Go with a smile!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

War of ideas

I’ve been comparing this election to 1991. Well there is another parallel with 1991. In retrospect, LKY’s premiership will be seen as the Cold War premiership even though admittedly less significant than him being seen as the founding father of Singapore the nation.

The Cold War was a war of ideas. Crudely, it was putting liberal democracy against what was called “communism”. Communism is supposed to be an enlightened utopia run by the proletariat. But it didn’t turn out that way, because the “provisional dictatorship” that was supposed to oversea this transition turned out to be worse monsters than the capitalist pigs they were replacing.

The end of the cold war, and the USA’s ascension to the greatest superpower there ever was sparked a mood of triumphalism throughout the 90s and the first half of the 00s. Books upon books were printed about the USA’s supreme economic, military and soft power. And the funny thing about it is how short-lived all that power was. The ink was hardly dried when the Great Recession took place.

Just as the Great Depression triggered a great deal of talk about the fall and decline of the West, so did the Great Recession. We won’t see a repeat of the Great Depression where there was a lot of (now seems misguided) admiration for fascism and communism, and it led us into the second World War. But Western values are similarly under threat. Instead of communist Soviet Russia and Fascist Germany, now the challenges to the ascendency of the West are China, India, and much of Asia. And to a lesser extent, Russia, Latin America and the Middle East. There may not be a world war, but these are realer threats to the superiority of the west. (In any case, the World Wars were the beginning of the downfall of the West, since it more or less destroyed colonialism.)

As I mentioned earlier, there is a war of ideas going on right now, no less than the Cold War era. And there are 2 major arguments.

Democracy vs dictatorship.

Winston Churchill said that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the other forms”, which is to say that it’s the least evil. But is that true? Nobody seriously thinks that democracy is a perfect form of government. Even those who advocate it state that it has a lot of flaws. But it will usually do the right thing in the end. True or false?

For a long while, this has been held to be true. The West performed better than the Communist bloc and seemed to put this argument to rest. But now we have the USA and Europe going through a massive fiscal crisis.

The fact is that no republic has ever lasted more than 300 years. It’s only been 200+ years since the independence of the USA. The biggest worry for any democracy is that the citizens will bilk out the treasury over time, and that does seem to be happening already. Democracies will not last in the long run because they always go broke.

There is no doubt that the people will decide what is best for their self interests when they focus on the long term instead of the short term (which is not true), when they receive the best information (which is not true, and it doesn’t matter how much information is pumped out over the media all the time because the signal to noise ratio is always there), and when everybody’s voices are heard, not merely those with the means to operate as political insiders (which is also not true).

The financial crises that are taking place in much of the developing world are a great rebuke to the workings of democracy. Somehow, it hasn’t been able to stop the income inequality from growing. It hasn’t been able to stop the rich from monopolizing the media. It hasn’t been able to stop unscrupulous bankers from dumping their toxic assets on unsuspecting people.

Admittedly things are not very much better in China. Most of what’s been reported in China is about the economic giant that it promises to become. China has been very successful in the last 10 years, but not for long enough for us to see how long its success can be maintained. There are all sorts of threats. Inefficiency of state owned enterprises. Lack of transparency.

The history of China, post 1949 is full of the horrendous mistakes that are made when leaders (I’m thinking about Mao Zedong) are not accountable for their actions. The Great Leap Forward that resulted in the greatest famine in history. The involvement in the Korean war which killed dunno how many Chinese soldiers. The Hundred Flowers Bloom campaign that wiped out all the intellectuals. The Cultural revolution. The laogai that sent so many people to the countryside. The Cold War with the Soviets, necessitating a massive expenditure to build fortifications on the border with Mongolia and Russia.

China’s greatest asset has always been the same asset that it has had for the last 4 thousand years – the people. Whenever the emperor cocks up, and the emperor has cocked up so many times in the history, it’s always the people who come to the rescue.

Ironically, the government in Singapore has never been more widely admired than it has over the last few years. Previously, a lot of talk about Singapore has been about the “Asian Values”, where we have a way of doing things (very little welfare, centralized control, export led growth, massive government role in developing the economy, death to the opposition) People in the West are looking at Singapore and thinking, “wow this place is so well run”. This is at a time when Singaporeans are getting increasingly disgruntled with the government.

Democracy, on paper is about how you would get the government replaced when it fails to do its job. But having an alternate government who can step in to replace the old one is not very useful when:

1. The alternative is no better than the incumbent, or
2. There is no viable alternative, or
3. We live in a political environment where the government, or any conceivable replacement, is losing its ability to do its job.

Ultimately a lot of the questions about democracy are centred around the form of the government. But they don’t directly address a more important issue, that for some reason, political analysts are not very keen to answer, because they are ancillary to the power grab. That question is, “What makes a cabinet perform better?”

Why would a cabinet automatically perform better when it knows that it will be replaced after the next election? Or will this encourage it to be cynical and engage in vote buying in order to get the best returns in the short run. Is it actually possible that the PAP has been an honest government for a long time because it knows that its position is secure, and it might as well do a good job anyway, since it will be around for the long run?

If it knows that it can be voted out of power at any time, then wouldn’t that sour its relationship with the people? Would that make the cabinet do its job with less heart?

Ultimately it does matter whether your leaders are good people. As LKY has shown, dictatorship need not need be a bad thing if your dictator has a good heart and has sound policies. And many countries who are democratic get lousy governments anyway. The question is, are the leaders in it to serve the people or are they there to serve themselves? Because all the competence in the world is not going to make you a better person if you're mainly in it for yourself? How do we get rid of the people who are in it for themselves?

It may well be that paying the ministers a million dollars a year is an unconvincing answer to these questions. But when you don’t pay the head of state a million dollars a year, you might end up with somebody like Tony Blair, who more or less allows business interests to take over the running of the government.

Free market vs government intervention

The winning of the cold war also seemed to favour the idea that the less government intervention in the market, the better. This idea seemed to gain currency towards the end of the Cold war. It’s the neo-liberal economy.

Basically people have argued that it’s best to let the market take care of itself, and that the market is a self-regulating system. Therefore: out with social programs. Out with the rich paying higher taxes. Out with government regulations on businesses. Out with increasing wages for the middle class.

These ideas gained ascendency with the regimes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. A lot of social programs were dismantled under their watch. This led to a great stock market boom that lasted from 1982 to 2008. It was also responsible for plenty of economic crises, for example the Asian financial crisis, the currency runs in Russia, Argentina and Brazil, the fiscal crises in some countries in Europe, and finally the Great Recession.

It’s also largely responsible for the widening gap between the middle class and the top 1%. Most of the economic gains in the last 20-30 years have gone to the top 1%.

I think that a lot of the neo-liberalist ideas have been adjusted as such: people are now acknowledging that governments have a role to play in running the economy. That regulation has been extremely lax. Budding industries need a lot of subsidies by the government to get their feet off the ground. It’s only after they have established themselves, that they should be weaned off subsidies, and after that they can compete in the big bad world.

But in Asian countries where the government has had a big say in the economy, something interesting has happened. The line between the government and the economy is fading, if it hasn’t disappeared altogether. In Singapore it’s not a disputed fact that a large part of our economy that is not run by multinationals is run by government linked companies. That a lot of functions that used to be previously run by the government is now privatized. Is this a good thing?

There are problems with this. First, it concentrates wealth and power (since they are now interlinked) in the hands of the insiders. Do you need regulation changed so that you can do your business better? No problem. You change this regulation for me, and I will give you a nice directorship when you leave the government. Now, this is not corruption, the way that corruption is officially defined. But we would agree that there is something, if not dishonest, fairly improper about this. Then other companies outside who wish to compete are no longer playing on a level field.

Secondly, it shields the government against accountability. When functions that were originally done by the government gets transferred into holding companies, then that function is no longer accountable to the public. If your utilities companies get privatized, then the government is officially not culpable and accountable if anything goes wrong. Then again, there are many things that in the minds of people are still connected with the government, no matter what. If the utilities provider fails, people will still blame the government, regardless of whether the company has been privatized or not.

Anyway, in any case, business has always been a dictatorship. It wasn’t built to be democratic. There is some democracy at the board level, but you can always remove a troublesome director when it suits your purpose. You can have a democracy where ostensibly the government is responsive to the needs of the people, but then politicians would be so dependent on campaign donations and funding by corporations that you can never hope to win a popular election without being in cahoots with big business. So democracy is distorted. In the other model, you can have the authoritarian government, and the government and the businesses can influence each other to a great extent, but the will of the people are not reflected at all, save for a Tiananmen style uprising.

Because of the wealth and the power of big businesses, they have an increasing say in what goes on in the governments. Increasingly you can make policies that are more pro-business, but less pro-worker and less pro-consumers. You can make the average citizen pay more in taxes but give tax breaks to the big businesses. You can drive down the bargaining power of the average worker. All in the name of “attracting foreign investment”, because everywhere around the world, businesses are using the fact that they are mobile to force these changes through. It used to be “workers of the world unite”. But quite obviously, and in spite of the internet, they are increasingly unable to do so. It’s more like “corporations of the world unite”.

And not to absolve the governments of their complicity in this, but in this environment, governments have increasingly little say on the issue of worker’s rights. But they should be putting up a stiffer fight, rather than collapsing in front of the might of business, as they have done in the last 20-30 years. And you don’t have to buy into that baloney that worker’s rights is bad for the economy, because you can always look at Germany and Sweden.


Saturday, April 23, 2011


It’s a funny thing. The elections are upon us again. In 2006, there were dark mutterings about Singaporeans turning against the PAP. Now, things are even more interesting. There are more capable people joining the opposition. I am personally acquainted with 1 candidate from the SPP. And another from the PAP.

From the SDP, Vincent Wijeysingha is the son of my former RI headmaster. Teo Sung Leng is one of the detainees from Operation Spectrum. I actually picked up her book at the NLB book exchange. The SDP also had managed to rope in James Gomez. And in a great coup, Chee Soon Juan actually roped in Tan Jee Say, who used to be Goh Chok Tong’s secretary.

This is a remarkable turnaround for Chee Soon Juan, because his political career was considered to have been finished. Very few Singaporeans identify with the SDP because they think that they are too westernised and politically liberal / leftist. We still remember that hunger fasting stunt. We still remember how he would heckle after Goh Chok Tong in a hawker centre. (Never mind that his question, “what the fuck are you doing with our foreign reserves” is actually quite a legitimate one.) We remember his protest marches and we found them quite silly, especially as you can probably not gather a bunch of 50 people and march down 1 street before getting stopped by the police. But in my eyes, this looks like a remarkable political resurrection.

Some other political parties have met their crises. Kenneth Jeyaretnam seemed to be an up and coming star when he started the Reform Party a few years back, but now a lot of the people in there have defected. Probably they didn’t think that party had a good future. Also Chiam See Tong, putting aside his remarkable political longevity, seems to be a quarrelsome bugger who has been kicked out of both the SDP and the Singapore Democratic Alliance.

From the National Solidarity Party (formerly part of the SDA), Nicole Seah seems to be one of the more impressive opposition candidates. At least, for her age, much more impressive than Tin Pei Ling, whom the Straits Times inexplicably put on the front page twice.

There is the general feeling that change is in the air. I remember 1991, when a great change was in the air too. There was a lot of uncertainty about the future. The Cold War had just ended, and the USA had won. Now, in an even more dramatic turn of events, the USA, Europe and Japan, the economic powerhouses of the world in 1991, are in really really deep shit now. The problems had been steadily building up over the decades.

1991 seemed to be a turning point for the opposition. They had 4 people elected into parliament, which was an all time high since 1965. 2 of them are still there: Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang. My father took some form of perverse pride in this. He would tell me that Hougang, and to a smaller extent, Potong Pasir had a large proportion of Teochews. The implication being that all Singaporeans were kiasee with the exception of us Teochews.

Lim How Doong shot himself in the foot by mouthing off “don’t talk cock” in parliament. And the PAP won that seat back. To be fair to them, the PAP did stage a big operation and tried to win back those 4 seats by pulling out the stops and promising that their town council would be so much better than when under SDP. Cheo Chai Chen lost his seat, because of the tumult that took place in the SDP in the years immediately following 1991.

Things are different this year. You can feel it. 2006 was novel in the sense that the opposition party was not merely fielding people you could consider the “man in the street”. This year, they took it one more step forward, and there are a lot of opposition candidates of fairly high caliber. A few former scholars are in here. A few high ranking former civil servants.

2006 was one of the first few years that keeping blogs was a fashionable thing. Now, only hardcore nerds like me update their blogs every week. Back then what was exciting was the novelty of the idea that the internet could influence the elections in a big way. In 2001 not enough people had the internet to make a difference. More significantly, that was web 1.0, where social media was almost non-existent. Nobody published their own stuff. That changed in 2006. And more significantly, 2011 will be the first election in which a lot of people have Facebook.

I think that Facebook is a game changer. Now, when I log onto Facebook, I see that a lot of my friends are making a lot of comments about the opposition. One of the tricks that the PAP has used, over the years, to keep themselves in power, is to create the image of the opposition as marginalized outsiders. Well, when so many people talk about the opposition on facebook, that illusion is slowly but surely being blown out of the water.

Significantly, the Straits Times has actually been a little more even-handed in their coverage of opposition members. Although they are still the mouthpiece of the PAP. I think there might be a sense that PAP's repressive ways of doing things may no longer serve a good purpose. Yes, it had its value when you were trying to weed out communists. It had its value when you knew you had a good system, and you just had to have things done in a certain way, you had to do it efficiently and you didn't want there to be deadlock. But when you used this awesome executive power to entrench the interests of an elite few at the expense of the many, when you used it to cover up your mistakes, and when you used it simply because the idea that all people are equal, and have an equal voice is simply abhorrent to you, then there is something wrong with the system.

Giving feedback is something that is - well it's been said that a customer's complaint is a sort of gift. So I think some people in the government wanted to hear what exactly people were upset about. They wanted to listen to the opposition a little more. So there is progress after all.

Anyway, if you want to know why ppl are upset about the gahment, there's a fairly succinct summary over here.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Idiot Librarian part 2

Part 1 is here

Another unpleasant encounter with library staff. Maybe I think, if it wasn’t for the books, I wouldn’t bother with that place. Maybe there’s a reason why people don’t have respect for civil servants. Maybe they’re jaded because they have to deal with the worst of humanity.

It’s the library book exchange again. I thought that I would get rid of some more of my books. I had left it late. This time last year I had just taken my subject test GREs – what I then knew was a trial run. This year I would actually be deciding on my options.

Anyway the build up to this encounter wasn’t exactly pleasant. I realized that the book exchange was on Saturday, I had done nothing for 2 weeks because it was the climax of the academic term, where people are taking tests all the time and rushing after projects. Then there was this stupid feature in Microsoft Visual C which always produced a bug unless you told the compiler exactly which library to link to. It was common enough that I found 5 other people putting up that exact problem and exact solution while searching the internet. (Nat if you’re reading this thanks for yr help)

Then, a rush home to make sure that I could find 30+ books to clear out and dash out to the library. Things went wrong all the time. Books went missing everywhere. I told the maid to summon the lift for me, and she missed it by a couple of seconds. (Yes, I know I’m dangerously close to a re-enactment of a very famous photograph). Then I looked everywhere for the van and found it in the not often used parking lot. Then I got my maid to load up the van, and was about to drive off when some beeping told me that the door wasn’t closed properly. I drove over to the nearest library when my way got blocked by a car turning into a police compound. (This was an important factor in my decision not to blast a 10 second horn and swear loudly at him). Then I found myself at a carpark with 20 minutes to go. I dragged the luggage, finding that it was not very ergonomic. The walk to the library was around 100m.

So the point is – I reached the library in a foul mood. Later on, the librarian said that she was going to inspect the books for quality. She threw back 10 of my books. 1 or 2 of those books, I wasn’t going to argue with her about the quality. But I was quite irritated at how she flipped through most of the pages (later on I realized that she was looking for underlinings, so that made sense, but at first I was pissed off that she was being fussy). Then I grew really hot under the collar when she threw out some books that were perfectly good, never been read before, in pristine condition, for no other reason than that the pages were yellow. Naturally I wasn’t going to take that lying down. I said, what does it matter, you’re not paying me a cent for all those books anyway. She said, we don’t want to be throwing out too many books when people don’t want them. That sounded OK for now. But I argued about the books’ condition, and I got her to take back 4 of the better books.

Then she told something to another librarian and walked off. The other librarian wrote out an order to me for 26 books. I knew that the 26 books didn’t include 1 of the books I just got her to accept, so I said it was 27. The second librarian said, she told me 26. Do you want to wait for her to come back? I said no, after all it’s only 1 book. So I signed and took it.

But I got back home, counted the books that were rejected and realized that I had given away 31 books. I was shortchanged by 4. Now, you remember, this was the same people telling me that they didn’t want to throw out too many books, and on the other hand they’re now practically guaranteeing that 5 books will be thrown away. I didn’t know what to call this. I don’t think she should be handed over to the police but I would call this theft. I’m sure she wanted to make sure that I got fewer coupons than I gave books.

Well there're always ways to resolve the situation. You know how civil servants hate complaints. So I used the feedback thing on the NLB website. And I added some little note about how I loved going to the library for years - until now. Heh heh.

Anyway I did the wise thing - went for the book exchange early in the morning and got some remarkable books. An account of Teo Soh Lung's stay in the air con room, Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine", "Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid", "The Logic of Life". I only regret that I didn't pick up Galbraith's "Affluent Society". In a book exchange, a large number of books will not be picked up. That's only to be expected. After all I am giving them a pile of books that, even though I would have picked them up myself, I wasn't able to sell them.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

A new perspective.

"What would you think I'd see, if I could walk away from me?" - Lou Reed

The other night while lying in bed I had a vision. No, not the kind of vision that horny men usually have just before they fall into a deep contented sleep, but that night, I saw a vision of myself.

Now I was very startled. I almost never visualise myself. Definitely not from the outside. I was wearing a suit. I was smiling. Maybe I looked a little like an encyclopaedia salesman. But the fact is that I almost never think of myself in those terms. I usually don’t even think of myself at all. As in, I don’t think about what I look like from the outside.

Maybe that’s why there’s a problem with my self-image. There’s not so much of asking, “what would a person see if he was looking at me?” I don’t see things from other peoples’ perspective. I don’t look at myself in the mirror, unless it’s shaving day. This is in stark contrast to some people I catch staring at themselves in the mirror for hours at the office toilets. I don’t think, “what’s there to like, what’s there not to like?”

The person I saw in that vision is not strikingly handsome or ugly. One thing unusual, he’s smiling. He seems to be having fun. Maybe he’s playing at a concert. Maybe he’s banging away at the keyboards. Maybe he’s banging away at some chick. A healthy, happy guy. Maybe I should practice and learn to see myself that way. Maybe things will get better.



Saturday, April 02, 2011

Big Decision Time

OK, all results are out. I’m not in my 1st choice school, not in my 2nd choice school. I have to think about the University of Mexico. So I’ve got to make a decision soon. So I do what most people do: ask my friends for advice. And this is a controversial issue, very controversial.

Choice A:
I continue what I am doing, which is a part time master’s at a local uni. Academically, it’s almost as good as Mexico. I keep my job, but grow more white hair as a result of a hectic lifestyle. I think about where to go after this degree. Of course I am psychologically reluctant to take this course because of all the work I put into paving the way for choice B.

Choice B:
I go to the University of Mexico, have a nice time in Mexico. I lose a job for 1-2 years. But I get access to a new life, new friends. School fees are not cheap, in US$ terms, same as Snowy Hill 10 years ago. It has increased due to inflation, so even though Mexico is supposed to be cheaper, over the 10 years, the tuition has “caught up” with Snowy Hill’s level of 10 years ago. In S$, of course, there is a big discount due to the exchange rates. This option is also attractive to me because I love giving people surprises.

Anyway it’s very interesting because people always have different kinds of advice for me.

Person A: (knows something about the field of study)
What the hell? Do academics? Why don’t you just go into music instead? (he’s got a good point). But then again, I don't see you working here for very long.

Person B: (Studied in the field of study)
Go, just go! what's a hole in your pocket when you're going to be married to her forever?
can you hold your head up in society with an ugly wife? i say dig deep and pay for the trophy wife!
Going to Mexico can help you get a good job in the US. (Yes but do I want one?)

Person C: (Did a PhD in the field of study)
Both options are shitty deals. Why don’t you go for a PhD which is free? (nb: I need to talk to person C again because 6 months ago he told me to try out a master’s first if I wasn’t sure to go for a PhD.)

Person D: (Studied in the field of study but not involved in it right now. Is loaded.)
Do you want to change your life? Why worry about the money when you can go for a new adventure? Don’t you want to explore what life is like outside of your current circle?

Person E: (Working in that field of study)
Well whether you are going to do a master’s or a PhD, the thing is, you are eventually going to do his shit work unless you have a very good idea what you’re going to do for yourself. You have to know very well what you’re getting yourself into.

Person F: (Is an asst prof in that field of study)
I applied to University of Mexico but eventually I went to University of Cornfield because it looked like a better school. Also I didn’t find what I was looking for in Mexico. Yes, employers in the US and also in Singapore will look more kindly upon a foreign degree than a Singaporean one. (Sad but true). I lecture in a Singaporean University and I’m surprised that they don’t hire people who did their PhDs in Singapore.

Person G: (My sister, and a main reason why my choices are all in a certain region.)
Take a year off and see how it feels. (Well there are 3 semesters a year in the quarter system and I’ll try and figure out if I can cram everything into 5 quarters.) Try to think of what you really want to do next.

Person H: (Doing a postdoc in University of Mexico)
Housing is really expensive here. But Mexico is a good place for grad studies. (In the US, Mexico is usually rated between 10th and 20th for my field).

Person I: (A scientist)
The more you think about it, the more confused you will get. If you want to go just go. But you have to remember, you are not young anymore, and age will count against you in academia.

Well I’m kicking myself now. I didn’t give myself that much of a choice because I restricted my choices to a certain region in the USA. I didn’t apply to anywhere in Europe. If I got the big 2 I would not have hesitated, I would have gone. Mexico – is it really that much better than Singapore that I would drop everything and leave?

Anyway I’m superstitious. When Spain won the world cup, I was glad that there was a first time winner, because means 4 years of luck for me. And if Arsenal wins the league this year, this is a sign that things are going to change for me. Yes, big changes took place in my life, in 1989, 1991, 1998, 2002 and 2004. 2004 not so much but…



Blogger Nat said...

There are as many opinions as there are people. I suppose you can find a J, K etc... To add to my opinion, change is always great, it should not be constrained by consequences. It should be driven by interests and for a lack of a better term, 'passion'.

Given you applied to 'Mexico' it is not a bad shot to start with. It might be a good idea to be some place where you can expect some interesting leads to pursue when you graduate. And 'Mexico' has plenty...

9:31 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

Hi person A!

Yes, that was precisely the point of my post. It struck me that I saw so many different viewpoints.

All these viewpoints don't point to answers for me. They only lead me to the important questions to ask. And the one that you just raised is probably really really important. You call it "passion". But what it really means is, "Can you slug it out?"

10:02 PM

Blogger 7-8 said...

OK, probably shouldn't be so superstitious. Man U, who were 2 down when I wrote this blog post, have won. I should make my decision based on factors other than Arsenal winning the league.

10:03 PM

Blogger Nat said...

Change the sport. Australia took the Cricket world cup 3 times in a row, things got predictable, but this year India has made a big upset ;)

9:57 AM