Motivations and migrations.

It’s been two months since I passed through the immigration counters of Changi Airport in Singapore, with the intention of not being back in a while. I had hoped to write this then, but the travelling and learning I was embarking on at that point were distracting me from settling and distilling some coherent thoughts. I don’t quite want to label this departure as an emigration, as a leaving ‘for good’, mainly because I have very few concrete plans on where I intend to be, but everyone, everywhere, seem to demand concrete answers. Particularly at border control in other countries you are trying to enter. It’s strange how easily and widely accepted it is that one needs a passport to cross into another country, since hard national borders are relatively new (compared to the beginnings of civilisation), and the introduction of passports across the world even more recent (after WWI). Without losing my cultural roots and influences of my childhood upbringing, I’m increasingly preferring to move away from nationalism and unwarranted patriotism (nobody got to choose where they wanted to be born), reminding myself not to ask “where are you from?” as the first (or second) question upon meeting someone new.

This line of thinking has been slowly developing over the past year, as can be seen in my previous posts about business, being cynical over green-washed sustainability, and economic growth and the environment. My ideas and thoughts are still constantly changing, evolving and being shaped by the new information I’m absorbing – I haven’t quite felt so ‘transformed’ since a decade ago perhaps, when I ‘discovered’ ecology. Where I used to partake in taking scenic photographs and inspiring landscapes, and concomitantly upload it onto social media, I now find that I cannot bring myself to do the same (I still take photos, for keepsakes, but no longer or rarely upload them for public consumption) – because it adds to this systemic portrayal of what a ‘good life’ is, idealises travel to ‘remote’ and ‘untouched’ places, contributes to mental health issues and global demand for more travel (i.e. CO2 emissions) and the unintended negative side effects of increased tourism.

Similarly, I find that my idea of ‘norm’ has shifted away from most peoples’ ideas of ‘norm’, that I’m starting to question what’s usually taken for granted as accepted or the standard to pursue, like is it necessarily good to own a (usually urban) property? While this thread of thought still has its circles, I don’t want to end up too radical to be able to connect or converse with the crowd. Part of the reason for moving ‘abroad’ (from Singapore), was to be able to at least find some people who share similar views/thoughts, to have a community that holds the same values and vision. To not be forced to conform, through the physical and mental limits of the Singaporean system. In this sense, I know I am very privileged to be able to ‘escape’ and give myself the opportunity to live differently.

Since finishing my work contract with NTU, I’ve been taking the time to think, read, absorb and try to consolidate the new learning, which should culminate in a few posts in the near future. It’s been good, having this freedom to be, and also the freedom arising from lacking any plans (of where to be, of what to do). While usually construed as laziness or ‘being picky’ (about jobs) by some, it’s romanticised by others, usually from my generation. And I do want to avoid any romanticisation about having this freedom, because it does also comes along with uncertainty over the future and associated anxieties, the worries of having to sustain oneself in a monetised economy without an income (and being able to get into countries which usually prefer the wealthy), and most of all the fears of inertia. Being located in a region with green spaces and (free) things to do outdoors, it becomes very easy to go with the flow of just doing and occupying time, without being constructive.

There is much to do for now, yet also very little. I feel the urgency of having to internalise the paradigm shift that has occurred/is occurring within me, of having to chart a course for myself, of having to address the global human inequality and environmental devastation by tackling the economic growth imperative. Some part of me believes it is all too late, that we will suffer the consequences of inaction by our elders (heatwaves and droughts, wildfires and floods, vanishing wildlife and a polluted earth), and the continuing complicity of our generation through ignorance (whether systematically planned or not). But I suppose there’s no point giving it all up to the doom of human civilisation, and we can still, in many ways, reduce the damage we are wrecking, so the earth and nature has a better chance of pulling through.

Leaving Singapore, the tiny island nation city state that managed to succeed economically, I will miss the little patches of trees that persist (for now) amidst the high-rises, the warm (though not clear) seas, the hawker centres, and volunteering with the NGO transient workers count too. There is very little to be said about missing the land, when the cityscape changes so quickly and often – most cities are interchangeable, and have similar structures and lifestyles. But most of all, what I will miss the least, the reason for leaving really, is being part of a rather insular, economic-growth-oriented society. Yet who knows what the future of Singapore will hold; being rather pragmatic, perhaps one day things Singapore will truly be the living example of a society that thrives without wreaking environmental destruction (in other places), without suppressing people’s needs and freedoms, without pursuing economic growth at all costs.

Some honest reflections: Part two – Inequality, injustice, and escaping the System

I am no economist, nor do I really know very much or in great detail about the economics or the politics behind such issues. What I do know though, is that I have never been fully satisfied with the capitalistic lifestyle offered, and the more I learn about the world, the more outraged I get at the injustices that still exist. The world has always been an unequal place, I don’t know enough to say objectively that we’re better off or worse off than other times in history, but I somehow feel like we’re not that much better off, despite all the technological and social advances.

It seems almost juvenile to be raging over the age old problem of inequality.  “Mummy it’s not fair!” What ever happened to that child-like sense of justice and fairness that used to exist? Has social conditioning reduced us to accepting that life is never fair and we can’t do anything about it and let it be so? Or has the System succeeded in throwing endless distractions at us so we just keep our minds off things that truly matter? I use the word ‘System’ here because I know no better term to describe this world we (or I) live in. If I have to define it, I can only say I’m referring to governments, the capitalist system, corporations’ power, social norms, and everything else that defines or appears to define how we live.

The past few months, I’ve been suffused with journalism about the plight of the Rohingyas, educating myself about what’s happening between Palestine and Israel, following the Guardian’s feature series on The Defenders, and reading articles about land grabbing by governments and corporations, such as experienced by the Shuar people in Ecuador. Meanwhile, we just live our lives as usual, a little shaken occasionally perhaps, by bombings and attacks in the UK and USA, but still continually consuming.

I’ve become jaded with the way we’re told to live, with the way lives are led in Singapore, with capitalism, with how capitalism is really the master of all our lives. I’ve always hated shopping, though the stereotype constantly perpetuated about women is that women enjoy shopping. And now that I’m older and more aware, I realise I hate advertisements for telling me what I need when I really don’t need those things, I dislike shopping malls for being the face of capitalism (and because they get ridiculously crowded), and most of all, it infuriates me that these items are put on display with a price tag that reflects neither the true environmental nor social cost. (People get killed for protesting the opening of a mine, and many more suffer in the mines from which metals are extracted to produce our things.) But none of us will think twice about how the items were made, because hey look it’s on 50% discount, such a good deal!

We’ve been told from young, in Singapore, to study hard, to do well in school, so we can get a good degree and good jobs. True, yes we need to have some economic security to feed ourselves and look after ourselves. But ultimately, to what end? The endless chase for paper qualifications is still just about getting money and more money, and though success may be more broadly defined now than before, it still refers to something tangible, monetisable. Just being a good decent human being with morals and sound values is not valued.

I could go on a rant about Singapore, inequality in wages, prices, and how people buy too much. But the venting wouldn’t serve much purpose. We’ve been numbed and sedated. We spend our energies playing the game of trying to save a few dollars by paying with a certain credit card, or getting a discount with another card. But I am starting to think that this capitalist system doesn’t work, and we should all stop trying to play its game. I don’t know of any alternative that might work, but continuing to live the way we’ve been living merely serves to make the rich richer, give them power to marginalise the poor, and make the poor poorer.

We need systemic change, a cultural shift, a paradigm shift, an economic shift, because this current system has failed environmentally and socially. The rich and the powerful who want to get even richer are able to claim ownership of land and natural resources, extract whatever monetisable resources while trashing the environment, and leave the place polluted and unliveable for the poor people who had been living there and living off the environment agreeably the whole time. While on the other end of the chain, we the consumers who are far removed from such natural resources because we live in built-up cities, merely move money around the system and line the pockets of the rich by buying items made from those natural resources while the injustices to the environment and the people are left unaccounted for. And I know all that I’m saying isn’t new, but I guess it’s the first time I’m really feeling the pressure of the System to conform and to live as I’ve been told to live (since I’m no longer a student but a working adult), working as a cog in the System till I get so entrenched with my credit cards and insurance premiums that I cannot get out of it.

I thought I was just unhappy with the Singaporean system that makes me feel trapped, but I realise it’s the entire System which most of this world now runs on. I don’t know just yet what I could do, but I know I won’t be satisfied with just living as I’ve always lived and doing what I’ve always done, and just trying to minimise my impact on the earth by avoiding unsustainable products, while ultimately feeding the System.

Some honest reflections – Part one: This country

I’ve been facing internal struggles and spiraling depressive thoughts for a while, and while I’m a nobody and my thoughts and opinions count for little, it’s helpful for me to organise my thoughts and air them. Who knows, there may be others out there who feel the same. Perhaps it’s easiest for me to first pigeonhole myself, then to step outside stereotypes. I am, by all external measures and statistics, a middle-class (upper middle-class? what’s the dividing line?) millennial, born in a first world country where I’m the racial majority and have thus far lived most of my life according to how this country would like it to have been lived. I’ve studied (fairly hard, but I enjoy learning), done well (enough) in exams, gone to first-rate schools, and now have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cambridge and a master’s degree from Imperial College London. I travel widely, on a mix of some savings (minimal contribution), parents’ money, and grants, hiking, climbing mountains, volunteering for environmental/ecological projects or social/humanitarian objectives, visiting new cities and different cultures. I am a privileged minority, but within this group, I also feel like a minority.

But I’m not here to crow about a moral high ground, or claim to be better than others – in fact that’s a confounding problem that’s been plaguing me. I have been brought up – with influence both from my parents and from my schooling education – to acknowledge my privilege, and therefore the need to give back to society, to better ills, to make the world a better one, to contribute for good. And since graduating from my master’s and coming back to the society that brought me up, I’ve been constantly confused and upset with myself, with my lack of action on my perceived problems with this society, and with my desire to find a place I feel I fit better into. I feel like I should be doing something, but I am not, because I want to do something that makes the most difference (root than symptomatic), and I don’t know what I can do or what I should do, and general inertia in not really wanting to commit too much either. The first step is the hardest, as some say.

There are many things that I feel should not be in Singapore, many things I think can and should be changed (though I don’t know how), many things I see and hear and experience on a daily basis that makes me upset with this country and society. But all I do is gripe about them to my family and friends, grouse and wallow in a pool of self-constructed inability-to-act and dis-empowerment. More on this to come, but it would help me to first expunge my view of all that is not right in this society.

My main gripe is that it’s hard to feel like a human here. In a country that is largely built on capitalistic ideals and whose main selling points are economic success and continued economic growth, the human side of society is increasingly hard to see. Many people here seem to lack a soul. They seem to have forgotten themselves as people, as human, and that others around them are also human. I say this coming back to Singapore after 4.5 years abroad, seeing my country and the people within (because how can I say my people, when I cannot identify with them?) in a different light. Whether it’s due to the changes in the country during that period, or just because I’ve seen how things are in different places and how stifled we are in this country.

Although we constantly talk about society and family units are still perceived as the basic unit of society, many people here are rather individualistic and self-centred. Few think as a collective, as part of a larger society (I don’t just mean this country now, but also as a global citizen), or for the well-being of others. There appears to be a lack of empathy in the general populace towards everyone around there. Of course, there are little bright spots of hope, within the social or environmental (or other?) sectors, and once in a while, we come across heart-warming stories. But it’s still in the minority, not in the norms of our society, when I think it should be.

Examples of what I mean range from the activities we experience on a day-to-day basis – people being rude to others for standing in their way, or taking too long to do an action – to apathy and lack of awareness of others’ plights. Taking driving on Singapore roads to illustrate my point about the lack of collective thinking, we’re known for being rude and inconsiderate. Few people give way, most partake in very aggressive driving such as cutting in to another lane at fairly short notice, causing the driver to have to brake, and not signalling intentions. Instead of seeing the whole road system as a whole, with everyone using the road wisely to make the whole journey better for everyone, people see it as theirs, their right of way. Every empty space represents a possible spot to occupy, and they will do what it takes to overtake a few vehicles and get to their destination faster. Even without causing accidents, it makes other people’s days worse, having to put up with this behaviour.

We’re not exactly a country well-known for empathy. It always infuriates me to see someone asking/ordering the cleaner – usually an elderly who really should not be working, in my opinion – to clear the (hawker) table for them. I cannot understand why these people cannot do it on their own, it’s not as though there was sick all over the table, it’s just a few plates that either need to be placed at the return counter or in the bin. And in a country that’s increasingly xenophobic, we sure show it by our inhumane treatment of foreign workers.

That foreign workers (I mean people here on a work permit, not employment pass) are here to be exploited and treated as less than human is acceptable, if not by our active agreement with the statement, then by our passive shrugging of “what can we do, we need these jobs done”. God forbid we actually pay construction workers (let alone their just pay), because we’ll have to pay more for housing, and how are we to afford that? Never mind that these very people who work day (and sometimes night) in the heat of day and the drenching rains are in debt way over their head just because they want to give their families back home a better life with the S$550/month pay they earn here. It’s true, they know what they’re getting in to coming here as a construction worker – it is hard work. But they came thinking they’d be paid the amount that was stated, and put up with horribly cramped living conditions for that. (Read more on Transient Workers Count Too website about these issues).  And how is it acceptable that you keep your foreign domestic worker’s passport and give her maybe one day off per month? How would you feel if your child went abroad (in search of a better life or for greater financial returns), and was treated the way these domestic workers are treated? Because that lady living in your house, she’s someone’s child too.

And I guess if we can scarcely care about people living in our midst, then it’s harder to even contemplate the impact we have on the rest of the world. We’re not an uneducated population, yet we fail to educate ourselves on how our choices and actions have a wide-ranging impact outside this (very tiny) country. Almost everything we do has a (negative) impact somewhere else in the world. The cheap food we eat, the buffets we want, the clothes we wear, the houses we need. That the prawns you crave were probably the end product of mangrove destruction in Thailand and Vietnam, the fish that’s supposed to be the healthy and good option was probably the blood and sweat of enslaved Cambodians and Burmese who work 20-hour days at sea constantly in frigid conditions, the fashionable wear we can’t wait to get hold of during our constant sales the result of women and children working under slave-like conditions in overcrowded factories in India, and in matters perhaps outside the average Singaporean’s control, the land on which some of our houses and iconic buildings are built the reincarnation of a previously intact ecosystem upon which local communities depended on.

True, there might not be much one can do about all of these things – how can one live, bearing all that in mind? We need shelter too, and food, and a living. But perhaps if we are more aware of the impact we each have through the consumer choices we make, and try and live a bit better, collectively, there will be a difference made.

During the build up to National Day on 9 August, when we celebrated our nation’s independence, I continually questioned – what exactly are we celebrating? Perhaps by many measures and by many people we celebrate our success, as an independent nation, a small one lacking in natural resources that we could plunder for wealth. We have achieved economic success, going by our high national GDP per capita. We have an excellent education system, going by our high literacy rates, constant high rankings in math and sciences at school level, and universities ranked top 15th in the world. We have all that, and yet I look at people around me and feel we’re still lacking something, something more important and fundamental. We’re lacking a sense of humanity, lacking empathy, lacking social and environmental consciousness.

We’re a country that stereotypes, a country that is quick to jump to conclusions based on appearances, a country that prides its exclusivity. So much of our culture is built on a us vs. them rhetoric (think benignly of houses in school, halls in university, and more insidiously of races, economic classes, ‘elite’ schools), creating rivalry to build social cohesion but inadvertently creating individualistic and entitled people. We keep to people who are like us, and shy away from others who are different. And in doing that, fail to understand that we are all the same human beings despite outward differences. But it’s not this case all throughout Singapore, I know. I’m generalising and stereotyping myself, and there are many who interact with diverse peoples, and the human library project shows that we are trying. Yet when we have a National Day Rally – an annual address given by the Prime Minister “to address the nation on its key challenges and announce major policy changes” – and the main takeaways were 1) more/better preschools, 2) eat more brown rice & walk more to reduce diabetes, and 3) become a SMART nation, then I despair.

Then, separate from the grouses I have about this society, the structural things about Singapore that I find hard to adjust back to, but there is little one can do about it. 1) The sky that never darkens. I have difficulties sleeping, I cannot see stars, nor watch meteor showers. The last bits of nature that still feels untouched, uncontrolled by humans, yet can barely be enjoyed by the average person here. 2) The lack of wilderness, whether real or not (is there really anywhere on earth that can be considered wilderness?). To go somewhere with few humans in sight, except those who are also there to enjoy the beauty and peace of being real and human in nature. And 3) which is coupled with my second point, the lack of ability to just go somewhere, spontaneously, freely, without a need to book flights in advance. To be able to drive to a national park/nature reserve/wilderness area and camp a few nights gratis. Because here, land is never free, and freedom is never to be had, but merely perceived.

But this country is not all bad. I get a smile here and there, from bus drivers, cleaners, or other strangers on my path (usually people who don’t appear to be Singaporean, but I don’t want to give in to my stereotypes). At the petrol station once, the cashiers spoke to each other in Malay, though neither of them was of that ethnicity. And that makes me smile, and be glad I’m from here.

The security and the cleaner
Only greet each other
But sometimes I look and hope for a smile
Cos the human touch goes a mile
And I am human too.

Food as a common good

Always a hot and popular topic, we all consume food yet give it so little thought at the same time. What kind of food do you most commonly consume, where do you get it from, how was it procured, what were the lives of the animals/vegetables/people who grew your food like?

I attended a Green Drinks session on mapping the food sharing landscape by Monika Rut on 29 June 2017, a researcher based at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland who is working on a project about food sharing in cities (SHARECITY), with Singapore as her case study. The project is still in its preliminary research stages, and I felt the session served mainly as a platform for talking about food-related issues. As the organiser remarked, food is a great way to bring people together, not just because everyone eats and most Singaporeans consider eating to be their past time, but because you get the whole gamut of people interested in growing food (urban farms), making food (chefs), and sharing food/cutting food waste (sustainability). Personally, food is an easy entrance for me to talk about sustainability (and link to environmental conservation) to the average individual, who may not otherwise care about wildlife, or plastic in the oceans, or other natural resource exploitation. When I was doing my master’s at Imperial College London last year, we had to organise a symposium as part of our course requirements, and we chose the topic of sustainable food for the same reason.

A comment made by one of the audience, a chef who has had many years experience working in hotels, was that food should be perceived as a common good. And that was a novel thought to me, to frame food as a common good. Classic examples of common good would be freshwater and air, at least according to Wikipedia (my economics is slightly rusty). In our society, surrounded by commercialisation and capitalism, it is easy to see how common goods can be exploited by private firms and become non-sustainable — and we as consumers and citizens fail to consider the links between our actions and the inevitable end result. Why do so many Singaporeans waste food (average of 179 kg per person in 2014), or consume food unsustainably?

Part of the problem is a result of the culture we’re surrounded by. For all that we’re a ‘foodie nation’, eating out is a huge part of it. Compared to other nations well-known for their relationship with their food like Italy and Japan, where their people take pride in their knowledge of producing and cooking their food, we just want to know which restaurant/hawker stall sells the best *. While paying for food makes people realise the value/cost of producing it, on the flip side it also results in a sense of entitlement that they have the right to waste it. When that really shouldn’t be the case.

Constantly buying food also results in a disengagement with how the food was produced, or where it was procured from. I never thought about how fortunate I am, or how different it is to the way most others in Singapore might live. We’ve always had home-cooked meals, if not lunch then at the very least dinner. Especially since my younger brother started his baking and culinary science diploma, and my mom became semi-retired, we’ve increasingly prepared more (and more elaborate) meals at home, rather than eating out. Just today, three out of the five people living in my household spent hours/the whole day preparing food: baking bread, preparing tarts/pies, making traditional tapioca kuehs, and cooking shakshuka for lunch. What is perhaps usually a once/twice a year affair for most families is an almost daily occurrence for us.

How can we get more Singaporeans to care more about the food they’re consuming, the way they’re obtained and the sustainability of them? Ground-up movements like Love Food Cut Waste are a great start, but Singapore being Singapore, where government public education campaigns have proved time and again to be fairly effective, I am inclined to think that food waste numbers will only go down when our government agencies are fully on board.

What I’d like to see changed in Singapore’s current societal mindset

My brother has stage 2 lymphoma cancer. He is in the midst of his treatment and has lost all his hair, but apart from that, you probably couldn’t tell he’s a cancer patient. He has a few shitty days after chemo, but most of the time remains happy positive and occupied, like most others his age – or perhaps even more positive than most. 

He was recently selected to be amongst the pool of students that his teacher would choose a valedictorian from; he’s due to graduate from his diploma on 3 May. So he duly prepared his speech, attended the rehearsals, and it was finally down to him being either the valedictorian or the spare. 

Then he came back from school and told us that he wasn’t going to be the valedictorian, because the teacher thought his speech would be too depressing (as an opening for the graduation ceremony) and because the other person had more awards. 

Which is the point of this tirade really – not being sour about my brother being the spare, that’s his issue to deal with not mine to write about – but that in our society, it’s still not okay to openly talk about things like having cancer. Or mental illness, for that matter. And that ultimately, despite what the Singaporean government has dreamed up to get students to learn for the sake of learning, we are still a society focused on awards. 

Awards are good, or can be good. They acknowledge hard work and effort, excellence and commitment. But when we publicise and focus only on those who have achieved the most awards, it creates a gap. It causes other students to believe they will never be as good, because they never got this award, or that scholarship. And as most pedagogy goes, causing students to think their potential is limited is probably the worst you could do. Plenty of ‘successful’ men and women you see today probably weren’t students who won the most awards. Or scored the highest GCE ‘O’ or ‘A’ level score. Or Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) score for that matter. So why do we keep emphasising that, with headlines and pages in our national broadsheet The Straits Times dedicated to talking about these students every year? I think it would be interesting to see an article on the top scorers from the 80s/90s and what they’re doing now. 

Never mind the awards culture, a more insidious problem is that we just don’t talk about important issues enough, but non-issues too much. Just cos my brother has cancer doesn’t make him depressing, or sad. He wasn’t even going to say that he has cancer, he is doomed but you know ultimately every dies so don’t let fear tether you, go forth and do great things. He is positive and upbeat, and him mentioning his cancer was a way of starting his speech. For him to go up and not even mention having cancer is like ignoring the elephant in the room, which is actually a thing that we commonly do in Singapore society. But why should that be? Why can’t we talk openly about cancers and other terminal illnesses, or mental illnesses? Ignoring problems don’t make them go away, and by our reluctance to talk about them in a casual everyday context, we make it harder for people who are suffering to seek help and talk about them. And there are many who suffer in our midst, with afflictions that may not be visible to our eye (though I think the worst and most incurable affliction is our addiction to non-renewable resources). I think that teacher just lost a great opportunity to show how open and forward-looking that polytechnic is, and for it to be a chance for others to talk about issues like young people having cancer in a more positive and upbeat light. 

That I’ve come back after 4.5 years of being abroad, to a country that’s advanced much technologically, yet still retains its close-mindedness in the way people are valued and important issues are sidelined is something that I’m still trying to get used to. This issue might just be limited to the polytechnic my brother is attending, but I think that’s highly unlikely. Though to be honest, I think my vested interest and greatest loss is that my younger brother would have brought up issues of sustainable seafood and reducing food waste in his version of the valedictorian speech, which would have had a far greater and ranging impact than any ranting of mine on this platform which preaches to the choir could do.