The future (I want) in Singapore

We’re in the middle of election season in Singapore; parliament was dissolved on 23 June, signalling the start, and polling day will be on 10 July. Many questions can be asked about why the election needs to be called right now, given the difficulties posed by the covid 19 pandemic and made worse for overseas voters (like me) who are unable to travel to exercise our right to vote. Nevertheless, the campaigns and manifestos put forth by candidates are important to engage with because they represent the direction Singapore wants to move towards.

Cartoon by Kevin Kallaugher, taken from here. To be honest, I think the time of modern nation-states is past. Most have only been around for the last 50 to 100 years (since European colonial powers ceded independence to their former colonies, but still wield substantial political and economic power over every country on this planet). Nonetheless, as part of such a nation-state at present, one should actively participate to forge the future we collectively want.

I think it’s been much more exciting this year compared to the last one in 2015 (which was my first time voting in Singapore’s GE), since every one of the 93 elected seats in parliament are being contested (so everyone who can will get to vote) and the quality of (social media) campaigns seems to have increased. I’m really not a political commentator nor do I follow any political party closely enough to comment about the differences between this and the previous election, beyond just my personal experience that this year’s has more hype in it. It has though, been really encouraging to see the highlighting of social structural inequality in Singapore, and proposed policy measures to tackle these issues from most parties. (Slightly less encouraging to see the xenophobia take centre stage at times though).

Where’s climate change?

Yet many other issues – like our treatment of foreign workers – seem to have been sidelined in all the rhetoric about overcoming crises, having a great future, jobs and whatnot. The most glaring omission is perhaps any mention of climate change in any discussion…

From Twitter user @Laurie_Garrett, posted on 17 June, when temperatures in Siberia hit 32˚C; original cartoon (only showing covid-19 and recession) by Graeme MacKay for The Hamilton Spectator on 11 March 2020. I had actually first come across this cartoon but with ‘biodiversity loss’ in a bigger wave behind climate change, but after spending 30 mins scouring the internet trying to find it again, I gave up.

In a 5-yearly discussion about how our future will be directed, one would think that this very major threat – potentially for the survival of, if not our species, then at the least civilisation as we know it – the earth is facing at the moment would feature. Singapore isn’t climate-denying; that much is known. The government had previously pledged to spend SGD 100 billion on infrastructure to adapt to climate change (I know they used the word mitigate but really, they mean adapt to the effects of climate change, like building sea walls, polders, reclaiming islands etc. Not mitigate (to reduce) the effects of climate change). But yes, we need to talk about mitigation!

The petrochemical industry on Jurong Island is the leading oil trading/refining hub in Asia, within top five globally. The industry doesn’t just import crude oil, refine it, and export it to the rest of the world, they’re also involved in building fossil fuel extraction infrastructure (like oil rigs). And 25% of globally-traded goods pass through our port! Cargo ships use the dirtiest fuel and contribute greatly to CO2 emissions [Read more in this great NewNaratif article].

Our banks finance coal plants, oil palm or other cash crop plantations in the region (and sometimes further afield). To ‘develop’ Singapore, sand is imported from our neighbours, to the detriment of the communities from whom land is literally being taken from underfoot. 90% of our food supply is also imported, a large proportion of which is also from around the Southeast Asian region. These activities all contribute to climate change (by changing planetary dynamics) and are affected by the same. If we take climate change seriously for what it is – I don’t know how one does not, I spent days being miserable and angry about the recent 30+˚C temperatures in the Arctic circle – then we need to do something about it. It’s something that should be mentioned in manifestos and shouted about over loudspeakers and on social media campaigns!

The good people at SG Climate Rally and Speak for Climate have co-organised the campaign Greenwatch, producing a climate scorecard for each of the contesting political parties. On a score ranging from -90 to 90, no party did particularly well…

What future do we want?

There’s so much talk about the post-covid future, the economy, jobs, development etc. The assumption though, is that we all want ‘development’, and ‘progress’. It is after all, in our national pledge.

We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve, happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation. 

Who is development (equivalent to progress?) pursued for though, and to what ends? Supposedly, the pursuit of development (which manifests itself in chasing after constant economic growth, as in GDP), is to improve peoples’ lives, increase standards and quality of well-being and ultimately to allow everyone(?) to live decent and dignified lives.

On one level, past a certain point, happiness/well-being/life satisfaction does not concomitantly increase with Gross Domestic Product (used as a measure of development) – known as the Easterlin paradox.

Image taken from this Medium article authored by Jack Herring- The Social Case for Degrowth, but which was (probably?) taken from the book Degrowth (The economy: Key Ideas) by Giorgos Kallis, Figure 4.2 of chapter 4 The Case for Degrowth.

Singapore’s GDP per capita in 2018, according to Google, is USD 64,581.94, and according to a poll reported in September 2019, half of the population isn’t very satisfied with their lives.

On another level, development is a concept introduced by USA president Henry Truman in his inaugural speech in 1949 – to be specific, he described most of the world as ‘underdeveloped’ and therefore should follow the Western mode of development to industrialise and achieve a higher standard of living, and so reduce suffering. I’m no longer so naive as to think that the USA (or UK) is a benevolent nation that wants to help poor people around the world. Through the past few months/years of reading into colonialism, postcolonial and decolonial studies, I fully see development as neo-colonialism, whereby concepts and schools of thought, ways of knowing, relating to others, and seeing the world are being reshaped and refashioned after Western ways (internal colonialism or colonisation of the mind – Tuck and Yang 2012; Fanon 1963), and where resources (land, people, ideas etc.) are extracted to benefit those in power.

Hence, I see development not as a ‘good’ thing, but as something to be questioned (which I have tried to explore and understand in previous writings). Development serves to entrench those already in power, exacerbating inequalities, does not make us (the general population) happier, and at the expense of our forests and biodiversity.

Singapore has lost 46% of her butterflies (Theng et al 2020), 22% of recorded plants (Kristensen et al 2020), and an overall loss of at least 28% of fish, bird and mammal species (Brook et al 2003). Since being colonised by the British in 1819, by 1990, more than 99% of our original forests have been lost (Corlett 1992). And even the remaining few areas of secondary forest are being lost to development and progress as we speak.

Read the rest of the Twitter thread here.

Needless to say, the loss of forests (albeit at a larger scale) contributes to climate change, while the localised effects are felt immediately quite noticeably – temperatures under forest canopy are lower than that in open space by 1.7˚C on average, up to a maximum of 4.1˚C cooler (De Frene et al 2019). Sure, we could (and should) push for more Environmental Impact Assessments before development starts, but that also has its issues. Rather than play the game on their rules, it’s time perhaps, to start questioning if we even need to play the game.

A future that is socially and environmentally just

I am quite well aware that at this point in time, any candidate questioning the need for economic growth and development would not get very far politically. After all, this is exactly what our education system and larger society conditioning was meant to achieve – to produce good workers for the economy so that growth can continue to be pursued.

– Spring, J. (2011) A New Paradigm for Teaching in (Ed. Rossatto) Teaching for Global Community: Overcoming Divide and Conquer Strategies of the Oppressor, p94.

But while we acknowledge the present political unfeasibility, it doesn’t mean that we should not discuss radical alternatives. What is the future that we, the people of the community, want to see and to build? Food sufficiency? Then why not have children learn more about growing food, and doing that in their school gardens? (Some schools have started these initiatives, and it supported by NParks) A caring community? Then we need to reduce incentives for competitive behaviour (humans are not inherently selfish and competitive, no matter what neoclassical economists and the political elite try and tell you).

At the end of the day, what is it that matters? I would think the answer should be a planet we can all live and thrive on. If the trend of temperatures exceeding 30˚C in Siberia when it should be closer to 0˚C continues, then this will not be achievable. ‘Progress’ caused and continues to contribute to climate change1; ‘progress’ for some will always be at the expense of others (which is how the political economic system of capitalism works). If we want social justice, equitable outcomes for all and not not just the few (be they Singaporean citizens or not), if we want climate and environmental justice, then we need a new system. One that doesn’t rely on more development, whether it’s in our country, or enacted in other places by our companies. Without social and environmental justice (which cannot and should not be seen as separate, really), we. have. no. future.

This ain’t the future I want. Cartoon from here.

1 There is no evidence of absolute decoupling between resource/energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, i.e. to reduce GHG emissions we will need to reduce resource/energy use (Haberl et al 2020). There is also little evidence of absolute decoupling between GDP and resource/energy use (Ward et al 2016), particularly when taking into account embodied resources, where material production or extraction takes place overseas and is externalised.

Thinking about biological diversity

As we journey in life, we keep changing and learning, pausing to reflect on how much we’ve internalised only at the end of every year, if that. With the entry of Facebook and the publishing of our lives on the platform, I find that I’m prompted to think and reflect on these changes more often, with every ‘memory’ I shared on the platform from years ago. This day 8 years ago, Facebook reminds me, I was helping to organise the inaugural Festival of Biodiversity in Singapore, prompted by a photo of an excited, younger me and Siva, my mentor.

The International Day for Biological Diversity was last week (22 May), proclaimed by the UN “to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues”.

Image taken from: https://www.cbd.int/idb/2020

My relationship with the concept of biological diversity (‘biodiversity’) is quite central to my identity and what I think is (one of) my purpose in life, heavily influencing the decisions I make, and may be it will resonate with some.


City girl to biodiversity advocate

Similar to many others who grow up in a city (particularly a city-state), I was pretty much insulated and isolated from ‘nature’ as a kid, one of those who find it ‘icky’ to sit on the ground/dirt/earth, and rather squeamish about touching non-human creatures. I didn’t mind being outdoors, per se, but I didn’t have any profound interactions with nature as a child that made me think about our relationship with the planet we live on or the many other creatures we share it with. I was/am privileged in my majority Chinese, middle-class upbringing in Singapore, and the following was experienced from that position.

The ‘revelation’ came about in secondary school (13-16 yo), with a great biology teacher (Mr Lim, who wasn’t actually my biology teacher) introducing plants (a durian tree, while on a hike in MacRitchie, Central Catchment Nature Reserve), the interconnectedness of organisms, ecology, biodiversity, and all the cool facts about plants and animals. Thus I started exploring biodiversity and habitats (marine intertides, seagrasses, tropical forests…), reading up at the same time about biophilia (a hypothesis put forth by E.O. Wilson), nature deficit disorder (proposed by Richard Louv) and various other nature writings.

During this time in school, I did ecology-oriented research projects, organised field trips with other students, and volunteered on citizen science monitoring projects (Team Seagrass, Mega Marine Survey; I do miss the marine tropical intertidal areas, and all the wonderful people there…). Through these interactions, I realised these natural habitats and the biodiversity that live within are threatened by development (I still refuse to visit Universal Studios on Pulau Belakang Mati/Sentosa), and moved towards a space of raising awareness about our local biodiversity, their importance to urban residents, and generally educating about the value of nature/the outdoors.

The most visible of these efforts was helping to organise the Festival of Biodiversity when working at NParks during my gap year post A-levels. Following that, I did my undergraduate and master’s focusing on ecology and conservation, learning about the science and tools to protect natural habitats – protected areas, spatial planning, prioritisation, modelling, monitoring, reporting, evaluating effectiveness etc. I thought that my learning was more or less complete and I would just go into refining my understanding of these tools and issues, and trying to effect change in practice.


Towards decolonising biodiversity conservation

Over time (during/post-masters), I realised that the science wasn’t really delivering results (biodiversity is still rapidly declining, habitats still being lost at incredible rates etc.). People-centred conservation was important, since it is humans after all who effect changes, not what the science says or policies being written. I got interested in the human dimensions of conservation, coupled human and natural systems, socio-ecological systems etc., trying to understand human relationships to the land and biodiversity, and how conservation (as a field trying to make changes to the way people live their lives) need to take these into account.

As I delved into these topics, I also started reading on different conservation narratives and paradigms, realising that conservationists are not a homogenous entity. In what we want to achieve, I think we are similar – we are all for giving ‘nature’ breathing space and reducing ‘human’ pressures on the environment/planet, broadly speaking. How to achieve that, is where most of the differences lie. And so I was drawn into conversations and discussions about conservation philosophy, ecocentrism vs anthrocentrism, role of (neoliberal) capitalism etc, drawing on the Future of Conservation.

The point on this journey that I’m at right now, is realising that conservation is very much a colonial concept, and as practised now, is very much neo-colonialism in action (such as this). Biological diversity, as a western scientific concept, is but one way of viewing the abundance of life on earth. It is useful, but when we use the term biodiversity, we often preclude humans in the mix. But diversity of humans, and our diverse cultures and ways of seeing and understanding the world, is critically important to conservation. (Western/European) Colonisation has made us view people and nature as separate (amongst many other ills, like racial supremacy), but in many other (typically Indigenous) cultures, the interconnectness or wholeness of the system is emphasised.

Reading Conservation Revolution by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher has been refreshing, for bringing these ideas together and helping me understand the various links between economic development/growth/capitalism, conservation, and colonialism, and seeing solutions beyond more protected areas and marketisation/commodification of nature. I’m still very much in the process of learning about decolonisation (Decolonisation is not a metaphor by Tuck and Yang is a great read; also check out this The Conversation article on Decolonise Science: time to end another imperial era) and trying to understand it in the context of conservation and in Singapore. So goes on my journey and relationship with biodiversity, and I really hope to find again, that eager, excited younger self who was full of hope for positive change.

Learning to use HPC clusters, R Markdown & GitHub pages

I had just spent the last 3 weeks or so trying to figure out how to use R on the university’s HPC clusters, and thought it would be helpful to produce a guide to help other beginners as well. I wrote it using R Markdown, since I thought I might as well learn how to write in R Markdown better at the same time.

To turn it from a R Markdown (rmd) file to something others can see, I had several options, as pdf or as html. I could convert it to a pdf, and either share it with the lab or put it up somewhere online. The conversion to pdf produced problems with image placement (the images would be placed somewhere else from where I wanted them to be, so that things would fit nicely on the pages). I didn’t want to learn the hack (incorporating some LaTeX formatting etc.) so I thought I could just leave it as a local html which opens on my browser and then use ‘Save as PDF’ to turn it to a pdf. That removed some formatting and didn’t look very nice either.

I found out I could use the RWordpress package to publish the html file rendered to my WordPress site, which I tried (and actually published briefly for about 20 hours before I took it down from this site). Apart from broken image links which I had to fix manually by uploading my images to the media gallery here, it worked quite alright. The formatting wasn’t as nice perhaps, especially the bits with the code, but it worked.

Then I thought about it a bit more and decided perhaps I should learn how to publish it on my GitHub, because then it’ll be easier to make changes to the code and have the website all synced to changes. So I did! I’m quite pleased to have learned this now, it’s been quite fun writing in markdown language and mastering git a bit more. Here’s the guide if you’re interested. 

Yeast and yia yia

Do you think we’re mad …
when we say we spray down every package that
comes through the post;
that we wipe every pack of vegetables, cans of tomatoes and beans, bottles of milk, boxes of cereal;
wash our hands after touching the door knob;
all in a bid to hide
from an invisible 
virus.

This lockdown period has made it difficult for usual carers and relatives of my partner’s grandma (yia yia in Greek, pronounced ya ya) to help, so being the least vulnerable in the family, we’ve been spending weekends and some week nights helping how we can. Her being of a grand old age (>90 years old), we’re being ultra careful ourselves to not inadvertently catch and pass on anything. This extra alertness and care exerts a mental load, one that has now been normalised into the background. I look forward to not having to spray anti-bacterial (does it work for viruses though…) solutions on everything at some point in the future.

It is curious how we as humans exist in a world with so many creatures invisible to our naked eye, and celebrate some but vilify others. Our household has been having a go at making sourdough bread, keeping with the times. The starter seems to be thriving well, a concoction of yeast and beneficial bacteria. We’ve learned to harness their potential and ‘control’ them, and so find them less threatening. Yet should we seek to exterminate those that lie beyond our control, and may do us harm? To eliminate all harmful viruses and bacteria (as though that were possible in the first place), insects (like mosquitoes and flies) and whatever else that displeases us?

Struggles with getting the too-wet dough to shape. Many thanks and gratitude to my patient younger brother who dispenses bread-making and bread-saving advice across time zones.

Earth Day 2020

Earth day is meant to be a celebration of our living planet, the interconnectedness of human and non-human living and non-living beings on this shared space called Earth, and our collective responsibility to this living, breathing entity.

Planet Earth V2
The word for ‘earth’ in 250 of the world’s spoken languages, on a Pacific-centred, South-up and equal area projection, taken from the Decolonial Atlas. If the South-up orientation throws you off (as it does me a little), check out this article on why (modern) maps are north-oriented.

While Earth Day is ostensibly a day to display images of cool beasties we share the planet with, and of grand vistas of ‘nature’ and exhort the need to protect it, we also need to realise that the ecology we share also means human and ‘nature’ are not separate entities, nor are human actions necessarily all ‘bad’ for ‘nature’. Rather, industry, or actions that pursue profit for the few to the (social and environmental) detriment of the many are scourging the Earth. There are qualitative and quantitative differences.

On the bright side, the price of oil has fallen drastically. The conveniences of fossil fuels has been a boon to many of us in the Global North (being able to drive around to pick my grandma up for a nice meal somewhere, to fly somewhere exotic with ‘pristine nature’ to take photos, to order something online from halfway around the world for half the price it would be otherwise etc.), but the cost of extracting it is borne by others who are invisible to us, and borne by us all in a changing climate though some still bear higher costs than others.

We are at crossroads now to make decisions for our collective future (still the few deciding for the many), do we struggle for a fairer, more just world for all human and non-human, living and non-living beings, and have an Earth that is worth living on and for, or do we continue prioritising comforts for the few over the many while encouraging everyone to pursue these riches too?

Falling down the spiral funnel of a global pandemic

Ever since I understood how biodiversity loss, climate change, and social injustices are intertwined with the global capitalist political economy, I subscribed to the notion only a global catastrophe would halt (neoliberal capitalist) Business As Usual. I thought it would perhaps be mounting social and environmental injustices that would change BAU (but then Jeremy Corbyn lost UK elections and Bernie Sanders isn’t doing too well in the US ones and I lost hope), if not climate change (like the climate strikes, extinction rebellion and other civil society actions). A pandemic was not at the top of my mind, even when the outbreak began in China last Nov/Dec and spread to neighbouring countries, including Singapore.

In many ways, this pandemic feels like being a coin hurtling through a spiral funnel (I remember one quite distinctly from a primary school field trip to the Science Centre in Singapore). It starts off slow, rolling around the convex dish, but picks up pace and ends off in a mad spin at the bottom. The mood and public attitude has changed drastically in a short period of time here in the UK. Just a week ago, we would still go about our usual habits, eating out and meeting friends, though perhaps not shaking hands. Over the weekend though, it’s as though we ratcheted up several gears, and now trains and buses are nearly empty, universities have suspended face-to-face lectures and will likely be closing off access to physical buildings by the end of the week.

In times of crisis though, when status quo can no longer exist, we’re faced with stark choices. To let our worst nature show itself, become more selfish and look out only for our own interests (i.e. panic hoard, whether at an individual or country level); or to let our better nature take control, showing care and concern for those around us and acknowledging that it is only by working together and in solidarity with the most vulnerable that we will ride out crises.

I’m really hoping this would be the opportunity to reform the current political economy, for a better, more socially and environmentally just world. Not saying that this pandemic is a cause for celebration for the planet; there are certainly those out there saying how this viral spread has been good for the earth, with air and water pollution down, the appearance of dolphins in waterways etc. Framing environmental issues as Humans vs. Nature is a big part of the problem (and I’m reading The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher at the moment which very much discusses this issue – highly recommend! Also check out this article by Bill Adams on COVID-19 and conservation for a more thoughtful reflection).

I think it would be more helpful to see this as an illustration that BAU is not a great path to continue downwards, particularly since the suspension of BAU reveals deep cracks in the resilience of the economy. All the precariousness of gig economy jobs, zero-hour contracts, people surviving hand-to-mouth most of the time etc., the barebones of how many people live on the edge is revealed, and that’s certainly something that need not and should not continue, post-pandemic.

On the note of the pandemic stopping BAU though, and the silver lining of pollution levels dropping and some biodiversity re-appearing, I wonder how that balances against the increased use of single-use, disposable items, particularly for medical use, and possible increase in use of cars instead of public transport. I suppose if there is a complete lockdown on movement, all kinds of vehicular movement would likely be reduced, apart from goods transport.

Apart from the contrasting reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic of hoarders and carers, there are also those out there who are just exacerbating the situation unhelpfully, pointing fingers and playing the blame game. That it was China’s wildlife market that let loose this virus and China should be punished, or that it’s the barbaric practices of wildlife trade and consumption that led to this pandemic. While it is true that the virus likely jumped from an animal host to a human one and from there, began its global conquest, nobody (barring those who just wanna watch the world burn) would have wished it to happen and blaming doesn’t help. Wildlife consumption is a fairly normal thing throughout the history of humankind (and happens not just in Asia but also in European and North American contexts… of deer and rabbits etc.) and it is the hyper-connectedness of our present age that facilitated the spread…

In any case, while it may seem like it especially online, it is not the end of the world. Take care and do follow the necessary precautions of physical distancing, frequent hand-washing and keeping up of social connections up. In these uncertain times, we certainly don’t need the added mental stress of isolation and coping on our own. Thank goodness we managed to get the Internet up and running before we stumbled upon this crisis requiring physical distancing.

回忆

有时候,我想起往年
当年的友情,坦白的对话
轻松的玩笑,当时的现实
也许有些友情是永远的
也许友情本来就是短暂的
只知当年的友情挽不回了
也永远不会再感受到那种友情之幸福

Languages are strange. I’m not sure I’d consider myself bilingual, though I’ve heard Mandarin Chinese from birth and learned it in school up through age 17, reading, listening, speaking, writing the language at least a few times a week. I express myself primarily in English, and definitely think and dream in English (though I do simple multiplications in Mandarin… thanks to abacus classes and rote memory of times tables) . I barely write now, only the occasional short letters and cards to grandmothers. The last time I wrote substantially in Mandarin would have been a decade ago for my last exam, in 2009. It seems funny now to think of it; would I still be able to read what I wrote?

Yet emotions, nostalgia, relationships all seem better expressed in, or at least more associated with Mandarin, to me. Perhaps it’s the songs I listen to. In any case, I felt like writing in Mandarin; apologies to any native Mandarin speaker reading this if I wrote anything wrongly/badly and do leave a comment pointing it out!

English translation: Memories
Sometimes, I recall the past
Those years of friendship, frank conversations
Relaxed jokes, reality of that time
Maybe some friendships are meant to last forever
Maybe friendships were always meant to be ephemeral
All I know is that those past friendships cannot be regained
And will never again experience that happiness of friendships.

End of a formative decade

2019 comes to an end, and so ends another decade. Like any other, but also not; I think this decade particularly significant for those of my cohort. 2010, I finished my A levels, and went on my first overseas trip with friends – to Krabi, Thailand to climb. In the intervening decade, I have traveled much more and further, on my own, with friends, with family, and as a couple (and also realised that my travels need to be limited). I finished two degrees and embarked on a third, found a special person, and discovered a cause and a reason for hope, beyond the usual environmental despair. I feel as though the past decade was time spent searching, trying to understand life, purpose, and society, and stumbling, have seized on a vision. Realising that what I seek from life is communal, convivial, simple, self-limiting living, and that just working (even for a cause, for ‘charity’ or for a better environment) without questioning the systemic and structural inequalities would still result in a ‘mid-life crisis’. 

It’s the decade between being a child and being a contributing member of society, an in-between stage where I am allowed to explore and forge my path, a privilege I acknowledge that others may never get to enjoy. These ten years have been very formative, changing my outlook and perspective on many things in life (that many things/people cannot and should not be generalised and pigeon-holed, that there are different realities and perspectives different people have and hold depending on their circumstance, privilege, learning etc., and from accepting the dominant political-economic structure to questioning that and re-imagining what society could be). I sometimes feel I have shifted so much, that I am in-between, neither here nor there. Neither completely comfortable in Singapore (where my views and opinions seem more radical perhaps, making it hard to find common grounds to make friends), nor wholly relaxed in the UK (where I’m no longer a privileged majority, though I’ve since gotten better at blending in with my speech). I’ve had to learn new customs and norms, not just of British humours and slangs, but also that of my new family. I’ve really felt in-between different identities and cultural traditions, being a Teochew Chinese Catholic Singaporean and blending in with Palestinian Arab Muslim Greek Cypriot British cultures (and understanding all of the associated histories, nuances and grievances). 

What’s resulted is an explicit recognition of power, and how much it shapes our reality. Of the colonised and colonisers, in the Singaporean context, not just of the British as a coloniser, but also in some ways, of the Chinese in the Malay Peninsula, and also of the government in deciding that Mandarin Chinese will be the official mother tongue of all ethnic Chinese descendents. Seeing two sides simultaneously, and the power wrought by one over another. But not just that of racial, ethnic, or economic identities, but also of knowledge. Whose knowledge is legitimate and valued, and whose is less. I’ve been struggling to make positivist, applied ecological science gel with more normative social sciences, with my inherent preference for and ability to apply methods provided by large-scale remote-sensing data that seeks to prescribe what’s the ‘best’ thing to do without necessarily knowing local contexts, yet wanting to also engage with more nuanced, case-specific and practically-relevant but time-consuming methods. It is tiring to translate between two worlds, with their different world views and normative ontologies and epistomologies, particularly when one does not acknowledge the other. 

Yet perhaps this constant tension, of different views and cultures, and different powers (as long as one is not completely disempowered and marginalised) is just what life  is. It becomes a struggle to find an identity and fit into a box, to find comradeship and solidarity, flitting around but never fitting nicely. Yet it is not completely necessary to fit into a box, in order to live one’s life well. More in-betweens, rather than false dichotomies like introverts and extroverts, would probably more suit the diversity of peoples in society, with less pressure to conform and so keep the cogs of the machine turning. And so, the next decade will be spent pursuing a more pluralistic vision of what the ‘good life’ is, and trying to resist hegemonic societal economic pressures to conform and succumb to an individualistic neoliberal capitalist globalised world.

And a special mention to my 公公 (maternal grandfather) who passed away a few months ago at the grand old age of 96, whom I don’t recall speaking except saying “来公公 sayang” (come to grandfather to be doted on, vaguely translated) once to my cousin’s 2 year old son, but loves durians and oh ni (yam paste) and will always get up to have a little nibble. May your soul rest in peace.

We left a cap by the side table and he decided to wear it <3

Time for radical change

[Updated 16 Dec 2019 to correct what Kallis’ book Limits actually meant about limits]

I chanced upon this investigative article/docufilm The Source | The human cost hidden within a cup of coffee on Twitter, as with almost everything interesting to me these days. It is a very lengthy article (or you can watch it in 25 mins), revealing the farce of certification labels and the very real hard labour that go into the coffees that make their way into our hands and bellies. The investigation focused their attention on the child labour implicated within the Mexican Chiapas coffee supply chain; officially and legally, children below 15 years of age are not allowed to work. But the coffee berry pickers, mostly seasonal migrants from Guatemala, come with their children, for the alternative is to leave behind their children to starve. Neither can the children be left unattended while the adults leave to work in the day, and families could well do with the extra hands to increase their meagre income.

Here’s the film if watching is preferable to reading

Personally, I see little issue with children (aged 7ish and above) ‘working’; children have always lived where adults worked and from around that age, started picking up the skills and experience needed to later take on full responsibilities. In fact, is schooling not essentially preparing children to work in offices, training us to sit quietly at our desks, obeying instructions and commands from higher ups?

Still, work for children has to be age-appropriate, and I greatly concurred with the indignation and concern that was voiced in the investigation about the heavy sacks of picked coffee berries the children were carrying. Child labour aside, given that coffee generates more than $80 billion per year globally, and there was a 40% drop in the price of coffee on the world market in the past two years, surely the precarious and severely underpaid (~$4.50/day) position of the Guatemalan migrants would be a cause for investigation and alarm in itself. The investigation’s point was that though many large corporations now subscribe to ethical certification labels and claim to be slavery (or sometimes deforestation)-free and fair, these labels do a poor job of actually ensuring that farms comply with the certification requirements, hence though end-consumers may believe they are drinking an ethical cup of coffee, it is often far from the truth.

Not a week ago, I read another article The Coup in Bolivia Has Everything to Do With the Screen You’re Using to Read This (but for a better context of what’s happening in Bolivia, read this). It’s got a much more political slant than the coffee supply chain article, but to me, the point made was similar. That transnational corporations (mining lithium, in the case of Bolivia) have the biggest say in the lives of millions, usually vulnerable people in the Global South. Whether it’s economic profit over an intact environment, human livelihood and dignity, or even lives (non-human, Indigenous or otherwise dependent on the land), massive amounts of money is channeled to corporations headquartered in other, usually Global North countries. And states have little to no role to play in the matter, whether by force (economic or physical) or by choice (being part of the Global North of the Global South).

[Coincidentally, the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights happens to be going on at the moment in Geneva, Switzerland, with some attention paid to environmental defenders who have lost their lives (which is how I stumbled upon this event). Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have live-streaming or comprehensive live-tweeting covering their talks, which is a real shame. Hopefully there will be some media reports or popular articles coming out post-event.]

And so, what are we left with? More tinkering around the edges, certifications and labels to assure us end-consumers of the fairness of this globalised economic system? That we can have our cake and eat it all – coffees and smart devices for everyone who can afford to purchase them, fair wages to everyone along the supply chain, no environmental destruction and no lives lost (alongside profits for stakeholders and top earnings for CEOs of these corporations)?

It seemed so obvious to me once the point was made – we cannot have infinite things, infinite wants, infinite growth on a finite planet. I cannot understand why ‘plastics is bad’ has managed to get widespread attention but ‘we live on a finite planet’ has failed to receive similar coverage. Well actually, I can. Because one can tinker around the edges with plastics (make biodegradable ones, get bacteria to eat them, replace plastics with other resource-consuming products etc.), but facing up to the reality of the biophysical boundaries of our planets? That requires a whole system change.

I’ve just started reading Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care by Giorgos Kallis (whose article on Socialism Without Growth first got me aware and thinking about these issues about two years ago). It is time we imposed limits on ourselves (as we already do to live collectively in a society, but not holistically enough) and work towards a system that would be fair for all people (but especially the historically disenfranchised and marginalised), living and non-living entities that make up the wonder that is our planet. So vote, hopefully for the better, because it matters.

[Update on 16 Dec 2019] Having read a few more chapters of the book, I’ve realised that Kallis’ interpretation of limits is not that we should impose limits on ourselves because resources are finite. The concept of finite resources was actually meant to make us consume more (classical economics’ laws of demand and supply). Rather, by self-imposing limits, we can gain more freedom (like Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice ), provide space (physical and metaphorical) for others (human and non-human, living and non-living), and avoid the negative consequences. Importantly, by it being self-imposing (rather than ascribing limits to the environment, as in ‘planetary boundaries’), we have agency and take on the responsibility of the consequences.

The creeping darkness and chill.

The clock has gone forward; British Summer Time is no more. The days are shorter, the nights longer, and the chill starts to set in. The layers come out, and that one winter coat after months of hiding in storage. What also comes out, is the homesickness, craving the warmth and sun of tropical Singapore. Or perhaps, an undiagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The trigger would be Instagram, a double whammy for me. In the first instance, I hate the platform for its outward and obvious celebration of capitalism and its excesses, built on our very human nature of wanting to celebrate friends’ happiness and share good things. Yet it also fans egocentricisms and inferiority complexes, and highlights disparities and equalities by what does not appear. The second, stronger emotion of missing ‘home’ is accentuated by the Singapore-dominated feed – it was a way for me to keep updated of friends’ going-ons when I went off Facebook, and for some reason it was mainly Singaporeans. Perhaps Singaporeans have bought more into the Insta trend than others, or perhaps there was a sub-conscious bias of only following my fellow countryfolk. In any case, Instagram is Singapore-centric, while Facebook is filled with people met over the years all over the world.

The unsettled emotions are further compounded by being separated from loved ones and the general distress of not knowing what one’s PhD is about – a feeling I am told is quite common among first years (but not allowed to perpetuate beyond that!). A heady swirl of emotions.

The world all around is erupting into action. Protests and marches, against gross economic inequalities, corruption, false democracies, and all other humanly grievances. I’m not enough of a political analyst to consider if this is a second 1968, but the future would be terrifying to behold if the end result is further divisions, the pitting of people against people and nations against nations, and the hoarding of resources by those able.