Go with a smile!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Trump and the spirit of 2011

Sometimes I look at the appeal that Trump has for the common people – for rank and file White Americans. I wonder this came about. Then I think back on 2011.

When I came to the University of Mexico, I met a guy who studied in Singapore up till JC, he was from China, and he told me that he was pretty unnerved by the political climate of 2011, when the popularity of the opposition reached its peak. There was a lot of talk about how the policies of the government failed, in particular with regards to immigration. If you had too much immigration in Singapore, there would be a backlash, and there was a backlash.

A lot of us were wondering why the immigrants would staunchly support the PAP. Now that I’m living in a country where Trump enjoys a great surge of popularity, I’m beginning to understand. Personally, I can’t vote in America. But it matters to me who becomes the president of the United States, because I’m a resident in the USA, and because I’m a Singaporean. Some people might question whether I have a right to comment on the presidential election in the USA. Well, it affects me, so I’m a stakeholder, like it or not. So the fact that I’m a stakeholder and yet don’t have a say in whether or not Trump becomes the president is actually pretty unfair.

US foreign policy has always been an important issue in Southeast Asia. I didn’t understand this very well before I went to Snowy Hill, and I used to think that we are really a sovereign nation. And I got taught about the history of southeast Asia from the American perspective, and that overemphasises the American part and deemphasizes the native part. But there are patterns which emerge. Sukarno was supported by the Americans, as was Ferdinand Marcos. The King of Thailand was an ally of the United States. The communist insurgency in Malaya got put down. I think everybody saw that if they didn’t co-operate, there would be a Vietnam style consequences.

Anyway, US foreign policy has had a huge impact on Southeast Asia. In many ways, the huge event that I lived through – the Asian Financial crisis, was also in many ways American made, and in many ways it marked a departure from our close ties with the US. You couldn’t really trust the US after they screwed up so many of their economies. But the US still provides defence for Japan and South Korea against China and North Korea. And Vietnam and Philippines have become pretty alarmed at the advances and occupation of the islands in the middle of the South China Sea by China.

In 2011, after decades of rejecting the opposition parties, we swung towards them. We had always admired their grit and fortitude, although we didn’t know if they would make good rulers. This time, there was a great coalition of people who were willing to stand up against the government. What this movement had in common with Trump was that it was caused by peoples’ resentment of the system. Not the government, but the system. The government – corporations nexus that was building a system that favoured a select few, but made everybody worse off. Everybody knew that. The opposition was surprisingly strong in 2011, and there were people who were of a higher caliber than what we were used to in the opposition parties. (Some of them have since left). In 2016 America, it had always been a two party democracy, but within the two parties, there were the Trump and Sanders uprisings.

The Sanders uprising was somewhat benign. At least the two sides appeared cordial in public, and they agreed to have civil debates. But Hillary is at best a pretty uninspiring candidate, and people vote on emotions. There are doubts about Hillary. There was the very bad decision over what to do with her emails. Everybody knows that she was already thinking of running for president, and trying to minimise the amount of dirt that could be dragged out of her. But in the process, the way that she handled her email account was incredibly risky and opened her up to a lot of criticism.

Also, some people have not been completely happy about a few shenanigans. Hillary is not having a commanding lead ahead of Bernie Sanders, in terms of primary voting, but somehow she got all the superdelegates. This is not too hard to understand: she is the establishment candidate, and Bernie Sanders is the insurgent. Plus there are some things about the way that the primary elections that were conducted that make you want to raise your eyebrows. For example, there were stories of election centers in Illinois and Arkansas running out of ballot slips before people got to vote in them (probably for Bernie Sanders).

I think somewhat about the politics. “Business as usual” candidates are pretty unpopular. People understand that they haven’t been well served by the system and they’re pissed off, and when they’re pissed off, they will either vote in somebody else who they think is better suited to change the system, or they will vote against the establishment in order to apply political pressure on them.

So what are the similarities between Donald Trump and the opposition parties in 2011?

First, two of the main issues are remarkably similar: immigrants and the rising gap between the rich and the poor. The opposition parties in Singapore have complained that there has been too much immigration, and the native born Singaporeans are being squeezed out. In America, there is much lesser reason to complain about immigrants, because with the exception of Silicon Valley and New York, America isn’t really going to be overcrowded anytime soon. But they are also feeling the squeeze on the quality of jobs, and they are also feeling that the character of the country is changing. There is a nostalgia for the good old days when America was America (and much more white than it is now). And similarly in Singapore there is a nostalgia for the days when it was just CIMO and nobody else.

In Singapore, we were pretty nuanced about it, I think. We knew that this was about being squeezed out by immigrants, rather than any explicit hatred of foreigners. We never associated them with crime, the way that Donald Trump equates them with rapists and murderers. But the environment veered dangerously close to xenophobia. That was the first time I really doubted that Singapore was truly open to the rest of the world. Regarding the gap between the rich and the poor, this is something that’s also been experienced by many Singaporeans and Americans. Singaporeans had 20-30 years when it seemed as though prosperity was across the board, and from the Asian financial crisis onwards, it seemed as though there would be an elite who would be able to progress economically, and everybody else who wouldn’t. We could see the cost of living going up, and the GDP going up, but the workers’ wages would remain stagnant.

In America, corporations were offshoring their jobs on a regular basis. Unemployment would be relatively low (although there are plenty of people who stop looking for jobs and they are not counted in the statistics). But the quality of work would go down. There were the fat years, and they were going, going, gone. The manufacturing jobs – the ones that were supposed to be secure and gave you a middle class existence – were gone. The second aspect in which these two were similar was that both were a reaction against the “politics as usual”. We wanted change, and we’d take it, regardless of the form in which they came. Any opposition politician who came along and was halfway decent would receive our adulation, because there was a great skepticism that anybody would be able to work within the system to change it for the better. Similarly, in America, the Republicans were facing the Trump revolt (successful) and the Democrats were facing the Sanders revolt (somewhat less successful).

We saw two unfamiliar figures in America. One of them was the progressive socialist: Bernie Sanders. America hasn’t really had a socialist in power since at least FDR’s vice president. George McGovern got roundly trashed when he ran in 1972. Barack Obama was never a socialist: the best way to describe him is slightly left of center. He never talked about dismantling the existing power structure the way that Bernie Sanders did. He did turn the screws on plenty of entrenched interests: fuck the people who want another war in the Middle East. Fuck the people who want to continue the embargos on Iran and Cuba. Fuck the pro-Israel / anti-Palestinian lobby.

The other figure was Donald Trump. It used to be that Sarah Palin was the “know nothing”, a governor of a provincial state who was chosen for being photogenic and being able to pander to the right wing of the Republican party. Donald Trump was the guy who had no experience in government, doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but is a brilliant marketer and improviser.

Many of us thought that the PAP was going to lose power one day, with the momentum going firmly against them. But the pendulum has swung back. Low Thia Khiang did a wonderful job with the Worker’s Party, working with his constraints. But he’ll probably be remembered as one of the confederate generals during the US Civil war: known for their great leadership qualities, struggling against great odds, but the leader of an insurgency that did not successfully foment a revolution.

The other characters that we saw: there were a few youngsters that seemed to portend the rise of a new generation that drives the opposition. But they fell away after that pretty soon. Many of the most visible and successful of the opposition candidates did not acquire leadership positions in their opposition parties, and many left them afterwards. There was a revolution in the PAP, all right. After the 2011 elections, quite likely the old Goh Chok Tong stalwarts either resigned or were told to leave.

There seemed to be plans for a revolution. I remember when SDP started coming up with policy papers. Tan Jee Say even wrote out a fairly detailed plan and manifesto for Singapore, and incredibly got a high ranking UK civil servant to endorse it. (Although, seeing the way that the UK is being run these days, it is a bit of a dubious thing to get endorsed by that guy.) It does remind me of Bernie Sanders' economic plans. They promise a lot, they tell you there is a different way, and quite possibly life is going to get better for you. But how does that work out in practice? To tell you the truth, I got a little excited at looking at TJS' plans. I didn't agree with everything, but I thought that you had to work out the details, but here there was something to start with. After seeing the way that he's run his political career, one hopes that he is a more competent civil servant than a politician.

It's strange to compare something that I used to love (the opposition) and something that I hate (Donald Trump) and there are many many important differences. But the similarities are also quite striking. Ultimately, what I would say about the years between 2011 and now: the PAP managed to reinvent itself. Not as much as I was hoping for, but somewhat. The opposition, with the exception of WP, hasn't. And even WP is facing growing pains, but we already knew that. Hopefully what Low Thia Khiang has built up will endure, and hopefully there will be a second viable party in Singapore, but it won't grow into a full fledged taking over of the government anytime soon.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Football Superstition 2 Year of the Monkey Edition

What is it about the year of the monkey that turns up so many weird stories in football?

In 1980, Nottingham Forest defended its European Cup, shock winners 2 years in a row. They are the only former winner of the European Cup to have more European Cups than league wins.

In 1992, the Danish football team won the European championships, although in those days it was only 8 teams and very easy to have a shock champion.

In 2004, Greece won the European championships. Also, Arsenal managed to go through one whole season in the English Premier League without getting beaten. That was difficult back then and impossible now: these days even the smaller clubs are very competitive. England is a little unusual because there are around 40 clubs which boast a great history. I'm sure there are around 10 clubs outside of the top flight who are former league winners.

In 2016, if one of the top two teams – Leicester and Tottenham win the English Premier League, it would be very unusual. So far, there have only been 5 winners of the EPL – Man U, Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City. In the first 10 years, only Man U, Blackburn and Arsenal have been champions. Suddenly, we have a situation where there are 4 different winners in 4 years – Man U, Man City, Chelsea and one of those three. That is what it’s like when Alex Ferguson is not around. It’s no longer the case where the only way to win a title is to beat Man U.

Also, on the relegation front, there are 2 big clubs that are going down - Aston Villa and at least one out of Sunderland and Newcastle.


Monday, March 14, 2016

Football Superstition and Whither Arsenal?

Football and Superstition
I’ve probably mentioned it before on this blog, that I’m a little bit superstitious about the football leagues and how they influenced my life. I usually look at two competitions, the World Cup and the EPL. I’ve noted that the four years that follow a Brazil win in the World Cup are usually unhappy years in my life. That the four years that follow a first time Champion are pretty blissful (so I was pretty happy that France and Spain won their world cups). I was too young to remember what it was like in the 4 years that followed Argentina 1978 but they must have been pretty damn awesome. Following a Germany win? I don’t know.

I haven’t tried to analyse what happens when the Champion’s league. Anyway the Champion’s league is pretty boring. Over the last 7 years, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have won the Champion’s League 5 times. And over the last 20 years, they have won it 10 times between them. Regarding the premier league, I was barely into my teens when Liverpool won their last title. I was in my diapers when Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa won their titles, so I can’t really tell what it’s like. In the years when Chelsea were the defending champions, they were pretty average, neither really good or really bad years. So this would probably be an average year. In the years when somebody pretty left field defends the title, like Leeds or Blackburn, they were pretty great years. But as we know, Leeds and Blackburn did terrible jobs at defending their titles. I would have liked to see what it’d have been like if Newcastle had won the title in 1996 instead of Manchester United. It was an extraordinary collapse, and it was a fork in the road. It’s not that Manchester United were a terrible team to watch, and I’m sure that Alex Ferguson would still have led that team to greater heights regardless of whether they won the title that year. But I think that Man U winning that title portended a period of time when relatively few clubs would dominate English football. There was another possibility when Leeds United came close to joining that club, and they overextended themselves so much that they are probably still paying the price today. It’s a little strange to think of Liverpool as a “small” club, but their title challenges in the 2009 and 2014 seasons are pretty improbable, although, you would say that Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling are world class players.

Think of the period from 2005 to 2009 when Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal would have a virtual stranglehold on the top 4. And between 2010 and 2015, with only 2 exceptions, Man U, Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal have swept the top 4). As it is, Leicester will probably win the title. And even if Leicester doesn’t win, Tottenham will win it. And it will be the first time in my life either of them have won it.

When Arsenal wins the league, it’s really interesting. They were pretty difficult and interesting years, and I’ve had to struggle quite a bit to rise up to the challenge, but at the end of the challenging days, I would find that I had had quite a bit of personal growth. Arsenal were defending their titles when I was taking my PSLE and in my first year in secondary school, when I was in my difficult 14th year, when everybody grows up. (14 years old is the time when everybody stops being friends with each other and factions start to form in high school.) It was my first year in college, my first year in working life. When they won in 2004, that was when my grandmother’s health started to falter and we had to figure out how to care for her. So I have some interest in seeing Arsenal win the title at least one more time in my life.

Whither Arsenal?
Arsenal are an interesting case. At 2004, Arsenal were by some distance the best team in the country, and it seemed like they had finally seen off the challenge of Man U. Man U were in the middle of the lean Van Nistlerooy years, and would not mount a challenge soon. But they were hit with a double whammy. First, there was the rise of Chelsea, which meant that they would never be able to compete financially with them. Second, Arsenal were moving to a new stadium in Ashburton Grove and had to cut back on paying their best players. Their great Invincibles team disbanded quickly: there were some who would be past their peak: Bergkamp, Vieira, Campbell and Llungberg. There were those who never quite recovered their form, like Pires, Lauren, Edu, and Kolo Toure. That would leave Henry and Fabregas as the only genuine world class players in Arsenal for a couple of years.

What followed next is a series of disappointments. There were FA cup wins in 2005, 2014 and 2015. But other than that, disappointment after disappointment. There was the improbable march to the 2006 Champion’s League final in 2006 in Paris, the home city of Thierry Henry. But they spent most of that match playing one man down, and who knows what would have happened? In 2008, they got in William Gallas and made him the captain, in the hope that he’d bring in some of the ethos of the famous Chelsea defence. It didn’t work, and there’s no reason to suppose that it would also work with Petr Cech. There was an infamous end of the season collapse in 2008. There was an infamous match against Birmingham, and I remember not really watching that match, but first, there was the horrible leg break on Eduardo, and his career has never recovered. Then there was the time when Birmingham was awarded a last minute penalty, and William Gallas threw a hissy fit. A week or two later, Man U beat Arsenal in a FA cup match. There was this infamous moment when Nani tried to showboat against Arsenal after they were 4-0 up against them.

Now here’s the thing. We didn’t know it yet, but in 2008, Man U were in the middle of their last great team. They had a lot of promising youngsters, many of which were of Portuguese or Brazillian origin – Nani, Anderson, and the Da Silva twins. And none of them fulfilled their potential. We didn’t know it, but the three-peat of 2006-2009 for Man U was the last time anybody would successfully defend an EPL title. But, I would say that the last 5 years of Alex Ferguson’s reign at Man U were the greatest years of his reign, because he figured out how to take a flawed team, and grind titles out of them. There isn’t any reason why he should have won the titles in 2011 and 2013, but somehow, he managed to do it.

Arsene Wenger, on the other hand, may have been dealt worse hands, but he didn’t manage to grind them to victories. There were many other cases of him snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In 2011, 2014 and now, in 2016, he managed to take his team to the pole position 2-3 months away from the end of the season, and somehow he managed to contrive a late season slump in form which would see their hopes evaporate. In all the other years, the season would be extremely underwhelming, until a late season flourish would see them grab the 4th place.

In a way, I see this season as a repeat of last season. On average, they would perform as well as this season. Of course, if they ended this season with 79 points like last season, they would win the title, but this is a season where everybody was unusually strong. There’s been a lot of talk about how Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa have suddenly regressed and are the brink of relegation. No, they are on the brink of relegation because everybody has improved to the point where there aren’t 3 other teams which are crap. Only Aston Villa are truly crap, but that’s the price you pay for selling away Fabian Delph, Tom Cleverley and Christian Benteke all at the same time. The clubs that came in – Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich are pretty good, although Norwich are in a relegation scrap. West Ham, Southampton, Leicester, Stoke, Crystal Palace and Tottenham are all punching above their weight. Accordingly, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Man U and Everton have underperformed. The English Premier League does not have any team which is truly great, but this is a genuinely competitive league.

The problem with Arsenal is that something always screws up. There will always be one or two cards short of a full deck, and it will always be frustrating. During the days of Fabregas, Hleb and Flamini, the problem was that their best players would always want to leave. Thus, you had those three leaving in the end, you had Van Persie leaving right after his best ever season, when he still had two good seasons left in him, and when he helped Man U to win the league. You had Gael Chichy, Samir Nasri, Emanuel Adebayor, Bacary Sagna and Kolo Toure joining Man City. You had Fabregas, Hleb and Henry joining Barcelona. Then you had players who were good but were always getting injured, like Abou Diaby, Eduardo, Jack Wilshire and Aaron Ramsey.

Then, of late, you managed to stem the tide, and you have a neat squad with Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchex, Mesut Ozil, Santi Carzola and Petr Cech. On top of good squad players like Arteta and Rosicky who were not always playing, but old heads. So you proved that you didn’t always need to rely on youngsters. Then what? You wouldn’t necessarily solve your injury problems. One season or two ago, you proved that you could win ugly, by going direct and pumping the ball to Giroud. But then of late you’d have one or two players sent off for indiscipline. You finally had a good defensive partnership in Koscielny and Mertesacker, but you wouldn’t have a good defensive midfielder covering him. Or maybe you would have Coquelin looking like the real deal for half a season before he gets injured.

One season ago, you would have the problem that Arsenal would lose all their matches to their direct title rivals, and that would cost your ability to win the league. Fair enough, that problem has been fixed. Arsenal have done well against Leicester, winning against them, a little improbably. They managed a draw against Tottenham, in spite of playing one Coquelin down for part of the match. They beat Man City in winter, and that was the moment when you felt that maybe this might be their season after all.

But then Per Mertesacker would be sent off against Chelsea, and they would lose. Coquelin would be sent off, and they would struggle against Tottenham. Nacho Monreal would concede a penalty to Jamie Vardy, and they would struggle to beat Leicester. Then they would lose to Barcelona, Swansea, Man United (when Man United aren’t that good), and Watford. So now, instead of losing to the stronger teams, they would lose to the weaker teams. They could still string together a string of wins from now until the end of the premier league season, and Tottenham and Leicester are far from infallible, but they would only win the premier league if they do that AND both the other teams screw up, and the chances of that happening are not good. Santi Carzola, Aaron Ramsay and Jack Wilshire are not coming back anytime soon. Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott are out of form. In a way, this was like the Chelsea team of last season: during the first half, they were excellent, and in the second half, they were pretty average. But even when they were pretty average, Mourinho would manage to squeeze the last drop of performance out of them, and they did pay for it in the first half of this season, and Mourinho would find himself sacked, but they would have won the title. Arsene Wenger would not do that, and at some point down the road, quite far down the road, his team would have yet another second wind, that would see them embark on a good run. But by then, they would have lost every trophy that was on the table.

As for the question of whether Arsene Wenger has to go, let’s put it this way. During this season, they called for Mourinho’s head, and they got Mourinho’s head. This season they called for Rodger’s head and they got Rodger’s head. They called for Pellegrini’s head and they got Pellegrini’s head. They have called Van Gaal’s head, and they will probably get Van Gaal’s head in the end. That leaves Arsene Wenger. I think they’re getting a little frustrated that they can’t sack Arsene Wenger. Well, I think we’re in an era where every team is in permanent transition. Nobody ever has a period of complete and total domination in the premier league. Maybe Barcelona and Real Madrid can jointly dominate La Liga, and even then, they had to deal with the rise of Atletico Madrid. Maybe Bayern Munich can dominate the Bundesliga but they had to deal with the challenge of Borussia Dortmund. In the premier league, even Alex Ferguson had to build up 3 great teams, the 1994 team, the 1999 team and the 2008 team, and in the middle, he would lose titles to Blackburn, Arsenal and Chelsea.

So Man City was unable to build a dynasty that won titles on a regular basis. They might have two titles, but unless they build another Yaya – Silva – Hart – Kompany – Aguero axis, that’s not going to happen. Both titles were nailbiters to the finish, rather than coronations. Liverpool managed to improve to the point where they were within a hair’s breath of the title, and then fall away when they lost Suarez, Sterling, Gerrard and got Sturridge injured. These things ebb and flow. Arsenal ebb and flow too, but they ebb and flow really quickly, often within the course of the season, which is why all their seasons look the same: half great and half crap. No sooner is something fixed than something breaks down again. That is why, I think, I’m not exactly sure that Arsene Wenger has to go. He’s only got continuity on his side. Not very long ago, the premier league had 3 long reigning managers, in Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Arsene Wenger. Then Alex Ferguson said goodbye and David Moyes took over, effectively obliterating those long reigns. Did things improve? No. Man U went backwards. Everton’s Martinez looked good on paper, but they had a fragile mentality, just like Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. They have great players like John Stones, Ross Barkley, Tom Cleverley and Romalu Lukaku, and somehow still can’t climb off the bottom half of the table. The argument is that Arsene Wenger had a great chance to win the title, but he blew it. But consider this: Chelsea has to be rebuilt, Man U has to be rebuilt, Liverpool is still being rebuilt, Tottenham are good but unlikely to be even better next season, Leicester City, even if they win the title, outsiders who win the league often don’t defend their titles well, as Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Leeds and Blackburn Rovers have shown us. They rarely rise up to the challenge of taking it to the next level. The one main exception, and it is a very notable exception, is Manchester United, lest a few of us forget that when they won the title in 1993, they were a bit of outsiders too.

So, I can understand why Arsene Wenger is not going to get fired. He will have one last chance to get it right. You can understand why he didn’t get it right. He is just not good at buying defensive players. Yes, he bought Vieira and Koscielny. But the ones that were successful, like Sol Campbell and Mertesacker were already proven quantities. His teams have a soft center, and that’s why their defenders are often getting sent off. Perhaps he isn’t quite up to date on the latest coaching methods. People are extremely methodical these days, and he talks of giving his players the “freedom” to go “express themselves”. When you read between the lines, that means that his instructions to them aren’t sufficiently detailed enough. The thing is that the premier league is now attracting some of the best coaches in the world. We had Mourinho for a while, then we have Benitez, Pellegrini and Klopp. Slaven Bilic, Ronald Koeman and Pochettino are showing themselves to be great young things, although sometimes I wonder about their lasting power. There will always be the old warhorses like Mark Hughes, Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce. And Bournemouth, Swansea and Watford also have bosses with good solid seasons. I think we’d just let Arsene Wenger have one last season at Arsenal, and then we’ll see who next becomes available. Maybe Laurent Blanc from PSG? Maybe Arsenal will take a chance on one of the bright young things? Louis Van Gaal wouldn’t necessarily be bad for Arsenal, but Man U is his last job.

Regarding Leicester, what they have to do is to avoid having a late season collapse, and allowing Tottenham to catch up with them. Claudio Ranieri is a manager, though, whose record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. The last time he was in the premier league, he managed to gamely improve Chelsea FC year on year, and he did set up a foundation for Mourinho to build upon. But he has never won a major league title in his long career, although there were plenty of good 2nd and 3rd place finishes. He deserves something, after being a little unfortunate about being asked to vacate his seat for Mourinho. But I’m a little worried for him. I just hope he can take it to the end, because this is his last and best stab at a league title. Next season, Arsenal and Tottenham will be favourites, regardless of whether Leicester City end up as champions.

My years of watching football
I also have to say: I had a period of time when I did care about football. I followed the Malaysia Cup seasons of the dream team of 1993 and the double winning team of 1994, and they allowed a good thing to get destroyed. I remember the World Cup 1994, and there were 3 fairy tales for Sweden, Bulgaria and Romania. I remember how exciting the 1995 race between Man U and Blackburn was, and also the 1996 race between Man U and Newcastle. 1996 was the year of two disappointments, that Newcastle not winning the EPL (although they probably shouldn’t have, they were a bit like a Man City who spent big money). And England not winning Euro 96, when that was their best chance in a generation. How shocking it was that a team like Arsenal could seemingly come out of nowhere and pip Man U to the title in 1998. Singapore’s win in the Tiger Cup in 1998 was a shocker, but how were we to know that it was only the first of four? Man U’s treble of 1999 was very romantic. But then after that, things started becoming a little boring. France winning the Euros in 2000 was nice, although we didn’t know back then that this was the high watermark. 2002’s world cup was pretty remarkable because all the great powers fell relatively early. By right, we should have thought that Turkey, South Korea and Senegal had fairy tales, but they’re not going to be seen in the same light as the Sweden, Bulgaria and Romania teams of 1994. In the end, it was Brazil winning a world cup, and for them to win one out of the 1998 and 2002 world cups sounds about right. After that, though, football got a bit boring, and maybe the reason why a lot of us like Arsenal so much is that in between 2000 and 2008, the only bright spot was the Arsenal invincibles winning the league in 2004. It was a terrible era of defensive football. Greece winning the league in 2004 should have been a fairy tale, but in hindsight, I would have preferred Portugal, with their golden generation, to win it. England had a so-called “golden generation” but a team with Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Cole, Beckham, Terry, the Neville brothers, Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Carragher, Hargreaves and Rooney in it somehow failed to get past the quarters time and again. They would be the equivalent of the Liverpool spice boys of the 90s, a bunch of guys whose reputation and celebrity status exceeded their ability to shine on the international stage.

2008, and enter the wonderful world of Tiki Taka football. That was a welcome break, and I enjoyed Spain winning their 3 trophies – 2 Euros and 1 World Cup. And I’m not counting against them defending their Euros this year! I suppose Man U getting their Champion’s league in 2008 was nice, although maybe this was around the time when I got bored of the show. It’s nice, though, that Barcelona won the Champion’s League 3 times, in 2009, 2011 and 2015. Always nice to be living in the same time period as one of the greatest teams of all time.

But it’s starting to get a little boring. Even the 2014 World Cup, when we had nice little exciting teams like Colombia, Costa Rica and Chile don’t really make me excited. Maybe Lionel Messi winning a World Cup might make me excited. I’m pretty happy that Germany won a world cup, because they got so close in 2006 and 2010, and in the Euros of 2008 and 2012.

Maybe I’m at an age when I no longer am out and about and playing games and learning from them. IT’s hard to be a sports fan after a certain age. I will live long enough to see Arsenal win another league title, I think. Otherwise they might be like Liverpool, people know they were one of the great teams but they’re not winning another title. Or they might be like Burnley, Portsmouth, Blackburn, Huddersfield Town or Wolves, nobody really remembers the period of time when they were dominating English football. The thing is, English football is a little unusual because so many teams have become league champions before. I think that the next year of English Premier League will be quite interesting because this is one of the rare occasions when Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City are not quite at their best.

Maybe some happier topics, like Euro 2016. The hot favourites are Spain, Germany, and France. But England – for some reason England are in a similar position as 1996, when not much was expected of them. They were expected to be shit in 2014 and they were shit. But suddenly, a lot of young talent is starting to flower. In terms of established names, who are stars for great clubs, there aren’t many in England. But in terms of youngsters who are putting in a good shift here and there, suddenly there is an embarrassment of riches. Consider the following names who are potential members of the 2016 squad: Rooney, Vardy, Sturridge, Sterling, Kane, Walcott, Hart, Alli, Welbeck, Wilshire, Smalling, Llalana, Carrick, Butland, Carrick, Butland, Cahill, Milner, Henderson, Dyer, Stones, Delph, Caulker, Lambert, Zaha.

For the first time in a long while, England enter the tournament as veritable dark horses. They aren’t Germany, who can get the best of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. They aren’t Spain, who can put in the best of the two Madrids and Barcelona. But they don’t look like weaklings anymore.

There were years when I was more into football. In my last few years in Singapore, the nights of weekends would invariably be spent trawling a few kopitiam outlets when they would screen matches. I used to like going there because I liked the idea of people in a kampung watching football together. But I knew that that was a bunch of guys which had an unusually high proportion of the bad hats of society. There were years, in the boring eras, when I could place bets on really boring and predictable outcomes, when the big four of the EPL would win their matches with distressing regularity. But now, I'd be pretty foolish to bet on football anymore. I guess, here in Mexico, I can always watch the highlights of recent matches for free, and things have become much less exciting. Still, even though I know that most probably one out of Spain, Germany and France will win Euro 2016, I'm looking for a favourable outcome for England. Likewise, I hope that America will go far in the 2016 Copa America.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Imposter Syndrome

When my sis and I were teenagers (and it seems like yesterday, but it was actually eons ago) we once had a conversation. This was back in the day when we were still philosophically curious. I told her about the idea of “fake it till you make it”. You have to pretend and wear a mask and risk being called a fraud in the beginning. Only after that will you be able to make it. I think she disagreed. Perhaps she’s a person who has always struggled with imposter syndrome for a lot of her life, which is a great pity because she’s also a person of great substance, hardworking and smart.

So the question is: do you believe that you are great first, or do you achieve something great first? This is the classic deadlock problem: if you say that you are not allowed to believe in your own greatness before you have achieved it, then it becomes hard. When you work, there is no dream to drive you forward. Then when you sian jik puah, there’s no morale, how are you going to achieve good results? I struggled with depression when I was in Snowy Hill. I learnt the lesson that it is something that has to be carefully managed, and you have to be on your guard against being depressed. You have to manage your mood.

So the obvious answer is that you have to pretend that you have taken one small step forward. Try to imagine what it feels like to have done the next available job on your list. Then do it. Then see if the feeling meets your expectations. Then after you are encouraged by completing that next step, repeat it over and over again. The important thing is to understand that whenever good things happen, it is only because you have successfully set up a system.

There were a few times in life when I achieved some things that people didn’t necessarily think I could achieve. First significant one was my becoming a playwright. I never breathed a word to anybody. Actually, there was a friend, and I discussed things with him. I used to go wandering around the bookshops at malls after school and I would read everything on pop culture that wasn’t shrinkwrapped. (That was a few years before the internet). I wasn’t even thinking about writing drama, but I set it as my long term goal to be some kind of an artist – playwright, songwriter, whatever. And in many ways, back then I was better than now, because I was still in touch with my emotions. After all, isn’t it typical of a teenager to feel things more intensely than at any time in their lives?

I already had a reputation for being a smartass in the classroom, but not for producing a serious work of fiction. One year earlier, I had attended a June holiday program on creative arts, but I wasn’t one of those selected to be paired up with a mentor. Because of the amount of time I was spending outside of school, I had this reputation for being a lazy underachiever. But once I put the skeleton of the plot points together (I may still have the piece of paper I scribbled it down on) I knew it was a great story, and that I just had to write it. There was a deadline for a competition, and that was the last week. I stayed up for 2 nights in a row to get it written. I only told my friends just before I stayed up, and they were laughing at me for wasting my time, but I had already made up my mind. I suppose it was this self-belief that helped me. It wasn’t the primary driving force, but without the self belief, nothing would have been possible.

I suppose another thing was that in RI they pushed you to the hardest. I didn’t know what was in store for me when I signed up for my uniformed group, but one or two of the training camps were pretty tough. I was never really active but it got me used to the idea that you had to exert a great amount of effort to succeed at tasks. It was the long distance mentality.

Later on, I was in the army. In a way I had already been prepared for it physically because of my uniformed group. But I wasn’t prepared for the cultural gap between myself and the other soldiers. I knew my BMT PC didn’t like me, but I was surprised that he wrote that I was a tough guy. (Maybe he did that in order to get me posted into a tough unit, which I was.) That was the first time in a long while I felt like a fish out of water, and it really trained me to think about not giving a shit about what other people thought.

It would be even worse during my time in Snowy Hill, although in many ways that was a less harsh environment. But there were times when I just shut down from not wanting to face going out to see the Americans. It took a while for my skin to get thick enough to meet them every day, and even today I’m not especially good at it. But somehow the imposter syndrome didn’t really kick in for me. It felt that when things were not going well for me, it was because I didn’t work hard enough, rather than because I wasn’t smart enough. But at the same time, I was face to face with one question that I had never thought to ask throughout my relatively privileged childhood: “what does it mean to be a member of the upper class?” What does it mean to be somebody’s boss? What does it mean to have a higher social status than everybody else? What does it mean to be striving for greater heights all the time? Till this point in time, it was easy to take things for granted. You were on the fast track. You only had to pass your exams and gain admissions into good schools. But from then on, it would be much different.

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, I left Snowy Hill wondering what might have been. There is so much going on in there that it wouldn’t be possible to do everything you wanted, even if you were to stay awake 24 hours a day.

Then came my working life in the Factory. It wasn’t supposed to be a difficult undertaking. It was supposed to be a job that I was good at. I was in one or two ways as smart as anybody else there. And I was serving out my bond, which meant I was stuck with them, and they were stuck with me. Somehow, the first few years were astoundingly bad. Perhaps they just didn’t want me around. Perhaps they just took one look at my academic results and judged me based on that – rather unfair because I had gone through some of the toughest classes. The fact that later on in life, I gained admissions into a highly selective graduate program, puts a big question mark over how I was seen back then. Perhaps I wasn’t an immediate fit into that culture.

I suppose I persevered. I would have liked to say that I kept my head down and worked hard and strived to prove them wrong, but that’s not 100% true. Instead for one or two years I just hung around and grew resentful and made them resentful. Until after a while I decided that enough was enough and went back to working hard to prove them wrong. For one thing, there were real weaknesses. I was a liberal arts student. I had a great education in mathematics, but it wasn’t engineering. It didn’t force you to think in the most practical bent. It took a while for me to adjust, but luckily for me, I didn’t have to adjust in a place where I had to lose my job. I probably was a person whose weaknesses were rather more apparent than my strengths, and eventually things turned out all right. But a few of the guys never really trusted me, even till the end. I supposed, during the first few difficult years, I had to count myself lucky that I had a “buffer” of a healthy self esteem. I wouldn’t call it arrogance, but I had to be the sort of person who believed, even as he was cast as a maths student, that he could also do well in creative writing. I had to believe that I could go to a good school like Snowy Hill, just walk into any academic department and take any course. Maybe you could say I had high hopes, or high expectations of myself. Whatever it is, it kept me afloat during the dark years, until things took a turn for the better. And there was also the issue of the leadership of my department during my time at the Factory. I don’t think they were lazy, and I don’t think they were stupid. But some of them were maybe not accepting of different approaches as they could have been. After conferring with one or two of my colleagues, I eventually came to the conclusion that if you wanted to run a good work improvement team, you had to dig a little deeper into the data and not just assume that you have all the solutions. It’s interesting that there was a big overlap between my stay at the Factory, and the Dubya administration: they had the same weaknesses: inordinate faith that their solutions were the right ones, and a refusal to countenance alternatives. If I were put in charge, I don’t really know if I would have been a good manager. But I would have run things pretty differently from them.

Towards the end of my stay at the factory, things were getting quite comfortable, but I had to leave. I had been there for too long. I really wanted to leave during those nasty first years, but I adapted. I got too used to my life not really having a direction. I even had enough slack time to finish a marathon. Then I had to get myself back to graduate school. I don’t know if I should have started applying one year earlier than I did, but I didn’t really want to ask people more than once. Eventually I got into the university of Mexico, and I moved to where I am now. My master’s degree wasn’t as intense as the Snowy Hill days: during those days I was younger, maybe even hungrier. Now, I’m more experienced, more focused. And eventually instead of wanting to prove that I was the smartest guy around, I just wanted a job, and it turned out to be not the toughest thing in the world if you were an IT guy.

As usual, my immunity to the imposter syndrome would be severely tested. I may have entered Snowy Hill fully prepared, but I was a little out of my depth. Unlike a lot of my peers, I did not have a bachelor's in computer science. I had to do three things in relatively quick succession: 1, get up to speed with the demands of a computer science degree, 2, graduate, and 3, find a job. The last job, obviously, was the most crucial. But that said, it wasn't the most difficult. Yes, people who joined the company would be vetted thoroughly. But there was enough demand for computer science expertise that it wasn't really tough to do. Anyway, I had been criticised in the past, especially by people like sniper, for being one of the lucky bastards who didn't have to look for a job after graduation. It's nice to know that small minded people like him are no longer able to say that about me.