Friday, October 12, 2012

A Reason Why You Shouldn't Send Your Kids to School

Race has raised its ugly head again in Singapore. In the last week, the assistant director of the only trade union in town decided to make awful remarks about the Malay community on her Facebook page. The remarks she made went viral and within minutes she was sacked from her job and her story continue to fill the newspapers.

This incident has sparked a national debate on the issue of race. The talking heads are asking if race relations in Singapore are as perfect as we’ve always thought it to be. There have also been discussions about the limits of free speech.

What strikes me most about this incident is the fact that they came from her. The woman in question is not an illiterate bumpkin who has been asked to deal with a culture from another part of the world. She is a graduate from a respectable university (University of Western Australia) and a working professional (prior to working for the union, it is believed that she once worked at the Marina Mandarin Hotel). She’s also at the age where being na├»ve is a defense.

So, the question is, why the hell did she write things that displayed her ignorance about a community that has been in Singapore that’s been there for as long as anyone can remember?

You could say that she had a stupid moment and wrote what she did at the spur of the moment. Well, yes, she could have been stupid. Most of us have done things on the spur of the moment and regretted. However, this wasn’t a case of having a bit too much to drink or going to bed with the wrong person. This was a case of writing something down. Having been a writer, I can tell you that it is impossible for the fingers to type things without instructions from the brain.

So, I ask the question – how does a well-educated person think thoughts that one often associates with uneducated clowns? To be fair to Ms Cheng, the lady in question, she’s realized that she’s in hot soup and has apologized for the offending remarks.

However, that should not detract from the fact that Ms Cheng is not the only highly educated person to reflect a general ignorance about the world. The most famous educated ignoramuses belong to the family Thio, where the mother and daughter, who are professors of law, have made it a lifelong mission to eradicate homosexuality in Singapore.

 However, there are plenty of others. Most of the time, this level of ignorance is amusing.  It’s a bit of a joke when high school graduates think that Sikh’s come from Bengal (erm, there’s quite a bit of distance between Punjab and Bengal). However, it’s a little worrying when an assistant director of the trade union thinks the Malay community would have a lower divorce rates if they spent more on weddings. It’s downright scary when law professors provide pseudo-intellectual arguments on why consenting adults cannot have sex with who they want to have sex with.

I agree with Ms Cheng’s dismissal. However, I don’t believe that hanging her out to be fed to the wolves is the answer. I don’t think she’s a single case – but part of a worrying group of uneducated-professionals who make it so necessary to import “foreign talent” to get things done.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Problem with Comebacks

Everyone loves a “comeback.”  If life is a play, the “comeback” is the dramatic moment that decides the greatness of the play. We simply love people who have the ability to make a “comeback.” Somehow, the “comeback” moment is always the one that’s talked about. It’s the moment where we’re supposed to see things like grit and determination. It’s where that “extra special” in a person is supposed to shine through.

One only has to think of the 1990s tennis rivalry between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Let’s face it, Sampras dominated that rivalry. He was the more consistent performer, winning most of their matches, particularly in the big tournaments. Sampras stood head and shoulders above his peers. When he played tennis, it was like watching a Mozart give music lessons to a deaf mute. You could marvel at Sampras’s genius with a racket.

However, while Sampras was all about being a beautiful player, the one that inspired people was Andre Agassi. While Sampras won tournaments and broke records, Agassi would often come back from injury or defeat.  We cheered his 1999 French Open win, not because he was the superior player on the day but because he found something special in himself to make the difference when it counted. We could marvel at Sampras’s superior skills but in our hearts we identified with Agassi. With Sampras winning was key….with Agassi it didn’t matter.

The love of the “comeback” isn’t limited to tennis or sports. Business is filled with “comeback” stories. One of the most famous business icons of the 1980s is Lee Iacocca, the former CEO of Chrysler. Mr Iacocca became a hero when he rescued Chrysler from the brink of bankruptcy in 1979.

You could say Mr Iacocca started the trend of “celebrity CEOs,” business leaders who would became brands in their own right. How did he do it? He made himself the hero in a dramatic story called “The Comeback from the Brink of Bankruptcy.” This was the key in the creation of his legend. Had he not taken over Chrysler the chances are, Mr Iacocca would probably have retired as yet another executive, unheard of beyond his industry.

I suspect that we all love the “comeback” moment because it creates an emotional connection between us and that moment. Real life is filled with ups and downs and we fight to survive. Since we fight to survive, we get a kick watching other people struggle and win.

I live a country that has been all about coming back from misfortune. If you were to look at the “key” moment in modern Singapore’s history, it would have to be the 1965 ejection from the Malaysian Federation. Had we not been ejected, chances are, we might have just become another Malaysian city. However, our founding Prime Minister had his dream snatched away from him and he was forced to change course – the rest as they say is history.

There is, however, one major flaw with our love of the “comeback” – namely the fact that great moments tend to centre around individuals, who have the potential to become so much part of the narrative that the institutions they lead and live with end up suffering from their passing. Like or not, human beings are frail and end up falling to bits.

Let’s return to sports – boxing. Who is the greatest boxing heavy weight? The answer most would give is Mohammed Ali. The man dazzled us with his wit and good looks. He had artistry in the ring, allowing him to take on and beat bigger and stronger men. His fights were not ninety second demolitions. They were hard fought slug fest, won by the man with the bigger heart on the day – think of the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier or the “Rumble in the Jungle” against a very young, fit and hard hitting George Foreman.  Ali won the world heavy weight title a record breaking three times.

Much as we loved watching Mohammad Ali displays his pride and courage in the ring, his body reached its limits and he failed to recognize this. This became prominently evident in his 1980 attempt to win the heavy weight title from his former employee Larry Holmes. The contest was so one sided that it became a farce.  He only managed to throw ten effective punches in ten rounds and the anguish on Holmes’s face was clearly evident as he inflicted a savage beating on a man he admired.  

Two decades latter people are asking why the fight was ever allowed to take place. Ali by that time was showing signs of Parkinsons Disease. As things would have it, Don King summed it up best, “How do you tell God he can’t create thunder and lightning anymore?”

 Mohammed Ali had created a legend where he was God. Unfortunately his body didn't function like that. His humiliation at Holmes’s hands damaged him physically, damaged Holmes's reign as heavy weight champion and boxing at large.

The man is only a visible sad example of a man who failed to realize that he was not God the hard way. I think of politics in Singapore where Lee Kuan Yew continues to grab a few moments of the spotlight. If you look at his appearance at the 2012 National Day Parade, you’ll see that he’s barely able to walk. Why does he need to drag his failing body out for one last political battle?

I’m not against old people working. However, there is a need for great people to understand when it’s time for them to step back and leave the stage and recognize the fact that they need to let the new generations grow into their jobs. It took the humiliating loss of a GRC in the 2011 election for him to step down from cabinet. Why did it take an electoral defeat (well, not quite but in Singapore the ruling party is expected to win everything so a loss of more than two seats is considered a major disaster) to get him out of an official position?

This is the very same question that people asked about the 1980 Holmes-vs-Ali fight. A great champion had become a sick old man and was humiliated and damaged.

I am for celebrating the “comeback.” I am for people struggling to achieve something. I’m a big believer in the necessity of struggle in order to achieve greatness. However, I also believe that its vital for the great characters of the world to be reminded of their limits.

In Ancient Rome, a slave would always be present at the side of a triumphant general to whisper, “Remember General, you are mortal.” This was a reality check for the hero in the moment of triumph. There has to be a way for the modern world to offer this to its heroes.  

Monday, October 01, 2012

Nothing Wrong With Importing Talent: Now, Export the Duds!

Cyberspace is becoming wonderfully predictable these days. If you go onto any web site that claims to talk about Singapore politics, the inevitable topic of “foreigners” will glare at you like a boil on some one’s nose?

As far as Singapore’s keyboard warriors are concerned, every social issue in Singapore boils down to one fact – the fact that we’ve let in too many foreigners. The keyboard warriors are particularly upset that we’ve let in lots of people from Asia. Apparently, this group is stealing jobs from Singaporeans and if they’re not stealing jobs from Singaporeans, they’re driving wages so low that it’s impossible for decent Singaporeans to make a living.

It’s easy to blame foreigners for everything. I also agree that Singapore has issues. However, our solutions or rather the solution is the wrong one. Instead of trying to halt the inflow of foreigners into Singapore, we should be looking at exporting our duds to savory places like North Korea and Sudan.

Let’s face it; the foreigners in Singapore are not the worst of the worst. Much as we may not like to admit it, they do bring in capital and skills. My “Singaporean” Indian friends might object violently but I believe that one of the best examples of “necessary” talents is the Indian Nationals who have come to Singapore. I think of the chaps at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Alumni Association. It’s not just big shots from Indian Companies like Supriyo Sircar, CEO of Polaris Asia-Pacific. You have chaps like Dhruv Jain, a young engineer from Energizer and you have entrepreneurs like Balwant Jain who set up Optimum Solutions and Harish Nim who set up Emerio – successful companies in the high value industry that Singapore so desperately needs.

Even the chaps at the low end of the market are fairly decent. Look, they’re all “working” in the rough jobs that Singaporeans won’t do. They are NOT stealing from Singaporeans nor are they screwing the Singapore tax payer out of welfare benefits – I have yet to meet a “foreign worker” beggar. They work hard to provide Singaporeans with many of the amenities they enjoy. This lot is also fairly law abiding. I’ve yet to hear of a Singaporean being beaten up by a “Bangla” worker – by contrast, you do hear of Westerners beating up people after a few too many.

So, let’s be honest here – how can you argue that people who come here to contribute their labour are social problem? It’s downright ingenious for people to assume that Singaporeans will rush to join construction sites or food and beverage outlets once you kick out the “foreign labourers.” The proposals to replace foreign labour with the local variety are laughable. The premise works on “kick out the able bodied foreign worker and replace them with the elderly and crippled.” I say, as long as foreigners are willing to work, we should let them.

What we really need to do is to export duds and believe you me, Singapore is filled with them. You’re talking about people who believe that they are “entitled” to this and that and won’t lift a finger to do anything productive. Everything it seems is way beneath them.

In the Chinese community, this group can be found in the Ka Ni Na (Hokkien Chinese for mother f***) Family. Jie-Jie (Older Sister) Ka Ni Na is a typical Singapore Chinese graduate. She claims to have found herself a highly paid job and she’s proud of the fact that she’s too educated to know what to do around the house, unlike her half educated mother.

Jie-Jie Ka Ni Na’s actual job was to find herself a nice “Ang Moh” (Caucasian) husband. This husband happens to own a highly successful restaurant that has a monthly turn-over that is the equivalent of buying a small car. Once in a while she pretends to be a cashier at his restaurant. After half an hour, the work usually gets too strenuous for her and so she sits in a corner trying to get the staff to pay attention to her, just as the staff is trying their best to deal with twelve different things at once.

To be fair to Jie-Jie Ka Ni Na, she’s a very filial daughter. She’s tried to get Di-Di (Younger Brother) Ka Ni Na a job in her husband’s restaurant as a ….cashier. Unfortunately Di-Di didn’t want to do the job. In his words, “I cannot slack….ah.”  So Jie-Jie went and got her Mummy a job and every so often she drops by the restaurant to make sure Mummy helps her sow buttons on her blouse because her “idiot” maid couldn’t do it the way she wanted it done.

The Indian Community has the “Pundek (Tamil for c****) Family.”  While the Ka Ni Na Family is manipulative, whinny and materialistic, the Pundeks are lazy and prone to trying to sponge off everything that walks.

Pundek’s are highly allergic to work, that is if you don’t consider trying to get freebies off your relatives and your friends to be work. Apparently, the Pundek Family, particularly the men are particularly prone to this thing called “dignity.” It is apparently shameful to wash dishes, drive taxis and so on. It is perfectly ok to get your family and friends to pay for every small need that you have.

One of the biggest frustrations that the Pundek’s have is the fact that the “welfare” system in Singapore is called “Workfare.” To get money out of the Singapore government, you need to be in a job of sorts for two out of every three month period.

It’s not actually complicated to get “workfare.” All you need to do is to find someone willing to contribute a bit of money to your CPF (Singapore’s version of social security – it’s like a compulsory savings). Unfortunately, employers have a nasty habit of expecting you to do something for them in return, even if it’s just to wipe a few tables one day a week. Wiping tables is apparently “undignified” and therefore too much work for a few lousy bucks.

I suppose the Pundek’s allergy to work wouldn’t be so noticeable, if they were not so status conscious. If you were kind enough to offer to buy a Pundek a coffee in a coffee shop, they’ll kick a fuss and suggest that you take them out to somewhere a bit more upmarket or at least has air-conditioning. The Younger Generation of this family always likes to put on a show of generosity. They’ll offer to buy you a meal at somewhere fairly pricy, then order everything under the sun and then, when it comes to time to pick up the tab…..ooopppppsss, they’ll suggest that you pay first and they’ll pay you back sometime in the not too distant future …what they don’t tell you is that key word here is distant.

Now, I put it this way to you – who is a bigger social problem – the foreign worker cleaning the streets and working on the construction site or members of the Ka Ni Na and Pundek families?

I’m off the view that what we need to do to solve our social problems is to “export” Ka Ni Na’s and Pundeks rather than block the importing of foreigners. This would have plenty of practical benefits. Once you export members of these respective families, you would increase productivity and allow the people who supported members of this family to keep more of the money they work for. This in turn will ensure that money will go to where it’s needed most.

Think about it, exporting duds is a far more effective solution than blocking the importation of foreigners to do work.