Thoughts on a trip to San Diego

San Diego this time of year is typically colder, the driver says. The driver drives a van that bears me toward the airport, where I’ll take a flight to Los Angeles, then Tokyo, then home. A few turns into what he promises would be a short drive, he notices someone on the pavement – a flustered woman lugging along a check-in bag and a carry-on – and exchanges some short quick gestures with her. Having determined something from this wordless back and forth, he stops the van – he knows her, he says by way of explanation – and leaves his seat to help her with her bags. I do my bit, sliding open the door. She gets on and settles beside me, grateful to the driver, but not overly so – his does not seem to have been a totally unexpected act of kindness. I learn that she had headed out to the airport via public transport, but her train had been delayed, and she had missed a bus, and was looking for a cab when we pulled up.

A couple of hours later, in LA, I have some time to daydream, and I come to wonder if a driver with the same job in Singapore – sending a hotel guest to the airport – would stop to pick up someone like this, as a kindness. My instinct tells me no, because the traffic in Singapore is too dense and hectic, and everyone wishes to get to some place quick, and there isn’t the space for you to safely stop and not obstruct the traffic behind you. Or at least that is what you would tell yourself, in Singapore, I think.

And I come to think, as I have thought a few times on and off since I’ve had the opportunity to travel to other cities around the world over the last couple of years, that space is an essential part of what makes a city liveable.

The tremendously agreeable weather – a blue sky; smears of cloud like white from a minimalist painter’s palette; a crisp coolness that makes sunshine a tangible, almost benedictory thing – that San Diego has had for the past week would help too.

***

A couple of days before my trip to the San Diego airport, I am in Phoenix visiting a friend. We get along well, but are not close, so the visit is slightly awkward the way something not altogether laid down in the bounds of social norms can sometimes be for me. I bring gifts for her, one from a mutual friend, so that lubricates things. She is touched by the mutual friend’s gift: a piece of wood which is shaped not unlike a snow-globe with an elongated base and which opens up to reveal carvings of the buddha.

We talk a lot. She talks about her research into spirituality and materialism and how the two intertwine. She is doing her PhD. For a while, I had thought about academia as a career too, and now I feel a pang of jealousy, but it is distant, buried deep under current comforts and indolence and inertia; I know too much now about my disinclination to withstand discomfort and homesickness to be genuinely envious. I think.

She warns me about the leeching dryness of the desert, tells me that drinking water is important, and that if I have a headache, it is probably caused by dehydration. An image of my brain squelching to a stop from lack of water makes me laugh.

We talk about companionship for the long term. She had recently parted ways with a long-time boyfriend. I mention how I am lazy to do things that I like when I am on vacation because there is no one to share the joy with – as my tongue rolled to form the words, I am a bit surprised; I had not known I thought this – and she says she understands.

***

She says that this process towards a doctorate, including the research into the intertwining of spiritualism and materialism, is part of her self actualisation.

My self actualisation mainly takes the form of satisfying my appetites for food and goods, I say as a glib half-joke, then as a realisation. Compared to my haphazard and aimless daily meanderings, her introspective and purposeful search for who she is, in itself a process of self definition, is a worthy pursuit.

What is self actualisation to you, she asks.

I think about it. How do I actualise me, maximise me, bring out the potential in me, express the desires in me to be… a me I am happy with.

Hm…

***

She brings me around to places she frequents, to supermarkets and food places, to where she works. I meet her advisor, the professor for whom she decided to come to Arizona and who now supervises her work towards a doctorate. I shake the professor’s hand; she holds a chihuahua in her other hand, maternally cradling the dog to her chest with her arm.

***

Days before I go to Phoenix, I am at work meetings and staying in a La Jolla resort alongside a beautiful bay scooped into the side of California, with the calm Pacific waters lapping and mildly frothing at its edge.

The road leading to the resort is lined with palm trees, ridiculously tall and straight, and understandably so, given the abundance of sunshine. Ducks and geese roam the resort, and one of the sights of the trip was a small flock of ducks silently and suddenly bursting into the air, then turning left, becoming a different entity as the rays of light catch their feathers in a different slant, heading off to another part of the resort to enjoy the afternoon.

On the last day of the meetings, I am told that “La Jolla” means “the jewel”. Quite right.

Later in the trip, the flight to Phoenix brings me out over the waters off La Jolla. At that height, the deep blue is stippled by waves and the glint of sunlight, and looks like a luxuriant swathe of leather.

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.

Two ideas

A couple of ideas I thought might be applied in some way in our little island home. (As far as I know, they haven’t already been.) Let me know what you think :)

Evaluate charities and publish findings on a web site, like Charity Navigator does.

In its own words, this organisation, “America’s premier independent charity evaluator”, “works to advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplace by evaluating the financial health of America’s largest charities”. In rating charities, Charity Navigator looks at two broad areas:

1. Organisational efficiency (programme expenses, administrative expenses, fundraising expenses, fundraising efficiency etc.)

2. Organisational capacity (primary revenue growth, programme expenses growth, working capital ratio etc.)

(See a fuller picture of Charity Navigator’s method here.)

If applied on a somewhat smaller scale in Singapore, this may work together with the recent beefed-up governance rules to improve the confidence of donors and volunteers.

Provide for microfinancing for studies and healthcare, through alumni associations and the like.

I find the Kiva web site among the most illustrative of the idea of microfinancing. You can see businesses in need of financing, and how much the businesses need, and how much they have raised, and if enough has been raised, how they are doing.

To me, the power of microfinancing comes from being able to have a personal relationship with one’s loanee.  This has been exploited in a way by many charities – one can sponsor children in need, or a dialysis patient.  However, the transaction in this case is not a donation, but a loan, i.e. repayment is expected, and the loan is typically used as a seed for some moneymaking endeavour.  To make money, one needs to work, and to work, one needs skills and health.  In this sense, microfinancing for studies and healthcare (e.g. operations) may be feasible.  One problem is, of course, how the loan could be guaranteed, so to speak.

A bitter rant

So I was thinking about this upcoming IMF meeting, and the lengths to which our government is going to show Singapore in the best light possible.

Can’t help but feel everything’s a bit too mercenary (flowers and new paint for the high-rollers and important people) and staged (smiles and service training). But I guess that’s what one may feel when one is not the target of all these efforts lah. It almost feels as if citizens normally aren’t worth this effort…

Still, I’m sure loads of Singapore folks – the retailers, security folks, drivers, tour guides, tour attraction operators, hotels and restaurant operators and more and more – are going to benefit.

Gosh I sound bitter…

A play about JBJ, only it wasn't…

So last Thursday evening, I went to watch “The campaign to confer the Public Service Star on JBJ” with some colleagues. Some things I think I think:

  1. It was a really witty two-act play. In the first act, David Lee, President of the Association of Students for Self-expression (ASS, which of course was the hook for several pun-ny jokes) started a campaign to confer the Public Service Star on JBJ. As it turned out, it did not matter that he was campaigning for a JBJ who had nothing to do with opposition parties (his JBJ was being lauded for contributing to the protection of flora and fauna). No one would touch his campaign, not even his JBJ. There was this hilarious scene in which he called his JBJ’s organisation and tried to convince the paranoid female receptionist that he was sincere about his campaign, not trying to make trouble for her boss. In what came as a surprise to me, David died at the end of the first act.
  2. In the second act, a high-flying civil servant tried to manage the news item that was David’s death – that is, the death of a student activist who was ostensibly campaigning to confer a top public service award on someone with the same initials as an opposition party leader. The act unraveled as a spot-on caricature of the civil service – a discussion between the civil servant and a police inspector, who was investigating the case and expecting a memo about what conclusion to write in his report, was laugh-out-loud funny and laser-precise. More than that, the act was a well-sketched portrait of an accomplished Singaporean civil servant with a diamond-hard exterior, and her sacrifices.
  3. The structure of the play was interesting. In the first act, Rodney Oliveiro played David Lee’s role, while Pam Oei inimitably played a kaleidoscope of characters, from David Lee’s feisty, always-ready-with-a-witticism sidekick to the many receptionists David called during his campaign. In the second act, Pam Oei played the steely high-flier Clara Tang, while Rodney Oliveiro was the one who flitted back and forth among roles as Clara’s proud-of-his-humble-beginnings immediate boss, the new-to-the-new-civil-service rookie police inspector, Clara’s cynical news columnist boyfriend, her almost Kumar-ish gay PR guru and a shadowy behind-the-scenes higher-up. Both actors were excellent and accomplished.
  4. I have not done the play justice with my half-baked review, not by any means, so do go watch it if you’re interested. There are still shows at 3pm and 8pm today and tomorrow.
  5. It was a nice touch that the real JBJ was among the audience. He was introduced after the play to generous applause. I don’t know whether he was invited or just happened to turn up.

Also saw two university classmates that evening, one I knew quite well and spoke to, one whose name I forgot and therefore did not speak to. (Of course, I remember her name now – both her actual name and what she prefers to be called.)

Home

So today, at our organisation’s National Day Observance Ceremony, kindergarten* kids and a primary school choir performed. The kids were really tiny – I don’t see young enough kids often enough to realise how tiny they are and how quickly they grow. And they were cute the way they stuck gamely to their much-rehearsed moves even as they half hushed themselves and half shouted “Mummy!” or “Daddy!” when they saw their parents in the audience.

The choir sang 小人物的心声, “My Island Home” and “Home”. I grew up listening to 巫启贤, and although I’ve come to dislike him as a person – he appears to think too much of himself – there was a time when I really identified with his songs. Listening to the choir give this song a modern, folksy twist was intriguing – I hadn’t heard 小人物的心声 sung like that before. I’ve never heard “My Island Home”, which is supposed to be this year’s National Day Parade theme song. (If that sounds to you like I don’t watch TV much, you’re right!)

But I know “Home”. And listening to choral voices singing it, hearing the lyrics, looking at the earnest faces of the children concentrating and trying their best to get the song right on the video feed backstage, I felt a fleeting sensation of a lump rising in my throat and somehow reaching behind my nose and eyes where tears start.

It went away quickly, and I don’t think I miss it much, but I hadn’t felt that patriotic in a long time :)

* Long ago, I remember insisting that “kindergarten” was spelled “kindergarden”. I remember being told that even kindergarteners knew that “kindergarten” was spelled “kindergarten”. I remember finding out through browsing the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary that “kindergarten” was spelled “kindergarten”. I remember detesting the German language.