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A round peg in a world of square holes...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

(Brownshirts) in lockstep

Updated 12 January 2007.

       A couple of months ago, stuck indoors enduring the haze, I came across this:

When you're in a town like this, all covered with smoke, you forget that there's a world outside. Nothing amazing happens here. And you get used to that, used to a world where everything is ordinary. Every day we spend here is like a whole lifetime of dying slowly.  (Furi Kuri.  Dir. Kazuya Tsurumaki.  Ginax, 2000.)

Why am I writing about this now, months later?

In an IM conversation with Elia Diodati, Troodon observed:

Life in Singapore is so different: I just realized I no longer am used to living in Singapore. People hate their jobs; people have no dreams, no goals. The biggest thing in their lives right now is to get married and buy a HDB flat.

Let me relate a recent visit to a local doctor specializing in sports medicine. Given the amount of cycling I do, it may come as a surprise to many that I have two torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL). I.e. one in each knee (Thank you, SAF). Explaining to the doctor the reason for my unhappiness over my reduced quality of life — cycling more than a century (100 miles / 160 km) results in pain — I was met with the following rebuff:

Why do you want to cycle more than 160 km for? Got nothing better to do, is it? Cycle one round round Singapore [125 km / 78 miles] more than enough already! Why you want to do so much for?

A visit to another specialist proved to be an even more disappointing experience: he thought a 20 km (12.5 miles) ride around East Coast Park sufficiently qualifies as a long ride. These doctors seem to possess the same attitude as the local teachers and educators: they dislike it when their charges question them. Life mirrors the classroom (or is it the other way round?). Just try questioning a public official or a figure of authority.

       Having returned from a place where centuries and mountain passes (a Sunday's mountain bike ride can easily clock 5000 ft / 1524 m of climbing) form the banter of cycling conversations, you can imagine how baffled I am by such a mentality. While people are training for "The Terrible Two," a double-century (200 miles / 320 km) with more than 17,000 feet (5182 m) of climbing, over there, I am to be content with the local version of the holy grail: a ride up Mount Faber (actually a tiny hill 348 ft / 106 m high), or South Buena Vista Road (I go through twenty times more turns from my apartment in Santa Clara to Santa Cruz, some of them hairpin, reducing radius, and off-camber curves). Mediocrity, thy fiefdom lieth here.

       Troodon goes on to say:

Being in Singapore in the last 2 weeks has confirmed my suspicion that quite a few Singaporeans love to not think for themselves. They like things as they are, [in their] huge reality distortion field.

To be fair, this is the predictable — unavoidable — end result of a populace, which, from cradle to grave, is told what to read; what to watch; what to say; when to say; where to say; how to think; what to think; who to date and marry (institutional eugenics of segregating non-graduates from graduates. I.e. the Social Development Service (SDS) from the Social Development Unit (SDU)); when to rut; how to rut (Section 377 of the Penal Code *undergoing partial repeal); when to use protection ("Stop at Two" campaign); when to do it bareback ("Have Three or More, if You Can Afford It" campaign); and, upon expiring, how long one remains buried before state mandated exhumation (15 years). A comment by oracle monkey echoes similar sentiments.

       As Fyodor Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor points out, freedom bears the heavy price of responsibility, conscience, and regret; or, "Anyone who can appease a man's conscience can take away his freedom." Without the possibilities afforded by choice, one is spared these burdens. After all, suffering and unhappiness are easier to bear when they are deemed unavoidable. In this Disneyland with the Death Penalty of shiny happy people, the adage, vita non est vivere sed valere vita est, cries in the desert alone.

       "Reality distortion field," this reminds me of a post by an expatriate's son: while in Singapore, he attended a local primary school. Each morning, when the pledge was recited at assembly, he kept silent. One day, his form teacher noticed this and demanded that he follow the actions of the rest. When he protested that he is not Singaporean, but a foreign citizen, she snapped, "Nevermind! Just follow what the rest are doing!"

       And these are the people who are tasked to teach creativity to the next generation of Singaporeans. That's akin to hiring a painter to fix a termite-infested house. Uniquely Singapore.

       In his book, Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get A Date, Robert X. Cringely points out that, most of the time, innovators come from those at the periphery of society, because they are exactly that — misfits, mavericks; and that the best thing society, and the rest of us, can do to foster their success is to simply stay out of their way.

       Prostrate at the altar of Mammon, the Singapore authorities are trying to play catch up by including "creativity classes" in its school curriculum. This, coupled with a chintzy exhibition on the lives and achievements of Nobel Prize winners, and the endless blaring of new catch phrases such as "entrepreneur," entrepreneurship," "creativity," "innovation," et cetera, pumped through the media, operate on the premise that creativity can be sown, grown — and harvested — like culture on a petri dish. Having someone who was educated under the old rigid system, hobbles around under (and is shackled by) the old rigid system, teach creativity is tantamount to employing a blind man to teach photography.

       The president of John Hopkins University, William R. Brody, opined:

Ditch the idea that patents and licenses are the only measure of success in the research world, and fund more basic research — even if it fails.

Urging Singapore to shift its approach towards research, Johns Hopkins University president William Brody said the Government should have a more open-minded view of the sector, beyond just dollars and cents.

"The thing is that Singapore always makes investments that are driven towards economic return," said Prof Brody, who is in town for the International Academic Advisory Panel meeting. "Much of the research that's funded is in the applied development, as opposed to basic research."

But unlike the former type of research, where outcomes can be achieved in, say, three years, basic research is a more uncertain game.

"Basic research is long term and (its success is) very much harder to measure. Much of basic research fails. If it's not failing, then you're not going to get groundbreaking discoveries," he said. Conducting such research is thus crucial as it trains talent in the process.

"Technology transfer is not about patents and licenses — it's about people," said Prof Brody.

Citing Sun Microsystems and Cisco as examples of highly-successful companies that have their roots in technology developed at Stanford University 15 years earlier, he said: "It was a project that had no apparent commercial value at the time, but it ultimately spawned two multi-billion-dollar companies."

Such a shift in approach would require the Government and Singaporeans to change their attitudes, he added. "It requires people being comfortable with failure, and investing in research without having a clear economic return." Patents and licenses, he felt, are poor indicators of performance.

(Hat tip: takchek)

Unfortunately, some quarters might find the task of encouraging JHU's president, Dr. Brody, to publicly recant his sentiments to be difficult, if not impossible.

       On the other side of the pond, UK's video game industry mogul, Ian Livingstone, has some brickbats of his own to toss:

Ian Livingstone, Eidos' supreme commander of worldwide product acquisitions, has criticised developers in Singapore.

[ . . . ]

Livingstone opined that Singapore lacked "the ability to think outside the box to create new intellectual property, new game-play and new characters". Then, just to add insult to injury, he bemoaned: "The tendency here [Singapore] is to make copies of previous games, rather than to think about what the world hasn't seen before or what new games haven't been done before. [There must be a] unique selling point that differentiates them [game developers] from everyone else.

       These tired hawkers of empty words and bankrupt phrases peddle the fool's dream that — to borrow my ex-housemate's scathing bon mot — if you flap your arms long and hard enough, you will fly to the moon. What worked for propaganda — i.e. brute force — may not, does not, work for creativity. One does not, cannot, instill creativity; one can only let it flourish — where it will.

       Meanwhile, the brain drain continues.

       Majulah kita sendiri.


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