Fear and inspiration

Do you think that Singapore is governed mainly by fear of sticks and people drawn by carrots? That we have a pragmatic society that is often about dollars and cents? And people are following rules because they are induced by incentives and pushed away by disincentives?

If you look at videos of Lee Kuan Yew’s speeches in the past they were fiery but also inspirational. He does not try to push actions or responsibility on people without giving them a destination that is worth their while. We tend to forget this in public communications.

We tend to tell people that they can’t do this or that because if everyone does it, there will be chaos. Instead, they should be saying that when we disallow people from doing this or that, it makes for a more orderly system or design. And it allows everyone to enjoy the environment better.

Instilling inspiration can be more rewarding than trying to great fear. But we are all too anxious for success, too impatient to do that. We prefer to think the energy to wield a whip is less than providing a carrot. That may not always be true.

Whatever happened to the coolies of Singapore, generations later?

Most of the Chinese migrants who came to Singapore and whose descendents now form the majority of the population here were ‘coolies’ or manual labourers who came to Singapore to seek out employment opportunities and a better life. The mindset really was to find a boss to serve, and gain a good life through that loyalty. Life was basic and more about survival than really thriving. In fact, the term ‘coolie’ still mean ‘employee’ colloquially amongst the older folks.

Generations later, the bar for living standards have gone up, and so have expectations of how much you achieve and how much you need to live on. But has that coolie mindset changed? Are we still just trying to follow directions to a better life? Are we thinking independently and by ourselves? Are we looking to continue to use resources at our disposal just for ourselves or to make the future a better place?

We have been successful as a society that follows order to fulfill a clear-cut, straight-forward vision. For the longest time, it was almost a matter of survival that we fulfill the vision. Mediocrity was simply not an option and there was no worthwhile status quo to hang on to. Our forefathers worked hard to set up a path towards “better life”. And we’ve reached this stage of being a metropolis.

Question is where do we go from here? Given the chance to develop our own path and vision forward, do we take that chance? The ability to think independently does not have to be political, and it involves the smallest things such as identifying opportunities in the market where people see none. To architect a vision and actually commit to pursue it requires resilience that is based on a sense of purpose. How do you cultivate that? It is unlikely for the child of a soccer Mum, going through various enrichment and supplementary activities and busy with getting good grades in school to develop that. To the coolie, busyness might seem like excellence, but for a leader, it shouldn’t be.

As the next generation of Singaporeans to helm the leading positions of various parts of society, we will have to leave the inherited narratives of our parents and the boomers, to write our own story instead. The chance to do so comes at the point when we recognise that the hard work put in by our coolie forefathers was for us to break out of this. If we don’t know how to manage this kind of freedom of the mind, and mature, the social freedoms that are being fought for will not be able to serve the society well.

Meanwhile, you might like to check out some really amazing recoloured photos of historical Singaporeans here. Get a sense of the hardship they went through and what life really means for them.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. An older version of this article was originally published at on January 5, 2021.

What made colonial Singapore a thriving port city and what does that mean for you?

In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles came to strike a deal that made Singapore a British colony, the population of Singapore is approximately 150. 2 years later, in 1821, the population rose to 5000 mostly as a result of the establishment of the port, providing ready access to population from other centers.

By 1860, however, the resident population ballooned to around 80,800 comprising mainly of “temporary” immigrants coming from India, China as well as from the surrounding islands. In the 1870s, Singapore became the main hub for sorting and export of rubber, a major commodity for global economic development.

By the close of 19th Century, Singapore was a thriving hub in the region. The economy grew eightfold between 1873 and 1913. Before there was the Singapore we know today, the port city was already a major trading hub. This wasn’t purely luck nor a matter of domestic economic policy. So what happened through these years?

Reducing Piracy

Just 5 years after the establishment of Singapore as a free port under British rule, in 1824, the English and the Dutch brokered a deal to exchange Bencoolen (or Bengkulu in Sumatra) for Malacca. This was particularly important; the other port that was controlled by the British in the region was Penang, which the English established since 1790; the location was not that popular since ships from the east will still have to pass through the Straits of Malacca before reaching Penang.

With Penang and Singapore under the control of the British, the rivalry between the English and the Dutch in the region meant that Dutch control of the Straits of Malacca through possession of Malacca was a significant bottleneck. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 resolved the rivalry (somewhat) by allocating spheres of influence, opening up the entire chain of territories — Penang, Malacca and Singapore to British control and thus greater incentive for the Royal Navy to maintain the safety of the trading ships passing through the Straits of Malacca.

The Dutch Navy was implicitly given the same responsibility on the side of the straits closer to Indonesia. In fact, the Dutch greatly expanded their presence in the straits. Before that, piracy was extremely rampant along that straits and the numerous islands around provided safe bays for pirate ships. The informal security coordination in these waters gave way to higher flow of trading ships thus facilitating the boom of the port of Singapore.

Injection of Human Capital

By 1825, the population of Singapore went past the 10,000 mark. And in 1826, the British East India Company officially took on Singapore as a colony of the British Empire after John Crawfurd signed a second treaty with the Sultan of Johor and the Temenggong, which extended British control of Singapore over to the entire island instead of just the port.

The formation of the Straits Settlement consisting of Penang, Malacca and Singapore happened in the same year with Penang designated as the capital. In 1830, the capital was shifted to Singapore, further entrenching the important institutions of British governance in Singapore.

The decisions made by British to build up and enhance the value of Singapore and the injection of top civil servants and managerial talents into Singapore due to its designation as capital of the Straits Settlements (and subsequent establishment of the Straits Settlements as a crown colony in 1867) played an extremely important role in shaping the economic, political and administrative environment which proved extremely favourable to Singapore.

Why is this important to us as an individual?

At an individual level, this holds 2 key lessons for us in terms of thinking about jobs and careers:

  1. You want to be very selective in the environment that you subject yourself to if you have enough choice and control. Put yourself in a safe environment where you surround yourself with a friendly support network.
  2. You want to build up your capabilities and be proactive in growing your knowledge and skills relevant to the network you have built up.

Where you find yourself in a hostile or personally unfavourable environment, have no qualms about withdrawing yourself from it. There is no point in spending time and efforts fending off criticisms and attacks with limited resources you have. Better to find a new environment and context where you can be nurtured and grow. Success often begets success as the initial value you develop attracts others to contribute to your development. Just make sure you don’t get so addicted to it that you begin to fear failure.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A previous version of this article was published in here a while back focusing only on the economic history aspects.

Inconsistent stories

Storytelling is a wonderful skill when it comes to communication and helping others retain information. It is also capable of influencing behaviours to a large extent. And so it has to be used and received carefully.

Stories that are attractive can be inconsistent. Just the other day, I came across this person who decided to be a career coach because he realised he had put so much time and energy into his work he neglected other important things in life. Having been a top performer at work, he now wants to work with individuals to help them perform well at work. Coaching allows his life to be more flexible and to “help” others.

Somehow, it was hard for me to receive that story. Not that I suspect it isn’t true but the difficulty is the fact that he is now teaching others strategies to progress and do well at work which had landed him outside the corporate ladder in the first place. It would seem like there is some paradox here. Surely, one would not want to lead more of others into the regret of neglecting family and life due to work having experienced the full force of that oneself?

I think it’s great more people are becoming entrepreneurs and creating value as freelancers or solopreneurs. A lot of the work to attract and market involves storytelling and positioning yourself well. At the same time, the story you tell serves as a way to align yourself and the work. An inconsistent story breaks that.

Honest Abe

The Political Genius
The Political Genius

Team of Rivals is one of the rare books I left at camp to be read consistently and then finished within plan. I brought it into camp two weeks ago and planned to have it finish exactly today; I knew that if I was reading it consistently I would finish about 2 chapters per day, which means it’ll take me 13 days for the 26 chapters that Doris Kearns Goodwin penned. I initially thought I might bring home to read over the weekends but resolved to leave it in camp as a material to be read in camp.

The book turned out to be incredibly entertaining and while I could put it down for a drink, a chat or some other minor distractions, I’d be happy to resume reading wherever I left. The prose flows smoothly and easily for me and I love Goodwin’s narration. She makes history seem alive and playing in front of you with the thoughtfully embedded quotes in the narration that is carefully credited at the end notes. The pictures, diagrams and maps included made the experience even more wonderful.

The most important part about Team of Rivals that I enjoyed was the little bits scattered all over the book where Abraham Lincoln related his little anecdotes and jokes to others. From our frame of reference, these all are anecdotes themselves demonstrating the character and personality of Lincoln. One that I liked in particular involves Lincoln telling someone about his dream:

In his dream, Lincoln was at a party where he overheard a guest commenting on him, “He is a very common-looking man.” Lincoln joined the conversation immediately, suggesting “The Lord must prefer common-looking men, that is the reason He made so many of them”. Lincoln was positively amused by the response he gave in his dream.

And having read the book and gotten to know more about Abraham Lincoln, I came to realised that the response in his dream was very real; it was something so characteristically Father Abe. I was naturally drawn to the many other jokes and stories he shared – some I understood, others were perhaps closer to the hearts and minds of those who were audience of his time.

Months ago I bought a little selection of speeches by Abraham Lincoln and I haven’t gone beyond reading his Gettysburg Address and wondering what so great about it. Now that I’m more familiar with the course of his political life and the circumstances in which he made those speeches, I shall revisit the book and appreciate the wonders and influence of his oratory prowess as well as his ability to weave issues into stories for the layman. And perhaps, I’d learn something out of all that.

An angsty letter

This letter was written in early 2008 as an expression of late teenage angst at my high school. Most details have been forgotten and the context is no longer very clear to me. It reflects some of my earlier writings that were expository but driven largely by my intellectual passion in education.

It has been quite a while since something bothered me to the degree this issue of how lousy your department is did. The last time was perhaps when I was in high school, when the rather incompetent humanities department head pioneered some rather disturbing means of assessment (Major Research Papers, as they were known) – that has since been resolved after it was replaced by some more experimentally disastrous modes of assessments, for which I was not subjected to (and therefore I see no issue with that). I shall, in this little letter, outline the faults with your department and offer my suggestions to ‘correct’ these problems.

I begin with the course materials for they are at the forefront of ‘educating’ your students. If anything else, it is the only thing that comes directly in contact with the learners of your subject. The design of your lecture notes have been kindly standardized, which presents organizational ease students would gladly appreciate, but no additional readings are provided (though I would think some students also appreciates this) and it is declared that whatever students need are within the notes issued. Further readings or exploration is discouraged implicitly this way. All notes are arranged in rather logical order that introduces concepts and definitions but it appears that more emphasis is placed on memorizing the definitions than understanding the concepts (this will be elaborated in the pedagogy segment later). Diagrams are poorly annotated and large chunks of text that follows diagram are in prose but ‘bulleted’, making it confusing for student as to whether to take the entire chunk of text as a ‘point’ in the theory or mere elaborations. Blanks are often placed in wrong positions because teachers edit their lecture presentations after sending notes for printing. I therefore suggest that all blanks be scrapped so that lectures can proceed quickly and that more spaces are provided between chunks of text for notes to be written. All conceptual points should be summarized and written in good English (read: good English, not just easily misunderstood English). All diagrams should be well annotated and unnecessary repetition of diagrams removed.

Lecture time are often wasted on administrative matters that demonstrates deep distrust in the student’s desire to learn. To attend a lessons in a premier institution is to expect no time wasted on unnecessary disciplinary remarks made by teachers and that both students and lecturers are on time. There is really no need to mark attendance for lectures or waste time waiting for students who are late. To miss out a part of the lecture should be the punishment in itself – there’s no need to humiliate these students by starting the lecture late on purpose and then claim these late comers responsible for the fast pace of the lecture or worst, the incomplete-ness of the lecture. Incessant nagging about student performance during lectures are not at all appreciated and seen solely as an avenue at which the lecturer lets out his/her steam on the students, achieving practically no effect on the grades or effectiveness of lectures (often even undermining that, as well as respect for the lecturers). There is thus no need for attendance marking during lectures, or the wait for late-comers, or any ‘disciplining sessions’ – lecture time should be left purely for lecture on the subject

Technicalities with course materials and the ways lectures are carried out aside, the pedagogy of teachers reveal a profound misunderstanding in the cognitive abilities of the students as well as the processes by which one acquires academic knowledge of a subject. A social science, or any rather scientific subject, should be taught with the hope that students understand theories and concepts, as well as the implications of them. Next step would be the application of these concepts on the real world, the ability to draw evidence, real world examples to support theoretical concepts and possibly critique the inadequacies of theory. Ideally, we should be producing students capable of explaining the theories and giving examples in his/her own words.

Unfortunately, your department focused all energies on teaching ‘answers’ of potential examination questions to students since day one. There is no appreciation for the knowledge to be acquired, no consideration given to the way concepts are used in the real world (whether it is the predictive or the explanatory value) and absolutely no respect was paid to the history of the subject. Authorities of the subject are rarely introduced – I strongly believe that understanding the settings at which certain theories surrounding particular phenomena are discovered would aid one’s critique of the theory as one would then understand the timing and circumstances for which the concept served a valid explanation for some phenomena. Such ‘assessment-oriented’ approach would be seen as an indication of laziness in part of your department (if not ignorance), perhaps only interested in the results of the students rather than how interested students are in your subject. What could illustrate your distorted ideology towards teaching more than one of the lecturer’s exclamation during one of the paper review sessions: “Please, I urge you to memorize all definitions, the exact wording of each and every definition as given in your lecture notes. Do not use any definitions you picked from elsewhere or constructed yourselves because their wording are often wrong or difficult to interpret and this frustrates the markers. That means they have to waste more time on your paper and you’ll probably be given lower marks for that.”

It is perhaps why I come to realize how some of my peers who were initially curious about the subject were practically put off by it, possibly till this very day. I have no idea if this was your department’s intention but I was lucky my initial passion for the subject (built from the numerous outside readings and a steady supply of magazines on the subject) was never watered down by your horrible approach to teaching. That I went on to pursue tertiary education on this subject could only be attributed to the fact that you and your fellow colleagues have failed to practice the flawed pedagogy to its extreme for you all are still human. Of course, you might try to refute my claims by highlighting the numerous students pursuing further studies on this subject who are from our institution. That I do not deny, for it is the innate allure of the subject and perhaps the demand for knowledge in this field that have drawn this intellects towards the subject. In raising this point as a rebuttal, your department should thank God your screwed approach was not consistently applied (plausibly due to a few rebel lecturers who truly believed in the subject and loved that exploration).

I have, in the course of my education in the institution, approached tutors of the subject (ie. your colleagues) regarding some of the matters I have pointed out above but they all appeared to shrug at them. Replies offered ranged from ‘instructions by the department’ and ‘every tutor in our institution is doing it this way’ to ‘that has been the case all along and we have no problem with it’ and ‘you are a special case, I don’t think other students would think this way’. My friends have suggested I return to teach at my alma mater and clean up the mess I observed in my school days. I hope that this letter will just do that without having me to compromise my future.