Go with a smile!

Friday, May 31, 2019

Gender Roles

There was a kerfuffle about Tosh Zhang, a “personality” who was a brand ambassador for Pink Dot. He once made some discriminatory remarks about gay people. Maybe called them ah kuas or whatever. And then he got called out, and then after facing the barrage of the hate mob, he released another video, where he apologised again, was close to tears, and he announced that he was going to step down as ambassador.

So there have been very strong reactions on both sides. There was a very strong reaction about him being an ambassador when in fact he used to be homophobic. And after that, Pink Dot released a statement about it being a pity that he had been cancelled.

It wouldn't be a surprise to find that I side with the latter sentiment. I didn't know how anybody could justify lashing that kind of grievance upon him. Then I remembered that when I was 16 years old, I wrote a whole school essay about how much I hated Michael Bolton because he was culturally appropriating black culture by singing soul music and watering it down. (Back then the term “cultural appropriation” wasn't yet in vogue, but the idea of a person being hypocritical and inauthentic certainly existed.)

Then I came across this essay about how a trans person felt that it was so hard to forgive people like Tosh Zhang, who tormented him for most of his childhood. In this instance, he felt as though straight people were leaning on him to accept the apology. Why would you not accept an apology? Why would you force him to pay the price?

Just what is it that you want? If you don't want acceptance, then why would it be such an ordeal, the way you were treated in your younger days? If you want acceptance, why would you not reciprocate that acceptance and say that people can change and get better and society can become better....

To be fair, that essay eventually comes to the conclusion that Tong Zhang will eventually be forgiven, but not right away, and says that people shouldn't be demanding forgiveness and redemption. But why not have an ambassador who used to be homophobic and then turned over a new leaf? Isn't he one of the best role models for straight allies?

For a few years when I was in college, I briefly thought about being a transsexual. Maybe it was a period in my life when more of my friends were ladies. Or maybe I was just more horny and felt more drawn to them. It was a fairly intense period of soul searching. I thought about a good friend in school (who I now know to be gay.) and he was always preaching about how masculinity was inherently toxic, about how and why the feminine side of things was always the better half, the more gentle, caring and nurturing side.

That little left turn didn't last for long. Eventually it occurred to me that no matter what my argument with my own gender was, I was a straight male, and nothing was ever going to change that. Every guy, though, always has his feminine side, and that is the philosophy behind yin and yang.

I was wondering why guys were more toxic. Then we've seen research that shows that people are sociopathic for a reason, and under certain conditions, sociopathic behaviour is good for leadership because these people have fewer qualms about doing what needs to be done in order to serve the higher objective. So you sometimes wonder if toxic masculinity has a good side, or maybe is an unavoidable consequence of bloody mindedness and ruthlessness.

Anyway, when I rejected the possibility of being a transsexual, what did occur to me is that being a transsexual in many ways is a form of dissent. A person has come to the conclusion that he's not able to live as a cis-gendered person, to act as one, to perform the role that one supposes he's to play. A transsexual is somebody who's in a way, a misfit. Or he may be somebody who wants a custom made role for society.

There are a lot of things that guys aren't allowed to do. There's only so much a guy can do in the way of expressing his emotions: too much of that and he's creepy. There are ways for him to be low key. There's a lot of suppression of emotions. That's something I've been able to do for most of my life, but during that one period of time, it seemed as though I was transitioning to something else, something more flighty and extreme, and I thought the old model wasn't going to hold me back anymore.

And here's the thing: you might think of the standard view of masculinity as being rigid and unbending. But the paradox is that I was able to fit that mould – not exactly, but fit enough – because I was flexible enough. It then occurred to me that it was the transsexuals who were being inflexible. And I wonder to what extent this inflexibility hardens to become some kind of militancy.

Of course, there are aspects of myself that I rebel against. I rebel quite a bit against my Asianness. I'm not afraid to be cranky and iconoclastic to an extent that might not be accepted from an Asian guy. But I don't think I've questioned my maleness that much.

There were lots of things about being a lady in your 20s that seem to be quite comfortable. Guys will usually try to be nice to you (even if you don't know if they're really just trying to get into your pants.) Your youth and beauty will automatically give you a few perks. You can always rely on kindness of strangers. You have some kind of a safe space to emote, you don't have to worry about showing a little bit of weakness. Life's a lark.

But what happens after that? All of that gets taken from you in the end, and after a certain point that you were given that one time bonanza because it allowed you to attract a mate, and hopefully a good mate. Not getting married by a certain age confers some kind of social stigma, or the end of the possibilities of motherhood.

Being a guy by default means you have a bit of a stunted emotional growth, because people don't expect you to be that emotive, and also they won't allow you to be too emotive. And I may have been headed in a certain direction at one point, I may have thought, in my early 20s, that I was going to be more in touch with my feelings, that I was going to live the great emotional extremes of your bohemian artist. But I also realise that losing that may not be such a bad thing. I don't have that much emotional intelligence, I may not express my emotions intelligently, or read other people well. I may not want to open myself to other people and get hurt in the process. I might find it harder to compose myself and go about whatever my daily business demands of me.

I was going to work as an engineer, and however rewarding that job is in certain ways, it's not something that you'll tolerate easily if you are looking for some kind of emotional engagement. The satisfaction you get out of it is not the emotional sort. In fact, at the beginning of my career, I was finding my engineering job fairly intolerable until I realise that you have to shut off your artistic instinct or your heightened emotional state for the duration of the time that you're in the office and let that part of you which likes neatness and absence of fuss take over.

Part of being a guy is the robustness, the machoness. The pride that you get in achievement, in being strong and capable, in being active, in taking initiative. There's quite a bit of freedom in this, rather than the more self-doubting, circumspect and reactive role for the female. Granted that these days the gender roles are more fluid, but there are still some of these differences. Females get judged more harshly for being non-conformist, for coming across as unfeeling. Maybe I might not want that. In fact, I'd say that I'm pretty happy to be in whatever role I'm in at the moment.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Is Football Truly Broken

There was this very intriguing article about Man City's dominance of football demonstrating how and why European domestic leagues are broken. Jonathan Wilson, usually one of the best pundits when writing about football tactics, goes on to say that this is why you should be forming a super league in Europe.

I'm not sure about that. In fact I think it is pretty wrong headed. There was another article in the Economist that recently said that if you were to tell people in 2004 that the top 3 teams in England would be Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool, they would laugh you off. That was a time when Manchester United and Arsenal had a duopoly of the premier league, and Chelsea was starting to benefit from a massive injection of oil money that would see them dominate the league indefinitely.

Yes, unfortunately the English league, especially after the formation of the Premier League, tends to have power concentrated at the top. That was the time when the champions could have an advantage so strong that challengers could barely shake it off. But even in previous periods of domination, you could see some challengers coming up. During the Liverpool dynasty, Nottingham Forest, then Aston Villa, then Everton, Arsenal and Leeds mounted good challenges, and even Ipswich and Southampton managed to get up to the exalted heights of second.

In the early years of the premier league, Man United had challenges from Aston Villa, Newcastle and Blackburn, but slowly it became an ogilopoly with Arsenal, then a Man U – Arsenal – Liverpool – Chelsea ogilopoly.

However, the retirement of Alex Ferguson heralded another change. Not only would that ogilopoly extend to 2 more clubs – Man City and Tottenham, but at the moment, the old ogilopoly of Man U, Chelsea and Arsenal are back down, trying to chase for European places. Man City might be in for a period of dominance as long as Man United's – and that lasted for 20 years. But there would always be interesting challenges, and Pep Guardiola has hardly dominated the Champion's league as much as his crushing wins over Man U in 2009 and 2011 would have suggested. And let's not forget that the Premier League still has the ability to produce a genuinely left-field champion every once in a while: Leicester in 2016, Leeds in 1992, and Newcastle came pretty close to winning the league in 1996.

Money helps you to win leagues, but having a great manager is as important. At the moment, Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool are the top 3 because they also happen to be the top 3 most well managed clubs. Man City is the club that's spent the most money, but Tottenham had Liverpool haven't spent all that much at all, except Liverpool in the last season, when they took that great leap from being a surprise champion's league finallist to being a team that is, domestically, almost as great as Man City. In comparison, Arsenal and Man U have spent more over the last 5 years than those two and have had relatively little to show for it.

But golden generations will not last for long. Tottenham seems to be overperforming now, but how much longer will they be great, without the ability to bring in big players? Liverpool is also overperforming, but that's because of Jurgen Klopp, and even he was burnt out from having to make Borussia Dortmund overperform year in year out. And let's not forget that Pep Guardiola himself achieved periods of domination with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, but never stayed with either club for more than 5 years. Yes, Man City may be untouchable at the moment, but don't forget that this is the second great Man City team: stalwarts of the first great team, Yaya Toure, Joe Hart, Zabaleta are gone, Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero are just playing bit parts. In between the first and second great teams, Chelsea and Leicester have taken advantage of the fallow period to snatch league titles. Man City may be very dominant, but their dominance is hardly guaranteed to last forever.

Previously, it seemed as though Chelsea would win league titles every year, after their repeat in 2004-06. But then Man United stormed back, and Chelsea went through a period where, for all their financial dominance, they could only manage 1 league title and 1 champion's league between 2006 and 2014. And the coaches that won 2 league titles for them – Mourinho and Conte – could not be persuaded to stay.

Similarly, it seemed that Man United's dominance of the premier league would never end, that Man United were either at their best and all conquering, or else they were fallow and just biding their time before their next great team would emerge. But now the narrative is either that it depends on there being an Alex Ferguson around, or even Alex Ferguson would have to cede ground to a new style of manager – the new Pochettino / Klopp / Guardiola model, who was kinder / gentler and took care of his players emotionally, rather than building them up to be utterly ruthless machines, the way that Mourinho and Ferguson did. Who played an utterly athletic, pressing and control freakish game based upon irrepressible attack rather than impregnable shields. I think this new reality dominated football in the second decade, and the dominant teams – Spain, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Germany, Man City, Liverpool and Tottenham were in many ways like this.

So teams can still rise and fall in the EPL, because of the natural rhythms of dynasties, because the nature of game changes and make old managers obsolete, and because even managers who are great don't stay great indefinitely. So there's no real danger of any permanent domination.

And here's the thing: even if the patterns of domination in EPL never changes, and it permanently stays an ogilopoly with teams joining that ogilopoly every once in blue moons, the champions change. The only complaint is that the best teams always seem to be that much better than the rest of the teams.

I don't know how people achieve equality in games like baseball and football, but in basketball, it also seems to be the way that great teams achieve a kind of dominance over the rest that makes it hard to break. The Houston Rockets seemed to be the closest to breaking the Warrior's hold on the NBA crown, but they faltered. And previously it was the Cleveland Cavaliers who were the perennial runners up. It is entirely plausible that even if an European breakaway league were to be formed, then you might have the problem of a few teams dominating that league. At least, at the moment, the elite teams have to divide their effort between the UCL and the domestic leagues, and that makes the UCL seem a little more egalitarian, never mind that in the past 10 seasons, it seemed that there was a Bayern Munich / Real Madrid / Barcelona ogilopoly going on. Plus what is going to happen to teams that used to dominate the champion's league – like AC Milan, Red Star Belgrade and Ajax, and who fall by the wayside? How are you going to kick them out of the superleague?

What it seems to me is that the current system is not broken, and it shouldn't be fixed.


Monday, May 13, 2019

Ascendency of the English Premier League

Tottenham, the Chelsea and the Arsenal games, we have 4 English teams in Europeans finals. Contrary to what a few of my friends might say, English teams are on the up. English football is marketed well. Over the years, some of the best coaches have been snapped up by English clubs: Guardiola, Pochettino, Klopp, Mourinho (now fired), Conte (now fired), Unai Emery, Sarri. Even for the smaller clubs, Nuno Espírito Santo from Porto is managing Wolves, Rafael Benitez is managing Newcastle, Marco Silva is managing Everton and Manuel Pellegrini, formerly of Real Madrid and Man City, is managing West Ham.

Outside of the Premier League, I can't see a lot of star managers. There is Thomas Tuchel of PSG, but he's having trouble managing that bunch of spoilt brats. I don't know whether Barcelona managers are great managers, or they're just following the template that Guardiola left behind, or they're coasting on their talent. There's Zidane who won plenty of Champions Leagues but fewer league titles. Bayern is rebuilding, but if they're rebuilding, Carlo Ancelotti is a very strange choice (indeed – he was fired soon.) And of course there's Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid. But most of the superstar managers work in the Premier League.

And let's not forget that a lot of managers make their reputations in the lower leagues by guiding their championship clubs to promotion, and then making them do well in the premier league. Examples are Brendan Rodgers and Sean Dyche, who managed to guide Burnley to Europe.

English clubs attract the best coaches. They may not attract the elite players, but the scouting network of those clubs looks for something even better: youth players with the potential to excel at their club and fit into the system. Man City routinely pay other clubs 50 million pounds for very good players, but they aren't stars or marquee players. They are people with a lot of potential. Back in the day, Real Madrid buying Zidane would be 50 million pounds. These days, 50 million pounds gets you somebody good enough to be a regular for a good international team.

Another thing that the English Premier League has going for it is its ability to sell to the USA. Now, you have the biggest stars of the premier league playing out their last days in Major League Soccer. Stars like David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard arrive as marquee players and either help to lend star quality to the team or help to improve the league, the same way that the foreign players in the 90s paved the way for English Premier League to be a cosmopolitan, rather than an English league.

It's probably for the money reasons, the way that TV money and merchandising has overridden all other concerns, including stadium money, that the English league has surpassed the other teams.

The German, French, Italian and Spanish leagues are dominated by one or two superclubs, and even those superclubs may be on the wane. Real Madrid and Barcelona have emerged as the greatest Spanish teams since 2005, after a brief period when Deportivo, Valencia and Real Sociedad briefly threatened the duopoly. Now, atletico Madrid and Sevilla might make good runner ups, but it will be a long time before we have somebody other than those two winning the title.

Many of the leagues have one or two elite clubs, that are bankrolled by rich ownership who recognise that soccer can give them a sort of media exposure that you can't get elsewhere. Teams like Paris Saint Germain and Monaco. Manchester City, Chelsea.

Juventus is so far ahead of the competition that it isn't even funny. AC Milan used to be a rich club that was bankrolled by Berlusconi, but since the divestment, they haven't been much of an elite club.

Bayern Munich, after dominating the Bundesliga for several years, is on the wane after several of their stars are reaching retirement. There have been seasons when the strong clubs are in a rebuilding process, and there was one Bundesliga season when Hertha Berlin, Schalke 04, Werder Bremen, Wolfsburg and Stuttgart were all in the title race, but in the past decade, other than Dortmund winning a couple of titles, it has been Bayern Munich all the way. Usually, it's always one or two clubs dominating a league if they're not in a rebuilding stage.

One of the significant factors in the relative strengths of leagues is how well they've captured overseas markets. EPL has the advantage of English being a global language, and it's easy to capture USA, Southeast asia and Africa.

Soccer may be a fad in the US and China: a lot of time and effort has been spent in trying to turn those countries into great football nations. I don't know if they'll be successful. I don't believe in great football nations. I think that rather than that we have great football generations. But I don't know when USA and China will produce their golden generations.

I like to tell people that one of the great regions in the world for football is Southeast Asia, in terms of fandom, not football ability. We've been football mad since the 60s. Football caught up in the Middle East probably around the same time. Then it spread to Africa in the 80s, to Japan, China, Australia and the US in the 90s. Southeast Asia has always been the most reliable foreign market for football, because it's ingrained in us.

The worldwide conquest for football has vast implications for the powers of clubs. Perhaps Barcelona and Real Madrid have captured the China market. The premier league clubs are ascendent in Southeast Asia, and maybe Africa.


Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Liverpool Reaches the Final

Here are the greatest stories in English Football over the last 10 years

1. Leicester winning the league in 2016
2. Man City vs QPR
3. Chelsea vs Bayern Munich (and the comebacks)
4. Fulham reaching Europa League final
5. Wigan winning the FA Cup
6. England reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup 2018

To all that, you had to add Liverpool overcoming a three goal deficit in a first leg to beat Barcelona 4-0 to get into the final of the UEFA Champion's League.

The really extraordinary aspect of this performance is same as the one in Istanbul: that it was achieved by people you wouldn't think of as stars. Not Divock Origi, even though Divock Origi has contributed some very crucial goals. Giogino Wijnaldum has been an excellent player all season, but he was a sub here. And Xherdan Shaqiri. Similar to the 2005 Liverpool side, who had these people you wouldn't normally think of when "UEFA Champion's League winner" is mentioned. People like Milan Baros, Steve Finnan, Dietmar Hamman, Vladimir Smicer and Jerzy Dudek. And somehow the bunch of them conjured 20 minutes of magic to give Liverpool their first UCL since 1984. (And to banish forever the ghost of Heysel).

Of course, you could say that the Barcelona team here was no vintage, but they still had Gore Vidal, Messi, Rakitic, Pique, Suarez, Coutinho and Busquets. Except that their defence probably hasn't really been tested all season long. It may be unfair to blame Messi, but he's been on the side of chokers. He's lost 2-3 Copa America finals he should have won. And last year, they also choked against Roma, also having been up by 3 in the first leg.

It's been said that Anfield's atmosphere unsettles opponent sides. English teams, when they do win the Champion's League, do so by outmuscling the opponents, and fighting harder. English teams also have a disadvantage in that they have to compete in a tougher league. However, in a way competing in a tougher league keeps you sharp, whereas playing against weaker opponents, as the Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona and PSG have found out, makes you susceptible when you suddenly meet a stronger opponent in the UCL.

Interestingly, if English clubs do win the UCL, their defeated opponents will eventually win the UCL in the next few seasons. Thus after Man U defeated Bayern in 1999, they won it a few years later. Liverpool won against AC Milan (champions in 2007) Man U won in 2008 again against Chelsea (champions in 2012). Chelsea won against Bayern Munich (champions in 2013).

I hope that Liverpool wins the UCL, even though if you want to favour the underdog, you'd go for the winner of Tottenham Ajax. But Liverpool has had such a great season that somehow they deserve to win something. Then again, there's also something wrong if Pochettino doesn't win anything for Tottenham during his 5+ years there.


Monday, May 06, 2019

Second Chance

I still remember a friend looking at a butterfly caught out in a rainstorm. It was stuck in a puddle that was directly below where the water from the runoff was pouring down on it, and it was taking a terrible beating. We were teenagers then, and this was near the NTUC at Bishan, which was still fairly new. He had this penchant for being pretty melodramatic.

But these days I think that nature is a little cruel when it comes to women. Yes, rape and molest are traumatic events, but if you can imagine, nature factored that into the equation when they designed cavemen. Before we were civilised, men raping women, then raising kids with their victims was relatively common. And when we got civilised, norms changed, and we know that it's not OK. But some small part of us does not change.

I was thinking about this when I saw the Monica Baey case unfold. I've made unwanted advances towards women before. No, I don't think I did anything I could have gone to jail for, although I don't really know what the other party thinks. If they wanted to make a big deal out of it, I could have been in trouble. It happened twice, when I was an undergraduate in Snowy Hill. I don't know if the other party lodged statements. They were attractive women that I had crushes on. Of course it's unrequited, they might not even look at me. There was nothing more than cuddling, but it was uncalled for, and I knew it. They reacted differently: one of them was traumatised, another one got angry. I apologised to both, and I felt guilty that that was that, but I really didn't want anything much more serious to happen to me.

If anything, I was given second chances, and I've used those second chances. I'm a much older person now and basically something of this nature wouldn't ever happen again. I've had the chance to reflect on my experiences and I've decided that not only were they bad experiences for the other party, I actually didn't like it at all. It wasn't the right way to engage in somebody you were interested in, and after that I made it so hard for us to be friends. That's why I never did it again, because I couldn't but know that it was a bad thing.

Now, I don't know about filming somebody in the shower. It's very transgressive, I wouldn't ever do that.