Later-post: Thoughts on election campaign season in Singapore

The internet-age needs to come up with a technical term for something that was previously thought up, but posted belatedly or after the fact. Later-post it is. Perhaps something German? I don’t speak German. Someone please translate.

This post first appeared on Facebook.

A few thoughts on the election campaign season in Singapore:

1. To everyone who’s been dismayed by character assassinations, ad hominem attacks etc from any direction, have you forgotten how politics works? Oh wait. You probably have. Singapore has been devoid of politics for so long that entire generations have grown up without enjoying a good political campaign. Not that we teach kids about politics in school.
1a. Anti-foreigner vitriol is different. I have zero respect for that shite.

2. I really want to judge each party by its track record. But some parties have no track record, very little track record, vestigial track record, or track record thirty years out of date already. Therefore the only alternative is to judge each party by its track record *and* its long-term plans, or manifestos.
2a. Sometimes the manifesto sounds wildly improbable. It is difficult to write a feasible manifesto when the deck is so stacked that the information required, such as how much money Singapore has, is not public.
ETA 2b. Pro-tip: vote for people who are for something, not against everything.

3. The PAP is, of course, a political animal. As an incumbent political party, furthermore, it naturally does everything it can to tip the scales in its favour. Complaining that the deck is stacked and the party should give up some of the advantages it enjoys will do absolutely nothing. Voting for a party that campaigns for a fair deck of institutions will help.

4. I am unimpressed by orh-luak-eating, CPR-performing, foreign-worker-hand-shaking, etc. Just convince me that you can do the job. (The incumbent has a tougher time here because they have an actual track record of promises, some that have been fulfilled, some that are not kept, and some that are still in progress. Of course people remember the most recent ones. Remember how 5 or 6 years ago we were all moaning that BTOs were not being B fast enough? No, lots of people have forgotten that huge building ramp-up because of a mega train breakdown.)

5. If you don’t like how someone has done the job you can always vote them out in the next election. That’s what democratic institutions are for.

6. Speaking of institutions, when I was in primary school, my mother (a lifelong civil servant) received a promotion. I asked her something to the effect of “Mummy, in another 10 years, will you become the minister?” If 10-year-old me was a bit confused about distinguishing between the civil service and elected officials, that was understandable. However, I am an adult and still a bit confused as some public institutions (I’m looking at you, PA) still seem to be used for political gain.

7. Since I have complete faith in many parts of the public and civil service, I trust that my vote, and yours, is secret.


New adventures in grocery shopping

American convenience food! The enormous grocery store is full of things in packets, and the variety of those things in packets is astounding.

The variety of fresh produce is a little less astounding. For every aisle of fresh produce and fresh food, there are about four aisles of Things In Packets. All I want is some fruit and veg and rice and noodles and flour and eggs and beans and soymilk (I am somewhat intolerant of lactose, too much milk does unpleasant things to my insides) and meat and fish – you know, things that don’t have to come in packets. (I think we give our local supermarket very bad profit margins.)

Instead there are 200 varieties of cereal, another 200 varieties of cookies, things in cans, things in packets, things in jars, things in boxes, frozen things in said packets… People rave about Trader Joe’s, but they’re raving about things like Trader Joe’s premade pizza dough, Trader Joe’s organic snacks… I like popcorn and chips as much as the next person, but they’re not that special to me. I guess if you’re going to eat popcorn and chips they might as well be organic?

Occasionally we also hit up the pan-Asian supermarket (like a pan-Asian supermodel, only larger). There, at least the packets are familiar.

At the same time, online shopping!! is the best thing about being a consumer in the US. I don’t have to set foot in a shop if I don’t want to…

From the banyan’s shadow: What Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy means for young Singaporeans

Note: This is an expanded version of an essay first published on Quartz.

In the wee hours of Monday morning (March 23), Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died after having been hospitalised for pneumonia since February 5. He was 91.

This year I will be 31 – the same age Lee was when he started the PAP in 1954. By 1955, he had won the seat for Tanjong Pagar constituency, and by 1959, just before turning 36, he was sworn in as prime minister. Perhaps in a young country many things may be done by young men. (By contrast, the minimum age of candidacy for a US president is 35.)

I sometimes wonder what harsh words Lee in the 1980s might have had for his younger self, the idealistic upstart lawyer who defended trade unionists and, like many young people in colonial societies at the time from Africa to the Caribbean, thought he could talk the British into turning Singapore over to self-rule. But the fact remains: at 31, Lee and his fellow party members (and their rivals) were out there campaigning for the city they believed in, hearing citizens’ grievances, and generally putting their money where their mouths were.

My generation may not fully agree with his politics even as we benefit from some of his policies. But can we love Singapore as fiercely? Can we look clear-eyed at Lee’s legacy and work out for ourselves which parts are worth carrying on and which parts are more burden than gift?

One of the key things Lee and his cohort did for the island-state was entrench the rule-of-law doctrine. Singapore’s systems and institutions evolved from British colonial ones – the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau has been around since 1952, before the city attained self-government in 1959 or independence in 1965 – but laws this time around were enforced. And when it came to corruption, the stick was balanced by a fat carrot of high civil- and public-service salaries so workers were less likely to take bribes.

At the same time, some have critiqued Singapore as paying lip service to the rule of law and ignoring the spirit of justice, in situations ranging from detention of activists without trial to defamation and libel lawsuits. Yes, and my generation needs to understand the tumultuous context in which Singapore’s rule of law doctrine came about, and decide for itself how far to adapt it for the future.

And there is no doubt about Singapore’s meteoric economic progress since independence. The popular ‘swamps to skyscrapers’ trope is a myth, but if Singapore was quite as healthy a commercial hub under colonial rule as some critics make it out to be, how then does one explain the tremendous support he enjoyed from my parents’ generation? Perhaps it was because they saw their quality of life visibly rise, with more equitable provisions from sanitation to public transport to affordable housing for all. Public parks, for instance, were distributed across Singapore for the benefit of all citizens, not just the moneyed elite.

But these, while necessary, are not sufficient.

If a country is to thrive over the long run, it must be able to move on from its founding fathers while upholding and adapting the founding principles that made it great. I think of former Foreign Affairs minister George Yeo, who in 1991 spoke of freeing non-state civic institutions to thrive: of needing to “prune the banyan trees so other plants can grow”.

This pruning, and the flourishing of other plants, has carried on for some years now. Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been prime minister since 2004, and though the elder Lee remained highly influential he took a less active role in public life and parliamentary debate. In 2011, he stepped down as Minister Mentor after the People’s Action Party posted its worst general-election result with just over 60 per cent of the vote. (The party abolished the Minister Mentor and Emeritus Senior Minister posts to give the Prime Minister and his team room to prepare for the future, he said.) So while his passing marks the end of an era, it may be less of an inflection point for Singapore than many think.

A leader such as Lee Kuan Yew, who made himself redundant, who stepped down to hand over the reins within the party even as he ensured the party remained in power, would understand the principle that societies evolve, generation by generation. And so I believe my generation must address some key considerations for Singapore’s future.

Inequality and elite governance

Effectively addressing the bread-and-butter concerns of everyday folk was what bolstered Lee’s rise to power. But today intergenerational mobility is beginning to ossify, while income inequality is among the highest in the developed world. If you want to talk about bread and butter issues, what about advocating for the least of Singapore’s people, those left behind by Singapore’s much-vaunted economic growth and those on whose backs that growth is still being built?

As for high pay, every policymaker should be at least aware of perverse economic incentives – and of their own privilege. High salaries do run the risk of becoming a perverse incentive in which people enter government or civil service motivated by money. (On the other hand, if you didn’t pay MPs anything at all you might get only the already wealthy running for office – much as unpaid internships reduce socioeconomic diversity in media. And today, to a great extent, Singapore’s public service is genuinely selected on the basis of merit, not class or parental connections.) And if we think a policy of elite governance has created a two-tier system of insiders and outsiders or fostered top civil servants out of touch with the ground, remember the elite civil service is not the only career path, reject this two-tier system, or for those already in it, aspire to serve or govern as best you can.

Economic growth

A greater concern is the nature of Singapore’s economic growth. Is the foundation of its growth becoming a new vulnerability for Singapore? In the drive to grow Singapore’s economy as fast as possible in the early decades of independence, the infant state went big on foreign direct investment as a path to wealth. Between 1970 and 2013, foreign direct investment ballooned from US$93 million to US$63 billion (note: source: UN statistics at, USD$ at current prices and exchange rates). And so industry today continues to be dominated by multinational firms that site their manufacturing and regional head offices here.

That strategy has worked very well for the last three decades, but it presents a different kind of vulnerability if Singapore doesn’t grow its own startups and support homegrown enterprises fast. Various factors hold back innovation and entrepreneurship in Singapore – the rent is high, for instance, and the prevailing culture encourages risk-aversion in young people – so it’s up to my generation to try to overcome those. Furthermore, some have argued that Singapore’s emphasis on growth and money as an end in itself has fostered a “vacuous sense of national identity”. The onus is on my generation to go one better.

Beyond benevolent authoritarianism

Most pressing of all is to make amends for Lee’s heavy-handed repression of dissidents and critics, and reform media laws. Perhaps that was justified in those early tinderbox years when a spark could set off riots, but today an informed electorate would rather have a larger say. (On the ‘benevolent’ part of benevolent authoritarianism: without openness or sunshine laws, there is little to ensure that future politicians are as benevolent, not corrupt, or even telling the truth at all.) And Singapore and its institutions would be stronger and more trusted for a more open media that enjoys greater credibility and legitimacy.

In 1968, addressing the University of Singapore, Lee said, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.” In a delightful irony, about a decade ago, his granddaughter Li Xiuqi wrote a poem that speaks for a generation accused of being too far removed from the turbulent early years of Singapore’s birth: “Not being born, I didn’t know/ This time when Singapore boiled and bled … I didn’t know; I didn’t share;/ I didn’t fight; I wasn’t there./ And so, although this is my land,/ I only love it secondhand.” (Li Xiuqi, ‘not being born’)

Li speaks for my generation – the last generation to remember Lee Kuan Yew alive, as a dynamic politician and elder statesman, not just the frail party member waving from the stands at National Day Parades. But I am also a parent-to-be, and I think Li also speaks for my future children and their children, born to a world beyond the banyan’s shadow, for whose Singapore I am now working.

Being told precisely what to do can be comforting in the short run, but in the long run, Singapore’s citizens must find our own way in the world. Are we bold enough to engineer, as Lee did, disruptive change where needed?

A final word: Yes, go ahead and mourn. By all means, mark the benefits of Lee’s legacy. But remember that it alone is not sufficient to carry the country forward – and that neither the best nor the worst of Singapore’s features can be attributed to him alone. And then do what he would have done himself: pick right up and carry on fighting for the Singapore you believe in.

The real lesson was his leadership by example: instead of sitting around complaining about being stifled by past regimes, instead of stretching out your open palm in supplication, have a vision and stand up for it. Perhaps even devote your life’s work to it. Never waver.

The other day, a friend wrote by way of Facebook eulogy: “From here on, my dear Singaporeans, it’s all on us.” The thing is – it’s been all along.

The Sunday roundup

Actually published on Monday because I slept through a great deal of Sunday.
1. In case you somehow missed it, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew died at 91. Some of the best pieces from BBC (and another from BBC), The Economist, personal reflections, and others.
2. Who is an expat and who is an immigrant (and who is a guest worker and who is an intruder)? Two commentaries on this from the Guardian and the WSJ. (Both are somewhat context-driven. Neither one fully captures the intricacies of how race, skin colour, and socioeconomic class interact. After centuries of colonialism the world is still coming out from under that long shadow.)
3. Also from the WSJ, for expat marriages, breaking up is harder to do. Note: The WSJ is the paper that once thought a middle-class family income was $650,000, so you ought not to be surprised when they entirely fail to consider what impact financial strain can have on the marriages of the transnational poor.

4. An important reminder on learning and teaching for competence, not grades, from Duke-NUS professor Ranga Krishnan who trains some of the country’s doctors-to-be. Grades, as a snapshot of a student’s learning curved against his peers’ at any single point in time, are a poor proxy for lifetime competence.

‘Transnational’: a brief note

A brief note on terminology: I will admit that we’re not, strictly speaking, a transnational family. Technically, that’s when one or both parents lives in a different country from their child or children. Since we both live in the same country and our kid isn’t actually born yet, I’m not sure quite what to call us. A transnational couple? A bi-cultural, bi-national family? (Oh, the little check-boxes.)
But we do live far away from most family support networks, as do many people in the US. And there are people around us in so many less desirable versions of the same situation – some who, for visa reasons, cannot work while their spouse works or studies here in the US. (At least, as the spouse of a US citizen, I have legal standing to work here; my parents, being Singaporean, have legal standing to visit anytime and stay for up to 90 days at a stretch; his parents, being US citizens, can visit anytime too.)
Also, not every family relationship is necessarily transnational: even within large countries like China or the US, one or two parents might live apart from their children for work, full-time or part-time, while grandparents or other family members care for children.
I don’t know what to call our family. Or our neighbours here who are grad-student families. Or the long-distance-but-not-transnational families. Or the families in Singapore where one spouse can’t work, access affordable housing or get permanent residency because they don’t meet income or educational thresholds that are a black box. (See Kirsten Han’s essay on what transnational couples really need – pro-tip: it’s not marriage counselling.) Or the families who are invisible and under the radar in Singapore because both parents are not only not married but of the same sex, whether or not they’re from the same country at all. I’m certainly not going to try and tackle all of these issues at the same time here. But whatever the arbitrary terminology you choose, the fact remains we are all still families. And that should mean something. Doesn’t it?

Sunday roundup

1. This was one of the best things I read last year: on immigration, class, finances and fighting for a better homeland. Ivy Lau, ‘My Father’s Hong Kong’

Unlike Baba, this year on October 1st, I didn’t watch the National Day celebration or sing “March of the Volunteers,” the Chinese national anthem. Instead, I joined in singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” as I watched the Umbrella Movement unfold on my computer screen. Just as the students sang the song to awaken a revolution in the musical Les Miserables, Hong Kong protestors bellowed the adapted Cantonese version as the anthem for their own movement. My job currently keeps me in the States, but sometimes I wish I could join the protestors myself, to be with them as they brave tear gas and sort recycled trash all night long, because I, too, cherish the hope of a different future that Hong Kong once held for my baba.

Fighting the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China for genuine democracy, the rule of law, and civil liberties might feel like a losing battle, much like fighting the demons of past regrets and the deterioration of your body. But Hong Kongers will do what they do best: keep calm, and keep on keeping on.

2. An interview with journalist Stephan Faris, the author of Homelands (the entire Kindle Single essay on open immigration is very much worth buying – I purchased it through my subscription to Deca.)

3. Closer to home, new-this-Parliament Nominated MP Kuik Shiao Yin stands up for single mothers and different ways of learning. I like her already:

“…The children of single mothers are Singapore’s children too and if we are a nation already struggling to replace ourselves, should we not welcome any new young life that has been given unto Singapore with equal honour? Shouldn’t all Singaporean children be automatically included in the State’s blessing?”

4. A very good piece from Immoveable Type on the private-tutoring arms race and the shadow education system. Which reminds me of my piece last year on the Gifted Education Programme hooha and the real underlying problems there.

5. And speaking of shadow education, a quick event announcement for folks based in Singapore:

Thursday, 19 Mar, 2015 12:15pm – 01:00pm – LKY School of Public Policy Lunchtime Talk – Bringing Shadow Education into the Light – The Growth of Private Supplementary Education and its Policy Implications

Speaker: Dr. Louise Elffers, Researcher, University of Maastricht, School of Business and Economics. Shadow education, or supplementary education provided by the private sector, is a growing phenomenon worldwide. Th­e most institutionalized systems of shadow education can be found in Asia. In South-Korea about 80% of primary and secondary school students attend private tutoring classes, with estimated yearly household expenditures nearing or exceeding public expenditure on education. In Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, similar proportions of students engage in shadow education.

Venue: Seminar Room 3-5, Manasseh Meyer Building, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, 469E Bukit Timah Road, Singapore 259774
Cost: Admission is free. This is a brown bag session and you are most welcome to bring your own packed lunch.
RSVP: lkyschoolevents@nus,edu,sg or
In Singapore, parents, MPs, and educational experts have raised concerns about Singapore’s status of ‘tuition nation’. As students’ school careers increasingly rely on education provided outside the public system, the growth of shadow education has been called a ‘hidden’ privatization of the public education system, challenging equality of educational opportunity and the human right of free education for all. In this seminar, we explore the causes and consequences of a growing shadow education system and its potential policy implications. Looking at a variety of policy interventions from various countries, we discuss how governments may address the growth of shadow education. We will look into interventions that aim to capitalize on the potential benefits of shadow education, as well as interventions focused on minimizing its negative effects on students, schools and society.

I can’t be there – please go and ask questions for me!

The Way of the Bolster

Now THIS is a bolster.
Image from Ah, bliss. 
Shortly after I arrived to live in the US for the second time*, it became very apparent that I was in dire need of a bolster. First of all, I’m seven months pregnant. Let me tell you, there is no sleeping position that is comfortable for a pregnant lady, mostly because changing positions is a conscious decision which means you have to…you know…be conscious. So either you get a crick in your neck from being in one position all night or you’re awake half the night. Isn’t it a joy?
Second of all, even when I’m not seven months pregnant, I like my bolsters.
What’s a bolster, you ask? If you’re not familiar with the term, a bolster is a long firm cylindrical pillow that one hugs for temperature control. It’s most commonly used in Southeast/ South/ East Asia, and it’s also called a Dutch wife, no doubt by lonely Dutch colonists in Indonesia who needed something to cling to.
Everything marked ‘bolster’ on Amazon is this anaemic little pod that seems to be meant for back support, under-the-knee support, or as a miniature elf prop. I thought everything was bigger in America – clearly I was wrong. There’s a smattering of dog beds and mislabelled yoga props, too.
Not helping, yoga industry. I know, lady on the floor, I’m rolling my eyes too. 
Because I am functionally bilingual in English and American, I also tried searching for body pillows. Everything marked ‘body pillow’ on Amazon is the wrong shape – a fat rectangle, a flat rectangle, or this terrifying Snoogle:
Help, it's eating me.
Help, it’s eating me.
I think I might fall out of bed trying to extricate myself from that thing. WHAT IS SO DIFFICULT ABOUT A CYLINDRICAL CUSHION?
And so today we’re going shopping for a few essential household items, such as a nightstand (husband: “What, the one-night stand we have isn’t enough?”), a dresser, a freaking humidifier because I keep waking up dehydrated, and…something as close to a proper bolster as possible.
I think there’s a missed business opportunity here to sell custom large bolsters. Or even standard-sized large ones. First niche market: homesick Southeast Asians. Second niche market: pregnant ladies.
Sometimes when you’re far away from home, you just have to hold on to small familiar things. (Or, in the case of bolsters, hug some large familiar things. It’s funny that the ‘Dutch wives’ of yore are my Southeast Asian security blanket today.) I may get my kid one of those anaemic little pods of their own when they’re old enough; it’s all part of reminding them about half their heritage. Plus, toddler bolsters are adorable.
*Living in the US for the first time, over a decade ago, is how I got dragged into living in the US for the second time. Long story, tell you sometime.