Sunday, February 28, 2010

An observation of "the Master" [Confucius] on sustainability

Since Singapore purports to be a society guided by Confucian values, though young people with whom I speak mostly dismiss this idea, I have been studying the Analects as part of my cultural orientation. I took note of the following passage from my readings yesterday morning.

The Master [Confucius] said, "he who gives no thought to difficulties in the future is sure to be beset by worries much closer at hand."

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Surprising 'Mission Statement' of Singapore's Economic Development Board

Here is a note I wrote earlier today to colleagues in an international network concerned with sustainability and sustainable development.

As some know, I have been living and working in Singapore since the beginning of January. I see Singapore as interesting case study because, it precipitously faced problems of limits when it was forced to leave the Malaysian Federation and become independent in 1965. There can be no doubt that did rise to the challenges that limits, finite water and land, especially posed.

I do appreciate that many have reservations about Singapore as a model. I am still very much in a learning mode but am forming some preliminary thoughts in a paper I am preparing to submit for presentation at the upcoming System Dynamics Society meeting in Seoul.

In the course of my research I began investigating Singapore’s Economic Development Board, one of the key institutional architects of the country’s development successes. I found the Board’s mission statement, reproduced below, to be most interesting because of how closely the ‘core values’ resembled those of the instructional technologies/faculty development organization I helped build at American University. That they listed ‘care’ as the first core value I found particularly striking. Of course Enron and AIG have somewhat similar statements (I once checked the AIG web site shortly after its collapse), but Singaporeans take these things seriously, in my observation. Incidentally, if anyone is interested in short, tightly written book that views the Singapore experience favorably, I recommend one by my Lee Kuan Yew School colleague, Henri Ghesquiere entitled Singapore’s Success (Thompson Learning Asia 2007).

The EDB mission statement follows:



The Economic Development Board (EDB) is the lead government agency that plans and executes economic strategies that enhance Singapore’s position as a global hub for business, investment and talent.

Our vision

Create a compelling global hub for business, investment and talent.

Our mission

Create sustainable GDP growth for Singapore with good job and business opportunities for its people.

Our core values

Shared by one and all at EDB, these core values shape and guide the organisation in whatever it undertakes.


We care for each other, respect people as individuals, listen to understand, and seek to enrich the lives of those we work with.


We never compromise on integrity. To be honest, sincere and reliable is the way to earn trust and build long-term relationships.


We work together, inspire each other and celebrate success.


We need imagination, innovation and initiative to create a better future.


We dare to always do what is right, stand by our convictions, confront our shortcomings, be different when necessary, and lead.


We strive to be the best that we can be, using our talents and abilities to reach out and fulfill our potential.


We serve Singapore and our people, believing that what stirs the human spirit is to be able to go beyond the self to serve a higher cause and a greater purpose.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why Singapore is not so bicycle friendly

When I first arrived in Singapore, I began asking questions about getting a bicycle and riding to work. Most Lee Kuan Yew School colleagues with whom I spoke advised against it. They told me there were relatively few bicycle riders and that Singapore was a ‘bike-unfriendly place.’

As readers will know, I purchased a budget-priced portable bicycle last wednesday. I am now creeping up the learning curve vis a vis bicycle transport in Singapore. On Wednesday, I rode ‘round trip’ to work, each leg about 10 miles and rejected that as a regular practice. I arrived at the office too hot, sweaty and tired. On the trip home, in twilight, I was a bit casual about crossing against a red light and nearly experienced an unplanned transition to my next incarnation. On Thursday I took the shuttle in the morning and role home in the evening twilight. This worked well but I had an ignominious, painful (though not serious) fall. Singapore sidewalks often have sharp fall-off at the edges and, frequently, there are trenches. Focused concentration is required, especially when perched atop my somewhat wobbly portable bike with its sall wheels. My concentration can wander - there is so much to see and absorb in a new culture. Each time I do a fall provides sharp wake up call. Fortunately no disabling injuries...yet. Just a few bruises. Yesterday I rode nearly 20 miles and found a better route to work, with 1/3 of the journey on a walking/bike path along a drainage canal - and only one fall.

But I have learned something interesting about Singapore bike transport. There are lots of riders, though few ride the Metro/Bus friendly portables (I have seen only one other, so far). But the riders, especially on weekdays, are overwhelmingly poor people - I suspect that many are temporary immigrants with ‘workers permits.’ I assume - though I don’t know for sure - that they are riding for economic reasons, not to promote sustainability or improve their health.

Singapore’s government is responsive. The ‘lobbying’ that it took to allow portable bikes on metros and busses (by the owner of Singapore’s leading portable bike store) was miniscule by Washington standards, but few have yet taken advantage of the opportunity. Statistics compiled by Singapore’s Department of Land Transportation (responsible for busses, trains, and roads) report that only 11% of Singaporeans own automobiles. They are heavily taxed and one must have an ‘Entitlement Certificate to make a purchase. An automobile is at least as much a status symbol as a convenience. In European Cities and, so some degree in Washington DC, bike transport has become a status symbol. In Singapore, it is not.

Labels: ,

Singapore's Independence - viewed from a Sri Lankan vantage point

A friend wrote to me saying she had been reading about Singapore. She had a question about how Singapore became independencd. Here was my response.

Singapore actually gained its independence in 1965. The story is an interesting one. It was part of the Malaysian Federation. However in 1965 it appeared that the Chinese dominated People’s Action Party, lead by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (of Singapore) might gain a majority in the Malaysian Parliament by winning substantial numbers of Malay votes. The meant that Lee, whose ancestry was Chinese, would become Prime Minister of the entire federation. This was intolerable to the communally oriented Malay leaders (who were very much like their Sinhalese counterparts in Sri Lanka) and they essentially kicked Singapore out of the Federation. Too bad that it was not feasible for the Sinhalese communalists to employ the same strategy in Sri Lanka in 1965. That beautiful country could have been spared a lot of grief and heartache, which seems to be continuing.

Lee Kuan Yew’s massive autobiography (more than 1500 pp.) is a major reading project, but I know you are a serious reader and I found it a great way to understand Singapore from the perspective of one of the World’s remarkable leaders.

Labels: , ,

A reflection on U S Senate rules in a time of political disillusionment America

A friend wrote to me, expressing disillusionment about the state of US political discourse at the national level. Singapore provides an interesting vantage point for viewing one’s one society - which is by no means to say that everything about politics in Singapore is ‘good’ and everything above US politics is ‘bad.’ Personally, I do think that the degree to which members of Congress sell their souls for campaign contributions, despite being recently affirmed by the Supreme Court,is ‘bad.’ Here the response I wrote to my friend.

I follow the US news occasionally but it is a bit depressing at the moment. On a talk show to which I listen, The Diane Ream Show (available as a podcast - that’s the way I listen), there was a discussion of Senator Richard Shelby’s ‘hold’ on about 70 government appointments because of some budget dispute. The commentator observed: “you have to appreciate that these arcane Senate rules are established solely to benefit incumbent Senators. It it is a self perpetuating oligarchy.”

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Checking out the commute to work on my new protable bicycle

Not without a bit of trepidation, I purchased a portable bicycle, late this afternoon, and began exploring. Much to my surprise, Singapore, which is so advanced in many ways, is not particularly bike-friendly. Unlike Washington DC, with its aggressive WABA (Washington Area Bicyclists’ Association) lobby, Singapore’s Bicycle Society is very low key. In general, lobbying by civil society groups is a much more muted activity in Singapore than in Washington. However, encouraged by a new acquaintance of mine, who owns a store that sells portable bicycles, the government granted approval last March for portable (folding) bicycles to be carried on MRT trains and busses. Since this is Singapore, MRT Stations and some busses now have signs showing what is and is not allowed. A biking friend told me there are probably also fines for violating the rules, but I haven’t seen anything about fines. Singaporeans are good about the following rules, in general, and my impression is that fines rarely have to be levied.

Anyhow, I purchased a Taiwan-manufactured budget-priced portable bicycle at my neighborhood shopping mall, received instruction how to fold it up, added a bell, helmet and lock to my purchases and set out.

I have only seen one portable bike in Washington DC, where carrying full-sized ones on busses and trains is permitted. They are odd looking contraptions. There is a full-sized seat and seven speed derailleur gear, and a huge chain sprocket wheel attached to the pedals, but tiny wheels with fat, relatively low pressure (35 psi) tires and a small frame. Perched high above the road, riders make an odd picture. Balancing on this contraption takes a bit of practice, but after a few minor mishaps, I got the hang of it.

Since I plan to get most of my riding in commuting to work (against the advice of some friends, incidentally), I decided to check out the route. Using Google maps, which offers Singapore directions that seem about as good as the US ones, I had already printed out two alternative options and chose one. I had my trusty iPod GSM as a backup. Like the directions, this, too, was only moderately helpful.

There is one, among several, features of Singapore road signage that makes following directions a bit difficult for foreigners and that the designers of Google directions don’t yet fully grasp: roads may have two names simultaneously, one on one side and one on the other. Names seem to blend into one another a bit like hues of a rainbow. For example a major thoroughfare on my route was named Ulu Pandan Road traveling East towards my office, and Holland Road traveling west - but only on part of the road. This is also true of Bukit Timah Road and Dunearn Road where the Lee Kuan Yew School is located. You appreciate this, in the abstract, when being driven by a knowledgeable bus or taxi driver, but at a whole different level when trying to find your own way, somewhat vaguely worded Google directions in hand. I got lost a few times and missed one important turn entirely - but did find a useful secondary route and make connections between geographic points that I had previously visited.

The very good news is that bicycle commuting is definitely feasible and, now that I know the route, should take no more than 45 minutes. In fact I am going to try commuting both ways, leaving about 7:15 in the morning and returning home about 7:00 at night, to avoid the really hot weather. No doubt there will be challenges, not yet anticipated, to overcome, however I need the exercise and am up for new adventures.

Labels: , ,

"Tell me what you like about Singapore?"

A relative wrote yesterday seeking news of my stay, so far. “Tell me what you like about Singapore?" she asked. Here was my response:

When most Westerners think of Singapore, they think of shopping centers. but what attracted me was the way the government and people overcame great adversity at the time of independence to create a society in which there is almost no poverty or homelessness. I think the homelessness in Washington DC, especially the homelessness of children is a moral outrage. Did you know that in Singapore, more than 85 per-cent of the population live in public housing apatments (they call them HDB (Housing Development Board flats). which they own!

I like the public transit. A relatively small number of Singaporeans have cars though, still, there is a fair amount of car traffic. You can go anywhere where by bus and Metro or if you need them, by inexpensive government subsidized taxis. I like the 'Hawker's stands" where you can get a great Chinese, Malay or Indian meal for less than $3.00 (a bit more if you want to top it off with a Tiger Beer). I like the cleanliness, the greenery, the beautiful parks, the fact that Singapore gives more priority to public space that private space. I like the multiculturalism. I like the fact that Singaporeans are, for the most part, polite, helpful, courteous and they work hard. This winter, especially, I like the fact that it is warm. Tomorrow, I am going to buy a portable bicycle.

My love to all


Labels: , , ,

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Confucian guidelines for those revising American University's new Faculty Manual

American University’s faculty members and senior administrators - the Provost, Deans and their staffs - are presently engaged in an arduous and time consuming process of revising the The Faculty Manual. This is a set of rules that seek to govern the behavior of faculty members. The challenge of such an exercise is to produce a document with the longevity, clarity and resilience of the US Constitution, perhaps the best set of rules ever drafted. The danger is that the outcome will be a turgid, convoluted tome that more resembles the proposed US health care legislation or the Constitution of the State of California.

Singapore is a society many have described as having been shaped by Confucian principles and rules, though some now say Confucianism is dismissed by most Singaporeans as irrelevant. Seeking to judge for myself, I have been studying a compilation of Confucian teachings known as the Lun Yu, the Analects. Confucius‘ observations on the relationship been rules and principles, which I read earlier this morning, seemed relevant to the Faculty Manual drafting process. What follows is from D.C. Lau’s commentary on the Analects (Penguin Classics, 1979, p. 49-50). The passage is a bit long for a blog posting but, I think, worth the time it will take to read it.

...why should a rule which had been found right in the past be subjected to fresh scrutiny. ...First, a rule once formulated in precise terms cannot adapt itself to changing circumstances. What was right in a previous age need not continue to be right in a subsequent age. ...Second, circumstances may arise where one rule comes into conflict with another. Such a conflict can only be resolved by appealing to basic moral principle. Third, even with a rule which may be satisfactory in itself, there are occasions when the observance of it conflicts with the spirit behind the rule.

Equally important, principle cannot do with rules which give it effect. ...principles need to be put into effect, and any act that puts a moral principle into effect will, in fact, be an exemplification of some rule or other. Thus, while a rule can remain right only if it is constantly measured against the demands of principles, a principle cannot do without rules if it is to be put into effect. This dialogue between rule and principle constitutes the essence of Confucius’ morel thinking.

...All moral rules have implicit in them some principle or principles. A rule can thus always be judged by its success in realizing those principles. In other words, moral rules have built-in standards by which they can be judged. If they are found wanting, this points to the way of their improvement. On the other hand, the implicit principles are ideals which become clearer to us as they are used as standards to criticize the rules. We gain , greater insight into a moral principle by discovering the inadequacies of the rules that give it effect.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 05, 2010

Singapore Explorations - The East Coast

Even though there is enough work to fill both days of every weekend, I have decided that taking Saturday afternoons off for exploration is probably good for physical and mental health. The East Coast, along the route to Changi airport, was recommended by an acquaintance I met at the Kent Vale bus stop as a place I should include in my itinerary.

After braving Orchard Road mobs to run an errand I piled into a crowded bus heading for “Marine Parade Promenade.” After a few minutes I was able to get a seat. I was glad of this. Traffic was heavy so the trip was a long one. The only problem with Singapore’s ‘Go There’ bus-route directions that names of stops provided by the system and names printed on the roofs of the bus halt shelters rarely correspond. Thus, inexperienced users must constantly try to count stops and crane their necks, seeking identifiable landmarks.

On this trip, however, there was no problem since “Marine Parade Promenade” seemed to be almost every passenger’s destination. But the "Promenade" was very different than I anticipated - it was simply a long open air shopping mall, adjoining several Housing Development Board high rises, serving needs of the Common People. (I shall hereafter use this Confucian term to distinguish ordinary Singaporeans from high-end Orchard Road shoppers and, since I am living on a very modest budget, include myself among them.)

But where were the water-views that had been described to me? Walking towards the East, beyond the Promenade and public outdoor spaces of the housing complex, what I encountered was not a beach view, but a chain link fence. On the other side was an eight to ten lane highway, with traffic rushing and no apparent way to cross. It appeared that Singapore, like most seaside urban centers, had chosen to use its coastline for transportation, the amenities it could have provided for Common People be damned.

As I walked along the pedestrian path adjoining the chain link fence, however, a tunnel appeared. “Underpass to The Beach Front” was the message on an adjoining sign, pointing to the entrance. Since this is Singapore, there were also signs mandating good behavior and fines that would be imposed for violations ($1000 for bicycling in the passageway, for example). The long passage way was clean, brightly lighted, and filled with pedestrians of all ages, sizes and nationalities, walking to and fro.

When I emerged at the other end, I was amazed to find a many-meters-wide park, with no commercial development, adjoining an unsullied beach, with hundreds of families, couples and individuals enjoying this natural setting. The only improvements were a paved pathway for bicycling and skateboarding and another for walking. To the North - towards the airport - and the south towards the central city, the park stretched as far as the eye could see. In the ocean, a few miles offshore, there were as many ships anchored as I have every seen in once place - ships carrying the wealth and goods of a globalized economy to Singapore and providing tax revenues for Singapore’s government to support parklands such as one in which I was standing and other amenities for Common People that are all to rare in urban settings.

In the evening twilight I re-traversed the underpass, concluding my day with Roast Duck Noodles and Tiger Beer at a hawkers’ stand. Walking back through the Marine Parade Promenade I piled on a crowded bus for the long journey, by bus, MRT and bus back to my Kent Vale apartment. My slow progression up the learning curve regarding Singapore society, especially lives of Common People, continued.

Labels: , ,