The Coming of the Global Guerilla

On 12 September, the Straits Times reported that a Malaysian man has taken his Singaporean family to participate in the Syrian civil war. It is an inevitable development of globalisation and the evolution of terrorism. It is becoming increasingly easier for people to identify with extremist ideologies across the Internet, use information communication technologies to link up with terrorists of varying stripes, and use the global transportation network to travel to war zones. Britain, Australia and the United States have also seen their citizens signing on with extremists in the Middle East. As these new recruits gain expertise and experience overseas, the question is: what will they do when they come home?

The age of the global guerilla is coming. The global guerilla is an individual who uses the technologies of globalisation to undermine it. He connects with fellow believers over the Internet, learning the tips of the trade and making connections, then travels to conflict zones using air transportation and linking up with contacts on the ground. At the most basic level, he participates in a war that has little to do with his country, then returns home armed with skills and experience, and possibly a network of fellow believers, spreading the war elsewhere. More strategic guerillas will identify and target the complex structures that underpin society, such as energy, food, transportation. In 2013, for instance, unknown gunmen fired upon power transformers in Silicon Valley, knocking out an electrical substation. The intention is to use attacks to trigger failure cascades with long-lasting effects, which can include knocking out the power grid through attacking transformers, shutting down an oil refinery by blowing up the pipes, or sparking a food crisis by infecting crops with disease.

The hallmark of the global guerillas is their blend of high technology, low profile and smart targeting. They will use technology to make plans, link up with contacts, recce targets, and find reference material. They know that the intelligence services of the world will use technology to track them, so they will do everything they can to avoid being detected, such as repurposing household goods, staying off the Internet, using cash and open-source encryption, and remaining quiet. The technologies and infrastructure of globalisation are so complex that disruptions to goods and services at the local level will have knock-on effects at the regional, national and international level. This combination leads the global guerilla to employ cheap, almost undetectable attacks with a very high return on investment.

The state can’t be everywhere at once. A state that is sufficiently large to protect everywhere at once is a state likely to be paralyzed by its own bureaucracy. While there is value in obtaining and exploiting intelligence, global guerillas get to choose the time and place of attack. As the actor, they need merely wait until security profiles are reduced in a given target before striking. As the reactor, the state must constantly play catch-up.

Singapore is especially vulnerable. Singapore’s economy rests heavily on entrepôt trade. A huge number of maritime and aerial trade routes must by necessity cut through the borders of multiple states, and pass through the no-man’s land of international airspace and waters. No single state can guarantee security in this complex geopolitical environment, and even a regional partnership will have to overcome a great deal of political friction before it can begin operations. Despite the police’s best efforts, it is difficult if not impossible to secure the coastline and beaches from unauthorised intrusion 24/7. Singapore needs to import almost all of its food and water supplies from overseas, opening multiple avenues of attack — consider the impact of introducing crop diseases to food imports, or salmonella to random food suppliers. Consider also the possibility of a Uighur terrorist trademark: driving a large vehicle to run down and crush pedestrians, then jump out and stab everybody in sight.

I think it’s a question of when, not if, Singapore experiences a catastrophic terrorist attack. It would likely come in the form of either a homegrown extremist, operating solo or as a small cell, or a party of global guerillas who have received training overseas and have likely seen combat. Such a catastrophic attack would target the above-mentioned risk areas, potentially causing mass casualties, loss of core income and business, and disruption of critical services.

I also think it’s not feasible to rely solely on the state. While I’m confident the security services will do their best to secure Singapore against terrorism, the global guerilla holds every advantage. The authorities might have detected the jihadi family mentioned in the Straits Times report, but they might not be the only extremists out here. It is a sad truism that one does not know what one does not know, and that in the field of intelligence and counterterrorism, you can’t be certain of your victories. Only of your failures, in the wake of mass deaths.

It is easy to say that the solution is community outreach, countering extremist ideologies through dialogues and press releases, and to use social engineering techniques to paint terrorism in a negative light. This approach may even work, as pat of an integrated strategy. However, for as long as there will be diehard trolls on the Internet, there will be people who will not respond to the soft touch of reason and rhetoric. If a wannabe extremist chooses not to respond to dialogue, especially if said extremist is in the wild instead of in a cell, and if the state cannot catch him in time, count on his attack to succeed.

The global guerilla is a super-empowered individual who utilises loose networks and technology to execute his attacks. To counter him, it’s often wise to study and adapt his techniques.

The global guerilla seeks to create failure cascades. These cascades are possible through a lack of resilience or antifragility. The answer, therefore, is to develop resilience and antifragility. This means learning critical survival skills; stockpiling food, water, batteries and medicine; having a network of friends you can count on; and developing the awareness and self-defence skills necessary to detect, avoid, evade or defeat an attack in progress.  At the community level, it means developing contacts, learning emergency protocols and skills, building up trust, and keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.

It is fine and well to talk about preventing terrorism and countering terrorist ideology, and indeed many commentators have written at length about such things. However, one also has to have a plan for the possibility that these approaches will fail, that the global guerilla will be able to execute an attack. The question, then, is how to structure your life so that even in the event of a catastrophic attack, the individual and the community can pick up the pieces and resume daily life as soon as possible.

Recommended reading:

https://marcuswynne.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/preparedness-for-the-unprepared/

http://www.resilientcommunities.org

http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/

http://www.teotwawki-blog.com/

Paper is Overrated

Singaporeans have heard it a thousand times growing up. Study hard, get into a good school, excel in studies, get a degree, and land a secure high-paying job. If not, you’re condemned to being a sweet sweeper or garbage cleaner forever. Well, I studied hard, got into respectable schools, got my degree and a membership in the Golden Key Society. I ought to be set for life, right?

I’m still waiting for money to fall into my lap.

A crafted education

As a child I was fortunate enough to know what I want and need out of life. I was also fortunate enough to have the time, energy and resources to decade years honing my craft. Armed with this self-knowledge, I chose an education path that met my specific goals. I pursued arts subjects in secondary school because the sciences did not seem relevant to me. In Junior College, I built my coursework around Knowledge and Inquiry, picking arts subjects that would reinforce skills of analysis and argumentation, and picked mathematics to round off the arts subjects because it seemed to fit my personality best. After National Service, when Singapore’s universities rejected me, I picked a private degree that developed my communications skills.

I built my education specifically to develop skills and knowledge. One learns to write by writing, but writing alone is not enough to become a writer. Not the kind of writer I wanted to be. I wanted to write about current affairs, and that meant learning how to analyse and make arguments. I sought to understand the principles that governed human behaviour and thought, so I looked into subjects that tried to understand humans. After I realised that my fiction would not bloom overnight, I took a degree course that helped me translate my fiction writing ability into writing commercially — especially communications, journalism and broadcast media.

Along the way, I made mistakes, of course. In secondary school, science pedagogy bored me out of my mind, and I figured that I didn’t need to use it in the future. Now I find myself grappling with complex algorithms and dense scientific arguments on a daily basis, with less grounding than most people would. Mother Tongue lessons were excruciating, and my Mandarin skills lag far behind my English ones. The degree I chose translates very well into various industries I could see myself working in — but none of the companies I found were interested in hiring fresh graduates, defeating the point of getting a degree.

But no education is perfect, and very few people are lucky enough to be able to craft a smooth-sailing life.

Paper isn’t everything

Paper isn’t important. Skills are important. Experience is important. Talent is important. Skills show what you can do, both in theory and in practice. Experience shows how well you know your stuff. Talent points the way to specialisation, and thus optimal employment. Paper just confirms that you possess a specific set of knowledge, maybe even skills. For certain jobs, like being an engineer or a doctor, the path to getting paper imbues you with the skills and knowledge you need to do it right. In those situations the paper chase is important — more accurately, the knowledge and the credibility is important.

But otherwise, paper isn’t everything. I made more money out of leveraging my skills, talent and experience than with my paper qualifications. Conflating paper qualifications with income is to mistake the map for the territory. A spotty map, with a 1:10000 resolution, hand-drawn from foggy memories. People do not necessarily need or use paper, but people do need to make a living. A stack of paper may look impressive, but if you don’t apply what you’ve learned, if it doesn’t open any doors and help you become who you want to be, it’s worthless. Paper is just a means to an end, not the end in itself, nor the only means to the end.

What is that end? It’s easy to say money, a house, a stable career, and indeed it may well be the case for many people. But these are just vagaries. The devil is in the details. For instance, suppose you could earn $10000 a month, plus bonuses, perks, and other benefits. But to do this, you need to put in a minimum of 80 hours a week, work during weekends and holidays, pull overnighters regularly, and socialise with your colleagues and clients after work instead of your family. How many people will put up with this?

Conversely, suppose you find a job that lets you work as you please, is minimally demanding, and lets you pursue interests in your own time and have quality time with your family. But, there is no CPF, the work is boring and non-scaleable, no perks, no guarantees of income stability or growth, and no government protection. How many people will accept this?

Notice I didn’t say anything about paper qualifications. That’s because in the long term, paper doesn’t matter. It’s what value you can deliver, it’s the impact on the rest of your life, it’s what you’re willing to exchange for money, socialisation and other benefits.

It’s about you.

This means self-knowledge is critical. You have to know what you want out of life. You have to know your limits and your expectations, your desires and your turn-offs. You need to know your strengths and your weaknesses, your inclinations and your personality. Many people, especially teenagers, may not fully understand what they want, and that is human. But the sooner people work this out, the more time and resources they have to shape their life and determine a better strategy. Because I knew early on that I wanted to be a writer, I could pick the education path that optimised my skills, and built a foundation of life-long skills. Because I made my mistakes early, I am able to shift my life to compensate for those errors, by shoring up my knowledge in areas where I am deficient and starting my business.

External knowledge is also important. Once you know who and what you are, you can figure out what jobs to take. This means doing research, understanding what your preferred industry wants and needs. Here, paper qualifications are important — but again, they are not everything. You need to know the tips and tricks of the trade, the mindsets needed, preferred personality types, industry trends, external events that could affect the industry. Self-publishing allows anybody to be a writer, but true success goes only to those who master both the craft and the business of writing.

Sun Tzu said, if you know your enemy and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a thousand battles. Translated into the real world: if you know yourself, and know the environment you’re going into, you need not worry about loss.

Paper is a prop

The popular saying goes ‘you will win a thousand battles’, not ‘will not be imperiled’. The latter meaning is closer to the original saying, and more realistic. Success is not guaranteed out of the bat. Overnight success is akin to winning the lottery — only for a lucky few. To get what you want, you have to work for it. There may come a point where the paper you’ve got will not guarantee or ensure employment. Then what?

The conventional wisdom says, be resilient. But resilience means being able to spring back into shape after experiencing an external stressor. I prefer being antifragile: thriving and growing following external stress. If you’re in a bad situation to begin with, being resilient means going from worse to bad — which still means you’re in a bad place. Being antifragile means taking the opportunity to move yourself into a better state of being.

When the chips are down and stuff goes wrong, paper is not likely to save you. It may help you, but don’t bet on it. It’s an object of extrinsic worth, valued at the time it was used — but not necessarily valued now. At best, it’s a prop whose utility depends on a very limited set of circumstances. Skills, talent and experience are intangibles of intrinsic value. Someone, somewhere will find your particular combination valuable — and that means you become valuable. And if you need paper, experience or knowledge to get to where you need to be, this trio will help you get what you need to become what you want. If you have made mistakes earlier, this trio will get you out and to where you want to be.

Being antifragile means turning chaos into opportunity. That means doing what you have to do to get by. It might mean taking up lousy, low-paying jobs to pay the bills until your side gig takes off. It might mean taking a bank loan and going back to school so you can land your dream job. It might mean taking the plunge into the unknown and risking your savings to start up the business you always wanted. Nowhere in this is paper really involved, except as a means to an end.

The Great Singapore Paper Chase is an illusion. It simplifies the complexities of life into a single, narrow path. It’s an easy excuse for parents to nag their children instead of understanding their needs, for teachers to nag their students instead of developing them as people, for governments to nag their people instead of enacting proper policy. Banking everything on a piece of paper is not the way to go.

What really matters lies within: in a person’s skills, talents, experience, knowledge, willingness and ability to understand what they are going into, willingness and ability to adapt to changing situations. Once armed with high intrinsic worth, paper can be put in its rightful place:

The 90/30, 8/10 Rule

For the past month, I’ve been tinkering with ways to enhance my overall productivity, trying to squeeze out more work without being exhausted by day’s end. Burnout was a constant companion, and I wanted to be rid of it for good. Among the life hacks I discovered was the 90/20 rule: work for 90 minutes, rest for 20. Based on studies into the human ultradian rhythm, 90 minutes is the optimum length of time a human can concentrate intensely on a task before needing a break. The idea sounded good to me, save for one minor detail.

I know for a fact I’m able to sustain greater periods of intense concentration when writing. Call it inspiration, grace or a state of flow, but when I’m burning hot and the fingers are flying over the keys, stopping is not an option. I can’t just stand up and walk away in the middle of a scene that flows. Flow, I’ve found, is a delicate thing, and once the brain leaves that elevated state of consciousness it becomes extremely difficult to go back to. Maybe this is just a personal quirk, but all I know is that I can’t limit myself to merely 90 minutes of work. Not when the words are overflowing, when the conscious mind takes a step back and my hands do their best to deliver a scene, a character, an action, a concept from the fuzzy mists of unlimited uncreated potential into the page.  I do my best work simply by sitting down and ignoring the clock and writing and writing and writing until I’m done.

But when the work is done, it leaves me spent. Writing is bleeding your soul all over the page, and there’s only so much you can give at a time. You need time to rest, to regenerate, to gather up what is left and allow your body to replenish its energy stores. 20 minutes isn’t enough, not for me. 30 is a more realistic minimum rest period. As a bonus, it makes life easier to schedule.

Flow doesn’t come every day, though. It’s the exception, not the norm. More often than not it’s just sitting at the desk, banging out words, trying to string ideas together. It’s the mental equivalent of laying down bricks to build a wall. I may not like the work, but I still have to get the work done. Especially when I’m on contract with a deadline to meet. Days like that, the 90 minute limit comes into play. It’s the chronological version of a piston in a pressure cooker, sealing off time and concentrating one’s willpower on the task at hand. It’s also a promise that the brain only needs to slog out the next 90 minutes before it can go do something else, making it easier to focus exclusively on the task at hand.

90 on, 30 off looks good, but throw in working with a flow state and the neat boundaries of time break down. That;s when 8/10 comes in.

Hara hachi bu is an Okinawan concept, meaning eating until you are 80 percent full. The Okinawans believed that filling up the other 20 percent merely nourished the doctor. This combination of caloric restriction and excellent dietary choices have contributed to the long lifespans the Okinawans are famous for. Yet hara hachi bu isn’t just an eating plan. It’s a life plan too. Work up to 80% of your capacity, leaving some energy in the tank. That prevents you from burning out, so you can come back to work refreshed.

And, if you’re under a tight deadline or if you enter a state of flow, you have sufficient reserves to see you through.

For eighty percent of my scheduled working time, I adhered to the 90 on, 30 off schedule. For the other twenty percent, I burned through scenes, paragraphs and sections until the state of flow finally stopped. I was working an average of six hours a day, leaving weekends free.

The result: a short story, a novella, two blog posts, a series of research notes and concepts, and eleven contracted articles. Enough for a short novel, just over 50000 words. That works out to roughly 2500 words a day. I also spent less time going back to make minor edits and correcting mistakes, freeing up brainpower and energy for more important work. My previous writing goal was 2000 words a day, no matter how long it took. With a productivity increase of 25%, plus less time lost to recovery and fatigue, these rules seem to be a keeper.

I can’t say for certain if this will work for everyone. I know full-time writers who live and breathe the written word, churning out 4 to 8000 words a day and regularly producing bestsellers. I know other writers who are happy spending their workday writing however much they can write, or shooting for a couple thousand or hundred words a day. They have their goals and their methods, as far as they’ve let on, seem to work for them. For me, 90/30 8/10 seems to work best.

Concentrate when working, take time out to rest, leave energy in the tank, and occasionally go all-out. I think these principles are universal, or at least apply to a broad spectrum of activities. The trick is figuring out the right proportions. And that means experimenting, quantifying and honestly examining the results. If you’re a writer looking to increase output, a worker interested in doing more, or just someone interested in productivity, maybe 90/30 8/10 may work for you. Or maybe not. The devil may be in the details, but the details don’t matter so long as they work for you. It’s your work, nobody else’s, and that’s the only goal that matters.

The Online Citizen needs to recalibrate funding model

The Online Citizen is shifting towards a subscription-based model. Citing a lack of funds, and the failure of advertising and donations to meet its operational needs, TOC hopes to use subscription fees to meet its needs.

As one of the original members of TOC, I’m sympathetic to TOC’s needs. TOC is at the awkward stage of being too small to go mainstream but too big to be completely volunteer-run. If advertising and donations won’t bring in enough cash, subscription seems to be the only way to go. But as a media professional, I think TOC needs to recalibrate its funding strategy.

Getting your money’s worth

TOC’s subscription model uses three tiers: monthly subscription, annual subscription, and premium subscription. The first, priced at SGD$18 a month, grants access to “special subscriber content, including full-length versions of videos and recordings”. Annual subscription fees are priced at SGD$180 a year for the same privileges. Premium subscribers, for the same fees as an annual subscription, also earn two free months’ of content for every year purchased, a limited edition science and nature documentary, and exclusive invitations to TOC-only events.

The prices are roughly on par with subscription fees offered by specialist technical journals and magazines. Those journals have access to expert knowledge in niche fields, databases, networks of contacts in media and industry, in-house staffs specialising in content and editing, and established reputations. 

What does TOC offer?  Arguably, the only value TOC can bring to the table is its focus on Singaporean matters. In the fields of quality control and content, editing, providing knowledge and networks of contacts, it is doubtful that TOC can measure up. 

But TOC tells the stories of ordinary Singaporeans not covered by the mainstream media. This is a combination of original reporting and commentary, and lately organising events and dialogues. This makes TOC closer to media organisations than specialist trade magazines. 

On first glance, TOC’s prices are cheaper than Singapore’s mainstream media. The Straits Times’ 2-year digital subscription plan charges SGD$26.65 a month, The New Paper $22.10 and The Business Times $26.65. The same applies to foreign media, which have the added burden of currency conversion fees.

However, TOC is exclusively digital, and is heavily reliant on subscription fees to make up for lack of donations and advertising revenue. The mainstream media has multiple viable income streams: print subscriptions, advertising, street vendor purchases. The mainstream media can afford to lose digital customers if the other streams can take up the slack — TOC cannot. 

When compared to digital-only news, TOC’s prices seem unfair. The Guardian prices mobile subscriptions at GBP 6.99 a month, which is SGD$14.72 — and a large number of its content are free-to-read online. SOFREP.com, staffed by Special Operations veterans, charges USD$3.99 a month, or SGD$4.98 a month, in exchange for daily, well-researched articles pertaining to Special Operations and terrorism.

Also, from the subscriber’s perspective, what does the $18 a month or $180 a year pay for? ‘Special subscriber content’, a rather vague term that seems to imply full-length interviews and videos — content that time-strapped people are not likely to consume. TOC promises “full-length versions of special feature articles, interviews and commentaries” in the future, but that is not happening now and so remains vague in the customer’s mind. In my (very cynical) reading, it feels like a politically correct way of saying that TOC will put up much of its regular content behind a paywall. The other long-term benefit is ‘weekly updates of articles sent directly to your email’, which is nice but hardly worth much in an age where social media can provide instant updates of articles when they are published.

Appealing to altruism and providing cost breakdowns may feel good, but most subscribers care about getting their money’s worth. It’s a question of comparative value. Large media corporations charge a slightly higher fee than TOC in exchange for professional staff, contacts, regular news service, a high quantity of articles, and quality control. TOC, on the other hand, is still largely volunteer-run, relies on tips and on-the-ground networking, cannot match the mainstream media’s quantity, and does not have trained professional editors.

Cutting costs the online way

According to its cost breakdown, the majority of TOC’s expenses lie in two areas: manpower ($75000), facilities ($50000) and events ($12000).

There is little that can be done about manpower costs. If the interns were unpaid, the full-timers would earn an average of $2083 a month. That is about 4/5 of what a fresh professional journalist would make — and journalists just need to write; TOC’s full-timers have to edit, post on social media, make strategic decisions and more. Further, as far as I can tell, there is no requirement to hold professional certification in relevant fields, so it seems the full-timers are not as qualified as their mainstream equivalents. If the interns do draw a salary, everybody else’s would be depressed even further. I think it is unconscionable to ask TOC to lower everybody’s salaries even further, especially given the rising costs of living.

Yet ‘facilities’ and ‘events’ together take up a huge chunk of expenses. These are fairly vague, but I am assuming they mean costs to run offline events. In recent times TOC has taken on a more active role in civic societies, organising dialogues and forums about various events. These undoubtedly cost money. But can TOC do without?

The easy way is to scale down or stop such events altogether. Obviously, this will lead to immense cost savings. But TOC has to provide a competitive advantage over the other blogs and the mainstream media, and a signficant fraction of this advantage lies in bringing people together for dialogues.

TOC should start thinking about leveraging the power of digital technologies. For example, the traditional way of holding a dialogue is to book a conference room, bring in guests and people, and talk about things. Now try this: bring the speakers into a small, intimate setting. Just the speakers and the moderator in a room, with some technical staff. if space permits, maybe invite some premium subscribers to sit in. Live-stream the event on the TOC website and other social media. Questions and comments can be crowd-sourced from social media, determined by the number of likes, shares, re-tweets and the equivalents. The video can then be saved and archived for other people to watch, especially if they are unable to physically attend the forum.

Such an approach should shave off event organisation costs. While arguably a virtual experience is different from a physical one, if organising live events presents such a huge drain on TOC’s resources, virtual events may be the more sustainable solution. It also allows TOC to reserve funds for offline events whose significance requires a physical presence, such as events at Speakers’ Corner.

The major problem as I see is that TOC charges $4 to $8 less than its mainstream equivalents, but the difference in value delivered is far greater than the monetary value. The mainstream media delivers tens to dozens of articles a day; TOC manages perhaps two a day in a good week. The mainstream media can deliver news on a huge range of subjects; TOC only talks about a very small range, with a focus on the controversial issues of the day. The mainstream media has large pools of professionally-trained journalists and editors; TOC has seven, four of whom are interns, and the recruitment requirements for interns do not necessarily involve professional qualifications. The mainstream media has media passes, so they can go where TOC cannot. The mainstream media can gather foreign news and send correspondents overseas; TOC has to rely on the media.

These quantitative and qualitative differences far outstrips the $8 difference. Should TOC put up a paywall tomorrow, a person with limited funds will objectively obtain more value by subscribing to a mainstream paper and getting alternative views from individual bloggers (who write for free!) than by subscribing to TOC.

Recalibration

I am of the belief that $18 a month, or $180 a year, is far too high a price to pay for a digital-only blog that provides just one article a day on average concerning a narrow range of topics. I would be uncomfortable with a double-digit figure, and even the $5 to $9 range would give me pause. And, I suspect, so would a large number of people.

To attract subscribers, TOC needs to significantly reduce its subscription fees. It should also consider living up to the Online portion of its name to cut events and facilities costs where practical. While TOC undoubtedly needs the money to continue, if too few people subscribe to TOC, and if too many people are turned off by the subscription fees, the fundraising model could potentially backfire. That will be the true tragedy.

Growth, Change, Choice

If there is one thing I’m learning about growing older, it’s that the imperative word is ‘grow’. Life is change and motion. Remain still, stagnate and die. Or accept, adapt and grow.

Sometimes change comes slowly. But looking back through the filter of an imperfect memory it feels rapid, inexorable, unforgiving. I remember, ten years ago, being the introverted thinker who couldn’t care less about what people felt or thought. Focused solely on fulfilling my Great Work of the day, I would close myself off to the world. I learned the hard way that I couldn’t do this forever, that a man has to be both independent and interdependent to succeed. Especially someone in my line of work. I could not, would not, continue to live this way — though it still has its advantages. Today there are times when I still dive deep into myself, when this attitude is not merely helpful but necessary. But I hope I’m more aware now, more able to understand the intricacies of other souls. The great paradox of being a writer is that one must be able to close off all distractions to find and craft the inner vision of the story to attain mastery of the craft — and then open up and promote the work with that same focus to attract customers.  It’s yin and yang. Balance. Finding one’s way, the right approach at the right time, is something I’m still working with.

Sometimes change comes as swift as lightning. In the course of a year, my body developed intolerance to many of my daily staples. Indigestion and anaemia was the order of the day. I lost too much weight, too much energy. Medicines, Western and Chinese, could only control symptoms to a very limited degree. And eventually, my body rejected even those, and I cycled through many alternatives to find relief. It took me a while to dig through to the root of my problems, but I’m turning things around with a better diet, a structured health regimen — and no more medicine. If anything, I’m stronger and healthier than before. I know I can be more — and I aim to be.

Change is always a choice. The world may change around you without your input, but changing in response to it is a decision. So is not changing.  The choice between being mired in entrenched habits that lead to suffering and forming new ones that lead to wellness is an obvious one — and yet a subtle one. Without willpower, one cannot follow through on a choice. Without awareness of alternatives, one cannot choose. Without being open to alternatives, one cannot be aware. When caught in the furnace of involuntary transformation, one needs to develop openness of mind, critical and creative thought, and determination. The first to understand that something is wrong, the second to find a way to transmute to a higher level of being, and the last to become. All three are choices. If one isn’t accustomed to them, that choice saps mental energy. But the more one chooses specific habits of mind, the more they become innate habits, and the more willpower one frees up — and develops. To grow, one must pick a direction and stay the course.

Ten years ago, I chose growth. I chose the path of the hermetic writer. Today, I choose growth. I choose the path of the writer, the seeker, the warrior, the human. I choose to be more than I am now, to be all I can be and more.

Life awaits, and I choose to live, fully and completely, before I die.

Updates and a Recruitment Call

Keepers of the Flame, the first full-length novel in the American Heirs trilogy, has passed the first round of edits. The manuscript now stands at around 121350 words, about 215 A4-sized pages. Currently I’m sourcing for cover artists, editors and beta readers, and raising funds to pay the development costs. There may also be some minor changes to the manuscript, so the word count is not firm yet. I’m hoping for a Q4 2014 release, though late Q3 is an option.

For newcomers, American Heirs is a military science fiction/post-cyberpunk set in a North America recovering from global collapse, when the Apocalypse is a distant memory and humanity is getting back up on its feet. Keepers of the Flame is a direct sequel to American Sons, taking place a year after the climatic battle to save the Republic of Cascadia, what was once called the Pacific Northwest. As the Combat Studies Unit hunts down the remnants of the terrorist group the Sons of America,  the SOA strikes back, hoping to burn down the New World and bring back their idea of America. On the other side of the continent, a new American empire expands into the ancient American heartlands — and into a Cascadian enclave. Confronted by threats foreign and domestic, Cascadia must steel itself for a war unlike anything it has ever experienced in its short history.

And as the flames of war grow brighter and hotter, a machine god awakes…

With Keepers of the Flame mostly sorted out, I am ready to announce my next project: an independent video game in collaboration with local musician Ryuu Shun Hayashi.

Tentatively titled Odyssey, it is a space opera role-playing game trilogy  that puts the players in the boots of Cory Bates, a team leader for the Strategic Services Command of the Terran Empire. We are working on the first episode, tentatively titled Odyssey: Remnants of Terra. In the Odyssey universe, the Terran Empire is locked in a brutal decades-long war with the Free Star Alliance. Now, the Terran Empire faces the threat of rebellion on the Fringe World of Bellaphon. Bates and his team, assigned to the prototype starship Imperium, are tasked with the local militia in putting down the insurgents. But the mission goes terribly wrong, the Imperium suffers critical damage, and they are stranded in space for over a hundred years in cryogenic suspension. When the crew revives, they find themselves in a corner of the universe that has forgotten the Empire and the Alliance. They decide to set a course for Old Earth, to find out what happened and make their way home.

But first, they need to repair the ship. Without trade goods, fuel, supplies, or indeed anything that can be used as currency, their only option is to sell their guns to the highest bidder. And in so doing, they will change this part of the universe, and themselves, for better — or for worse.

We are using RPG Maker VX Ace as our development platform. Our current goal is to produce the prologue, which covers the mission to Bellaphon. It will be a free demo to represent the game, and attract investment and talent. Features include decision branches and multiple endings; persistent choices that last throughout the series; and gameplay that rewards strategic thinking, tactical planning, resource management and combined arms. Progress is smooth, and we expect a Christmas release date.

For my novel, I’m looking for beta readers who can read hard military science fiction aimed at the American market. While I have cover artists and editors in mind, but I’m open to quotes from Singaporeans as well.

As for the game, there is a critical need for a capable digital artist. RPG Maker is geared towards ‘classic’ RPGs like Final Fantasy; the chipsets are suited for a high fantasy setting, not a high-tech one. We need someone who can create custom 16- or 32-bit chipsets, concept art and promotional graphics for a sci fi environment. We prefer people based in Singapore so we can meet in person, but there are no real restrictions on nationality or location. The prologue can still go ahead without custom art, but with the art it would be a better representation of the game’s overall vision. Odyssey is running on a shoestring budget; we cannot at this time offer upfront payment, but we are open to profit-sharing with the possibility of future work.

If you think you can help out, drop me an email, and we can see how if we can help each other.

The State is Not Fragile

I’ve made this point several times before, but in the wake of Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong suing blogger Roy Ngerng for defamation and demanding damages, the time has come again to argue that defamation suits are not the response.

This post is not about the merits of Ngerng’s argument. He alleged that Lee stole monies from the Central Provident Fund, by comparing how CPF funds are handled with the current City Harvest scandal. Having missed the original article before Ngerng took it down, I won’t comment on it. But I will say that from a policy perspective, defamation suits benefit no one.

The Question Remains

Whether Ngerng actually defamed Lee is ancillary to the issue. Many Singaporean bloggers, such as Leong Sze Hian and gdy2shoez of Everything Also Complain, are raising questions about CPF mechanisms and investments. Ngerng’s post is simple one of a long line of similar posts — the only difference being that Lee’s lawyer saw cause to lay down a defamation suit.

Lee may feel his reputation had been hurt. A defamation suit, with a demand for damages, is the government’s traditional means of addressing this. However, even if the offending speech could be erased and the speaker made to pay damages, the issues remain. No number of defamation suits and no dollar amount can satisfy these questions. If anything, the use of defamation suits makes the state look as if it has something to hide, and that it is actually trying to silence dissent.

The Face of the State

The government, through the Prime Minister, may feel it needs to protect its reputation — its ‘face’, so to speak. But people today are less likely to be view defamation suits from authority figures in a positive light. If aimed at a popular blogger like Ngerng, the state is courting political backlash by creating the impression that it is perpetuating a kind of soft tyranny, rolling over dissidents with the combined power of law and money.

There are signs of backlash already. Other Internet personalities are taking to social media to express their support for Ngerng. Some miscreant(s) vandalised several bus stops in support of Ngerng. I feel people are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry at a government that seems to have reneged on its promise of a ‘light touch’ on the Internet, and is throwing defamation suits and letters of demand at every possibility. Ngerng is simply the last of a long line of bloggers, from Alex Au to Temasek Review Emeritus, Tan Kin Lian to Vincent Wijeysingha.

The eyes of the people are on the state. How an action is perceived is just as important as its intended effect. The government may pride itself on doing ‘the right thing’ instead of pandering to populist demands, but what is ‘the right thing’ here? Is it choosing to break out the legal hatchetmen? Or rising above concerns of reputation and addressing the root questions?

Earning the People’s Respect

The state is not so fragile that a single comment would bring it down. The Prime Minister’s rule is not so tenuous that his authority is threatened by a single blog post. If Singapore were to ever reach that stage, then that Singapore would not be the Singapore founded on the ideals of democracy and meritocracy. But the first step to getting to that hypothetical Singapore is to suppress political opposition and define the boundaries of speech with every instrument of the law.

Openness is power. Transparency follows legitimacy. Dialogue empowers citizens. The proper response to defamation is not to try to shut it down straight away; such a defensive move can and will be interpreted as the state trying to silence opposition and to cover up reality. The more appropriate response is candour. Tan Chuan Jin discussed how CPF is used in Singapore on the Internet. This should have been the first response. As is, it is overshadowed by the drama over Ngerng’s case, and its impact muted.

The answer to offensive speech is more speech. Instead of trying to shut down offensive people, the government should instead identify and address the real issues. This means being frank with government mechanisms, making statistics publicly available, and discussing policies. It also means actually talking to opinion leaders, either online or offline, instead of shunning them or bringing down the hammer. Starting discussions and addressing issues earns respect. It builds face. It also opens up the marketplace of ideas, letting people understand and decide the truth and hopefully persuade detractors. This is a win-win situation for everybody.

If the state were indeed defamed, such an approach would show the people that there are no grounds for spurious allegations, preserving or even enhancing its moral standing. Ordinary people around the world have been doing this on the Internet for over a decade, and the majority of opinion leaders had had no need to resort to letters of demand to handle offensive speech. The use of lawsuits would, in the new age of new media, have to be a very deliberate approach, if indeed attempted at all.

The government, in the person of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, holds every advantage over a single lowly blogger. The only real harm the government faces is self-inflicted, harming its own reputation through legal demands. It’s time for Lee and the state to place their law firms on the burner, and to step out of their offices and start talking to the people who put them there.