Monday, December 31, 2012

The Energy in New Ends


It’s been a relatively funny year and I've managed to end it feeling rather pleased with myself. Didn’t win the lottery and my financial prospects are not startling. However, I found a plan of sorts and stuck to it reasonably well enough to see results at the end of the year.

Events on the global front gave the blogger in me lots of talk about. The USA had an election and American voters, thankfully made the right choice. The world economy is in a mess and they voters decided not to hand it to someone from the group that was responsible for the mess in the first place.

Here, at home, in Singapore, the ‘gossip writer’ in me had lots of fun. This was the year of sex-scandals. It started off with the head of the Singapore Civil Defense and Central Narcotics Bureau stepping down because of a sex scandal. At the end of the year, the Speaker of Parliament has resigned over an extra-marital affair. In between you had a host of senior civil servants and prominent members of society being arrested for soliciting sex with underage prostitutes.  You could say that the proverbial worms are coming out of the can. For me, I’d like to think that these scandals are a sign of the powerful being held to account and Singapore deciding to be the country it pledges to be rather than the one with unspoken caveats – i.e. “regardless of race, language or religion (provided you have lots of money in your bank account)”

On the family front I had to say goodbye to my Dad’s oldest brother. Uncle Richard was in many ways the original maverick – the uneducated Chinatown Boy who made good. Unfortunately he forgot that it wasn’t just about making money – you had to keep the stuff and more worryingly he abused his body. His passing was a relief in as much as it was the end of his physical suffering. As much as I regard the passing of a sick old man as a blessing, I will also miss a much loved uncle.

However, there were some good beginnings too. Max, my younger brother has started his career in real-estate. He’s become more studious and both he and Caitlan look like they’re settling down into a very stable life together. My other siblings are also managing well. Tara has started her own photography studio in London and Christopher fully integrated into university life.

There was a big birthday party for me this year. Lee, my stepfather turned 80 and I made it to Washington State to spend time with him. He is thankfully healthy and his mind is still buzzing. However, it sometimes hard to be the decent stepson I’d like to be in as much as, I think it was hard for him to accept that it was now my turn to buy the good lunches.

It was also good to catch up with my stepsister, Carol and her family. I’m particularly happy that I got to attend the wedding of my step nephew, Brennon and his lovely wife, Chava, who is now pregnant. I think they’re going to make a very beautiful baby……

As for me, there was something of a transition of sorts. Joyce, the girl who had been such a central part of my life two-years ago left for China. In a way it was a relief. Although my relationship with her was exceedingly passionate, it was, as they say, a little too hot for most people to handle. She couldn't handle “us” and life in Singapore. I hope she’s finding some sense of balance in China. We still trade the odd email and thankfully she’s gracious enough to send me photos of Yooga once in a while. This little boy is a gem and I pray, that somehow, despite the adversities he faces, he’ll grow into a man that the world will admire, though I have to remember what he once told his mother at the age of four, “I’m NOT GOD, I DON’T know everything.”

Just as Joyce and Yooga left my life, Thuy, the little girl who showed me what it was like to live for something greater than myself, reentered it. The seven-year old girl I knew six-years ago is now a teenager of 13.

It’s taken a bit of getting used to each other again. I got to remember that she’s almost a grown woman and I have to respect that but at the same time she’s not quite a grown woman yet and the worries that one has for a small child remain. She’s also adjusting to me too and in between the usual teasing, she is acknowledging that I might be a force of good in her life.

You could say that this is God’s way of making me pay for all my past nonsense with the opposite sex. However, it’s a task that I take on with some amount of pride and someone remarked that having Thuy in my life has brought out the unknown “Responsible” Tang Li.

In terms of work, the highlight will undoubtedly be the PANIIT Conference, which took place in April, 2012. The conference brought together a host of some of the most prominent people in Indian industry and it allowed me to better understand the transformation of a giant country that was once known as backwater of contentious people.  While the vast majority of Indians live below the poverty line, there is a vast number who are educated and well to do. The group at IIT is on their way up and doing so in a hurry. This group is rich with ideas and some of them are now shifting their attention to giving back to where they came from, something which can only be good for India. For me, working with them was exhilarating and I’m grateful to continued friendship of Supriyo Sircar, CEO of Polaris Asia-Pacific and the new friendships with people like Amrit Barman from SAP, Dhruv Jain from Energizer and Mr KV Rao from Tata Power. I’m grateful for having had the chance to meet the likes of Mr R.Gopalakrishnan, Executive Director of Tata Sons and Arjun Mahlotra, one of the founders of Hindustan Computers (HCL) and Headstrong.

The other high point came from an industry that my family seems to be drawn to – the Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF). I am grateful to Mr Glenn Lim, Director 20twenty PR for inviting me to work with him for the three months of launching a festival that brought renown photographers like Stuart Franklin (he who shot the famous photo of the man defying the tank at Tiananmen Square) to not just display their works but to mentor aspiring photographers. There is talent in Singapore and it’s good that we’re looking to and learning from the world.

I also seem to have found a knack with picking up litigation support jobs. This year, I found myself supporting Mr PN Balji in a job that involved a trade mark dispute between the founding members of Ku Te Da. As the trial is still ongoing (lawyers are currently working on submissions) I won’t say much other than the fact that Singapore’s court rooms are a source of stories that are worth telling.

While I remain a media relations consultant, I’m also putting a foot in what could be a career change or a pension plan. I've been spending my weekends helping at a restaurant called Bruno’s. It’s an Italian Restaurant that serves exceedingly good food. I’m currently working as service staff and while the pay is not great, I am enjoying meeting people. Being part of the blue collar work force also helps me to better understand issues that I care about.

On the flip side it’s also good for my health. I've never been one for the gym so a job that keeps me on my feet has been good form of exercise. My blood pressure has lowered and I've managed to shed a few kilos.

While I've called Singapore home for the last decade, this is a year that I've also started to look at the region as an alternative for me. After many day-trips to Johor, I have now set up a fixed-deposit and savings account there. Malaysia has issues but it’s the most obvious place for Singaporeans to expand to. Both Singapore and Malaysia complement each other.  I don’t know how things will be but Malaysia has a certain amount of space that Singapore doesn't have and JB is close enough to provide one with extra space.

Vietnam is also interesting. Although it is still a third world country, it is dynamic and filled with a certain type of energy. After one trip I’d like to go back again and with a plan of sorts.

I don’t know what 2013 will bring. I just hope that I can grow what little I've managed to gain in 2012. There will undoubtedly be challenges but as always, I've come to accept that these are things to be relished and I hope that I remain healthy and able to grab the chances that I get in 2013. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

The World’s Grubbiest Baby and the Joys of Grubbiness


The week I spent in rural Vietnam has given me a new best friend. He is the smart half’s grand-nephew. He is also the world’s grubbiest baby.

In the day I got to hang out with him, he managed to turn his white shirt black. He refused my help to blow his snotty nose (though my t-shirt turned out to be quite attractive for that purpose when he decided to do it himself) and he was quite happy to feast on something or other that was on the floor. He also enjoyed rolling in mud. What I’ve described takes a little getting used to. My friends who have become parents would be stunned and might be trying to call some authority or other.

I would urge everyone to stop and appreciate the Grubby Baby. He is a well-adjusted two-year old. He was not intimidated by dogs even though many of them were bigger than him and he had no problem meeting people, including strangers. He was also exceedingly robust. He slept throughout the night and went to day care without any hassle. In short he wasn't any worse off than kids who had a nanny to follow them all over the place preventing them from stepping a toe on sanitized floor.

Grubby Baby reminds me of a conversation I had with one of the prominent ophthalmologist who had been to India. He listed all the things that the Indian hospital had done which would get the doctors barred had they been in anywhere else but India. However, at the end of the conversation he made a valuable point, namely, “The infection rates are not higher than they are here.”

 I have to ask – “Have we become so sanitized that we’re unable to handle the world as it really is?” Yes, I believe modern science and knowledge about hygiene have worked wonders. Things like rates of infant mortality have gone down and people are living longer and healthier lives thanks to modern science. Today there is no reason to die of diseases that were once considered fatal. We should be thankful for all these things and we should push our quest for knowledge even further.

However, the conversation with the good doctor and befriending Grubby Baby has given me the belief that there’s a need to expose our young to some of the rougher things that nature provides. There is enough science out there to show that the human body has a way of adjusting to its natural environment. There is evidence to show that people from the developing world develop antibodies that people in the developed world simply don’t have.

I guess the point is that the body develops resilience because it needs to. Someone from the third world develops antibodies that someone from the developed world doesn’t have because the person from the third world needs to. The saying that “necessity is the mother of innovation” also applies to nature and medical science.

As a society we pursue comfort and convenience. However, I think of the nutritionist, Dr Udo Erasmus who said, “Whenever someone tells you something is convenient you better run away from it – life isn’t meant to be convenient.”

His point was simple; you need to struggle for the best things in life. The human condition becomes stronger whenever it has to go through struggle. I look at the Grubby Baby and his happy robust smile. He’s gotten that way because he’s had to survive through the things nature throws at him. He’s happy to deal with dogs and people because they are part of his natural environment. The standard joke with a friend of mine is that if we placed the Grubby Baby (age two) in a boxing ring with the Young Pork Eating Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek (age 22), Grubby Baby would end up humiliating him. Grubby Baby can deal with nature and has struggled while the Young Pork Eating Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek has spent his life avoiding every possible struggle that life might throw at him.

Now I take the value of struggle even further. I look at Vietnam and the energy of the people. These are the people who threw of the yoke of French Colonial rule and then proceeded to see the back of the Americans despite having several tons of bombs dropped on them. If that was not enough, they then gave the Mainland Chinese a very bloody nose when their giant neighbor decided to invade. Now that the focus has moved from fighting wars to economic development, you find that the Vietnamese are doing good things. In the few days I didn’t see a single beggar on the streets of Hanoi. Instead of begging, people were finding all sorts of ways to make a living – for example, every corner of Hanoi is a food stall.

Like the Grubby Baby, these are people who have been exposed to nature, which is exceedingly beautiful and exceedingly brutal at the same time. These are people who understand that you have to survive on your own and somehow you have to get creative.

I think back to the strike by the SMRT’s Mainland Chinese and the government reaction of “Why Take Things into Your Own Hands when there are Proper Channels.” The Singapore Government and Singapore people have become too used to dealing with political and legal machinery that has made both parties conveniently oblivious to the realities of nature. The Mainland Chinese and other Asians are used to dealing with the realities of nature.

When I read comments by Singaporeans on how the PRC Chinese should have known better and accepted the conditions they were given, I shudder. We have become a people who have lost our human instincts to defend ourselves and become reliant on the system to get it right. Ask your average Singaporean about the struggle that people like Tibetans and Palestinians go through and you’ll find them grossly unsympathetic. There is no empathy for people who believe in struggle and they’re dismissed as people who are too stupid to understand they’re place in the system. This is unnatural.

Well, now we’re dealing with people who expect life to be a struggle. Yes they can take punishment that most of us can’t. However, they've reached the point where they cannot accept being abused and so they’re acting to stop it. This is unfortunately for Middle Class Singapore a reality and part of human nature.

The tough half is determined to move away from her roots. I’m conflicted because as much as I see her appreciation for safety and cleanliness, I also believe that she outclasses most people because she’s had to struggle. I think that if we get round to children, I’d like them to spend their early childhood as grubby babies rather than artificially sanitized ones.   

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Who Gives a Shit, they’re Just Human


It’s been a week since I've come back from Vietnam and as things would have it, I've been given plenty to write about. If you were superstitious, you could say that the dragon (it’s the Chinese Year of the Dragon) has decided to swipe its tail to reveal the ugly side of the place I've called home.

I’m generally quite happy in Singapore. Anyone who’s lived here can tell you that the place has gotten plenty of the important things right. I will never tire telling people that Singapore is what a city should be – clean, green and rich. In terms of our basic facilities and amenities, we’re as good; if not better off than most places on earth (I’m comparing Singapore with developed cities in the USA and Europe). I do value things like the safety.

What gets to me about living in Singapore is the attitude of my fellow countrymen towards the less fortunate, particularly if the less fortunate happen to be dark and come from other parts of Asia. I've been living here for over a decade now and I should be immune to these things by now, but I’m not. You might argue that it’s a character flaw of mine but I get very upset whenever I come across the attitudes of Singaporeans towards “other Asians.”

Like with most things in Singapore, the ‘omnipotent’ government needs to bear a chunk of the responsibility for the development of this attitude. The government calls it being pragmatic. I would call it being a racist bully. We are currently killing ourselves to welcome ‘Western Bankers’ into the island. I've got nothing against Westerners per se, some of my best friends and family are. I've also got nothing against financiers per se.

What I do object to is how the group that brought us the “sub-prime” crisis is being billed as ‘heroic’ and ‘necessary’ for ordinary people. When three of them assaulted ordinary people, the police decided it was best to let them go and a few decided to defend them on the internet. The actions of the powers-that-be have sent a clear message – certain people need to be venerated.

Just as official policy venerates one group, it denigrates another. Try being Indian, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Pilipino or Mainland Chinese.  These groups work in the so called ‘dirty’ jobs that the locals won’t do and instead of making it easier for this lot to either make a living, official policy does the opposite. Just as we kill ourselves to welcome Western Bankers, we proudly sent gun boats to turn away Vietnamese boat people fleeing a war in the 70s and nearly 40 years later, we’re doing exactly the same thing. The government proudly denied entry to Vietnamese vessel that had the misfortune to rescue 40 Rohingaya’s fleeing genocide in their native Burma.

Perhaps the politicians are seeing something that I don’t see here but who we show compassion to seem grossly wrong. When Westerners who have been screwed out of their homes decide to turn on the bankers who screwed them, we rush to show compassion to the bankers. When people flee being imminent slaughter, we decide that they’re not worthy of our compassion. Not sure where the logic in that comes from.

Anyway, we've always known that politicians are an interesting lot. What gets to me is the attitude that people show towards the less fortunate.

Thankfully someone else has expressed outrage in another blog (http://limpehft.blogspot.sg/2012/12/heartless-government-heartless-people.html) and I’m not going to list out the attitudes that people have.

What I will say is that it necessary to make voices like the mentioned blogger more available and to turn youthful outrage into something more sustainable. It gets to me when you have a picture of people struggling to survive and the response, which is best summed up as, “Oh, they’re so dirty, they’ll affect my nice comfortable life.”  I think of Andrew Loh, publisher of Publichouse.sg,  who wrote a piece about the appalling living conditions on yahoo (http://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/singaporescene/leave-tough-talk-aside-110105229.html) and had responses that were as immature as “Wah, you want to hire a maid for them ah”

What gets to me is that many of the commentators are not stupid or uneducated. Most are middle-class working professionals. So, I have to ask myself if being educated is really all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s like we've become so sanitized that we've forgotten what it is like to be human.

I think of my week in rural Vietnam with the other half’s family. People didn't have the facilities that we have. Yet they all had enough to eat and people helped each other. There was a sense of humanity there.
I’ll be honest here. I had internet withdrawal symptoms and I needed to get back to trying to work. I did miss modern amenities.

Yet, a day after settling back into modern amenities, I started missing rural Vietnam. The place energized me. I couldn’t place my finger on what it was that made me feel so energized after the place.  I've now figured it out. People over there have retained some sense of humanity. It’s something that we need to regain.