Go with a smile!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What the "Stop At Two" debate really means

I used to think that LKY had breathed his last when he said that Aljunied voters will “repent”. Those were his famous parting words as he departed the cabinet to the shadows as a backbencher. Now it seems that you can never keep a good man down. He will open his mouth and stir up controversy. This is a man who can be supreme dictator over all he surveys, as he was in his prime as our leader in the 70s and the 80s, and he can still manage to sound very subversive at the same time. Even his enemies secretly love him for being a bad boy.

No matter what you say about him being a great dictator, and there is no shortage of evidence in this regard, in his own special way he has done plenty for democracy in Singapore. He can take away all your rights one by one, but he’ll be scrupulous enough to never ever touch your right to vote. He won’t ask you for permission to implement whatever policies he thinks is right, but in his uniquely Singapore way, he will come up with crazy ideas that people just can’t help debating over and over. Even as he dictates the terms of the debate, he will never entirely squash all debate in Singapore. By refusing to sugar coat his “hard truths”, he endlessly provokes his citizens into thinking about ideas of governance. By refusing to subscribe totally to any well-established political tradition, he has made his own way, and by extension, forced Singapore to make its own way in the world. Therefore ideas will be discussed strictly on its own terms and not whether it belongs on the left or the right side of a political spectrum. This is why policy debate in Singapore sounds somewhat different from elsewhere.

This time he said that Singaporeans have to reproduce more so that we won’t have to bring in foreigners. He has admitted that foreigners are causing some problems in Singapore, that immigration policy is not merely about bringing in people that you need, but also about padding up the population pyramid.

There has been a lot of talk about the “stop at two” policy. People have always talked about how it magically led to the low fertility rates in Singapore. I think that it’s rubbish. Stop at two was a great policy. It stablised the population growth of Singapore, without which we would have overpopulation problems. It stabilized Singapore’s economic situation.

The problem with Singapore is not really too much foreigners. It’s too many people. Sky high land prices, competition for jobs, rising stress levels – these are overpopulation issues. It’s well and good that the government tries to paint these as “xenophobia” issues, but they are really overpopulation. And I suspect that not a small amount of it has to do with a lot of masters out there complaining that they don’t have enough slaves.

I’m not really here to talk about population issues in Singapore, even though it is a very important topic. I think it would be covered by other people, and better to. It is an extremely political issue. What races are growing with what proportion to each other? Who gets to reproduce? What sort of Singaporeans do we want? Etc etc. In fact, I checked up the population statistics of Malaysia’s Chinese people and they seem to be decreasing a lot. It seems that they want to leave, either for Singapore or one of the angmoh countries. So it’s not only in Singapore that Malays are reproducing faster than Chinese. When you think about the demographic politics involved in this, then you will realize that it is not only a sensitive issue, it is also one that has vast repercussions. So while there will be some people who think we should not be talking about it, I think we can’t avoid it totally.

So my main purpose in this article is to address the issue behind the issue. Why is there so much vehemence against the government? Why do people insist on blaming the stop at two policy? It didn’t make sense to me, until I had an argument with somebody online, and it hit me. It did seem as though the government was fairly underhanded in telling its own citizens to stop reproducing, and 20 years later opening the floodgates to foreigners, using the low fertility rates as an excuse.

In fact, if you really want to know why Singapore’s fertility rate is so low, one of the best things is to look at yourself in the mirror, and ask yourself, if you’re of a certain age who’s yet to have children: why don’t you have children? Do you want children? Why or why not? It’s not terribly complicated. It gives you an insight into the real problems.

When I was just graduating out of the “A” levels and looking at the scholarship options, I was pretty put off that there weren’t many which were involved in science research. I would have preferred those. Instead I took up one which involved administrative work. But I still managed to become a quasi-scientist in the end, so it was OK. But I was quite envious of those people who were 5 years younger than me and got scholarships to do PhDs.

I think this is the crux of the problem. In the 80s and the 90s, Singapore enjoyed a higher level of stability, but it all came at the price that people were denied a lot of opportunities. It was a more closed society during those days. Opposition party members were brutally crushed “like cockroaches”, in the immortal words of Margaret Lim. Entrepreneurs like Sim Wong Hoo were called up to “lim kopi”, or were otherwise treated with suspicion. There was no internet, and the books that filtered in into our little red dot were carefully screened so as to ensure they did not contain subversive content.

You can imagine how envious the older generation were of the younger generation, that they had the freedom to do a lot of things that the older generation themselves were not allowed to do. They thought to themselves, “how nice it would have been if I were allowed to travel back in time to have three children instead of two”. Then there was this great resentment against the “stop at two”.

And I think this attitude covers a lot of the disaffection people have with the government. There are two Singapores. The first is the classic nanny state Singapore, which spanned from independence to maybe around 2000. The second is the 21st century “world class city” Singapore. People want the best of both worlds: they miss the security and the sense of place of the first one, but they also like the relative freedom and openness of the second. They liked the first for being a country where – at least it seemed that they were masters of their own destiny. So wherever you looked, there was something to be displeased about. You were displeased at the first Singapore for an overly strict government. You were displeased at the second Singapore for allowing our population situation to get out of control.

So you see, I think this is what people are really angry about: they’re starting to be a little aware of what took place in the past. They’re starting to have the wool pulled off their eyes. They’re starting to realize that the blind trust that they’ve had in the government over the last 30 years was not necessarily rewarded with an increase in living standards. The old social compact is breaking down, and it’s a little scary to think that it might never ever be replaced.

All is not lost. The government is not perfect. In certain areas, it isn’t even good. But it’s functioning and probably better than a lot of other governments out there. Mr Brown caricatures the government as a kind of a Soup Nazi, not a full blown thug. Yet I don’t think that’s how people see it. They see a wreckage, they see something run into the ground. They used to blindly go along with whatever the government used to tell them. Now they blindly go against whatever the government is saying. This is a classic backlash. I don't know if that's really what Catherine Lim had in mind when she penned her classic essay, the affective divide.

So when you hear all the anger against the government, you really have to sometimes ask yourself, how much of this is about the government being suddenly stupid and incompetent, and how much of this is lashing out against the lack of freedom that people have had in the past?

Now they want to move away from the old managed / calibrated / coerced / manipulated system of the past to – I don’t really know what. A cacophony of people screaming at each other each thinking they know best? A mélange of selfish people each looking out for number one? A new golden era with emancipated people buzzing with life? Who the fuck knows?


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

EPL Predictions and Derangements

I was reading this article the other day about making predictions about the final position of league tables. Guardian said that they managed to get 4 teams in the right position. People didn't think that that was really a big deal, and they were asking, if people were to make predictions about the positions of teams at random, what is the average number of teams that people would predict in the correct position?

How would you go about doing this? First, we assume that all permutations are equally possible? One way is to partition the set of 20! permutations on the 20 element set. There are permutations which keep i number of elements in the right place, but scramble the (20-i) other elements such that none of those (20-i) elements are in the correct order. We say that this is a derangement. The number of derangements is fortunately easy to calculate: we will just use the approximation that the number of derangements on set of n elements is

Lets call the set of permutations which keep i elements in place but scramble the other (20-i) as P_i. Note that the various P_i are non-overlapping, and they sum up to 1. Therefore the P_i are a partition on the n! permutations. The expected value of r, the number of correct guesses, is

What is the size of P_i? There are i number of elements preserving their order. So there is a 20 choose i number of ways of picking the i elements. The rest of the elements have to be shuffled around in a derangement, so that no other elements preserve their order. From the earlier given formula for the number of derangements,

So we have

This works out to approximately 1. To see why, when you expand 20 choose i and expand, you get

And by the time you get to 20, all the other terms in that expansion are really small. So in the end, on average a randomly chosen prediction will have 1 correct guess. After doing my calculations on the spreadsheet, I find that there is a 99.6% chance that a random guess will get 4 predictions right.

Obviously the Guardian was working on a search space which was much smaller than 20! : People knew the rough strengths and weaknesses of all the teams. But the commentators seemed to think that on average a guess picked at random will have around 4 teams in the right position, and that estimation is way way off.


Monday, August 06, 2012

Olympics and Foreign Talent

I was coming back from a vacation with a few colleagues. There was a big crowd gathered at the neighbourhood coffee shop, and they were watching the third place match between Li Jiawei and another ping pong player. It was interesting – this was the Athens Olympics, so it must have been a lifetime ago, because now Athens is like shit. That was the first time we had the question of foreign talent. Li Jiawei didn't win, and so Singapore's chance of an individual medal was deferred until 8 years later, when Feng Tianwei managed to do what Li Jiawei failed to do.

Now that we have achieved a few Olympic medals, all in women’s table tennis, we have to confront what it really means. This is table tennis, of course, so it means that Singapore is the “best of the rest”.

To what extent is success in Singaporean sports “foreign”? For that you have to answer three questions:

1. Are the athletes foreign?
2. Is the infrastructure foreign?
3. Are the coaches foreign?

In the last 20 years, the three great powerhouses of world soccer are Spain, Brazil and France. (Apologies to Argentina, Italy and Germany who are great powers during this period, but have never reached the heights of the other three). They all have had different approaches to success, and all of them have involved foreigners.

First, we have Brazil. Brazil probably has the greatest system of producing players. They have the biggest slums in the world, and a lot of people grow up in those slums and grow up playing football all day. They also had a fanatic following for football. There was a great system for developing talent, and Brazil exports a lot of football talent. If you’re top talent, like Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Romario or Ronaldinho, then you get to play for a big club in Europe: by coincidence, all four have played for Barcelona at some point. Probably none of them would have been world beaters if they had played in Brazil all their lives. All of them honed their skills in the best leagues in the world. A few Brazillian players have migrated to other countries, like Engmar Gonclaves who represented Singapore (but not as successfully as say Alexandr Duric or even Agu Casmir). But you also have Deco representing Portugal, Eduardo representing Croatia and Marcos Senna representing Spain.

Then, we have France. France is probably the one that has the most indigenous talent. But the great team that won a World Cup was notable for the high proportion of immigrants or sons of immigrants. Zidane’s parents were from Algeria. Thierry Henry’s were from Guadelope. Vieira was born in Senegal. Lilian Thuram was born in Guadelope. Youri Djorkaeff had Polish and Armenian parents. Bixente Lizarazu was a Basque. The success of this national team helped the immigrants to France establish themselves as an integral part of the nation. But the system was undoubtedly French. Their coach, Aime Jacquet was part of the great St Etienne team. France already had a pretty good youth system. In particular, they also had two slums which produced a great number of footballers. Marseilles produced Cantona and Zidane. Paris produced Thierry Henry.

Spain is another interesting story. The core of the great national side which has won three consecutive major tournaments are the great Real Madrid and Barcelona teams. Both of them have different approaches to talents. Barcelona’s system was transplanted from the time that Johann Cryuff went there. He helped to set up the Barcelona academy, and 10 years after he left that club as a player, he became a manager who helped Barcelona become a great club by putting together the “Dream team” of the 90s, which had great talents like Ronald Koeman, Pep Guardiola, José Mari Bakero, Michael Laudrup, Romário, and Hristo Stoichkov. Later on, their youth training system would nurture and shape stars like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas.


How do we produce the athletes? This is one of the biggest issues of the foreign talent debate in sports. Athletes are produced under extreme conditions. One way to do it is that you have to pick out your kids early and groom them. You need to have a lot of parents who are interested in sporting achievement. You need to have a lot of kids who are willing to go down this route. And most importantly, you need to be able to pay the price of failure. It is not possible for people to have a sterling academic career and be able to train enough to become athletes at the same time. You have to understand that for every athlete who succeeds, there will be hundreds more who are comparatively mediocre. The above average ones will become journeymen. The rest of them will just have to find a way to fail gracefully. The crux of the matter is not what we do with the stars. It is what we do with the failures.

The life span of an athlete is short. And after they retire from the game, they have to find a second career. Transitioning to a second career is not easy, especially in a very economically competitive place like Singapore. The tragic post-career plights of Paul Gascoigne, Garrincha and Justin Fashanu should tell you something about how treacherous the road is. Perhaps it will be easier for the football stars today who earn top money in the top leagues of Europe. But even people like Gary Speed who managed to become the Wales manager for a short period of time will find that their personal life is not going oh so well.

The way to circumvent this is that we cherry pick the best from China for table tennis, and the best from Indonesia for badminton, and then we groom them. In a sense, Li Jiawei’s talent was partially developed on Singapore soil. It was in Singapore that she made the transition from being a promising talent to a world class ping pong player. But there will be a lot of other talents who do not make the cut, the success rate will not be 100%. And that’s when we will have to deal with those failures. But the failure rate will not be as high as if we were to set up our own youth system.

The other cost to the system is that the training regimes are usually very harsh and cruel. This is true for sports like gymnastics and table tennis. Less so for football, which is supposed to be fun, although it takes up all your time as well. Jing Junhong, Li Jiawei, Feng Tianwei and Wang Yuegu – all these people have had harsh childhoods. You don’t know what sort of psychological damage gets inflicted upon all those people. What they had to go through, you don’t really know if you want to put your kids through all that.

Then there is the question of who’s going to pay their salaries. OK, you think that a fraction of a million dollars is a lot of money to be paying people to win Olympic medals, until you realize that Yaya Toure gets paid around the same amount of money EVERY WEEK.

For great spectator sports, it’s not that hard to use all the gate receipts and corporate sponsorships, and private wealthy sponsors to fund development. I think one reason why Singapore is relatively successful in football when compared to our neighbours is that we’re able to sustain a better league, and better players. But S-League is hardly able to support itself, and eventually it will have to be merged into the M-league.


The infrastructure – I think this is where Singapore has done well. But this is the relatively easy thing to do. Hardware is usually easier to achieve than software. Just build stadiums, training facilities and schools.


The coaching is not easy to achieve. In fact, it is one of the most crucial parts of the equation. In football, this has been recognized. One of the most significant matches in football history was Italy vs Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, when it was shown that a team with the better system could beat the team with vastly superior players. One reason European football is superior to most other places is the superior coaching. We have imported coaches from China as well as their training methods.

What is Sports Really About?

A lot of people are talking about how to increase sporting excellence in Singapore. Well it all depends on what we want. Do we want the prestige of the Olympic medals or top rankings? To me, that’s not very important. I don’t think it’s worth the time and trouble of the extreme methods of what China puts some of its kids through. If West Africa is famous for churning out a lot of good footballers, it might not reflect well on its society: it means that there is so much poverty that football becomes the only meaningful thing to do. Do we want that?

On the other hand, we have to go back to what sports was originally about. What it meant in the first place. At my old workplace, we used to go to a community centre every week to play some sports. It was a way of socializing, letting off steam and having something to do. The “sporting spirit” means that you’re just activity partners, collaborating in keeping yourselves fit and having fun. Then as time goes by, it escalates. First into rivalry and competition, then into war. Sports becomes an arms race. It stops being fun in itself, and it only becomes fun when you sacrifice everything to reach a ridiculous height. It may have started off as a celebration of a human spirit, but then it becomes a joyless task. It turns into tribal war by proxy. The warped morals of sports today is no more than a reflection of the warped morals of our society: success at all costs. You have to see what’s happening today for what it is: Thousands of people, many sacrificing a normal childhood, in order to become the best sportsmen.

There are people who enjoy the sport, and take it in the right spirit: people like Usain Bolt who – assuming that he’s not on steroids or anything – are just naturally talented and work hard but are not killing themselves, that kind of sports training I can condone. The China factories where the people literally give up their lives to be the best at something – just for glory, and just for a medal. (By giving up their lives, I mean, to live like a monk, forgo everything else and go through a harsh training regime) That is too much. And yet I’m sure the sharper ones amongst you would notice that Usain Bolt has probably also given up a lot. I suppose how hard you want to push is a matter of degree. There is no fine line. At some point, you’d suddenly realise that it’s no longer fun, that you’re basically a small part of an army, that all your happiness is being sacrificed for the sake of glory – I don’t want that. Someone else can keep those medals. I don’t want to do it to earn my nation bragging rights.

Sports is a lot of things. I feel that football is a beautiful game, and it exists for reasons other than glory. In fact, some of the really harsh games – the ones where the training is brutal, the ones which involve sheer physical attributes like strength, speed, flexibility, endurance, rather than thinking and solving puzzles like team games – can be about beauty and the apex of the human spirit. But the price that people have to pay, going into that training day in and day out would be too much for me. The relentless drive towards a very narrowly defined perfection just feels very suffocating to me.

I'm not really against sports. I once managed to finish a marathon so I know what it's like to feel proud of yourself, that you can push yourself very far, to a level that you never thought possible. But for me the sky is not the limit. There is a limit to everything, and the limit comes when it dawns on you that you shouldn't be paying out a higher price than what that glory is worth.

Grassroot sports vs Elite sports

There's this article that makes the argument that sporting excellence is a reflection of how much a government is willing to invest in its own people. That's a very nice argument, but to me, there is still a difference between nurturing sports excellence at the highest level and nurturing a good sports culture amongst your own people.

The other aspect of this argument is – should we develop sports at the grassroots level or at the elite level. First, consider the England national football team. It’s often been said that England suffers during international tournaments because the EPL is the most brutal in the world. But that ignores the fact that the people who play the most matches in Europe are Xavi and Iniesta, who are also the people who play the most passes per game. The reason of fatigue is not convincing.

Some people attribute the reason for England’s persistent underwhelming performance at international level to how the English league forces the English players to focus more on club football instead of international football. This ignores the fact that the European countries which do well in the tournaments are also the ones with excellent leagues – Germany, Spain and Italy are also doing well, aren’t they? Another possible reason is that English referees are more lenient, and the officiating does not protect people well against injuries. There is a bit of truth to this, seeing as it is a lot of English players are often injured. There are so many English players who, because of injuries, never found their full potential. Jonathan Woodgate. Ledley King. Michael Owen. Dean Ashton. Jack Wilshire.

But a more important reason is that in the English Premier League, there are too many foreigners. In the Italian, German and Spanish leagues, most of the players are still homegrown. For some reason, the English Premier League has the lowest proportion of home-grown players amongst the major leagues.

Why is this so? Some people put it down to the training, and skill is not as highly prized as physicality in the lower age groups. But that means that all those people who do well for England in the U-20 / U-23 / U-18 competitions are the ones who grew up more quickly? That’s nuts.

Some people put it down to the fact that English players command a higher premium when it comes to price. That is in turn probably due to the fact that English players are rare, which means there is a vicious cycle at work. English players are rare, and therefore they command a higher transfer price. Because they command a higher price, the English clubs actually shun them, which leads to more talented Englishmen dropping out of the sport.

Another possibility is that due to the financial constraints that the clubs work under, they are more apt to be more sensitive to price. English clubs are not poor, but they are probably very susceptible to going broke. The number of clubs which have flirted with financial troubles upon going down to the second division is higher than other countries. Wimbledon. Ipswich. Coventry. Leeds. Leicester. Charlton. West Ham. Derby. And last but not least Portsmouth. Maybe it is only in England that there are two divisions worth of clubs who could plausibly consider themselves big names, but only one premier division. Maybe England has the toughest second tier in the whole of Europe, and they have a situation where all three clubs which get relegated every year are medium sized clubs. Therefore these clubs absolutely have to save money on players. Therefore these clubs absolutely have to fill their ranks with foreigners. Anyway, look at this article. It makes the point that sporting greatness should reflect the degree to which the government is willing to nurture and develop talent. The EPL has proven to be very bad for the English team. It was good for them for a few years: the short boost that they provided to English football resulted in a fairly decent Euro 96 team. After that came the so-called “golden generation” where the bad attitudes of “star” players like Rooney, Lampard, Gerrard and Terry contributed to the fall of the England team. And after that the talent generation machine dried up altogether.

So I think you can see that the English Premier League is a cautionary tale where you can well see that success at the club level can be bought, and you can place your biggest English football clubs as among the best in the world. But at the same time it can have detrimental effects on sports at the local grassroots level.

So What About Singapore?

So, how shall I judge the sporting achievements of Singapore in light of all the arguments I had earlier raised?

First, are we good at nurturing home-grown talent? I think that Singapore is putting effort into nurturing sporting talent. This has always been a big problem in Asian countries, where parents are always aspiring for their kids to do well. They would always want their kids to take the safe route, the easy route to money. It’s only in a country which has millions of peasants like China where you can build athlete factories. You might note that Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan do not have a lot of athletes doing well in the intensely competitive sports. Football is another matter: football is something that favours well to do countries because football is funded by gate receipts.

So Singapore is like the wealthier Asian countries because of the kiasu parent syndrome, and we’re already at a big disadvantage. But in spite of that, I think that we do build good facilities for our sportsmen. The downside is that Singapore is getting really crowded and children don’t really have proper playgrounds. This is not good for the development of children.

Second, are we neglecting the development of home grown talent? I will first answer this question for football. For football, I don’t think so. We have done well in the regional competitions since the S League has allowed us to unearth much more talent than if we were merely to send a team to the Malaysia Cup every year. It’s a good system in that sense. Not so good in the sense that it probably won’t sustain itself financially. We managed to get a good coach in Abramovich and hold on to him. We naturalise players from the Balkans and from Africa, but we have produced people like Noor Alam Shah, Lionel Lewis and Daniel Bennett. I think we’re OK. For the other sports, we aren’t going to shut out our own home grown talents to accommodate the foreigners. The foreigners raise the bar, and it might turn off a few Singaporeans (but we wouldn’t want those Singaporeans to be representing us anyway) but it has spurred the local Singaporeans to greater achievement, and you can’t say that’s a bad thing.

Third, is that sporting glory worth it? The thing is: do you want those athlete factories to be set up in Singapore? My answer, in case it hasn’t already been obvious is, no. If I had kids, I would not want those kids to grow up the way that Feng Tianwei or Li Jiawei or Wang Yuegu grew up, smacking that plastic ball 18 hours a day. I just don’t believe in that kind of sacrifice for that kind of glory. It’s an arrangement that pleases both parties. We bask in their reflected glory (since we don’t really consider them Singaporean) and they have a chance to win medals, which they wouldn’t have had back home in China. If they win, I would congratulate them. In this sense, the question of whether I would have wanted “real” Singaporeans to win those medals is somewhat irrelevant. I would not have wanted the “real” Singaporeans to make the necessary sacrifices in order to get those medals, and therefore those medals would not have meant anything to me. I’m just a little sad that we spent a lot of money on buying those medals, and that money would have been better spent on other things.

It's a shame that Feng Tianwei is bearing the brunt of Singaporeans' resentment of the people who are crowding them out of this island. I think that Singaporeans feel that the quality of their lives has gone down, and that they feel this has to do with being crowded off the island, and they see these medals as legitimising the idea of "foreign talent". You can't really blame them for not being too thrilled.

But in a bigger sense, there is another reason why Singaporeans should be cheering on Feng Tianwei. I know this slightly contradicts what I said but people should be happy whenever they win a medal. I complained that the cost of winning a medal is very high, but I never said that it wasn't a good thing in its own right. By not honouring Feng Tianwei, they're getting themselves used to the idea that an Olympic medal doesn't mean anything. If one day a "real" Singaporean mounts the podium, I won't be too surprised if they won't be cheering either, because if they were to cheer too loudly, they would suddenly be hypocrites. Then because of this initial negative reaction to Singapore winning a medal, the Olympics medal would be tainted, and that would be a shame. Look at Tan Howe Liang. I'm not surprised that he went on to languish in obscurity. Singaporeans have this self-loathing attitude where they don't celebrate their own achievements. That's the real shame of the Feng Tianwei affair.


Friday, August 03, 2012


I saw an article by Kirsten Han on what people used to do in elite schools.

It is very interesting. I used to go to a similar school and they ranked all the classes. I suppose it was pretty odious: I didn’t know how odious it was, because at that time I probably had very little conception of what merit meant, outside of scoring more than 95% on your tests. And I was in the “best” class, I didn’t have any conception of what was said to the other people in the other classes. And I didn’t struggle in school for any subject other than Chinese.

Later on I got into the gifted program. There were good years, and there were bad years. But overall it was a good experience. They didn’t rank people in there, which was good when I was doing badly, and really bad when I topped the class one year and had nothing to show for it. Other than being good at school I had other interests in music and drama. And I went on to believe that I could be good at almost anything I tried. Well, not really. I also played music, and while I still believe that I have a great musical mind, I was pretty crap at actually playing. So that should have been another warning sign.

The very dangerous thing about the gifted program is this: when you’re inside, you’re exposed to a great deal of things. You get time and space to develop your talents, and find the things you’re good at. That was very good for me because I was flexible enough to be good at quite a few things. But you also get cut off from the rat race. Because it’s a more forgiving place, once you’re inside, you forget that you have to keep on striving for the top. There’s more of an emphasis on nurturing the love for learning rather than pushing you hard. Unfortunately in real life, you actually need both: if you have one but not the other you won’t get very far. So generally I would say that people might have a little bit less fire if they came from the gifted program, although there were quite a few people in there who were very hardworking.

I knew from my days in the gifted program that relationships between the gifted people and those outside the gifted program were not very good. In fact one of the worst things that happened to me during those years was that I hardly had any friends outside of the gifted program, and that was something that I would live to regret for quite some time.

I left the gifted program and I got into JC. That was where the problems started: I didn’t really know how to connect to those people who were outside of that system. I gradually learnt, but it was too late: JC is really the time for you to make good friends for life. The GEP is in its way a nerd paradise, and if you don’t learn how to connect with non-nerds, then it can be a little tough. Until today, I’m still a little wary of non-nerds.

I got into NS, and it was even worse. There were some tough moments. At the same time I started realising that there were things I wasn’t very good at, and a lot of them had to do with practical soldiery stuff. I was prepared for that, because my parents would usually warn me, even when I was a kid, that being good at school was never good enough.

I got into Snowy Hill. This was my first taste of life in another country. It was an exciting but very chaotic part in my life. Social life was pretty bleah. I did learn how to be cool and get on with the Singaporeans who were there, but I just wasn’t getting through to the Americans. I guess I’m just not good at transcending cultural differences.

When I got to work, that was the toughest time in my life. The first few years were the worst. I think a few of the colleagues would understand that our work is pretty tough in the sense that you’re the only person who can see and understand the relevance of your own work. I had a few bosses who were openly doubtful of my ability for the first few years. My grades at Snowy Hill were not fantastic and they were constantly using that against me: it’s as though there wasn’t a real need to open your eyes and see your employees for who they are. Eventually when I left that place, though, I was in a much better position than when I entered it. I wasn’t going to be a model employee quite yet, but at least they managed to see the worth in me. There was this guy – he seemed pretty intent to second guess everything I wanted to do. I’m pretty glad that I didn’t have to work for him much after the first few years – maybe things would have been better after that, but it doesn’t really matter now.

When I look back upon those days, I think I could have accomplished what I did in around half the time, but if I did that, I wouldn’t have had the time and energy to do other things like read 400 books, write 500 blog posts and run a marathon. So I’ve been at the two extremes. I’ve known what it’s like to have the benefit of the doubt because people think you’re smart, and I’ve known what it’s like to be constantly questioned because people always doubt you. When I was in school, I had a few good years, and then I slid back. And during the time that I slid back, people were always treating me like “the genius who didn’t try hard”. Or during the years at work, people were ignoring me and even saying things like, “I don’t know why you keep on trying”. But I did persevere anyway. And I’ve come to realize that for creative people, especially people with new and different ideas, you do have to expect that people are going to turn you away. You just have to do it anyway. Of course, I have to say that when my bosses put down my ideas, they were right around half of the time. Which means you do have to be very clever about which half you’re going to fight for.

I’m too old to worry about my own ego. Of course it’s dangerous that I can’t really tell whether I’m an egoist or not. It used to be such a big issue during my younger days, but somehow, not right now. Anyway I’m really too old to be worrying about whether my ego. I should be worrying about the egos of young people, and how they manage it.

The thing is, ego is not as important as motivation. I know that we Asians hate egoistic people, but there’s nothing wrong with a good and strong ego. I’ve come to realise that self-doubt can be paralysing. And I’ve come to understand that the elites of the society would want to make sure that generally people have a low ego, because it’s easier to control the underclass that way. Sometime in my college, I stopped worrying about my ego, and started worrying about my motivation instead. That was a very good switch because your ego really affects very little other than whether you’re rubbing people the right or wrong way.

Another thing that is very important for you to remember is that everybody has a very different set of talents. There were people at school I used to thrash at mathematics, but I was never good as them at English. That is important: more important than ego. More important than understanding how good you are is understanding how good your are at what. That can fight off the ego problems. If you are weak at your studies, you can always remind yourself from time to time that you're good at sports to lift yourself up. If you are always scoring As, you have to ask yourself whether it's that important, whether it's going to matter in the larger working world.

It used to be quite a big issue when I was younger. But it was never as big a problem as my teachers or my parents had feared. If I could go back in time, I would say to them, “I’m interested in knowledge. I’m interested in music. I’m not particularly interested in looking at myself in the mirror.” And my mother, who was totally clueless about reading people was pretty shocked when I came to the conclusion that I had low self-esteem when I was younger. She always thought that I was too arrogant and needed to be taught a lesson. When you have a situation like this, you can imagine what a disaster it can be.

I would say that your opinion of yourself should be slightly higher than the reality, but not much higher. You should have to shut off criticism to a certain extent. People always complain about cognitive dissonance and bias against changing your mind. But we all need a bit of stubbornness to a certain extent. You can’t be changing your mind too much, and there is a very delicate balance between standing up for what you believe in or changing your mind when you’re confronted with too much evidence to the contrary.

So there’s no hard and fast rule about how you’re going to manage the ego of a young person. I think ultimately you have to be managing his motivation, rather than his ego.