Go with a smile!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Striving for Excellence

Something that Shanmugaratnam said is true.

When I was a student in school, every year there were plenty of people who did special papers. Most did 1 or 2, but a few, 1 or 2 in the school, aspired to do 3 special papers instead of 2. Naturally, because of the advantage having 3 special papers gave you in scholarships, more than 1 or 2 aspired to 3 “S” papers, but they decided that only very few would do 3 “S” papers.

I thought this was dumb, even though I wasn’t one of those who aspired to 3 “S” papers. I thought that peoples’ potential were unfairly limited. But now I think that it’s a good thing, because it’s bad enough that people should spend all their time studying, you shouldn’t encourage this sort of thing.

It’s alright to limit people striving for better and better grades. I think that exams are there solely for the purpose of sorting out the chaff from the wheat. Other than that, there is not much purpose at all. I’m not even sure that it’s really an education. I don’t really know if having perfect scores for your major exams is excellence.

The problem with this notion is that when you sit for an exam, 100 marks is the upper limit. But in real life, there are no limits. In real life, you have to run and run until you are exhausted and have to stop.

So we come to the first problem about excellence in Singapore. We live in a closeted place. We were force fed stuff from the very beginning, and there wasn’t a whole lot of people asking us what we wanted. That is a very big problem. Excellence is mainly achieved by people who have already found their niche. There’s not much encouragement for people to find their niche. Everybody takes all subjects, and are assessed on all subjects. What is taught are the facts. But often the facts are distilled from a lot of knowledge, and they are derived of context.

You will never excel in the real world by doing a lot of what people do in school. Nobody gives you prizes for being the best at mugging, except in school. And being the best in that field is a joyless thing. So people put a cap on how much you want to mug. If you don’t put that cap – well you end up with a whole generation of hikikomori.

In contrast, the real world is – well, a world unto itself. Everything has its place. You don’t get to pick and choose which skills you need to have: what you don’t have, you’d better learn. You have to work with others. You have to understand the way things work, outside of an academic context.

From the classroom environment, it is quite hard to teach people what it’s like to be great. What it’s like to excel in the real world. In the classroom, books are king. Thinking is privileged over doing. In the real world, it’s the other way around: doing is king. Now that I’ve grown older, I’ve looked around me and realised that those classmates of mine who became captains of their respective ECAs have made a better go of it at life.

When I was a student in school, people were encouraged to work hard, and they did. People aspired to get As and they did. But there was a lot of bitching about how people “spoilt the market” if you aspired to a level of excellence beyond that. If you studied all the time you were a “chao mugger”. Even the nerds were calling each other that.

I think, this is Asian society. In some ways we don’t like people who stand out too much. Yes, we are also greatly influenced by the west. So we have this fascination about people who dare to be different. There was one or two people who tried to be different, and when they were talked about, it was with a curious mix of contempt and reverence.

Then, here, we have the second problem: excellence, or being outstanding, is, in part, exceptionalism. This exceptionalism is not as well tolerated in Singapore as it may be in some other societies. It has been said that entrepreneurism has never been very well tolerated in Japan as it has been in other countries: if you fail in Japan, everybody will shun you. If you fail in California, everybody takes it as par for the course. That’s why there are many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, but none in Japan.

A third stumbling block is people’s attitudes towards excellence. Singapore is nothing if not intensely practical. People privilege face, social status. The monkish austerity of an excellence seeker ploughing a lonely furrow – a little frowned upon. People instinctively understand if you were to feather your nest. Everybody does that. Better to be a manager, living off people’s work, than to be the engineer doing that work. Eye power, vision. That’s the thing. Better to be a pimp than a prostitute.

Because people are generally more concerned about what you can get out of the system than what you can put in. That’s why, as you can read in the comments, when Tharman asked for excellence, everybody interpreted that in the sense of “here’s my boss telling me to just work harder for him”. They don’t think of it in terms of “being excellent makes me a better person. It makes me a real man.” That’s the problem with Chinese culture. It lies with how work is appropriated. In Chinese society, you instinctively know that your boss gets all the credit anyway. Yes, China is a great civilisation. We invented gunpowder, paper and the compass. Who invented those things? History doesn't record. Nobody pursuing excellence gets his just credit.

In Western culture, they respect the great artist, the great scientist. Kings? Fuck them. In Chinese culture, they respect the king. You shake hands with Queen Elizabeth, but you kowtow to the Chinese Emperor.

So don’t bother striving for excellence. Don’t bother trying to take humanity forward. China does not regard itself as the vanguard of humanity. China is for China. Don’t bother being a Leonardo da Vinci. Be a king, and make other people kowtow to you. That is the only way you will ever be remembered.

Who was the most entrepreneurial person in Western History? Christopher Columbus. And he was deified. In contrast, our Admiral Zheng He is just a eunuch working for the emperor.

That is why I fear that China will grow to a certain size, and break all speed records in getting itself up to the middle class, and then stagnate there for the rest of her existence. Like Zheng He’s magnificent voyages to Southeast Asia, to India, even to East Africa. Then after that, you fucking burn those ships because the emperor’s had enough. China will shoot itself in the foot because it has done so before. If you want an entrepreneurial culture then it will be something foreign and novel to Chinese culture. It’s not impossible but don’t count on it happening.

A fourth reason is that Singapore is a big city but it has a small town mentality. Singapore is a small market, no matter what. If you make it big here, you will still have a problem going beyond these shores to do something overseas. It is way too easy to denigrate what Singaporeans have achieved. It’s too easy to have existential crises, too easy to put down your own fellow countryman. And way too difficult to change peoples’ mindset about this. Whenever you set up a shop, you need to trick people into thinking that it’s an international brand from overseas. Therefore you have Watson’s from Hong Kong. Ferrero Rocher from Hong Kong. Delifrance from Singapore. Haach from Singapore.

A most obvious reason, actually, can be gleaned from the comments that have been made at the bottom of the article. People are asking, “Why are our ministers earning so much?” rather than asking what they can do to become a great entrepreneur. People are complaining that facilities are less than stellar. Being a complainer is more or less the opposite of being an entrepreneur.



Monday, October 25, 2010

Burger King

This started one Saturday in August. Somewhat out of character, I followed my parents to the market to help them do their shopping. Then we got home. There was a wedding at a block near my place: somebody was honking the groom’s car, who made his arrival at the bride’s place known to the entire neighbourhood. I picked up the papers and I saw this advertisement, there was going to be an information session for a Master’s degree at NUS that I wanted to enter. I was divided on whether to go. I took a nap instead.

1 hour from that information session, my father woke me up and said he saw that ad, would I be interested in going for that info session. I said hell yeah. On the way there, I almost crashed the car and my father was screaming at me for 5 minutes afterwards. I just kept quiet and told myself, “60 year old men get tired of screaming after 5 minutes”. I was right.

At the info session, I got to chat with one of the profs who was doing artificial intelligence. I don’t know if that was a lucky thing. But he’s almost certainly one of the people who got to review my application later, and it was good luck for me if I managed to swing it this way.

First thing I did was to change the email address and my name on facebook so that I could not be searched.

My immediate task was to get a letter. I could have approached any of my old bosses for help. But I had discussed this matter with another former colleague and he told me his gut feel was that they weren’t very good letter writers. You should not ask a letter from somebody who’s not generous with praise. Instead, I asked the letter from a project team leader instead. He showed me the letter even though I hadn’t asked for it. (Another lucky break for me: if I had told him that I didn’t want to see the letter, there is a small chance the letter could have been different. But I don’t think so. Mr project leader is a gentleman.) I ended up giving him a lunch treat.

I found my old transcripts. I thought about the joy and pain that went into getting those grades I got. I thought a bit about how it could have been better. I thought about what I gained and what I lost. That would be the subject of another blog post, I suppose.

For one piece of the puzzle, I was guilty of procrastinating. 3 weeks had passed before I found myself booked to do a general GRE. Would the GRE results reach NUS in time for them to consider my application? I don’t know. But – another good thing in my favour: after I did my GRE, it went well. I was lucky. When I was there, I bumped into a friend who was my classmate during a wonderful 2 year period when I was always top of the class. I don’t know if that gave me encouragement, but I did pretty OK for that GRE. I had the presence of mind to announce my GRE score in the application before those slow coaches at the ETS mailed it out and made it official. Because I read somewhere that some schools wanted to know your GRE score before they even bother reading your application.

That weekend, I was holed up in a Coffee Bean, putting the finishing touches on my application letter. It was ridiculously long. I think that next time I will shorten it. I sat for 2 hours in a cold air-con place, and I think I caught a flu. At the end, I remembered what I read about PhD applications. They want to know that you are a marathon runner, because your PhD will be the longest fucking marathon you ever ran. So I added that I spent 2 years trying (successfully) to get a finisher’s medal, and I spent 10 years learning the art of song-writing. I said that I had family members who had done research.

The next day, I had a long conversation with an old colleague, even though I was on the verge of having a flu. He was working in NUS. The next day, I reported sick. This was 100% legit, but it also meant I was able to get a day off so that I could drive down to NUS during office hours. But that day was a total fuckup. I wanted to get my documents photocopied, but I forgot 2 of them. Then I went back home, and stupidly enough, I took only one of those documents out. I couldn’t stand wasting so much fuel, so I took a bus home, leaving my car parked somewhere near Queenstown. I had lunch somewhere, and found back the car, and made my way to NUS. I found the department office. I was carrying my precious diploma and the storm clouds were overhead. It was a 3 minute uphill walk to the department. I told myself, “if I make it up there before the rain comes, I will be accepted, other wise I won’t”. It was a close call, and 1 minute after I got into the building, the rain came.

That night, I twitted on my facebook, “Have I changed my life today?” One of my old bosses, who I didn’t ask a reference from, asked me what was the meaning of that. I copped out and told some bullshit story about how every day has potential for change. It’s not a very big thing if I told him, but at this point in time, I would rather not.

Now contrary to what some of you might think, getting into the program is not an open and shut thing, even for somebody who has a degree from a sexy uni. During the briefing, we were told, “admissions for this program is not competitive. It is very competitive.” The ratio was that 300 applied, and 50 would get in. I had strengths, I had weaknesses. In my undergrad days, I chose courses I hoped would convince people that I had what it takes to operate at a grad student level. But I sacrificed a good GPA in the process.

What followed then were 50 days of nail biting. My gut feeling right after the application was sent in, was that I would get in. But I wasn’t even that sure about it. After a while, doubt crept in. There was this time when I consulted the tarot every day. I know that what the tarot says is bullshit. But when you tell yourself random bullshit over and over, some of it will be useful advice. Towards the end, I found that I would be equinamous: hope for the best, but if the worst takes place, I would know what to do.

There was something in the middle that gave me a lift: I received the general GRE score, and all my percentiles were in the 90s. The writing in particular: I thought it was going to be a 5 or a 5.5. Turned out I got a 5.5. A 6 – no way I would get a 6, because I know what excellent writing sounds like, I know that in contrast, there is still some slight awkwardness or clumsiness in the way I choose my words. The excellent writers – the words chosen are so precise that it feels like concert pianists banging on keyboards.

Well I took the trouble to learn how to write. My uni forced everybody to take 2 writing courses in the first year, and they are the equivalent of basic military training. I will always be grateful for that, because they are the reason why people don’t believe that I only got a B3 for my general paper during my “A” levels. And I am still a good (ie less than excellent) writer because this blog gives me plenty of practice.

Then there was another downer. That former colleague of mine that I had talked to for 2 hours later told me he heard that the acceptance rate for the cohort was 1 in 20. I turned pale after hearing that.

They told us that the results would be announced before the end of October. As the days passed, I became more and more nervous. I imagined that they had already informed the most qualified applicants, and my application was in limbo.

In the meantime, I was to study for my subject test GRE. But that was in danger of being sidetracked: either I got tired of studying, or I was distracted. At around the same time, there was the drama with my grandmother who went bonkers and had to be sent to the hospital. The drama of my sister flying home to take care of her for 1 week.

All this ended on another Saturday morning, when I had to send my grandma to hospital for some physiotherapy. As before, I woke up from a nap, and there was a big brown envelope on the table. I didn’t have to open it to know the outcome: people don’t take the trouble to fix fancy seals on rejection letters. But I opened it just to be sure.

I thought about how to celebrate this. I went to Burger King, for 2 reasons. It was where we had dinner during my first date with codfish. Secondly, I regularly ate at BK during my last year at uni, when I was finally getting my shit together. Most importantly, as part of Google folklore, Brin and Page went for a Burger King meal after Google was incorporated. So I ate at Burger King. Why? Because it’s lucky food.

That superstitious thing about me going into the shelter before the rain? Turns out, I was right. I missed the rain and I got in.

This is not 1 more step towards the door. This is the door opening before me, and me deciding whether I want to step through it. My sister asked me, do you have a job after this? No you don’t. It’s really far too early to say you’re leaving your current job. Reactions from the family are kinda subdued. But for me - I think this is of immense value. No matter what, for the first time ever, I have something concrete in my hand, even though its value is dubious. Whatever else I choose to do from now on, I know that I have this to fall back upon. And that is not nothing. My first attempt (one dodgy job interview aside) to find a way out of my current job is a success.

Could I have done this earlier? Actually, yes. Most of the things I wanted were already in my hands. Except for my GRE subject test which was optional but ended up being favourable to my application. That is what I've spent a lot of time on. I wonder - am I Dorothy from the "Wizard of Oz"? I had my ruby shoes on all the time but I didn't know that I could go back to Kansas just like that?

I changed the avatar on my facebook from the tower card of the tarot (a symbol for a shocking development after a period of hubris) to the cover of a famous compiler textbook.


Blogger Shingo T said...

I was at Burger King yesterday because I missed the onion rings. After I saw the price of $2.55 when I was queueing up, I decided to give up.

That must have been some good luck to my fat-laden choking blood arteries.

Anyway, good luck on your application, bro. We can go celebrate at BK once you get it, like the Google founders you mentioned.

11:26 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

Thanks Shingo!

I realise this is a very convoluted blog entry because I put in it every twist of the plot of that application process.

I'll actually summarise the main point here because I'm not sure if you got it: I've already been accepted to the master's program and I've already had my BK meal.

I am currently mulling over what to do with this admit. There may be more celebrations in the future.

5:17 PM

Blogger Nat said...

you can call yourself seksi brim after that :) Congratulations on things turning out rosy. I wouldn't have expected anything else and the nail biting is just paranoia working up eh...

7:53 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

I don't know. Maybe I had a degree from a nice uni. Otherwise I don't see that I had a lot going for me. I still see it as a very close run thing.

I want to be cheering you on when you choose to use that ejection seat!

10:34 PM


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Twenty Oh Eight

You know, when I started blogging, I usually could keep track of what I’ve already written, and what I’ve not. But now it doesn’t seem so easy. And if I have written about this before, forgive me.

1973 was supposed to be a big watershed year in America. A lot of shitty things happened that year from the point of view of USA. First, there was a big recession. There was an Arab-Israeli war and I think that, related to that, the OPEC nations got together, and for one of the very few times, issued a joint embargo on exporting oil to the USA. This was one of the first major oil shocks.

This was a few years after 1970, which was the peak oil year for oil in the USA. 1970 was the last time that USA could dig enough oil to feed itself. After 1973, it became apparent that the USA would forever be dependent on the Middle East for oil. This also started a period in which the USA started meddling around in that region because it had important business there.

1973 was also the year of a great constitutional crisis. Reports had begun to emerge that Richard Nixon, the president, was abusing his power. 1 year later, Richard Nixon would resign the presidency, and if he didn’t resign, he would almost certainly would have been impeached and asked to leave.

What followed was half a decade of the most traumatic time in the US since the end of WWII. There was the double whammy of inflation and stagnant growth. A lot of social programs that were signed into law by Lyndon B Johnson were falling apart. In spite of the best intentions, in spite of the triumphant civil rights acts of the 1960s, the divide between the rich and poor, between the white and blacks, was growing. There were several oil crises. There was the Iranian hostage crisis.

I feel that 2008 is a similar year in the USA’s history. I said that I had visited the USA during 2 of the most important historical moments: the end of the cold war and 9/11. And I thought that the nomination of Obama was the big historical moment in the US history. I was wrong. 2008 was a lot like 1973: a year in which the prestige of the US was to take a big blow. It was the year the subprime crisis brought the US economy to its knees. It was the culmination of years of growing its economy by assuming more and more debt. Years of plenty of policies that benefit mainly the wealthy at the expense of everybody else.

In truth, there was the cumulative effect of the middle class being eroded away since the 1990s. Jobs going offshore. Layoffs and job cuts. But the Great Recession of 2008 was when it all came to a head. That was the time when all the sins of the Bush Administration was being laid out, starkly for all to see. Increasing deficit, because you’re giving too many tax breaks to the rich. Hurricane Katrina. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The mismanagement of the economy.

Briefly, Obama galvanized the nation with his message of hope and reconciliation. But I don’t think, even if he was a great person, he would have been able to do that much about USA’s problems. He can improve things in the USA, but there’s a lot that’s rotten about that country. The rich don’t care about the poor. You go to jail if you’re black and poor. People seem to expect the world from the government, even if they’re think if it as the greatest evil. Congress is corrupt and is constantly beholden to special interests. The US is drowning in a sea of debt.

And the saddest part is that it’s more or less a fallen superpower. It’s no longer a superpower, just one of the great powers, amongst other emerging powers like China and the EU.

So my streak of visiting the USA during historically pivotal moments has continued: 2008 is a year that the pendulum has swung decisively against the US.



Sunday, October 10, 2010

HDBs and SAF

I used to deplore the uniformity of the HDB blocks. There is something really oppressive about the landscape. Rows upon rows of long blocks, broken by the occasional point block. (But point blocks are getting rarer.) Designs are the same regardless of whether you’re in Marine Parade, Tampines, Bedok, Ang Mo Kio or Jurong. HDB estates spread like a virus, and are only hemmed in by the shoreline.

It didn’t really occur to me that it was a little more miserable living in those places rather than my little more comfy and spacious home. But I suppose I got glimpses: first when I was a scout doing job week, and later on, when I did NS and met people who lived in those places. It really hit me that I was living completely different lives from them. We cared about different things. We listened to different music. Went to different schools.

Yet I spent the first 7 years of my life in a HDB apartment, and I always regarded those places as my first real home, and the soul of Singapore. Never mind that HDB flats had only been around for less than 20 years at the time I was born. Never mind that I don’t think that I will ever be the “man in the street”. But these places have this warmth and unpretentiousness about them that is hard to find in places that are more upmarket, or in District 10 places. And at the same time I feel that many members of my generation have lost this unpretentiousness.

And somehow when I think about the HDB, I also think about NS, because when they say that you’re “defending your way of life”, well I think about this HDB jungle. Never the epitomy of high living, but neither a slum of sorrow. There are ungated places, in that the public may walk in and out of those places. But yet there are walls everywhere, and you just feel, while walking around downstairs, that you are at the bottom of a very large well. The place which is so strange and yet so familiar. I used to wonder whether these places were a cure for homesickness, or I was sick of these places. Often it was a combination of both.

And the buildings that make up army camps – they do remind me of HDB flats. Rows and rows of buildings housing bunks stacked up next to each other. Bunks housing double decker beds stacked up to each other. When I watched Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu” and saw the peasant communes, I was thinking, “so that’s where they got the idea of HDB from.

For me the landscape of the army camp and the HDB flat is all intertwined. When you step out of camp, you’re right up next to a HDB block. You might go into a familiar but unfamiliar HDB town centre, and you don’t see this place every day, but you know it’s the same as every other town centre out there. In Yishun. Or Pasir Ris. Or Jurong. Or Choa Chu Kang.

Now, war is very nasty business. We all know that. But the very fact that it is possible at all, it does tell you something about human nature. Somewhere deep down inside – and I know this because I read books about psychology – we love being among a “band of brothers”. We know what it is like to form gangs, and what it is to identify with them. We instinctively know what it’s like to inflict violence on each other in order to make territorial gains, and recently research has shown that we were doing this shit to each other ever since we were primates. I would say that if these things weren’t built into our personalities, war would be impossible because everybody would defect once hostilities started. Now lest you think that this sort of thing takes place only in national armies, remember that in gang wars, gangs also fight for turf.

That’s why I wonder whether our concept of community and our instinct for organised violence are somehow related to each other.

And I’ll confess: I had a very bad habit, during my NS days, of wandering around Tower / HMV after work, still dressed in my number 4 or number 3. At least when you’re in a no 3 you vaguely look like an office worker. In you no. 4, you’re basically a soldier. I didn’t really think that much about walking around Orchard Road in number 4s. Back then, Singapore didn’t have a whole lot of foreigners.

These days, you won’t see a lot of soldiers walking around Orchard Road. You would get stared at a little bit. Now I find that very funny. Now, see, we’re citizens. We shed literally buckets of sweat to keep this island safe and orderly so that you have this nice place where you can earn a little bit more money than back home. But at the same time you’re looking at us like we don’t even belong here in this – well after all this whole island is ours.

Well maybe I’m misinterpreting. Maybe they feel queasy about freeloading on all that free security. But my instinct is “who the fuck do I think I am? Well who the fuck do you think you are?”

And it’s very very funny. I don’t understand. They put this uniform on me. Then I walk around and I see foreigners everywhere. Are we protecting our country against foreign invasion? It’s too fucking late. Who is the enemy? Are they on the other side or are they here? What does it all mean? Singapore vs Malaysia, it means Chinese, Malays and Indians are hacking away at Chinese Malays and Indians? I sometimes look at Shingot’s smiling face and I wonder what it’d be like if I was ordered to hack his head off. Nationhood – it has never been properly defined. You need to read “Imagined Communities” to understand how complicated this stuff is.


Saturday, October 02, 2010

Singapore and Culture

Somebody wrote this comment about Singaporeans: We don’t have any culture. We just like to complain about everything. That may have some truth about it, but I think there’s some blindness there.

Regarding the forging of a Singaporean identity, it doesn’t help very much when people say that we derived all our culture from elsewhere. When we haven’t really invented anything of our own. When we are but not much of a small country.

There are 2 versions of what you understand by culture. Some people think that culture is what you do, and how you live your life. Other people think that culture is what your great great great grandparents did and how they lived their lives. At the moment, the latter definition is what most people think of when they say culture. But I think that the first definition is vastly underrated.

There is a bit of frustration when I think that there’s not much that Singaporeans can really call our own. No doubt, we are proud of Singlish, since it’s a postmodernist blend of languages that you can’t find anywhere. And since Singaporeans don’t have that much to call their own, they end up being proud of the English accent. Some angmoh guys have asked, “why is this aspersion for people who speak with Caucasian accents?” And the answer is obvious to us but doesn’t come to them easily: because when we go to Western countries, we have to change our accents. Shouldn’t it be the case that when Westerners come to our country, they have to change their accent too?

Thing about Singapore is, anybody who has something interesting to contribute to Singaporean culture will get a voice. We are, right now, in the process of writing our own culture. The great artists of any culture are the ones who filled a piece of empty space in the landscape. And in Singapore, there is empty space everywhere. People like Corrine May and Electrico got to write National Day songs. I’m not any less of a songwriter than those guys (at least I don’t think so, and much work remains to be done before I prove or disprove this).

I think that there are many energetic people who might realise this. Even though I’ve lived in Singapore long enough to know that as a rule, Singaporeans hate change, they don’t like new things, I believe that there is a possibility for good things to take place in our cultural landscape.

Conversely, I think that if a place has too much culture and tradition, there is the ability to stifle whatever’s come before. I remember what it was like to play classical music, and being constantly told by music teachers that you just had to conform to their idea of what classical music was all about. Of course, it’s always good to be a little strict with children, but I don’t think I learnt that much about classical music like that.

One of the big problems, though, is that Singapore has always been a postmodern society. When I look at the history of Southeast Asia as a whole, I feel that there is something paradoxical about living in an archipelago. You get a lot of visitors from the sea. Indians, Chinese, Arabs and Angmohs. And we have absorbed a lot of our cultures from these people. But we encounter them as “the other” and we can always maintain an arm’s length from them. There’s not that immediacy that comes from living side by side.

We don’t have that sort of relationship with another culture, the way that the British and the French do, a kind of intimacy that comes about from living side by side for hundreds of years, seeing each other grow, exchanging ideas, occasionally exchanging disparaging comments, but always your cultures have a long term relationship with, and are growing side by side. You really think that Shakespeare is quintessentially English? He set his plays in Verona (Romeo and Juliet), Venice (Merchant of Venice), Rome (Julius Caesar), Scotland (Macbeth) and North Africa (Othello). Pretty damn cosmopolitan for somebody living in the 16th century I’d say.

Maybe this is not such a loss. In Asia civilizations that have grown up side by side eventually end up not liking each other. The Viets and the Khmers don’t like each other. The Viets and the Chinese don’t like each other. The Koreans and the Japanese don’t like each other. The Thais and the Cambodians don’t like each other. The Thais and Malays don’t like each other. Perhaps they haven’t really attained the level of modernity or prosperity that makes cordial exchanges possible, and perhaps one day they will.

The problem with the kind of relatively superficial contact that Singaporeans have with the rest of the world is that there’s no serious percolation of cultural influences on a deeper level. We just take the best and leave the rest. And we end up with rojak. Possibly it makes it even more difficult for Singapore to produce great art, because great art demands a mastery of all your influences, all your sources, and it demands the harmonization of everything in the universe in which it breathes and lives.

I’m starting to wonder if multiculturalism and postmodernism are a good thing for art and culture. We see quite a few negative effects when myriad influences are absorbed without the proper time and effort to see how every piece fits in, without being able to assimilate the parts into the whole.

I think about what pop music has been like since the internet took over the world. In fact, there’s not much of value that people anywhere have invented in the 21st century. The first decade of the 21st century has ended, and when I compare the music of the 2000s with that of the 90s it is utterly depressing. Of course, one must always make allowance for how I was in my teens in the 90s, and how new music always sounds more appealing to people in their teens.

It’s like ever since rock and roll till now, music has been evolving. You had new styles coming up every few years: Beatles. Rock. Hard rock. Heavy Metal. Soul. Funk. Disco. Progressive rock. Punk. Post-punk. Alternative / Indie. Hip hop. Techno / Rave. Ambient. And after the internet? Nothing. Or else, everything else has been a blending of styles.

Somebody came up with a taste test: play something from the internet era, and try to guess whether it’s 90s or 00s music. It’s impossible. Whereas play something from the pre-internet era, it’s possible to guess which decade it came from. Is this due to the internet – postmodern era, or is it due to how so much of what could possibly be invented has already been invented? This is the first time in my lifetime that something strange like this has happened.

Another hidden aspect about Singapore is, I think, comes from something that I read about the population of overseas Chinese. Apparently the greatest populations of overseas Chinese are to be found in Southeast Asia. There are 23 million in Taiwan. (I don’t know if you’d call them Southeast Asia). Then there are 7 million each in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. And probably 4 million in Singapore. That would probably mean that there is a “ghost” nation of at least 25 million overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and it’s possible that Singapore would be the capital of that ghost nation. But I just feel that the Chinese communities of all these countries pass through each other like ships in the night. I just realized this because my workplace may be called extremely cosmopolitan, except that most of the foreigners there come from this ghost nation.

It’s like a big part of Singapore is actually part of a larger nation and we’re not even aware of it! The guy, though, I think he’s from the PRC, although he can’t be sure. I think people from China would find it very weird to be coming to places in southeast Asia and finding that people lose their Chineseness to a shocking extent – or even worse, add supremely unfamiliar elements to it. Aspects of Chineseness that don’t originate from China – now there’s a sacrilege if ever there was one.