The day after the Jimmy Ye concert

NB. Inspired by the many “The day after GE2015” articles on The Middle Ground, a great source of information and considered opinion and sights and sounds during the hustings.

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I had been looking forward to the Jimmy Ye concert since I knew Polling Day was set for 11 September.* At the very least the bunch of us going for the concert would have the election results to discuss at dinner before we took our seats.** One among the bunch had been so conflicted about how to vote that a powwow dinner was convened on a weekday evening the week of the elections. Another had described himself as upset and disappointed with the results. And a third had apparently taken to depressed (read: binge) eating after it was clear the non-ruling parties had not advanced. Being both almost embarrassingly pro-establishment and a firm admirer of certain Machiavellian measures*** the establishment employs, I was possibly the only one in the group who did not dislike the outcome, but I was still as surprised as heck.

I did not expect Jimmy Ye – who turned out to be a banterer of the first order, with only a notional filter between his mouth and mind – to “politicise” the concert. He said that he had started rehearsing the previous day right after voting, and it emerged that this was until 11pm, and he still had no idea about the election results. I personally did not think that credible, but really, except for the story, he had no reason to fib. And so, not knowing how the votes had fallen, he dedicated a song to the elections – 就让你选择, which translates to “Just let you choose”. That got us to link every subsequent song to the elections in our minds, and soon after this song came one which we interpreted as the populace’s plea to the ruling party, or alternatively the PAP’s plea to the populace – 我总是听你说 (“I always listen to you”)**** – and then later he covered a song he composed the music for, which we read as a potential reaction of the alternative parties to the votes – 什么样的爱 (“What kind of love”)*****. Listen through the music videos through GE2015 filters and you’ll see what I mean :P

The concert started at 7.30pm and went on for four hours, with a 20-minute intermission, and romped through many songs. Jimmy Ye was prolific during the years he was in the industry (roughly 1994-1998), and it was only when he covered the songs some very well-known singers made hits that some of us realised he composed the music for them: e.g. Aaron Kwok’s 感情的事, Jacky Cheung’s 想和你去吹吹风, Leslie Cheung’s 左右手******, Jeff Chang’s 太想爱你.

He also sang a few songs from musicians he admired: JJ Lin’s 懂了*******, John Legend’s “All of me” and Billy Joel’s “And so it goes“. I thought he was at his best here, especially with the English songs – accompanying his lilting tenor with his own expressive and adroit piano playing; his rendition of “All of me” was spot on, and his “And so it goes” heartfelt.

*Before Polling Day was set, we all had to entertain the idea that we would have voted on the day of the concert. In that alternate reality, we would have been enjoying Jimmy Ye’s banter and falsetto (which was in fine form during the actual concert) and been spared the monotonous accuracy of the sample counts, and been struck by a dissonant world when we emerged from the 3G/4G/wireless-free concert hall.

**The concert was in the outstanding and intimate Esplanade auditorium, and our seats were in the last row upstairs, and we had a great view. I now actively entertain the notion that every seat in that auditorium is a good seat.

***Machiavellian from the perspective that the real concern of the ruling is to maintain power.

****Excerpts of lyrics, and attempted translations:

我总是听你说从不敢让你的心失落 I always listen to you, never dare to let you down

我把寂寞都放在看不见的角落 I keep my loneliness in the unseen corners

因为你说我一定有个快乐生活 Because you say I will have a happy life

我总是听你说从不去想你也许只是经过 I always listen to you, never think that you may just be passing by

有时后委屈疲倦也不敢对你说 Even when I’m put upon and tired I don’t dare to tell you

可是你还是说我让你伤心难过 But you still say I make you sad

你要我怎么做 我总是听你说 What do you want me to do, I always listen to you

可是你从来不愿意面对真正的我 But you never wished to face the real me

每次我思索 每次我疑惑 Every time I think, every time I am puzzled

到底你真正在乎的是些什么 What really matters to you

你要我怎么做 我总是听你说 What do you want me to do, I always listen to you

可是我纷乱的情绪你有没有懂过 But did you ever know my confused emotions

每次的执著 每次的失措 Every conviction, every confusion

这一次我们的眼神又在交错 This time our eyes meet again

已分不清到底是谁对谁要求那么多 Can no longer tell who is right, who is wrong, who is asking for so much

*****Excerpts of lyrics, and attempted translations:

请你别只是望着窗口 什么都不说 Please do not just look at the window and stay silent

曾经你要我付出所有 现在你却说只要自由 In the past you wanted me to give my all, and now you say you want freedom

所有的对为何变成错 伤心的我只想问 All that was right has become wrong, and saddened I only want to ask

什么样的爱 你才懂 什么样的我 才能让你感动 What kind of love would you know, what kind of me would let you be moved

我的爱难道还不够 不够让你沉溺到永久 Is my love not enough? Cannot let you stay immersed forever

什么样的爱 你才懂 什么样的我 才能圆你的梦 What kind of love would you know, what kind of me would fulfill your dreams

再也不会有人像我 像我痴心爱你不回头 There will never be someone like me, deeply in love with you with no regrets

******Hacken Lee’s version is much better, to these ears. There is more than a smidgen of Leslie in there though, I think as tribute.

*******Basically a re-lyricised version of A-mei’s 记得, which JJ Lin also covered. Found the latter overwrought, with too many heartstrings-tugging tricks.

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To me, the most significant reaction to the GE2015 results was surprise.

Why did we* not expect the results? The notion of the content silent majority – who do not trumpet their views, which are therefore not taken into account in the assessment of voters’ sentiments – has been raised. I’m personally not sure this silent majority** exists; I’d say we are not even taking into account the right data – for example, what if we took posts of good food and happy babies doing cute stuff as indicators of contentment? I also think our ability to forecast the results is hampered by our homophilic tendencies, which have ensconced us in our individual echo chambers, so that any result outside of our expectations (and those of our in-group) would seem unreal.***

The results definitely seemed unreal to those who had worked so hard in anticipation of a different outcome – see particularly Kenneth Jeyaratnam’s comparison of the voting margins to those in North Korea and China**** and Tan Jee Say’s observation that the results were different from feedback that SingFirst had heard from the ground.

While I did not expect the results, the election outcome made sense. I thought the incumbent addressed all the negative feedback they got and neutralised any hot-button issues before these could escalate in a decisive, high-profile manner. The electorate – those whom they could sway at all – could hardly respond in another way in the absence of markedly superior alternatives. The margin of the swing still boggles the mind though. I hope the spirit of public engagement that has arguably driven the swing continues now that the fresh mandate is in hand.

*Referring to the general “we” – no party, no media, no analyst, no individual seems to have predicted such results.

**There is definitely a majority who do not attend rallies. That’s not going to stop folks from taking rally attendance as an indicator of voter sentiments though.

***Feeling that results are unreal is OK, unless of course the unrealness prompts one to take what could seem to be a reasonable next step in logic, and start theorising that the election process is not entirely aboveboard or even rigged. And complacent ol’ me thought few if any would entertain such conspiracy theories, until a couple of friends said their circles were propounding exactly these theories. We thinking folks should be disciplinedly broad in our consumption of media, so that we have a more accurate sense of the world.

****Transcript of the relevant part of the interview below. The comparison to China and North Korea, while not appropriate to my mind, has I think been a little sensationalised, so I leave the exact words here for folks to make up their own mind.

CNA reporter: Mr Jeyaratnam, now that the sample count has been out for quite a few of the constituencies, your thoughts on the sample count?

Kenneth Jeyaratnam: Well, obviously, you know, we were aware from the beginning that… we saw this coming, because we didn’t get the big influx of volunteers and helpers coming forward that we got in 2011. In fact it was very quiet… and we saw basically… we put this down to the novelty wearing off , of the new party, but now I see it’s absolutely nationwide. There’s been a huge swing to the PAP. We weren’t helped by the fact that we lost Clementi, a ward in which we scored particularly highly in the last election. What I can say is that this is not a, as far as I’m concerned, this is not a mandate for the PAP’s economic policies. We had a better manifesto, a better economic plan. All this is, is a mandate for authoritarianism and brainwashing. It shows what you do when you control everybody’s housing, you control their savings, you control their jobs because you’re the major employer, you control all the media, and there’s no independent elections department. So all I see is similar margins in North Korea and China, just like the Chinese Communist Party. You know, I guess Singaporeans get the government they deserve, so I don’t want to hear any more complaints. Yup.

CNA reporter: Thank you very much, Mr Jeyaratnam.

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By the way, aren’t the name of this academic paper and its three-word abstract just winning? :) Must say I agree with the attitude, if not necessarily the point and that only because I don’t know enough about the context. Definitely worth a read.

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A friend does qualitative research: focus groups, ethnography, in-depth interviews. My humble opinion is that she does them very competently. One bedevilment researchers like her have to face is stubborn or just ostensibly opinion-less/insight-less interview subjects. The researcher has to know how to ask questions, the right questions to ask, and, when the subject looks like he/she is remaining clammed up or just has no insight to offer, whether to probe further. The qualitative researcher friend compared such interviews to excavating a durian. Those of us who still excavate durians know that the segments of durian where the flesh resides are not always obvious. It is possible to pry open a split chunk of durian and discover no segment, or a segment too small to contain flesh, or a sizeable enough segment that nonetheless does not contain flesh, but when one cuts into the thick thorny rind and the incision sinks smoothly into a natural seam, and the levering of the knife opens a hitherto unreachable nugget of creamy goodness, one shares the same sense of accomplishment with the interviewer who probed persistently and finally, fruitfully.

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I also watched December Rains during its run late last month. I had been worried it was going to be indulgent and light on plot and substance, with shrill singing, which was how I remembered its previous staging in 2010. I enjoyed this year’s staging much more.

This year’s Ming Li – the third protagonist and one could argue the ultimate antagonist as his one act drove the plot – was a more vulnerable version: the actor playing him was of a smaller stature than the other male lead and competing love interest Ying Xiong, and hence easier to see as a passive victim of his unrequited sentiments, whereas in the 2010 staging the two male leads were more equal. I also thought both male leads this year sung spectacularly well.

I found the friendship between the three female leads more moving this time around. Reunited after many years, the materialistic one had married and divorced a rich man and become the owner of a restaurant; the romantic one had become embittered because of a perceived betrayal of her love and clenched her heart shut all these years; and the revolutionary one had sailed from Singapore to China to take part in the Cultural Revolution, but was now with a drama troupe, her zeal much tempered.

The years had not eroded their friendship. That’s an ideal one can aspire to.

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On the 30th of May, I was in Starbucks, on my usual coffee run, except this was a Saturday and I had to be at work for some reason. There was a lady ahead of me in the queue, and she had on a shoulderless long-sleeved top and jeans, and in between was warm milk chocolate. Burnished with bronze. But maybe that is not what I meant; I didn’t mean metallic, but more a healthy inner glow, like the best sort of tan.

I’m trying to fix that colour in my memory. In a year, I wonder what colour I will remember it as, and whether it will be as ineffable, and whether that will matter.

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Geneva – 3-in-1 coffee, clumsy swans and Joseph Stiglitz

[Update II: Some points that I related from Joseph Stiglitz’s address at the ILO Governing Body and others are captured in a recent Project Syndicate article of his, here.]

[Update: I edited some portions of this entry to make it sound better and to recount Prof Stiglitz’s address more accurately, particularly at the second bullet point.]

I am typing this nursing some coffee (3-in-1 comfort coffee from Singapore – my mum’s great idea!) and listening to Stef Sun’s plaintive and demonstrative 我不难过 in my hotel room, which has just been chilled by the March Geneva night.  All is well in my part of the world.*

As I mentioned, I had the good fortune to hear Joseph Stiglitz speak about the global financial crisis a few days back.  About half an hour before he was due to speak, the assembly hall started to fill up, and the anticipation and noise built like a jet preparing for takeoff.  When the chair called the meeting to order with a bang of his gavel, no one could hear him.  He had to almost break the thing before anyone noticed.  I think this crisis is going to make economics a fad as a course of study and many economists rock stars. 

Prof Stiglitz

  • made it clear that, far from being “decoupled”, the world’s economies were more integrated than ever.  This aspect of globalisation contributed to the pervasiveness of the crisis – for example, although catalysts of the economic crisis such as toxic mortgages and a philosophy of deregulation were centred in the US, this did not prevent countries with good monetary policies from suffering.  In addition, the interconnectedness and interdependence of the world’s economies meant that stimulus packages at the national level would leak i.e. flow outside national borders and that it would be more efficient to have a global stimulus package, coordinated by global decision making.  I suppose there is a sort of inevitability about this reasoning: if national economies cannot escape their impact on one another, then it follows that all the affected players have to sit together to work something out.  However, national and political interests being what they are, I can only see this happening at the pace of particularly clumsy swans.**
  • described how he thought the crisis came about.  I’ll try to summarise it: As a result of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, during which the IMF lent money to many countries but only if they fulfilled onerous conditions based on sufficient reserves, many countries in this “class of 1997” resolved to never again be in that position and therefore to build up their reserves.  This led to income not spent in these countries and resulted in a lack of aggregate global demand.  To Stiglitz, the unsustainability of the many bubbles and the lax regulations that abetted them were not a surprise – the lack of aggregate global demand meant that regulations had to be lax for economies, particularly the US economy, to continue growing.  (Here I must admit I would love to find out how one determines that aggregate global demand is lacking.  What would be considered adequate demand?  What indicator would one look at?)  To paraphrase Prof Stiglitz, if the global economy was based on American consumers, who made up the richest nation in the world, spending beyond their means, it was certainly flawed.  He continued to say that unless fundamental reform occurred, the world cannot return to sustainable economic growth.  To me, this is a little scary, because something like a country’s savings rate – the proportion of income that is saved by its consumers – is fostered over generations and would be difficult to change, i.e. it would be very difficult for the world to return to sustainable economic growth.  Or perhaps some sort of reform may mitigate the negative impact of over-high national savings rates?  Then a thought struck me (this was a surprise: it is not often I encounter violent thoughts – ok ok that’s a bad joke :p) – how are we defining sustainable economic growth?  Is not the natural state cyclical, with peaks and troughs?  Prof Stiglitz also noted that we have been measuring economic growth with GDP growth.  To assess economic growth, he said, we should look at how it benefited the individuals of the system.  In this regard, median income in the US – I suppose adjusted for inflation etc. – has not increased over the past 7 or 8 years.  So ideally, I take it, sustainable economic growth would involve growth in the common man’s median income.  (Wonder whether that metric has increased over the years for Singapore.)  And what does “sustainable” mean i.e. how long does the growth have to occur over?
  • pointed out that the US’s brand of “capitalism” essentially meant socialising losses and privatising profits, the continuation of a system of perverse incentives that afforded no penalties for excessive risk taking.  If banks are too big to fail i.e. they will unfailingly get bailed out, as seems to be the case in the US, they are not going to worry about taking risks and failing, are they? 
  • mentioned the concept of automatic economic stabilisers such as insurance and social protection – when the economy was weak, spending in these two areas traditionally went up and shored up the economy – and how the US had weakened theirs and therefore exacerbated the crisis. 
  • noted that well-managed bankruptcies that entailed essentially financial reorganisation should be allowed to occur.
  • demonstrated some quite appropriate gallows humour.  At the end of his address, when he clearly had more to say but had to cut himself short in view of the time, he remarked that the good news was that the crisis was going to go on for a while, so he’d have many opportunities to come back and talk to us all again :p

 I’ve only started to try to understand economics, so most of the above was new to me, and it is no exaggeration to say that I was quite captivated by the speech.  Because of my newness to this, I may well have miscommunicated some of the good professor’s remarks, so… well, just a little disclaimer :)

 *Not least because my beloved Reds just whipped their hated rivals in the football match of the season.

**Yesterday was a particularly fine day – spring is certainly coming – and the three of us got some ice-cream and sat by the rocky shore of Lake Geneva to savour the weather.  Soon two swans swam over, and… I can’t describe how birds with as regal a bearing as swans could seem to beg – maybe it had something to do with a certain supplication of their sinuous necks – but these swans seemed to beg.  When they realised there were to be no handouts from us, the swans looked mildly baffled, then disappointed, though to be fair they seemed used to the latter and accepted it with good grace.  Then a gentlemen came to sit near us, bearing a bag of bread crumbs.  The swans noticed him and paddled toward him, not too slowly, and sure enough he started tossing out small handfuls of the stuff.  The swans were just starting to settle down for the meal when seagulls began to swarm all over them.  They were several times smaller than the swans and so agile that they seemed always to be first to the crumbs.  They would pick the crumbs off the water right next to the much bigger swans, which looked anything but graceful – sometimes the swans didn’t notice the food right next to them, sometimes they took so long to turn or to manoeuvre their necks that the crumbs were long gone by the time they did.  One unfortunate swan had a bread crumb land on its broad back, and I worried for what seemed like many minutes that its back would soon be the target of seagull divebomb attacks before it finally twisted its neck behind to snatch up the morsel.  The speed of these swans, I fear, is the pace at which global decision making on the economic crisis can realistically take place.  (Boy that was a long and winding road to explicate that metaphor eh? :p)

Singapore – more an economy than a nation or a state?

Two weeks ago, the politician who leads my ministry said something that has knocked itself around in my head since.

Because a considerable period has passed since then (two weeks are a considerable period for me :p), I can’t claim to be quoting this chap word for word – I do really need to stop being so lazy and start blogging more frequently – but I think I can communicate the gist fairly accurately.  What he said was, essentially, that Singapore needs to find ways (e.g. train workers so they’re more productive, ensure the workforce is flexible enough to weather upturns and downturns and stagnant non-turns) to be valuable to the rest of the world.

Now, I was in a rather belligerent mood at the time, and even though we’ve been brought up listening to the rhetoric that we can never rest on our laurels, we need to move forward, so that the world and its economy won’t bypass us as it could so easily do, my spiky (non-verbalised) response to the politician’s comment was: “Really?  If we think that way, it’s no wonder we are confused about our values and apathetic about the political process.  Because we are always worried about how valuable we are to others, we therefore neglect to build our own values.  The integrated resorts being a case in point.  The F1 race another.*  We are focused on being valuable to others, not bringing value to our citizens.”

Over the last couple of weeks, these issues have percolated in my head, and now it seems my thoughts have settled into some patterns that are fairly sensible.  Call them clear-eyed conclusions, or no-impact mental waffling, whatever – but I just thought I’d share some of that distillate.

“… it’s no wonder we are… apathetic about the political process.”  Rather than being a function of an economy driven by its value to others, I’ve come to think that political apathy is probably a result of having a policy-making class that sees itself as intelligent and responsible enough to take care of Singapore.  Indeed, one could argue that such an elite group of visionaries and planners would be silly to consult its citizens on important matters, as the consultation would likely entail lengthy education, cantankerous debate on issues it’s already thought through and quite possibly the same decision at the end of the consultation process.  The populace’s response to not having its opinions sought for a fairly long time was, quite naturally, apathy toward the political process.  Things have changed – more of us are more educated now, a direct result of our government’s work – and it’s clear that, far from being apathetic, new generations of citizens are eager to get involved in refining policies, or at the least in making their voices heard.  And I think policy-makers know that there is wisdom not only in its council of elders, but also in crowds, and that, moreover, having the crowds on their side can only help the implementation of their policies.

“Because we are always worried about how valuable we are to others, we therefore neglect to build our own values.”  I’ve come to think that the issue of values is a more complicated one.  Why are values important?  I’d say it’s because values allow a group of otherwise different folks to coalesce and share causes, whether you see values as abstract but real forces that build among and then meld members of a group that share experiences and memories, or as fraudulent but ultimately effective constructs of rhetoric and National Day bish-bosh.  If so, the next question is, would caring more about what makes us valuable to the world economy than what we can do for our citizens have an impact on our values as a nation?  Okay, that was confusing; let’s try it this way: Would governing us as an economy first, and a state second have an impact on our development as a nation?

My take is that, one of the reasons our values as a nation are superficial and relatively undefined (for many, our signature value is “kiasu-ism” – I mean, seriously, that’s the best we can do?) is that we – Singapore – see ourselves as an economy first and foremost.  If we occupy ourselves with how valuable we are to other countries, and we are very clear about this priority to our citizens, it is no wonder that they see themselves as cogs in the national wheel, mere digits in the “value added” ledger of the world economy, Singapore column.  Citizens may well feel that the state doesn’t care about them beyond their economic value, and it is then completely understandable that some see themselves as rats on wheels powering a relentless remorseless uncaring economic machine, and feel less rooted to Singapore as they otherwise might.

I guess my point is, I’m aware that there needs to be a balance between managing Singapore as an economy and as a nation-state, and I don’t think the current mainstream rhetoric, with its unabashed prioritisation of Singaporeans’ economic value, is the best way to build a nation.

There are difficult questions, of course.  For example, are we trying to build a nation, or just make sure everyone has a decent living, or the opportunity for one?  Doesn’t Singapore, small and un-blessed with natural resources as it is, need to prioritise being economically valuable to the rest of the world?  (Does Denmark or Switzerland do this?)  Don’t we need to be successful economically first before we can take care of our people?  Should we be frank in our communication to citizens about our priorities and their role in this, or should we use nicer-sounding words to communicate a similar message to ensure these same citizens are more engaged in our common goal?  And what is that goal: to give value to our citizens, or to be valuable to the rest of the world?  Which is the means, and which the end?

Gosh, I hope that made a bit of sense :p

*I’d heard that the organisers of the 2008 Formula 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix have been extremely pushy and unbending in their pursuit of revenue, to the extent that building tenants who have a good view of the street circuit are being faced with a dastardly choice: sell the space to the race organisers (or pay for the view), or have one of the particularly bright lights strung along the circuit shine into your office and ruin that view.  If this sort of crass thuggery is representative of behaviour we have to put up with to bring events like this into Singapore, then I would rather we neither put up nor bring in.