Making Light of Things

July 2011 Archives

Made in Singapore

“Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.”

I first heard of Inch Chua a little more than a year ago. Inch. If anything, her name was intriguing. Her music, like herself, was easy to like. I was proud that she was Singapore’s first solo musician to perform at SXSW.

So when I read her Facebook note that she was leaving Singapore, my heart broke a little. Many things she wrote in that note were true.

It is true that for some obscure reason, Singaporeans look down on other Singaporeans. “Made in America” comes with the notion that the product is heavy-duty; “made in Japan”, quality; “made in the UK”, quaint. But when you talk about something that is “made in Singapore”, it is always the Singaporeans who’ll be first in line to pull it down. You’ll often hear things like “trying too hard to be [insert name of western country]” or “cannot make it”. Best of all, these criticisms are uttered by the ones who’ve never had the guts to even try.

I know, because I’m guilty of it.

When the iPod debuted, Singapore’s own Creative Labs stood at the forefront of the mp3 player market. I owned the Creative Nomad at that time, having bought it after enduring a very long line at one of Creative’s sales. When the second generation iPod made its way to the market, it became clear that Apple had become a very worthy contender to Creative’s dominance. Apple’s marketing muscle easily pushed Creative out of the way. The Mac fanboy in me chewed up the Singaporean in me, and I joined the throng mocking Sim Wong Hoo’s attempts to reenter the fray with product after product.

Now a little older, and having failed at making my own business a success, I have newfound respect for Sim Wong Hoo. It is easy in retrospect to say what could have been done better, but it would be foolish not to see what Creative Labs did for Singapore: it showed us that we, small island notwithstanding, could have an impact on the globe.

Sadly, that lesson has not been refreshed in our minds often enough. It is not that we have a dearth of successes, but rather, there is the ongoing perception that there is a “pathetic need of validation from elsewhere”. Singapore-made Tiger beer has a very strong advertising slant depicting more westernised origins. Even Razer, maker of the world’s best gaming peripherals, has a Singaporean founder, but continually brands itself as a Californian company.

Though my experience abroad is rather limited, I’ve not encountered people of other nationalities belittling Singapore’s successes. We are our own worst enemy.

We have become the embodiment of the quintessential Singaporean parent - never satisfied with his child’s performance, and always comparing his child to the neighbour’s / relative’s / friend’s perfect progeny. Many of us have grown up with this baggage and seem hell-bent on perpetuating this destructive practice. The harder it is to gain our approval and acceptance, the more self-important we feel.

But if we ever want to succeed, we must first give ourselves that chance. If we deny ourselves and our children even the possibility of success, nobody in the world can ever give it to us.

It’s time we grew up, Singapore. It’s time we stopped blaming somebody else, anybody else. It’s time we stopped blaming.

Look around and you’ll see that we have been given every manner of happiness by the sweat of our forebears. Maybe I’m naive to tell you we can now afford to go beyond basic survival, and that we ought to look closer and work harder on who we are, rather than what we have. It might be naive to take our eye off the ball - there probably is a very real danger that we lose the economic progress we’ve spent a generation building up; but I’d like to point out that there’s also a very real cost that comes with only keeping our eye on our treasure trove while failing to define our character.

As Inch alluded to, we need to broaden our definition of success. We hold on to the old belief that if our children should grow up to be anything other than doctors or lawyers, they have not obtained success. In recent years we might have added “banker” to the list, but it does little to change our society’s view that one is weighed by his or her income.

We have lost a lot of amazing people because we’ve held on to such a narrow definition of success. People who have fought for higher ideals, people who’ve wanted to devote more time to raising better children, people who’ve added to other people’s lives through art, poetry and yes, music. The best, and most important things in life cannot be quantified by something so base as money.

Because of our narrow perspective on what success is, we have lost so many chances to celebrate Singaporean lives.

There is a shift these days, and change is in the air, and the cynics among and within us might sneer at its ephemeral nature. But it is to this fleeting thought that we need to add resolve, so that we may hold our heads high to have shared our lives with each other, however long or brief a time it might be.


Is the world really a complex place, or have we made it one?

There is no doubt the world seems more complex than it used to be. While most of us techies revel in the possibilities new technologies bring, we hurtle ourselves at a speed that is too great for social-scientists to properly study the actual societal costs of change.

Like. +1. Badges. Level up.

Game theory isn’t a novel idea, though in recent years we have obsessed over it more than ever. The answer to “how do I make people work without realising they’re working?” continues to be elusive.

Make your users feel valued. Insert entertainment. Reduce the cost of interaction.

As a user-experience professional I know all these things because they are the psychological tools we use to keep our systems in play. But as a parent, I feel we might be evading a very fundamental law:

Some things are meant to be done because they are right, and these things might come at a personal cost.

I suppose one could gamify a crusade against poverty, tyranny, disease and war; badges for the number of orphans one supports through donations, made highly visible so active participants can proudly display their impact on the world. But doing so seems to cheapen the very basic tenets of doing good unto others, replacing it with a narcissistic, exhibitionist mechanism.

There are so many things in the world that could be made simpler. Cars needs only be looked upon as a mode (not a very environmentally-friendly one at that) of transport, not an indication of self-worth. A paycheck would dictate one’s ability to help the less fortunate, not one’s position and stature in life. Having children would be seen as a natural next step of life for married couples, not a means to increase a country’s GDP.

If we could, even for a moment, be able to separate the game from the reality of it all, imagine the world we could achieve, all the bullshit we could leave behind. Where life is lived for its sheer joy; work, service rendered for the betterment of others; and children, a perpetuating of all that is good and beautiful in the world.

We are as babes that have learned only to grasp, and not to let go. Unable to take hold of that which is fairer.


My dearest wife,

I wish I weren’t trying hard to shake off this dastardly flu bug on the day of our eighth wedding anniversary. Much as I wish we were sitting in a cafe in Paris overlooking a pink sunset, we are not. This night, like many others before it, was spent seated at the foot of our bed, me with a bowl of cornflakes in my hand. The only difference is that tonight I refrain from sharing the bowl with you for fear you catch the flu too.

The Parisian sunset, though a clichéd romantic notion, wouldn’t have added very much to that which we already have been blessed with. I have had eight of the most amazing years of my life being married to you. Sharing a life with you and not having to bid you goodbye while I head home ala courtship days is such a wonderful privilege.

I would love to explore the beauty of the world with you, but I know in my heart of hearts, the most beautiful parts are found in the little things, the moments that truly matter.

Happy anniversary. Even if the world stopped here, I would have had more joy than I ever deserved.

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