Monday, November 28, 2016

Don’t be a Prisoner of Your Own Style

As an ethnic Chinese who grew up in the Western world, Bruce Lee movies were and in many ways, still are one of the greatest forms of escapism. Bruce Lee movies were a relief from the hum drum message that you were part of a small and vulnerable minority that should be grateful to embrace the Western world. Here was a small Chinaman who could kick the crap out of bigger (often stronger) and more numerous opponents because he had the secret of “Chinese” Kung Fu.
As well as being a great fighter, Bruce Lee was a genius at selling himself as the hero of the downtrodden Chinaman. He evoked a sense of racial pride in us. The small Chinaman could win because he had an ancient Chinese secret. 

The truth was rather different. While Bruce Lee sold his “Chinese” heritage, he was in actual fact an open-minded thief who would happily adapt techniques and skills from other cultures that suited him and worked best for him. He summed things up – a punch is a punch and a kick is a kick no matter what style of fighting you practice. He was willing to experiment until he got things right. If a boxing punch worked better than a Wing Chun punch at range, he’d use a boxing punch.

The man intrigued people. American fighters like Joe Lewis (the White Karate Champion not the black boxer) and Chuck Norris who had mastered ancient Japanese martial arts like karate and Tang So-Do rushed to be his students. Why would the reigning tournament fighters of their day even bother trying to be students of a street punk who had never fought in the ring.

I think part of the reason was because Bruce Lee had a philosophy of being adaptable and of using whatever he could to kick the crap out of people who were intent on killing him. This Wing Chung man learnt Filipino Martial Arts (Eskrima) and made the nuchuks his own (nunchuks are not Chinese). While known for his one-inch punch and kicking ability, there is a video where he happily instructed his students to bite the opponent.

The man understood that fighting was like life. You need to play the cards you have rather than wish you had others. The man was short sighted and one leg was shorter than another. His build was skinny (word has it that he used to watch Mohammad Ali matches and get frustrated that he was trapped in a weak Chinese body.) Yet, he devoted himself to the study of close quarter combat (starting in Wing Chun and later on borrowing from Karate, Eskrima and Boxing). He worked with what he had – short sighted so you learn to fight close quarters; one leg shorter than the other so you get your side kick working for you. You’re skinny so you focus on speed rather than on brute force (Chuck Norris is recorded to have commented that the man never stopped moving).

Bruce Lee was also a proponent of the best technique being what worked best for you. As mentioned earlier, he started in Wing Chung, which is about close quarter combat. It suited him because it played to his strengths and not to his weaknesses. His short sight would have precluded him from being any good at Tae Kwon Do.

Human beings often take pride in being at the top of their game. The world is filled with masters of this and that. The truth is that while we do admire masters of an art, life is often broad based and constantly changing. Those who fail to change or try to hark back to a golden age often get the stuffing kicked out of them. We become as a former president of Bennet & Coleman said, “Prisoners of our own business model.”

One of my favourite examples of the need not to be trapped by your own style or your mastery of your style can be seen in the Hong Kong movie Ip Man, the Legend is Born. The most prominent scene for me is when the young Ip Man meets Leong Bik, his fellow Foushan resident in Hong Kong. The young Ip Man takes pride in the fact that he knowns “Authentic” Wing Chun. He gets the stuffing kicked out of him by Leong Bik (played by Ip Chun, son of Ip Man), who practices something that looks like Wing Chun but isn’t because it’s not in the traditional definition of what “Authentic” Wing Chun should be. The young Ip Man complains “That’s not Wing Chun” as he ends up sprawled on the floor. The old man tells him “What comes from my fist is Wing Chun” and he points out that the rules can be changed.

Have a look at the following clip:

Moral of the story – know your craft but innovate and experiment. Don’t be afraid of change. The fighters that became stuck to their craft have inevitably lost out to those who were willing to change and use what worked best for them.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Controlling the Genie

The American Presidential Election is over and everyone is stunned with the victory of Mr. Donald Trump. Everyone I know, with the exception of the boss in the liquidations job (he predicts Mr. Trump will be very good for business) and friends and family from what I call the ‘crazy right’ (I won’t equate their views with Christianity), was stunned and nauseated.

Despite having a history of managerial incompetence, disdain for the working man, Donald Trump’s campaign based on racism and sexism proved to be shockingly effective. People came out to vote for him and despite a few high-profile cases, very few people actually came out to vote for him.
Unfortunately, Mr. Trump is merely the most successful of a brand of politicians who have played up to the worst in people. One just has to think of Marine Le Penn in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or Viktor Orban in Hungry who have campaigned against immigration and the bashing of people of another colour. While these politicians were frightening, non-of them will wield anything like the influence that Mr. Trump will now have.

The optimists amongst my associates have told me that Mr. Trump was merely playing up to his electorate and once in the Presidency, the American system of checks and balances Unfortunately, not only does Mr. Trump have the White House, the Republican Party controls both houses of Congress (admittedly, he doesn’t get along with most of Congress). They’ve also pointed out that Mr. Trump will probably be constrained by advisors who will tell him what’s what.

There are some signs of optimism. Mr. Trump’s speech was somewhat magnanimous when he promised to be a President for “all Americans.” A PR Chinese Official who was interviewed the night before on Singapore TV said of Mr. Trump, “He is a second rate, lousy businessman – but businessman all the same, so he should be pragmatic.” Well, let’s hope Mr. Trump does try and be pragmatic.

Unfortunately, the personality displayed by Mr. Trump on the campaign have shown that his ability to be pragmatic often take second place to insults to his ego and more importantly, Mr. Trump may have unleashed an emotion in the public that he will find hard to control – Anger.

Mr. Trump was very successful at appealing to an emotion that a certain group of people felt. Older, less educated White people, who felt alienated by the forces of globalization, immigration and technological change. Look at where Mr. Trump won, it was in the States that were predominantly older and depressed. Mrs. Clinton took the entire West and East Coast as well as Illinois, the home of Chicago, a large trading city.

The so called “silent” majority who voted for Mr. Trump will now expect him to deliver. While they will forgive certain promises being broken, they will expect him to provide some semblance of what he promised – namely an ideal world where simple jobs are available and you don’t have to deal with too many people who look different from you.

This is a promise that Mr. Trump will not be able to keep. America has been the centre of the forces that have made the world on the whole, a better place.

Globalisation and open borders have brought problems but on the whole, they’ve helped spur prosperity and innovation. So, the question is, how much of the door will Mr. Trump’s followers expect him to shut and when the consequences of shutting the doors come in, will they not turn on Mr. Trump.

It’s an issue Mr. Trump will now have to deal with and the rest of us will have to find a way of living with it as he struggles to balance the forces he’s unleashed. 

Monday, November 07, 2016

The White America I Know.

I had a quick coffee with a friend of mine who said that he noticed that all my Facebook posts showed that I hate the current Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump. He’s right. I can’t stand Mr. Trump’s candidacy and I can’t fathom how anyone with a brain and a heart could even consider what he says seriously. The idea that he could actually be the president of what is the most benign superpower in the history of the world is not just frightening, it’s repulsive.

I’ve had people tell me that Mr. Trump would be good for America because he speaks his mind and he’s doesn’t care about political correctness. I’ve had people tell me that he’s the outsider we need to shake up the rotten system that has made America a very unequal place. More importantly, I’ve heard people tell me that he’s expressing what White America wants to hear – he is the champion for White America.

To be fair to Mr. Trump, he’s made this election entertaining. The comedians have had a field day with him. I’ve become particularly fond of watching him get lampooned by Trevor Noah and John Oliver. I also give him credit for dragging out Melania, who has all the physical attributes I am attracted to in a woman.

While, all this is very nice and very entertaining, I do believe that the Presidential election should be about something more than what my sister calls my dirty little pleasures. At the very least, a President, particularly one as venerated as the US President, should try and embody the best of a nation. To a large extent, many of the previous presidents have tried to do this. Whatever, you may think of them and the actual results of their policies, both Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton tried to be about opportunity. The Bushes sold a message of America as a force of freeing up the world from tyranny. Obama got people excited because America had looked beyond colour and elected a dark-skinned man who happens to be very intelligent.

Sure, America’s not perfect and has screwed things up for many parts of the world. However, when you look at the overall picture, America and Americans have been a force for good. When people tell me that Trump is speaking for White America, I am very offended because the America and the White America that I know is nothing like the one he’s supposedly speaking for.

I guess you could say that I hit a major jack pot when I ran into White America. The first strike was when my mother married, Lee, my first stepfather. Lee took me into his life and loved me without ever thinking whether I was his flesh and blood. Whenever we transferred, he’d make it a point that I was able to receive the same good things that my sister, his flesh and blood received. The love and affection that he provided me didn’t just end with him. He made it a point that I became part of a family – which included his parents, Grandpa Hart and Grandma Milly. I remember, Old Hart telling me, “I’m so used to thinking of you as my grandson that I forget that my son isn’t your dad.” Then, there’s my stepsister, Carol and her family. Although there’s not been a legal relationship between us for 20 odd years, she and her family continue to welcome me as part of the family.

My second strike with White America, comes in the shape of my step-grandmother, Joan, mother of my stepmother, Nora (Dad’s second wife and Max’s mom). Joan, bless her soul was one of the kindest people you could find. She didn’t just take me in as her grandson but also welcomed my friend, Joe, who would drive up 5-hours from Indiana to spend the Sumer with her in Chicago. Of all the Christmas presents that I treasure the most, is the fact that she compiled a list of every email I wrote to her while I was at university.

Yes, I’ve had my run ins with what you’d call arrogant American expatriates here but thanks to my experiences of family in “White America” I know that on the average, White American’s are decent people.

Yes, it’s sometimes funny to see how untraveled many White Americans are. To many, a long-distance holiday is going to the mall in the next town. However, while they may not travel out of their home state, Americans are probably the most welcoming people on the planet, a view also echoed by veteran Saudi Journalist, Khaleed Al-Maeena (A view he echoed in 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, which many Arabs were against). Lilly white American families has created plenty of programs for kids from the brown, black and yellow parts of the world to taste life in the good parts of America.

My family in “White America” has become diverse and nobody seems to bat an eyelid. There’s me from Singapore. There’s a step-nephew who married a Jewish girl and a step-niece who married a Muslim convert. A step-brother of mine, married a Chinese girl. My “White American” family isn’t a wealthy Beverly Hills living one either. They feel the pain and issues brought about by America’s economic climate. Yet, never have I heard any one of them begrudge the people from elsewhere. If anything, they respect the Mexican guys for working hard.

This is the White America that I know. So, when I look at people getting excited by Mr. Trump and his rhetoric against Mexicans, Muslims and so on, I’m stunned. I don’t understand how people outside America can cheerfully tell me that he’s speaking for “White America.”

Donald Trump isn’t speaking for White America because I know White America and he’s saying the things that I know the real White America would be offended by.

Friday, November 04, 2016

It Could Be Worse

As the American Presidential heads into the final few days, I’ve noticed a few people in cyberspace questioning the state of affairs of the world. How did the world’s “greatest” democracy come to a stage where the people are left with a choice of a dubious, power-hungry who may have compromised national security by using her private email server and an incompetent demagogue who has a history of turning business deals to shit and is currently making being a racist rapist (man goes to trial for child rape later this month) into an activity of trendy frat boys (not that he actually did any sport)?

Americans must be wondering how their system, which has been touted as the “greatest” model of government and an example of how everyone else should create a society, has been reduced to this awful choice – a case of daily scenes of the awful doing the awful. Is this, as they say, the prime example of how democracy doesn’t work?

While this year’s election has been a case of the nasty doing the nasty, the pessimists have missed the point of what makes democracy tick. The purpose of a democracy is not to produce the best leadership but to provide the most efficient and bloodless way of removing bad leadership.
When you live in a democratic system, you can get frustrated with the way things work. Good leaders with good ideas end up disappointing and only achieving a fraction of what they promise because along way during their time in office, they were either blocked or had to compromise with different parties. FDR, one of America’s greatest champions was consistently thwarted by the Supreme Court. More recently Barak Obama spent more time dealing with a Republican dominated Congress that was openly determined to screw him up because he happens to be a shade darker than them.

Democracy at times can seem like the opposite of a system that promotes meritocracy and action but are the alternatives any better? Surely, a better form of government would be a “Divine” or “Benevolent” dictatorship – a case of the ruling elite being selflessly devoted to the well-being of the people.

Dictatorships or places that are ruled by one unchallenged party can produce miracles – governments that actually function for the benefit of the people. I live in Singapore, which has all the things you’d expect in a functioning democracy (elections, courts etc) but for the most part was run by one unchallenged man – our former Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. Mr. Lee and his team literally grabbed the nation by the scruff of its neck and made it into a clean, rich and green paradise.
While Singaporeans may complain about the government and the lack of any form of opposition, the efficiency of the government has performed such a good job that everyone from outside ends up looking at us and saying, “What are you complaining about?” An Austrian fellow even told me, “In Singapore, at election time should be about saying “Thank You PAP.”

The likes of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton would never exist in Singapore. The slight whiff of scandal surrounding Mrs. Clinton would never have been allowed let along Mr. Trumps “inflammatory” rhetoric. Our politicians may lack entertainment value but they all have rather clean cut records – in Singapore “boring” is a virtue.

However, as Bhutan’s former King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk argued – how guarantee that your successors are as benevolent as you. King Jigme was true to his word – he abdicated in favour of his son and moved the monarch from an absolute one into a constitutional one. People cried when the king told them to choose their government rather than have him tell them what to do. Bhutan has to be the only case in the world where the King imposed democracy on the people rather than got himself overthrown or had his powers curtailed by the people.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck clearly understood that ruling and leadership are more than just about your own performance. It’s about ensuring the place gets better after you leave the scene.
Let’s look at the example of another monarchy – Thailand. Everybody acknowledges that King Bhumibol was a benevolent king. While, in theory, only a constitutional monarch with no actual power, the late King Bhumibol had so much moral authority that no politician or coup leader would even consider taking power without his blessing.

While, Thailand has draconian “les majeste” laws that make insulting the king or the royal family a criminal offence, nobody doubts that the admiration and affection for the late king was genuine. Yes, he had a good PR machine, the Thai people felt his affection for them and in return gave it to him. The King was to all practical purposes the one thing that stabilized the Thai national psyche, which has been torn by conflicts, military coups, corrupt politicians and so on.

Unfortunately, the saintly King Bhumibol is dead. The next king is the current crown prince, Prince Vajiralongkorn. Prince Vajiralongkorn has a reputation for being the total opposite of his father. While King Bhumibol was a king who used his fortune to improve the lives of his people, Prince Vajiralongkorn is known for indulging in every vice known to man and likes to grant high military ranks to his poodle. While King Bhumibol was the living example of monarchical dignity, Prince Vijaralongkorn is known for showing up at the airport sporting fake tattoos and dressed in a singlet.
Unfortunately, this is a monarchy we’re talking about. The rules of succession are clear – the throne stays in the family no matter how competent or incompetent they may be for the job. Yes, life was good when Bhumibol was king but now he’s gone and we’ve got a nut on the throne.

In more extreme circumstances, removing bad dictators can be bloody. Africa is awash with examples of rulers who should not have been around to rule. Zimbabwe is stuck with Mugabe who is living and still on the hot seat well past his sell by date. Let’s not forget that Mugabe was a hero, on the scale of Mandela, when he came into power. Then, he realized that he liked being in power and couldn’t live without it and he’s stayed on regardless of what happened to everyone else. Further north of the continent, you had Mobutu in Zaire who had to be removed by a war and the war has been going on and on and on since then.

The choice of Trump or Clinton can seem depressing. However, the fuck ups can be voted out in 4-years and the country is not going to be plunged into a civil war. The alternative of a system where a fuck up needs to be removed by force of arms is worse.