They were English educated, but they spoke dialects, and yet they failed to teach that to me. (And in a way it was also my fault for not paying close enough attention) but when I grew up, not knowing my dialect was an everlasting source of regret. But here's why the Speak Mandarin campaign was a failure: I was lousy at Chinese. I made some effort to be good enough to be able to get “A”s in the classes, but if you've been through the Singapore education system, you'd know that getting “A”s in Chinese doesn't mean anything in the way of proficiency. They weren't going out of their way to master Chinese along with me, they had Chinese tuition classes for me – the only subject where I ever had outside classes, and it was always our fault that we weren't good at Chinese.

My parents pushed me hard. At one point in my life, I had swimming classes, Chinese tuition, art classes and piano classes. There's nothing wrong with this, but it was stressful. You could say that I lack ambition in life because I was simply tired of all this. If you don't know how to manage your relationship with your kids when you're pushing them like this, you will run into problems.

Generally I was able to cope, although there was quite a bit of drama, especially when it came to practicing the piano. It was tiring being called a failure for not doing well in something you never wanted to do. These things took a toll on you - screwing up over and over, and then being told over and over that you were screwing up. Sometimes I wonder if my mother really loved me, or whether she loved that I had academic achievements that she could go tell all her friends about.

People who know me in life know that I have a thick skin. Many of you would probably be cringing at these stories. I only crumbled or wilted under this rarely. But it probably affected my ability to relate to other people. I don't think I really had the opportunity to have normal relationships with other people.

I think I was coping, but there were a lot of things that I couldn't talk to my parents about – unhappy relationships with the piano teacher, with a few of my friends. I wasn't a bullied kid, but there were one or two incidents where I was humiliated in public, and I wasn't able to discuss these things with them. There was a bit of lying here and there. I wasn't allowed to play computer games but I did it anyway, and I learnt to listen out for the car pulling up in the driveway so that I could shut the computer off before my mother came into the house and walked upstairs. That was just not a great kind of relationship. They never got to hear about my first crush. They never got to hear about my first romance.

My mother pushed me very hard until I was a teenager, and the year that I turned 13, she sensed that I was getting sick and tired of her, so there was a whole year of tekaning. And at the end of it, she saw that there was no effect, and so she gave up. Well she also got tired of me throwing chairs around in the house. After she gave up, everything became better, I enjoyed school more, and my grades went back up.

There were the endless nagging sessions. While this wasn't necessarily the same thing as rape, there was a marked reluctance to take no for an answer.

Still, I'd also be lying if I told you it was a terrible childhood. There were plenty of good times. It was just merely good when it could have been fantastic.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Peace, prosperity and economic progress

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

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


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Phases of the English Premier League

Manchester City have a plan for global dominance.

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

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

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

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

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

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