Wednesday, September 29, 2004

First, We're Singaporeans


At this year's Olympic Games, China proved itself as a sporting nation.

It finished second in the medal tally with 32 gold medals, second only to the United States. This performance represented an improvement on its showing at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where it took home 28 gold medals and was ranked third.

Soon after the Games ended, I met a few Singaporeans who said: "As a Chinese, I am proud of China's performance!"

This remark took me back to 1994, when Indian beauties Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen won the titles of Miss World and Miss Universe, respectively.

At that time, I met a few Singaporeans who said: "As an Indian, I am proud of India's performance!"

More recently, at a dialogue session to gather feedback from the Indian community on the National Day Rally, some of my fellow Singaporeans said they felt left out because Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong neglected to address "our Indian community".

On these occasions, I held my tongue. Instead of asking them, I asked myself:

"Wait a minute, aren't WE Singaporeans?"

Wouldn't it be more apt to say — after almost 40 years as a sovereign nation — that as human beings, we are proud of China and India?

It is a leap for humankind as a whole when an underdog nation achieves something once thought impossible.

During my time in England, I met many Chinese intellectuals. As I speak some Mandarin, most of these people were rather candid in expressing their views to me.

They see the Chinese migrants who settled in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong as "outsiders" or "second-class citizens".

It appears that there is "one China", but some — namely, those born in China — are more equal than others.

At best, the Singaporean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese are regarded as catalysts for economic growth.

Likewise, the Indians that I have met share the same sentiment with regard to non-resident Indians.

But the Indian migrants are perhaps in a better position.

Under Article 8 of India's Constitution, any person whose parents or grandparents were born in India enjoys the right to be registered as an Indian citizen.

Unfortunately, such constitutional protection does not go far. Consider, for example, the resistance that Mrs Sonia Gandhi — an Indian citizen who was not born in India — faced when there was an opportunity for her to become India's prime minister.

Singaporeans who see themselves as Chinese or as Indian should take stock of such realities.

Last year, I met a Chinese businessman with substantial business interests in China. At the time, I found it a little bewildering that his partner was Indian.

I quizzed him about this. He replied, "We are Singaporeans. Our roots are here."

Three years ago, one of my neighbours challenged a friend who saw himself as Indian: "Why don't you spend three months in India? Then, come back and tell me you are Indian. There is a better chance that I'll believe you then."

Several months later, my friend left for India. After a mere four weeks, he returned and said: "Now I know why I am not Indian."

In attempting to instill national pride in the hearts of our countrymen, first we may wish to stop seeing ourselves as Chinese or Indians

Unless, of course, we wish to run back to where our predecessors ran away from!

We are Singaporeans, our roots are here.

Dharmendra Yadav

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Book Review: Thinking Allowed?


In reading Warren Fernandez's latest book, Thinking Allowed?, a reader has to keep in mind the wisdom of Salman Rushdie: "A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return."

At the end of 252 pages, the reader must appreciate that, like most books, what the author offers is a perspective; a perspective born out of spending a good part of his life in the Singapore he calls home; particularly his time as a journalist of The Straits Times (ST).

As the author rightly admits in his introduction, his essays are not academic theses. Thinking Allowed? is essentially an attempt to complement nine informally-written and brief essays, covering various aspects of the Singapore psyche, with 27 articles previously published in ST.

The reader should, thus, avoid falling into the trap of comparing this book to seminal commentaries such as Tim Huxley's Defending the Lion City: The Armed Forces of Singapore or Cherian George's The Air-Conditioned Nation.

Instead, the reader is encouraged to think about the themes or issues that are raised in the essays and articles.

A key advantage of Thinking Allowed? lies in the fact that the reader need not necessarily start from Page 1 of the book and end at Page 252.

One can read Thinking Allowed? in four ways:
1. Just read the nine essays;
2. Simply read the 27 articles;
3. Spend some time and read all nine essays and 27 articles; or
4. Be more choosy and randomly read the essays or articles that appeal.

Therefore, some thinking is allowed in how readers approach this book.

As a first read about the prevailing socio-political climate in Singapore, a reader may well find Thinking Allowed? refreshing, if not alternative. But it is also possible that the reader may come away with the impression that the author's perspective, albeit independent, is heavily influenced by the editorial slant of ST.

The many accolades on the book cover by present representatives of ST perhaps enhance the impression. As such, a reader of ST may well find the ground covered in Thinking Allowed? familiar territory.

One can therefore expect the thoughts on "politics, fear and change in Singapore" contained in Thinking Allowed? to play a constructive role in nation-building.

The author leaves no doubt about this when he writes: "This book is my humble attempt to help further the process of engaging Singaporeans in thinking about our collective future."

Nevertheless, a seasoned reader of the socio-political climate in Singapore will find Thinking Allowed? interesting in that it offers an "insider" perspective. This is to be expected since the author has been heavily involved in many public service committees and projects.

Thinking Allowed? is Warren Fernandez's version of Singapore. If, as a reader, you do not like it, ignore it. Alternatively, you can choose to be engaged and offer your own version in return.

After all, thinking is allowed, right?

Dharmendra Yadav

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Book Review: The Art Of Making A Difference


Every day that we live, we are MAD (Making A Difference). One of United Kingdom's leading personal development experts, Andy Gilbert, will tell you this in his book: "The Art of Making A Difference" (2001).

But let me first tell you a little bit about myself.

For two decades, I didn't think too highly of myself. I was a little person with a little mind "thinking little thoughts about the trivia that is the stock and trade of Mr and Mrs Mediocrity" - at least, according to Zig Ziglar in "See You At The Top" (1984).

As a result, I didn't expect a lot from my life.

In school, I was neither good in sports nor studies.

With an aggregate of 209, I only just made it into the Express stream in secondary school. With 17 points, I also just made it into St. Andrew's Junior College. I spent three years in college instead of the usual two. My dismal 'A'-Level results could not get me into any credible university, both locally and overseas. The diploma that I acquired later barely qualified me for law school at the University of Leicester, UK.

I did not take an active part in sports. I was what the Acting Minister for Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam recently labelled a "soft" student.

I completed my National Service as a mere footman performing a clerical function.

All this while, my loved ones encouraged me to read, read and read. They believed that the acquisition of knowledge opens windows to opportunities. So I visited the library frequently, shopped at bookstores regularly and read newspapers daily.

I guess my loved ones were inspired by the words of the great innovator, Walt Disney, who said, "There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island."

Similarly, John Milton, one of the greatest poets of the English language, has shared, "A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life."

To me, these words were pure rhetoric until the summer holidays of my first year in university when I read "The Art of Making A Difference".

Months before the holidays, by sheer accident, I had picked up the book in my university's students' union building. It reminded me of the Singapore 21 vision: "Together, We Make A Difference".

"The Art of Making A Difference" is the outcome of a 14-month research involving more than 3,000 people. Andy and his team at Go MAD Group wanted to know the answer to one basic question: "What is the natural process that a person uses to be successful?"

Each person involved in this research was invited to reflect about a difference he or she had made.

As a result, the research team discovered the 'DNA for Making A Difference'. The research team found that there were seven key things a person did consistently to be successful, whatever the measure of success. First, the person had strong reasons for making a difference. Then, the person defined the goal, planned priorities and effectively involved others. Crucially, the person also had positive self-belief and a high sense of personal responsibility. Above all, the person took action and measured results.

In "The Art of Making A Difference", the research team encourages readers to apply the findings of its research in their own lives. After reading the book, I applied it to a few projects I did.

One of the projects eventually led to my nomination as UK's Asian University Student of the Year. I did not get the award but the publicity that followed this nomination enabled to me to share my experience with others.

Later, I worked with the Go MAD Group for about two years. During this stint, I got first-hand knowledge about how some of the world's leading thinkers and companies applied the research. For example, a business unit at 3M used it to secure over 50% of the investment funding available to the whole of Europe.

I have also acquired the will and ability to help others make a difference. One vivid experience was when I helped a friend, who was just starting his business, to close key deals with a few national companies.

All in all, "The Art of Making A Difference" has made me a more confident and positive person. It has enabled me to make measurable differences in both my professional and personal life. For example, the book helped me to secure the job of corporate counsel at a top organisation in Singapore. A few years ago, I would have considered this a distant possibility.

I believe that "The Art of Making A Difference" can help you in the same manner as it has helped (and still helps) me. A dean at a local university, who read "The Art of Making A Difference", once shared with me, "If people apply even less than half of what is written in this book, it will still make a big difference!"

Nevertheless, I appreciate that the books we read uniquely affect us. There is clearly some wisdom in the words of one of my favourite authors, Salman Rushdie: "A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return."

You never know where a book can take you. The great scholar and historian Andrew Lang once said, "You can cover a great deal of country in books."

My parting advice is this: read, read and read! Indeed, it is a good way to pick up "The Art of Making A Difference".

Dharmendra Yadav