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 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.

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.

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.

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.

In the wake of Boko Haram’s mass abduction of girls in mid-April, activists have responded with a social media campaign. With the hashtags #saveourgirls and #bringbackourgirls, photos and short videos are circulating across the Internet to…

…Well, do what, exactly?

Raise awareness of the issue? It’s already a crisis of international proportions. The world is outraged. Nigeria is already locked in a bitter conflict with Boko Haram, and while this campaign might spur them on to redouble their efforts, they — being the primary victims — are painfully aware of what Boko Haram has done. The objective has long ago been achieved.

Call to action? I would almost believe that, but what action? The Nigerians are mobilising the military against the terrorists, but they’ve been at war with Boko Haram since 2009. The United States has pledged to assist Nigeria and has dispatched advisers — since 2011. #saveourgirls is not calling for greater international intervention, nor indeed is there any kind of call to action inherent in the campaign. What else is #bringbackourgirls doing?

Asking, nay demanding, Boko Haram to return the girls they have kidnapped?

Scientists would sooner find proof of a Christian Hell.

The echo chamber of slacktivism

Slacktivism is simple. Identify an issue, do up a signboard with a marker and a convenient piece of cardboard, take a photo of yourself with your sign, post it on social media with a witty hashtag, and watch the likes come rolling in.

Slactivism is also rewarding. Do it right, get your friends to get their friends to jump in on the movement, and soon enough you’ll be rolling in likes, shares and retweets. Bloggers and fellow travelers will jump on the bandwagon and create more content supporting you. With enough public attention, the playbook of democracy virtually ensures that local political leaders, and later international media and politicians, will give air time to your campaign. These are signifiers of social acceptance. Or societal approval. In people who desire such approval, this sort of attention would trigger cascades of hormones that stimulate the reward centre of the brain. It makes them feel good. And to keep on feeling good, all they have to do is propagate the campaign.

Feeling good is not the same as doing good. But man is not a rational animal; man is a rationalising one. If a set of activities makes an airhead feel good, she is more likely to believe she is actually doing good — regardless of the outcome of her actions. This creates a self-reinforcing loop of behaviour, publicly meant to drum up attention for a cause, privately — even subconsciously — designed for emotional self-gratification.

I wouldn’t necessarily have any objections if, in the process of this campaign, actual, tangible objectives are achieved. Or, at the very least, the aforementioned campaign also works towards accomplishing objectives alongside the social marketing effort. Yet slacktivism makes social marketing, a means to an end, and turns it into an end into itself.

Funny thing about marketing: different audiences need different marketing techniques.

The real target audience

Who is #bringbackourgirls aimed at? The primary demographic will be English-educated people fluent with social media, most likely Western liberals, largely because they tend to be the primary inhabitants of social media activism spaces and will jump on a bandwagon like this. The secondary demographic is the international media, which wishes to grab and propagate the news of the day. #bringbackourgirls is crafted to appeal to these audiences, with emotive pictures, social media language, images portrayals of female disapproval and suffering, and a simple message.

But what will bring the girls back?

In military terms, Boko Haram has seized over 200 hostages, threatening to sell them into slavery. If the objective is to bring the girls back home, then legitimate authorities would need to identify the location of the hostages, and rescue them. In the medium term, to avenge previous atrocities and to neutralise a growing regional threat, Boko Haram needs to be eliminated. This means infiltrating their networks and sanctuaries, isolating them from their bases of support, discrediting their ideology and capturing or killing key personnel to disrupt the organisation’s operational capabilities. In the long term, to prevent groups like Boko Haram from emerging, the local inhabitants would have to identify the systemic causes that enable and empower the emergence of similar threats, and address them through holistic means.

Nothing I have seen of #saveourgirls will achieve this.

There is the forlorn hope that maybe #bringbackourgirls pressure Boko Haram into returning their hostages. But see above, scientists proving existence of Christian Hell.

Modern Western civilisation relies heavily on what is essentially structured peer pressure. Democracy is an exercise in mass approval or disapproval. Social media functions the same way, and so does slacktivism. If you approve or disapprove of something, create content to generate mass approval. And your right and ability to do this without being killed is guaranteed by the armed forces and the police.

But groups like Boko Haram come from a different perspective. Their name means ‘Western education is sinful’, and the cornerstone of their ideology is that interaction with the Western world is forbidden. Western cultural norms and expectations would not work on people who have closed their hearts and minds to them. This might yet have worked when Boko Haram was still working through peaceful means in the early days of its existence (2001-2008), but since the uprising in 2009, Boko Haram has transitioned into an armed terrorist group. They want to establish a country ruled by Sharia law, and do this by attacking Christians, bombing schools and police stations, assassinating government and prominent figures, and kidnapping Western tourists.

They have placed themselves outside the reach of Western cultural norms and memes. Slacktivism won’t speak to them. Neither will social media marketing aimed at generating Western disapproval against them. Quite simply, they don’t care about #saveougirls, and are not affected by it — except maybe in the twisted minds of their recruiters and propagandists, who will do what they can to portray it as a moral victory for the cause. (“See, our operation has agitated the West! We can reach across the seas and touch the minds of our enemies! Join us and you, too, will be strong enough to strike at the government and the far enemy!”)

Hashtags won’t stop barbarians. Analysis will. Planning will. Action will. If people are truly interested in stopping Boko Haram, then they have to step up and do actual work. It is hard, it will be difficult, and is nowhere near as immediately rewarding to the monkey brain as a constant stream of likes and retweets. Yet there is just one way to truly save the girls and bring them home — and slacktivism like this is not it.

Racism. Xenophobia. Nationalism. I’ve seen these words and their relations thrown about the blogosphere recently. The recent outcry against the pending Filipino Independence Day celebrations demonstrates, once again, that there are no end of people who insist on dedicating time and energy to fire slings and arrows at foreigners, racists, nationalists and other thought-enemies of choice. And from there, there are the usual condemnations, counter-condemnations, opinion pieces, letters and the like. I believe there will always be people who will take every opportunity they can to vent their views and impose them on society. All it takes is a single spark, one event that triggers them, and as regular as clockwork they will crawl out of the woodwork and spew their ideology as far and wide as they can. While plenty can be said about them, they are symptoms. This post is about causes, and people like that are just manifestations of an underlying problem.

The kernel of the issue is that there are Singaporeans who believe that there are too many foreigners in Singapore. The reality is coming very close to the mark. As of 2013, there are around 5.4 million people in Singapore. 3.8 million are citizens and Permanent Residents. The remaining 1.6 million are foreigners. For every foreigner, there are just a bit over two citizens. There is growing angst that foreigners will one day outnumber residents in Singapore. The government’s 2012 population White Paper  projects that by 2020, Singapore’s population would be between 5.8 to 6 million, with a resident population of 4 to 4.1 million. By 2030, the government thinks the population would be between 6.5 to 6.9 million, with resident population figures at 4.2 to 4.4 million. Assuming this comes to pass, the ratio would not change much. This does not even consider the inevitable conflicts that would ensure when the culture of new immigrants rub up against established norms. The question of how many foreigners is too much is a sticky one: it is safe to assume that Singapore would have crossed the point when the foreigner-resident ratio reaches 1:1 or higher, but where is the demarcation line, the point of no return? As the number of perceived non-Singaporeans increases, the number of conflicts and flashpoints can only increase. Currently, these conflicts are still manageable; the trick is to keep them that way.

I think the problem is not numbers alone, nor do problems arise solely from the sheer number of foreigners or the foreigner-citizen ratio. I’m starting to sense there may be a formula for conflict.

The formula for conflict

D+P+C=C.

Diversity plus Proximity plus Competition equals Conflict.

Diversity: Multiple social groups. Different tribes, social classes, nationalities, cultures.

Proximity: In close enough contact that the differences between diverse peoples are immediately visible.

Competition: People trying to obtain scarce resources. Historically this was food and water. Now it is jobs, housing, resources, the essentials for daily life.

Conflict: Societal friction and disruption as different peoples, ideas and cultures collide, manifest in individual behaviours, civic actions, up to and including government intervention.

Singapore is a diverse city. Singapore prides itself on its diversity, calling itself a multiracial society, attracting people from all over the world to work and live and play, and either transshipping goods or turning raw materials into high-value products and selling them elsewhere. Singapore is so small, and with social engineering policies still in play, it is very difficult to segregate people into their preferred social groups. Attempts to do so become highly visible. Little India, for example, is well-known as a gathering spot for South Asian workers, while Peninsula Plaza is Singapore’s Little Burma. Competition is rife in land-scarce Singapore, for education, jobs, housing — and this competition is only set to increase as the population grows. As each factor grows, the scope and scale of conflicts will increase.

Singapore is a natural breeding ground for multigroup social conflicts. Diversity is in Singapore’s identity. People live in close proximity, and with such proximity comes competition between social groups. I fully expect to see the racism/xenophobia/nationalism card to be played more and more often in the coming days, especially in online spaces outside the long reach of the law. While these events are bound to provide fertile ground for debate and spleen venting, the pertinent question is: what can be done about it?

No easy answers

There are no easy answers. Assuming the equation holds true, though, the solution is to manage the factors that lead to conflict.

Diversity: This is the most visible aspect of the problem. Singaporeans have complained about everything from Chinese talking too loudly on their phones to Filipinos stealing jobs to drunken Indian workers. People define themselves by the groups they belong to, and by extension the other groups they are not part of. The people who use their membership, perceived or otherwise, in a certain social group (i.e. Singaporean citizens) to bash other groups (foreigners, new immigrants, migrant workers…) are the most visible aspect of this.

Reducing diversity means either turning outsiders into insiders (converting foreigners to Singaporeans) or reducing the number of outsiders. I see several options. Cessation or restriction of immigration. A proper integration program for new migrants, teaching them working English and cultural dos and don’ts. Making National Service mandatory for new eligible migrants and Permanent Residents, and restricting the numbers of PRs and migrants who cannot serve. Emphasising and propagating a shared Singaporean identity as opposed to different racial identities. Immigration quotas. Increased financial disincentives for hiring foreigners.

Proximity: This is the hardest problem. Singapore is land-scarce. With so many foreigners around, running into a foreigner is not just inevitable, it is becoming an everyday fact of life. That said, one can more easily bring people together when they are in close proximity and do not see each other as aliens.

Managing proximity would mean bringing different people together with the objective of creating a larger, unified Singaporean in-group. Having new citizens and PRs serve National Service alongside Singaporeans, isolating them from other people of the same national origin. Holding events that celebrate Singaporean culture. Using media to highlight locals and integrated new citizens. Supporting artistic endeavours by locals about local culture.

Competition: This is the crux of the problem. Much of the angst directed against foreigners lies from the perception that foreigners are competing with Singaporeans. By reducing this competition, perceived or otherwise, Singaporeans would be more reassured that they would have a place in Singapore.

Reducing competition would mean either giving special advantages to Singaporeans, reducing incentives for foreigners to stay in Singapore, or both. Employment quotas, with a ceiling on foreign employees and/or a floor on Singaporean ones. Tax hikes for foreigners, especially high-income ones. Preferential employment, education and housing programs for Singaporeans. Encouraging entrepreneurs and local businesses to hire and buy local wherever possible. Make immigration more restrictive. Encouraging Singaporeans to take up careers and education in fields that usually go to foreigners.

What kind of Singapore do you want?

I don’t necessarily advocate all of them, nor are they the only ones that would work. Each policy option carries its own costs and benefits, all of which fall beyond the scope of this article. It is up to Singaporeans to decide what kind of Singapore they want to create, what policies they can live with, what kind of diversity and conflict they can accept. The key is to actually talk about and implement these problems, instead of getting caught up in the outrage of the day.

I think Singapore is distracted by all the bluster searing across the social space. Some of it may even be justified, but complaining about a problem will not solve it. As Singapore’s population grows, and the number of foreigners trickles ever-higher, the people of Singapore need to sit down and start talking about solutions. Enough words have been spent condemning foreigners, racism, xenophobia and other such ideas and behaviours. Now is the time to dig up the roots of conflict, study them, and implement viable solutions before Singapore has to worry about more than just words.

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