Go with a smile!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

How Society Falls Apart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting times.


Friday, September 29, 2017

Rise of China (and its impact on Singapore)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Works Well With Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, April 01, 2017

Patriarchal and Tribal Racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, January 19, 2017

5 years

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

Interesting things have happened to me every 5 years.

When I was 5, I started my music education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Real Time Update

sieteocho's sister
11/8, 7:24pm

holy shit

it's not looking good

11/8, 7:25pm

I know.

Can you imagine if Hillary needs Nevada to win?

11/8, 7:31pm

The last few precincts will usually go to Hillary since larger precincts are in urban areas.

11/8, 7:37pm

oh god

this looks terrible

i think i should stop watching

11/8, 8:53pm

oh my freaking god

i have to say that i couldn't believe when i chatted with folks how many people actually knew people who voted for trump

ohio is lost

florida and NC are losing ...

11/8, 8:55pm

Didn't I tell you that my housemate is voting for Trump?

11/8, 8:55pm

yeah but the people i'm talking about are our generation

or younger

11/8, 8:56pm

Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn.

11/8, 8:56pm

and i mean well-educated seemingly-thoughtful

11/8, 8:56pm

Hillary needs all three. It's down to them now.

11/8, 8:56pm

michigan and wisconsin are losing

11/8, 8:57pm

There's usually a late surge for Hillary, so we'll know by midnight.

11/8, 8:57pm

can you imagine if california loses?!

we chewed one of our co-residents out for dating someone who voted trump

we thought she should have broken up with him for doing that


how about virginia? does that count?

11/8, 9:01pm

That's already factored in.

So no count.

11/8, 9:01pm

we don't even know if she'll win VA

it's really close

11/8, 9:02pm

She's already won VA

She'll win CA

She'll win the West Coast.

Main thing now is Penn, Michigan, Wisconsin.

States that were supposed to be "safe" but they're full of Trump kind of ppl.

11/8, 9:08pm

she has already won CA

and oregon

shit. the forecast is already >95% trump

why the hell is michigan voting red?

11/8, 9:10pm

My bosses were talking in the hallway for quite a while today.

11/8, 9:11pm

are they going to relocate?

11/8, 9:11pm

Because the rural areas of Michigan are deeply unhappy ppl.

White ppl who have lost their jobs. Trump kind of ppl.

11/8, 9:11pm

north carolina is gone

why the hell is new hampshire voting red?

11/8, 9:12pm

Wait, what?

11/8, 9:12pm

yeah new hampshire is currently pink

iowa which was baby blue for a bit has now turned pink

11/8, 9:15pm

To be honest, I just thought it would be close.

11/8, 9:16pm

yeah i really didn't imagine he would actually win

11/8, 9:16pm

I didn't think Trump would win this but I refused to say it out loud.

11/8, 9:16pm

i guess i just wasn't allowing myself to thinkt hat

11/8, 9:16pm

The FBI director....

11/8, 9:16pm

i couldn't fathom the possibility that people would be so DUMB


oh my god

and we were laughing at brexit



oh my god people are so DUMB@@#$@#$#@!

erm btw washington is currently pink

but i think the area around seattle hasn't been counted yet

she's going to lose wisconsin. only one precint hasn't been counted and it looks like it's in the boonies.

ok i'm going to stop watching

11/8, 9:22pm

Long way to go.

11/8, 9:22pm

stupid americans

freaking stupid

why am i even working for them


11/8, 9:23pm

You're working for the blue America. It's the red America that's stupid.

11/8, 9:23pm

i'm working for ALL AMERICANS


that's what happens when you swear by the hippocratic oath

11/8, 9:24pm

You're working mainly for Americans living within 10, 20 miles of (REDACTED).

11/8, 9:24pm

that's why i prefer taking care of kids

cos i don't have to know what they are going to grow up to be like

11/8, 10:16pm

ah shit. PA just turned pink.

11/8, 10:33pm

ok she won nevada and new hamsphire

but losing michigan

i wonder if PA will be recounted

oh she hasn't won new hampshire yet ... not that it's very big

11/8, 10:39pm

argh PA is losing

ok i'm going to jump now

11/8, 11:25pm

You're good.

The US could be in a war and you'd stillhave a job.

The sky could fall and you'd still have a job.

11/8, 11:26pm

PA is losing

11/8, 11:26pm

That's because you're a doctor.

So don't worry too much.

11/8, 11:26pm

PA is lost

11/8, 11:27pm

Hillary made a huge mistake in not campaigning in the midwest during the last 2 weeks.

11/8, 11:27pm

How the hell are people so dumb?

yeah i was just thinking that

11/8, 11:27pm

How the hell is Hillary so dumb?

11/8, 11:27pm

obama actually put a tonne of effort into the midwest i remember

he went to michigan, ohio, ... he campaigned a lot there

america just totally acted out my subconscious thoughts

which is of course that clinton was never a very likeable person

but people are too irrational to realize that voting against her would be far worse than voting for or just not voting

11/8, 11:29pm

Let's see what Trump can do in 4 years.

My biggest worry is that now that Obama has set the country onto a certain course, Trump might even get a second term.

11/8, 11:30pm

can't believe this

11/8, 11:55pm





11/8, 11:59pm

You want to go home?

11/8, 11:59pm



Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Avoidant Dismissive

One of the strangest memories I've had was watching into my mother's room. She was crying. I knew why she was crying, but I didn't really talk to her about it. I looked inside, just caught a glimpse, and then walked off.

This was when I was back in Singapore for a break during a winter vacation when I was studying at Snowy Hill. I had been away from Singapore for 18 months, and that was a record at that time. In fact, right now, I've been away from almost twice as long, almost 3 years. But somehow I feel like I've lived longer during those 18 months than these three years.

Those 18 months encompassed the entirety of the whole codfish episode. Somehow that was the last time I had been emotionally involved with a woman, and it was a very very long time ago, more than 15 years. That's half a generation. Now, I'm older. I have peers whose kids are turning into teenagers.

The codfish episode did not end well. Today I'll look back upon it and realize that it was an impossibility to be involved with a person like her, that even if I were flawed in some way, she was even worse, and she had to be resigned to a life of being alone. She was a very attractive woman. Took care of herself very well. Maybe a 9 or a 10 in her youth. Right now, maybe 8. I spent a lot of time wondering how on earth I managed to hold her attention for that long. And I spent too long holding on – not really holding on, but wasting time in the wilderness not moving on to the next big thing. But that was the flip side of things – hers was a classic case of narcissistic personality disorder. And it's really unfortunate that some of the most attractive women are going to be like that: these are the people who are extra motivated to take care of themselves, take care of their own appearances. But they're definitely not the best people to have as girlfriends.

So whatever happened has been talked about elsewhere. Where does my mother come into all this? Well, I've also had a difficult relationship with my mother. In a way I'm lucky and in a way not so lucky: I was the favoured child. My mother liked me more than my sister. But in a way it wasn't great, because she wasn't the greatest person to be around.

I'm not that sure that she really cared about anybody else. It was just so difficult to be around her. She had her own insecurities, and, like the older generation of Singaporeans, she grew up in an environment that wasn't really free. It was a parochial place that clamped down on non-conformity. She had one physical defect that I will not describe here, but it must have affected her. She was in between things. She was a second generation Singaporean, and my grandparents from her side were from China. They didn't learn English. Of the five children, she was the middle child, and maybe she felt left out.

And I may have talked about her ongoing problems with her mother in law over here. So here you go: it was tough for me growing up. She's probably the reason why I would rate my childhood as maybe 7 out of 10 instead of 10 out of 10.

I don't always like to talk about her. You can always complain about the disadvantages in life. And you can always overcome them. You can't completely blame your parents if they didn't teach you everything: if you are smart enough and determined enough, you'll learn those things anyway. You can always fight for better things and make your way around.

The one thing that your parents can help you with, that nobody can, is teaching you how to love, how to be comfortable with another human being. That's the one thing that is very difficult to pick up on if they didn't manage to instill it in you. It's also possible that you'll find it outside of your family, but less likely. It's not true that all the adults in my life were like my mother, but she has a special talent for sucking the life out of the place once she steps into a room.

That is not to say that I didn't have any of the blame for that. It's entirely possible that it's not just that she's got a heart of stone, but I've got one too. And for those of you who have read far enough into the blog, you probably have already guessed as much. It's entirely possible that the two of us just bring out the worst in each other.

Here's what my mother was really crying about. At the beginning of my going to college, we had an argument, and then she blew up at something and threatened to disowned me. I was pretty rocked by that and then I responded by writing a very tearful letter to her. But that was probably the last ever time I would say something like that, and possibly after writing that letter, something in me snapped and – well, she's always going to be my mother but at most she's going to be an acquaintance. We had plenty of opportunities to forge a great relationship but it never happened. And maybe she had very high hopes for some kind of a reconciliation but it would never materialize. This was 2.5 years later, when I would learn the meaning of being in a relationship, and subsequently learn the meaning of heartbreak. My mother always told me that if I were to find a girlfriend, I'd have to tell her about it. I didn't. I talked about codfish to a few other relatives, but not my mother, and she found out indirectly. That was what she was crying about.

So as I watched her – rather, walked past her room on my way to mine – I might have been a little more sorry for her. But I didn't really feel much. I was too wrapped up in my own emotions, because this was when I was barely getting over her.

The other reason was that I was angry at my mother. When that relationship was over, I had to hang on to something in order to cope. I realized that I had nothing. When things were going badly in a relationship, I knew that I had to hang on to something, and I realized that I didn't have anything. I knew that if I wanted to give my heart to somebody else, I would have the confidence to do it, until that person gave hers back to me. But I had to have something in the store in order for that to happen, and I did not have it. And it wasn't very often that I got really really angry with my mother but that was the one time that I was really mad at her.

The fact that it was winter somehow really resonated with me. It was supposed to be winter in Snowy Hill. It wasn't winter in Singapore, of course. But it was monsoon season and raining every day. There was something really awkward about this. I had been out on a date with codfish just before the start of the 18 months. And the real drama took place over those 18 months: 12 months of drama, and then 6 months of dealing with the aftermath and pain. And after those 6 months, and after breaking up, and all those wonderful things we said over the internet, and all the horrible things we said over the internet, get this – we were going out for dinner, face to face, for only the second time. I swear, you couldn't really make this up if you tried.

So there was this theme of frozenness. It was fall in Snowy Hill when we started exchanging greetings and we were getting more and more involved with each other. Then it turned into winter when our late night chats (morning for her, I presume) were at the most passionate and heated. And it was summer when everything fell apart, when we decided that too many mean things were spoken to each other. At the same time, I didn't have a very great social life at Snowy Hill. I was learning everything I could lay my hands on, which was nice, but there's that word again – being frozen in my interactions with people. It's a funny thing about the architecture of Snowy Hill – it's a place with plenty of snow and plenty of bridges. There was something that occurred to me as I was going through my first winter, with all the icy wind in my face, and the quietness of small town America. That place is basically the polar opposite of Singapore. As wintry as Singapore is tropical, as land locked as Singapore is coastal, as remote as Singapore is well connected, as White as Singapore is Asian. But the chilliness of the environment was quite meditative, and also it inadvertently brought into relief that my heart was as frozen as my surroundings, even as I was holding forth on an imaginary relationship that was going on in cyberspace.

Attachment theory states that there are different forms of emotional insecurity. My sister brought this to my attention one day, and we agreed that while she was of the anxious-preoccupied type, and mine was the dismissive-avoidant type. It's borne out that my sis had gone through anywhere up to 10 ultimately unsuccessful attempts at romantic relationships, and I have gone through a grand total of 0, unless you count in codfish, but she doesn't count anyway. But yes, I'm the dismissive avoidant type. The cold, chilly, heartless exterior, until I lose control of my emotions and end up murdering everybody in the room.

It's not that my mother's a completely rotten person: she's not. She can be conscientious. She put a lot of effort into parenting. She pushed me hard to succeed. But I don't think she really loved me, and she certainly wasn't generous with her emotions. And she was such a quarrelsome troublemaker with my grandmother. One thing, though, she's taught me to be patient with flawed people. She's a person that you'd look at and either see half a glass full or half a glass empty.

And people look at me and tell me that I resemble her rather than my father. Fair enough. But whatever I do I just try to always always make sure that the father half of me has the upper hand over the mother half of me. And failing that, at least to make sure that the parts of myself that I really don't like about my mother are properly reined in and safely tucked away.