Dispatches: Driving in America

The past week was filled with loads of time driving across states, evacuating from William & Mary because of Hurricane Florence. I hitchhiked from Williamsburg to Fairfax and on to Washington D.C before heading to Maryland, and finally getting a ride back due to the kindness of a stranger (now acquaintance) from Germantown to Williamsburg. This meant spending a good half of the time getting lost in my own thoughts, which brought life to this little dispatch.

Driving was always a matter of getting from point-to-point for me, the means to an end. A journey, then, would mean nothing more than a process from getting place to place.

Since arriving in the States, I’ve never given much thought to the idea of driving (although I was pretty certain that I wanted to drive someday, and hopefully learn it here). Something about driving seems different here – at least as compared to how I’ve conceived it in contrast to what driving is in Asia: full of jams, a tireless process and in Singapore, an unnecessarily expensive one. Driving seems almost different here; it is a way of life, something more than a means to an end, an enjoyable part of the journey.

This made me rethink many things that I’ve come to take for the norm in Asia. We have highly walkable and concentrated urban centers; this is contrasted by a few urban centers in the US (from the likes of Chicago and D.C) and little suburban towns like Chevy Chase, and Germantown. We have easily walkable fast food stores and convenient stores, but this is most prevalent in city centers, otherwise a short drive away for most.

There seems to be a differing idea of ‘distance’ and ‘convenience’ here – distance is cross-country; convenience is perhaps a matter of a short 20-30 minutes drive away – something a lot of us in the city take for granted when we’ve amenities located around the corner.

The idea of ‘journeying’ here takes on a different paradigm – the car rides and driving are ‘part of the journey’; something that can be enjoyable (whether rocking out to music while cruising down the highway, enjoying the conversations or snacks on road trips) and not the chore I’ve usually seen it to be.

There is something about the ethos of the people here that seem to espouse this spirit of ‘journeying’ – which makes it seems that they’re fearless almost. Moving across states are like moving across countries for us, but they take it with a spirit of adventure; nothing like what we take it to be.

Driving across different states morph into different landscapes, but the people remain the same: friendly, sometimes curious; unamazed at the sheer distance between cities and towns and sometimes countries. Traveling to different states feel different, but yet feel somewhat similar.

Journeying is something I’ve always seen as a ‘process’, nothing more than a passage to a destination. But it can be important too.

Premise 1

The report by the Committee of the Future Economy (CFE) came out last Friday, and it’s been raging the headlines of The Straits Times and the Business Times ever since. There are more and more success stories and prospective ‘success’ stories that are being sold to us (Singaporeans), and I wonder if people ever wonder about the narrative being sold to us and the feasibility of CFE’s report.

Of course, there will always be the critics. But what is wrong?

Reading The Straits Times today, I chanced upon an article about how Singapore could help prospective SMEs travel into ASEAN. One budding entrepreneur suggested a ‘travel fund’ of sorts, to help fund business trips for growing SMEs to look and tap into business opportunities in ASEAN. At that point, I was thinking – really? – is this the state of which we need our government to interfere into our lives and businesses? Are we really that helpless?

Of course, we cannot discount the fact that he is right – a travel fund will indeed help SMEs look into growing opportunities in ASEAN, as well as give credence and help reveal the opportunities that Singapore can potentially tap on. But is this level of involvement really necessary, and is it warranted?

When we were looking into challenges of the future (about 2 years ago), productivity and innovation were words being thrown around (they’ve become buzzwords in the Singaporean dictionary almost). Flash forward to today – they’ve become apparent in the CFE’s strategy for maintaining growth, repeated over and over again – how the government will encourage investment in research and development, and how this will then lead to knock-on effects on productivity and innovation. The aim and objective of the CFE’s goals are clear – to make sure that Singapore sees sustained growth of 2-3% (ambitious, particularly for our advanced economy) and to ensure that Singapore is relevant in times to come. Relevant being – the adaptability of our workers, as well as the adaptability of our economy in dealing with both disruptive innovations as well as continuous innovation.

But is it that simple? 

Critics (this one here included) have said that the report is hardly conclusive, but it’s been the best bet (and guide) to ensuring sustained growth in Singapore – correct. But it is hardly constructive and helpful in establishing what productivity and innovation is, and what they mean.

It seems that governmentality in Singapore is an overtly surgical approach – what we can do, we fix it – and we craft policies such that we can achieve this. But it seems to be a mismatch of sorts – policies are like a sum of coherent actions but we seem to have misunderstood what both productivity and innovation mean.

Productivity is something that is hard to quantify – most often than not it is measured by the rate of output per unit of output. We’ve continually progressed in terms of education, and it can be said that we are continually getting better at the things we do. However, why do we have declining productivity rates?

Our standing as an advanced economy and our growth has been heavily reliant on the importation of foreign labour to make up for our lack of resources. Simple economics – the more input, the more output – but as we try to curb our love for foreign labour, we have declining productivity levels (not helpful). The government has aimed to curbed this by implementing incentives at the workplace to become productive (find new ways of doing things!) and strengthening support systems (ensuring workers get the right pay, workplace practices are safe and non-discriminatory). Only time will tell if this pays off. But is there something more sinister underlying this – why have we become almost dependent on the government (when we should be responsible for our own productivity levels?) We’ve always been prideful of our meritocracy – that no matter where we come from, we all have a chance to make it in life – and we often reap what we sow. If so, why have we become so desensitised to work productively? (forgive the equivocation)

The same thing goes with innovation – we’ve tried ways to incubate our own innovation, and there has been success at this. We stand as one of the most research-intensive countries (per capita) and this has paid off as our industries expand abroad. Innovation is a tricky thing – it can be borne out of adversity, or just a spark; it takes sensitivity to see a certain need and also people willing to fill those big shoes. Its been said that Singaporeans are often risk-adverse – we often take the safe way out (blame the old rhetoric our parents were told as kids – get a job, get security – that’s the most important). It’s not to say that it is entirely irrelevant – but as the government tries to change this rhetoric (ref: reformation of education system, abolishment of PSLE grades, encourage entrepreneurs) does it not risk turning against its own head (when it’s the one saying we need more engineers, and we socially engineer each population to fill the shoes of the recently deceased?). How are we going to fill those big shoes that we speak of if we’ve been brought up to believe the contrary; coupled with the fact that we’ve been entitled to a huge slew of governmental policies designed to (i) encourage saving (ii) discourage risk-taking, especially with social engineering of each population (iii) ensure that we’re taken care of till the coffin?

We seem to have forgotten what productivity and innovation mean – particularly when we try so actively to foster innovation and increase productivity. In developmental studies, economic growth does not necessarily equate with development. Numbers however, make most of us happy – when we see economic growth we mostly rejoice (and this is true, because the government has been extremely good at passing the fruits of our labour around – through cheap education, lucrative CPF saving plans, subsidies for HDBs – and they’ve made it accessible to the layman). But if we are simply cradled by the government (coupled with its overt governmentality), how will we ever learn how to be productive and innovative? – we will simply become a nation without a soul.

For a small country like Singapore, governmentality is extremely instrumental in ensuring the livelihood of both the people and the nation.  But have we lost the capacity to think for ourselves and more importantly act for ourselves, for our own good, and to believe that we can do it on our own merit?


Reflections on the White Album

The title the White Album comes from an album by the Beatles (1968) which is better known as the album The Beatles; it is also a title of a reflective essay by Joan Didion.

There is something intriguing about the White Album that fascinates me. It is considered one of the hallmarks of the Beatles, one of the most best-selling albums of all time, but it is marred with various controversies – it served as the fore marker for the separation of the Beatles, where you can see the deviations of their artistic vision (demonstrated through unequal layering of tracks and the conflicts they had during production). The album’s songs were written through extensive meditation, without the influence of any drugs, and I think that there is something about sobriety then – perhaps, something about realising the quality of one’s own voice (which counts as individualism? in relation to others) that caused them to separate in the end. With the Beatles as one of the more prominent symbols of the counterculture of the 1960s (which saw the rise of the modern hippie, as well as Bohemianism), maybe we could say that their breakup was inevitable. However, even though the counterculture fell apart, fragments of it remain in society today (whether we call it strands of individualism, inventions of ‘art’ cinema, or the likes of these).

I think that the reflective essay by Joan Didion captures this mood quite well (taken in excerpts).

We tell ourselves stories to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens.

We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

Her essay captures the mood of the 1960s, with all the turbulence, uncertainty and explosion of information that we experience too today, but she ends indicating that perhaps there is a way out of this paranoia and uncertainty. Perhaps there is.

Or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling.

During those five years I appeared, on a face of it, a competent enough member of some community or another, a signer of contracts and Air Travel cards, a citizen…

I often try to look for dimensions to the Cartesian plane, establish endogeneity between cause and consequence, stand in strong moral relativist positions, but this is a paradox in itself – to believe in Cartesian frameworks is to limit dimensions to thinking, to establish endogeneity is to think in terms of causes and consequences and standing in strong moral relativist positions makes it difficult without a moral compass (and I’ve attempted to turn to philosophy to, but ended up with more questions).

Que sera, sera.

I have more to learn.