Live TV Interview on Monday!

Channel NewsAsia has graciously invited me for a live television interview on Monday, 3 November, at 8.50 am (GMT + 8) for its First Look Asia programme. We will be discussing trends in self-publishing. This is my maiden media interview, and I am really pleased and excited about it. Tune in if you can, and I will be following up on it with a blog post as soon as possible.

Guest post on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts

Education-centric website Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts kindly invited me to write a guest post for them. Here’s a short excerpt of the post:

Singaporean students have heard it all before. Go to school, study hard, get a good education, get a good job, settle down and start a family. It’s a tired refrain, repeated by well-meaning tutors, teachers, and school principals.

They mean well. Making a living wage, having a roof over one’s head and enjoying strong relationships are always desirable. But then what? This road offers no purpose in life, no formula to self-discovery, no way of contributing to humanity and no means of making meaning out of a complex existence. This meme treats students as bees churning out wealth and babies and little else.

Students are humans. They are not rats pursuing fragments of cheese in an endless labyrinth, nor are they the digits of capitalism’s invisible hand. While education should prepare students for gainful employment, the times are changing. Knowledge and skillsets in demand now may not be so tomorrow, and to live one’s life in the perpetual chase for grades and money is to exist solely for material comforts and to deny the full range of one’s inherent talents and strengths.

The purpose of teaching is not to create the next generation of workers. It must be to create the next generation of humans.

You can find the rest of the essay here.



Between Gender Stereotypes and Dogma

The recent controversy over Focus on The Family Singapore’s sexuality education programme is leaving me conflicted. On one hand, I’m not enamoured of FoF’s material. I’ve had the distinct displeasure of sitting through one of their presentations, which attempted to portray viewing pornography as the first step to murder and violent crime. From what little I have seen of their material since, they are still pushing the agenda established by their overly Dominionist Christian leadership in the United States.

On the other hand, the feminist/liberal response to FoF also does not ring true to me. Agatha Tan, the originator of the controversy, claims that FoF promotes rape culture by teaching boys that no means yes. Rape culture, as I have debunked again and again, does not exist. Rape is neither normalised nor accepted in society, sexual assault is still treated as a horrendous crime, and rape is not commonplace. Further, this approach assumes that boys lack the intelligence to understand what nonsense looks like; that they are not held back by conscience, laws and the forces of the state; and that the only thing stopping men from becoming rapists is Right Thought and Right Education. Promulgated by self-proclaimed experts and other political dogmatists, of course.

A veritable flood of opinions is only confusing the issue. One commentator says that men are indeed visual creatures and women are more socially sensitive; another claims the study that shows the former is not legitimate and that any differences between sexes is simply a matter of generalisation. A woman thinks Tan is being childish because she recognises female behaviour as described in FoF’s material in herself; another woman thinks FoF is being insulting to all females. There is little space left for the truth, and even less for people to excavate it from the noise.

FoF’s material is based on dogma, but countering dogma with dogma still begets dogma. Likewise, FoF’s materials do portray stereotypes, but stereotypes have a grain of truth.

I have known men who are visually oriented and say exactly what is on their mind. I have known women who dress up their intent with fancy words and expect people to recognise that they want compliments without looking needy. I have known men so hungry for status and respect they tolerate no dissent. I have known women so concerned with status and being in line with their peers that they tolerate no one with differing views and hound such people incessantly .

I have also known quiet men who are touch-oriented. Women who speak exactly what is on their mind. Men who are truly unconcerned with social hierarchy. Women who can respect people with opposing views without agreeing with them.

Humanity is complex. Reducing people to absolute statements, either through well-known stereotypes or dogmatic pronouncements disguised as political correctness, blots out the identities and experiences of each and every human, greying out the multihued nature of humanity.

Everybody is different. But everybody is also human.

Principles, not dogma

There is great social good in teaching teenagers about sexuality and healthy relationships. However, public policy approach would by necessity require a one-size-fit-all solution, since attempting to administer such a program to every individual — indeed, every possible identity group — is going to be hideously expensive and time-consuming to administer relative to a universal approach. Conversely, private vendors are likely to provide advice tailored only to their target audience — meaning they are likely to push unwanted, unneeded or unnecessary advice to people outside that target audience. FoF is resounding evidence of this.

The solution to this lies in the roots of the problem: a public-private approach. The public sector — either through a formalised curriculum or contracting approved vendors — could teach a set of guidelines applicable to all people. People of specific identity groups — queer, Christian, female, etc. — can then seek out customised material specific to their needs from private players.

A public sector curriculum would by necessity be secular; age-appropriate; applicable to all people regardless of race, religion, culture or sexuality; based on empirical studies and good sense; and free from private interests. This points towards teaching principles to youths. These principles should include honest and open communications, integrity in behaviour, negotiating boundaries, keeping yourself safe while dating someone, respect and empathy. These are life skills everybody, regardless of biology or preferences, can learn and apply. Fortuitously, with the resources at hand it is also easier for the state to deliver such a broad program across Singapore (or, in fact, any state) than a single private player.

Private players would be able to supplement this approach with their own curriculum. For instance, an organisation may develop a program specifically for girls, another may want to conduct a workshop for QUILTBAG people, a third may focus on Muslims in particular, and so on. These organisations don’t need to be for-profit either; this could be NGOs, religious institutions, or volunteer groups. Neither do they have to be physical; I would expect these organisations to promote themselves and their material through Facebook, websites and elsewhere. With very rare exceptions I don’t see these private workshops being held in public schools — except, perhaps, as after-school activities, subject to approval and vetting. I think it’s going to be impossible for the government to regulate such curricula to the same degree of rigour as a universal curriculum, especially in niche areas where regulators have little to no practical experience. Perhaps a better approach would be to have a sanctioned body or bodies provide recommendations or seals of approval, indicating that certain organisations meet specific standards.

It’s time to take a step away from Focus on the Family. it is a symptom, not the disease. Instead of simply attempting to shout down the dogma of the day, the people and the state should start thinking about how to reform sexuality and relationship education to truly meet the needs of youths.

Diversity is not skin-deep

Reading this story on Quartz, I almost thought the writer, Pooja Makhijani, was talking about real issues. Issues like the greying population, the government’s ongoing attempts to leverage Big Data for its ends, the future of political expression in Singapore, a vulnerable economy dependent on maritime entrepôt trade and imports. Instead, the author spoke about lack of racial diversity in local literature, leading into Chinese privilege.

I would recommend Ms Makhijani hie herself to different libraries and bookstores and look more closely. If she cares for South Asian protagonists, she can look for  A Candle or the Sun and Moonrise, Sunset by Gopal Baratham, as well as the Inspector Singh series by Shamini Flint. Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches and Isa Kamari’s One Earth capture stories from the Malay community, and Rex Shelley won fame for writing about Eurasians. Michael Chiang’s Army Daze has a multiracial cast of characters, while The Steampowered Globe has characters from different races and nationalities, and Stella Kon’s Star Sapphire posits a future in which humanity becomes so racially intermingled that from a human perspective the only races of note are humans and other extraterrestrials. If Makhijani insists on children’s stories, she will find bountiful material in Singapore Children’s Favorite StoriesThere was a Peranakan Woman Who Lived In a Shoe, and tales of the Singapore Bookworm Gang. And these are just the stories written in English.

Talking about ‘Chinese privilege’ in Singapore literature is clearly a non-starter. But let’s go deeper and explore racial representation — or, indeed, anything that falls under the popular liberal progressive use of ‘diversity’.

Take a society where people are judged by their deeds, not their skin colour. The content of their hearts, not the cultural baggage ascribed to their race. The willingness to work with other people in the present, not however much their long-dead ancestors have been oppressed or have oppressed others. In this hypothetical society, the good will rise and the mediocre will sink. In such a society, race is merely an accident of birth — mostly irrelevant to day-to-day matters.

Now take another society where the worthiness of institutions, works of art, organisations and causes are judged by their commitment to racial diversity. One where the important thing is that alleged minorities are properly represented. Such a society would naturally prioritise ‘diversity’ over character. Such a society would, by nature, be racist.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says racism is:

Any action, practice, or belief that reflects the racial worldview—the ideology that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called “races,” that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural behavioral features, and that some “races” are innately superior to others.

The focus on Chinese privilege reflects the belief that there are separate and exclusive biological entities called ‘races’, of which ‘Chinese’ is one such race, that the Chinese race possesses inherent traits that elevate them above other races, and that this is undesirable. By tacking on the undesirability of ‘privilege’, it becomes socially acceptable to be racist.

By focusing on Chinese privilege, Makhijani is displaying her racism. By lamenting the lack of ‘brown faces’, she implies a believe that there is a race defined by brown skin coloration with innate traits distinct from other people, which means she is a racist. By judging a country by its racial makeup, and its body of literature by the skin colour of protagonists, she has demonstrated herself as a racist.

As shown above, racism is not simply about treating a race better than or equal to other races. It is about believing that race itself has a kind of value and judging people and organisations on that basis. That Makhijani’s racism happens to fall under the subcategory of reverse racism — one that is aimed against an allegedly superior race — makes her no less a racist than someone who sings the praises of or criticises people of a specific race. Instead of talking of specific achievements, actions, standards, anything that can be held up to standards, Makhijani is choosing the easy approach, judging people by the colour of their skin and not their actions.

As a writer, the word ‘diversity’ has always stuck in my craw. ‘Diversity’, in my experience, is simply reverse racism or reverse bigotry. It means elevating works solely because their characters happen to be the oppressed minority of the day, that stories are predominantly about hammering home the politically correct message du jour, and that everything else from craft to plot to characterisation to world-building mean little to nothing at all. To celebrate the ‘diversity’ of innate unchangeable traits — gender, race, sexuality — is to praise superficiality and treat people as little more than products of their genes and history instead of living, breathing, people. What matters is diversity of experience. Of character. Of the choices and divergences that spin into seven billion life paths, that things that truly make every person an individual.

If you take a collection of straight Chinese male physicists and insert a transgender Malay female physicist, you’re still getting a bunch of physicists, with no indication that any one of them is able to think outside the standard model and uncover the data that will reconcile classical and quantum mechanics. Chances are good that all you are getting are people who think in similar ways, and indeed the liberals and progressives I have seen talk a good game about ‘diversity’ and seemingly march in lockstep, and descend on nonconformists and critics like harpies.  True diversity is to insert a home-schooled savant, a Catholic priest, a New Age philosopher, someone whose choices and experiences lead them to view the world in a different light.  It is this, the cross-fertilisation of fields and the ability to bring multiple seeming disparate areas of expertise together, that lead to creativity, industry and the progress of humanity. Diversity of experience, not diversity of race or gender or anything but that which is relevant.

In closing, as a writer, it would be remiss of me to mention my own stories. First, let me describe them by Ms Makhijani’s metrics:

In November, an independent publishing house will be publishing a short story I wrote, which features a female Caucasian and a male of indeterminate racial origin. American Sons stars a white-Hispanic protagonist. My upcoming novel Keepers of the Flame has another white-Hispanic protagonist, and other main characters include a Hispanic, a Japanese female, a black man, two Chinese males, a white man, and a non-human being. I have recently completed another short story, featuring a protagonist of Sanskrit descent, and if this works out other characters will include a representative range of human and non-human entities. Yet another story features a gender-indeterminate/currently-female protagonist collaborating with a Brazilian, a Caucasian, and an Arab. My Singaporean stories include two Chinese males, a Chinese woman, an Indian woman, and divine and infernal creatures from Abrahamic, Norse, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. After I complete the American Heirs series, the next flagship series will star humans, a svartalf, werewolves, a dragon and other creatures.

By these descriptions alone, I have hit just about every diversity marker of the day. But I have also told you absolutely nothing about the stories themselves — often, not even the titles. So let’s try again:

In November, an independent publishing house will be publishing a short story I wrote about a dogged journalist interviewing a shell-shocked soldier accused of war crimes in the middle of an undeclared conflict zone. American Sons tells the story of Master Sergeant Christopher Miller’s race to stop a terrorist organisation from destroying the Republic of Cascadia, the last bastion of civilisation in North America. Keepers of the Flame shows the conflict expanding across the continent, with the Republic of Cascadia trying to fight an emergent terrorist threat, a new American Empire marching to the west, and a nascent artificial intelligence rising from the chaos. Another short story features a rookie secret policeman who must choose between the laws he serves and his personal ethics, which will come to define his series, tentatively titled Apes and Angels. The other short story has a team of paramilitary agents/terrorists raiding a top-secret corporate lab to uncover an illegal neural and physiological modification experiment — only to find that things aren’t what they seem to be. If this works out, this will introduce a hard space opera series. My (abortive) Michael Chang series follows a young magician’s journey as he is called by the gods to do battle for humanity, and if I ever pick up the series again I have a template for future stories. And the next flagship series, working title Cybermancer, follows a small group of unlikely allies — a former magician-turned-cyborg private peace officer, a full-cyborg deputy marshal, a gifted craftswoman, former Special Operations personnel human and otherwise — as they try to hold back and reverse a collapse of civilisation wrought by the collision of globalisation, technology and magic.

Looking over the two portfolios would tell you which is more interesting, and why. And this is why I cannot subscribe to notions of diversity that goes no deeper than the skin.

A Bundle of Wrongs at Hong Lim Park

Self defence expert Marc MacYoung describes rights as a bundle. “Rights come in bundles. Often these rub up against each other. That is where we must compromise and come up with a working solution.” MacYoung could have been describing what happened at Hong Lim Park on Saturday, when protesters from #ReturnMyCPF rubbed up against the YMCA and the state.

People have the right to freedom of speech. People also have the right to not be disturbed by others exercising free speech. People have the right to assemble peacefully for civil purposes. People also have the right to not participate in or be disturbed by such assemblies. When rights collide, the rational response is to compromise and find a working solution. Unfortunately, this did not happen at Speakers’ Corner.

Shared space

It is easy to point the finger at the National Parks Board. Hong Lim Park is not a large park. It seems unreasonable to hold two events in the same space, demarcating areas for both. This is especially since a charity carnival and a public protest will need as much space as they can get, as the success of such events are judged and marketed primarily by public attendance. Plus, Minister of State for the Ministry of Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck was the guest of honour at the event, and #ReturnMyCPF is led by Han Hui Hui and Roy Ngerng, both of whom have axes to grind against the Establishment. This is a recipe for conflict.

However, as civil society grows, an increasing number of organisations will want to book slots at Speakers’ Corner to hold events. It is inevitable that there will be more events organised simultaneously at the park, whether accidentally or otherwise. Plus, as some events are time-sensitive, it may not be possible for organisers to shift the date of a planned event. Further, as I will argue later, this conflict occurred primarily because of the personalities involved, not because of the friction generated from sharing space. Simply laying down a rule that no more than one event may be held at Hong Lim Park is using a sledgehammer when a scalpel would be more appropriate.

Should NParks take a more proactive role in events management? Certainly a bit of research would unearth the people responsible for #ReturnMyCPF and the guest of honour for the charity carnival. A bit more imagination would reveal that the activists would focus on the minister’s presence, potentially sparking a conflict. This approach, however, would arm the state with excuses to reject applications for protests and political events, on the grounds of potential conflicts with other events. It also means adding another layer of bureaucracy to the state.

The ideal solution is for NParks to contact all parties involved should multiple parties attempt to book Hong Lim Park on the same day and time, and discuss ways to deconflict the events. Arguably, this was what should have been done well before the event to begin with. Thirty minutes before the protest, NParks’ Director of the parks division Chia Siang Jiang approached Han to request that she move her event. This is very bad form by NParks, and NParks has to review its communication mechanisms to ensure that organisers and stakeholders receive adequate notice beforehand.

That said, people can register an event at Hong Lim Park on very short notice. Han, for instance, submitted an application to hold the protest on 22 September, and the application was approved on the same day. Short of requiring a minimum of one week’s advance notice prior to an event — not always desirable for time-sensitive political activities — it may not be possible to organise a session for every simultaneous event.

The most cost-effective method the government has to prevent conflict is to make information about events at Hong Lim Park readily available. Instead of (or in addition to) lumping events at Hong Lim Park on the NParks’ website event calendar, NParks could have a dedicated calendar just for Speakers’ Corner, right under the hyperlink for registration. This would allow event organisers to pick a time and date that would not clash with other events, or at least to work out a compromise with each other.

Harpies and Hecklers…?

The crux of the issue is that the #ReturnMyCPF movement was reported and perceived to be heckling the YMCA charity carnival to gain media and political attention while a group of special needs children were about to perform a dance number on the park’s stage. AsiaOne called it ‘chaos’, while. framed it as a ‘drama’.

The Online Citizen tells another story:

The activists led a march around the park, stopping in front of the stage for a few moments. When the children came up, the procession moved on.

‘Heckling’, according to the Marriam-Webster dictionary, is ‘to harass and try to disconcert with questions, challenges, or gibes’. As far as I could tell nobody who participated in the march attempted to directly harass anybody attending the YMCA charity event.

But they were disruptive. And the difference is semantics.

The procession marched around and in front of the YMCA’s tent, and right up to the edge of the YMCA performance. In doing so the participants had effectively encroached upon the YMCA’s space. They were shouting so loudly it is difficult to tell what the YMCA’s MC was saying over the mic. This may not be heckling, but it is disrespectful of the people who chose to attend the charity event. Had the march occurred in the middle of a performance, it could have thrown the performers off-kilter, and indeed some of the children in the video appeared discomfited by the noise. That the procession halted in front of the stage instead of moving past it, for whatever reason, aggravated the situation by making it seem as if they were there specifically to target YMCA.

To heckle them, in other words.

‘Heckle’ may not be accurate, but perception is at least as important as action. Compounding matters was that the police claimed the protesters did not have a permit to hold a public procession to begin with. If true, this creates the impression that the organisers of #ReturnMyCPF are lawbreakers and hotheads more interested in making noise than helping people.

Working Compromises and Communications Management

Activists want to build a better world. But having a noble cause is not a license to disturb people, disrupt events, break the law and generally behave distastefully. The eyes of the world are on them. They have to hold themselves to higher standards, to demonstrate and communicate that they are fundamentally reasonable people who truly intend to help society.

This means compromises. NParks tried to reach out to #ReturnMyCPF, asking them to relocate–as opposed to calling off their event. While NParks could have communicated this earlier, instead of fighting the decision like Han did, the better move would have been to agree or to bring in a YMCA representative and discuss how to best share space between the organisers. By framing the relocation as a way of respecting the YMCA’s right to hold their event, #ReturnMyCPF could have presented themselves as respectable people.

When informed by the police that they did not have a permit to hold a procession, the better move would be to modify the event on the fly. The activists could simply have informed the crowd that they did not receive a police permit in time, and instead gathered for a mass photograph or rally. They would still have made their point — and it would not have been blunted by the YMCA’s presence in the background.

If the activists insist on proceeding with the procession anyway, then they could have at least avoided going into the YMCA’s space. While it is tempting to reach out to Teo Ser Luck and the media presence at the carnival, by respecting the YMCA’s space the activists would have demonstrated their respect for other people.

Politics is a long game of perception and communication. It may feel good to argue with the government and to hold a march anyway, but by disregarding the law and disrespecting others’ space #ReturnMyCPF has shot itself in the foot. They have made themselves vulnerable to narratives that spin them as unruly denizens of the lunatic fringe, giving the government and other political parties a reason to write them off. Activists need to act in ways that respect the rights of others, and frame these actions in ways that communicate this respect to the wider world. This would win public respect, and with that the inroads activists need to achieve their goals.

Compromise is not a dirty word. Compromise is how everybody gets what they want. Activists should do well to remember that.

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:

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: