Monday, June 28, 2010

Viewing a sunset

Yesterday afternoon marked the end of four intense, exhausting days. I chose the opportunity of an important, but what could have been a fairly routine presentation to make a first breakthrough step in adapting Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics simulation model to Singapore and an Asian Context. This took more that fourteen hours of completely focused concentration - no interruptions allowed. It was good to know that I am still capable of that sort of modeling work. Then there was designing just the right Power Point slides - simple but elegant; to be viewed, not read; each with a simple, clear message, sparsely phrased.

When the event and the luncheon that followed were over, I had to acknowledge that I was completely drained. It was not the Buddhist state of ‘emptiness’ but my mind was a blank, resisting any new onslaughts of will power. I returned to my apartment, did a chore or two, sought inspiration by reading a few pages of Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography and collapsed.

I had planned an afternoon and evening of catching up on four days of neglected emails, but knew I was not up to the task. I decided on a walk through Clementi Park, adjoining the Kent Vale apartment complex, followed by a Hawker’s stand meal at the West Cost Marketplace.

Kent Vale is located on “Kent Ridge” one of the highest points on Singapore’s west side. The Park adjoins it on a hillside sloping down to the busy West Coast Road. On the other side of the road is a commercial area, Housing Development Board apartment flats, and further west, the West Coast Beach Park and a busy cargo container complex. Every scrap of land in Singapore is used for something.

Kent Vale is a ‘gated community’ with gates manned by security guards 24 hours each day. They work twelve hour shifts, six days a week. It is hard to see why this is needed in Singapore. Perhaps the university administration believes it makes the foreigners who are Kent Vale’s principal residents feel more secure. One of the gates, at the top of the hillside, is an exit from the community to the park.

Working as a security guard is boring. I remember this well from my days of military service - and I never stood twelve hour watches. You wait - and wait - and wait - for the time to pass. Sometimes you wish for a disturbance or emergency, just to break the monotony.

As I walked from my apartment to the gate, I had no agenda. One project was done and I had not even checked my short and long-term ‘to do’ lists to see what came next. I had space to view and enjoy a surpassingly beautiful sunset. The sun was partially hidden behind two layers of grey and white clouds. The sky was orange-red, shading towards blue-grey between the cloud formations more distant from the sun. The thought came to mind. If I were a security guard, I would be able to watch this transition from daylight-to twilight-to dark every day --- and I could write Haiku about it.

I had not thought about Haiku in years. But some years ago, during an interval between relationships following a divorce, I wrote six haiku a day for an entire year. There were nearly three thousand of them. All were lost during a transition between computers, but no matter. The point of writing them was not so they would be read by others.

My friend, Peter, one of the security guards was manning the gate. When there is not a lot of traffic we always talk and joke for a few minutes. Last evening we admired the sunset together and then I asked him if he knew anything about Haiku. When he said he did not, I explained and suggested he might write some to pass the time - like about the sunset. After a while, I continued, perhaps he could collect them in a book, sell the book and retire on the proceeds. We were joking of course, but I said I would give him some information about Haiku. Last night, I searched the web and printed a description of the genre, along with some examples from my favorite Haiku poet, Issa. I will drop them off on the way to work this morning.

I don’t know if Peter will start writing Haiku. I hope that he may. I would love to read what he writes. But as a result of the conversation, potential Haiku now keep popping into my head, like:

Viewing the sunset

A security guard’s job

Need not be boring

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Reflections on "love."

My mother, certainly the most influential woman in my life, was sparing in her praise. I believe that child-rearing practices in the 1940s, when I was being reared, emphasized discipline rather than affirmation. And the world “love” almost never crossed her lips - at least in my presence. Apart from literary allusions - she could be the most vibrant, engaging conversationalist I have ever met - I only heard her use the word twice in serious conversation. Once she told me she believed I was “in love” with someone. Since we had never discussed such matters, I was dumbfounded at her perceptiveness. It was true. On another occasion, when I told her that I “loved” a difficult close relative we had in common, who was facing a crisis in her life, she responded “I don’t know what that would mean.” I know others whose use of the term is equally infrequent. Perhaps they believe that their “love” is like a precious jewel that would lose its value if reproduced in large quantities or a non-interest drawing savings account that would run a deficit if too many withdrawals were made. My mother said as much about her view of the matter, when I once asked her about this.

Christian marriage vows include promises to “love and honor” however I am convinced that most individuals making such pledges have little appreciation of what they might mean. Certainly this is true in the case of first marriages but frequently in the case of second or subsequent marriages as well. For many, perhaps most, a more descriptive pledge would be, “I promise to love and honor you, as long as we both shall live, so long as you fulfill my expectations.” Why is this so?

My thinking on the topic of “love” has been enriched by a distinction - between “love” and “attachment” that the Dalai Lama emphasizes in several of his books. Being “in love” which is the initial basis for most intimate relationships and, I believe, most decisions to marry, is almost always based on “attachment.” Attachment is significantly tied to physical attraction, but also, typically, to shared interests, congeniality, shared cultural compatibility and perhaps a need to feel loved and to feel secure. For women, especially in traditional societies, a stable income source to provide for themselves and children has also been a consideration, though this less true today. Attachment often involves dependence, which stifles authentic communication. This complicates the possibility of lasting relationships and lasting “love” still further. When circumstances change, attachment fades. “You are not the woman - or man - I married” one or both ‘partners’ will say or feel. This, of course, is inevitably true - not only of marriages but of any long-term close relationships.

“Compassion” is a term the Dalai Lama sometimes equates with love. In one of his writings he offers a powerful illustration. He tells of a monk who spent seventeen years in “a Chinese Gulag” where periodic torture was part of the regimen. Later they became friends. “On several occasions,” the monk recounted, “I faced serious danger.” “What was the danger?” the Dalai Lama asked. “Being unable to love and show compassion toward my Chinese guards” was the response. Mahatma Ghandi, believed that God was love and that oppressors should be loved, though not their evil deeds. A similar message is found in many quoted sayings of Jesus, chronicled in the Gospels of the Christian Bible. I common theme in all of these equates love with unconditional acceptance.

Perhaps my favorite passage on love is from a friend of many years, the late Donella (Dana) Meadows. Dana wrote:

Love is receiving someone in a space of total trust, openness, good will, acceptance.

I can take each person I know and rank them on a scale which is the degree of openness and love with which I receive them – the amount of careful attention I am willing to give them, the ability I have to be with them. Notice that the quality lies in me, not them.

Some people in my world are objects, which I have a fixed concept about and am not at all open to any information to the contrary.

I can change who they are just by opening myself to them.

What Dana is saying, in a somewhat more personal way, is similar to the wisdom offered by the Dalai Lama, by Buddha, Jesus, by Gandhi, by the monk who was released after 17 years of imprisonment and many others. The world around us and those who inhabit it are, in large degree, an artifact that we create. Should we wish to live in a world that is mostly inhabited by lovable people, and have such a “reality” be the basis for loving relationships, we have that choice.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Protecting pedestrians from the rain in Singapore

Yesterday morning, there was a Monsoon-like rainfall in Singapore. There seems to be no Monsoon season here, as there is in Sri Lanka, but heavy downpours are frequent. Most often, they occur in the late afternoon and early evening.

It is more than a quarter mile from my apartment to the bus-halt. I carried my umbrella with me, but didn’t need it. There is a fully covered walkway protecting the entire pathway and street crossings. This is true in virtually all government administered housing estates, where more than 85% of Singaporeans live. Lee Kuan Yew writes in his autobiography that when he was Prime Minister, he decided that Singaporeans who live in public housing estates and ride public transit should be protected from the rain. The estates all included covered walkways. The practice has continued.

This seems like an obvious amenity, but I am aware of no other city among many in which I have traveled, worked and lived, that has adopted this practice. Some do have small bus-halt shelters, in contrast to the generous ones that Singapore provides.

There is one exception, but it is fictional. The American socialist philosopher Edward Bellamy, in his powerful book, Looking Backward, provides a futuristic description of Boston in the 21st century. (Looking Backward was published around 1900 as I recall.) In the Boston of Bellamy’s imagination, pedestrians, too, were protected from the rain by covered walkways. Bellamy’s narrator explains this to a “visitor” who has been transported to the futuristic Boston from his own time. He draws a metaphorical contrast between the individualistic values of society in 1900 and the evolved society of the 21st century in which concern for the well-being of all is an overarching value. In 1900, he observed, everyone protected himself or herself with an umbrella which dripped rain on others, especially those who could not afford umbrellas. In the 21st century umbrellas were replaced by covered walkways that protected everyone.

Singapore and Bellamy’s 21st century Boston differ in many respects. (For example in Bellamy’s city everyone earns equal income as a right) but they are similar in their valuing of public spaces. Also in Singapore, there are housing complexes that do not have covered walkways protecting pedestrians who chose to use public transit.

In fact, many of these complexes are not even close to public public transit - one must call a taxi or, more likely, own a car. These are the growing number of private “luxury apartments” that are springing up around the city to cater to the desires of a growing number of affluent Singaporeans. Advertisements for these complexes now clog the television channels. The occupants all appear to be beautiful male and female fashion models, in their late 30s or early 40s who drive expensive automobiles (one add features a Bentley) and live lives of leisure.

Presumably these individuals never walk to public transit stops, but I suppose that the maids, security guards, and gardeners and maintenance personnel whose work facilitates their lifestyles (or the lifestyles of the real people the models are impersonating) must do so. Hopefully the affluent residents at least supply these ‘common people’ (to use a Confucian term) with umbrellas.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Viewing a familiar space with “fresh eyes”

After living alone for several months, I have a housemate sharing my apartment. I will call him Majid. Majid is a young man in his twenties from Bangladesh. He completed his studies at the National University of Singapore a few months ago and then secured a Research Associate position at the Institute of Water Policy. Recently he learned that the apartment in which he had been living with four others would no longer be available. When attempts to find a lodging that he could afford proved fruitless, he sought assistance from the Institute of Water Policy’s Director. The Director knew that I was living alone in a spacious two bedroom, partially rent-subsidized, apartment and asked if I could help out. I was happy to do so.

One could not ask for a more accommodating housemate than Majid. He is proactively considerate, temperate and low-key. I knew he would accept whatever circumstances my apartment offered cheerfully. Yet as I contemplated his arrival I found that I was viewing my apartment with “fresh eyes.” My experience was analogous to the way we may view our houses before a dinner party. My mother used to say periodic entertaining is good because it provides motivation for a thorough house cleaning. When the Vice President for Campus Life is coming by my AU Anderson Hall apartment I look closely - and then vacuum the living room and kitchen; wash the bathroom floor; scrub the basin and toilet.

The day before Majid’s arrival, though I knew his standards would not be as exacting as the Vice President’s or my mother’s, I did the same sort of looking. There were spots of dirt on the white tile floors - I had not wet mopped for several days. The kitchen floor needed sweeping. Several waste containers were full. Some surfaces were cluttered. Succumbing to pressures of a workdays that begin in the early morning and end after 8 PM, I realized I had been too casual about daily cleaning and picking up. Entropy was encroaching. I postponed my trip to the office for two hours in order to vacuum, mop scrub and organize.

The experience reminded me that regularly viewing the circumstances of our daily lives with “fresh eyes,” whether those circumstances be our priorities, work life, living accommodations or especially relationships with other human beings, is always valuable. And we do not need the prospect of a guest in the house to do so.

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M two favorite 'Speaking of Faith' Podcasts

Though I think of myself as knowledgeable about multimedia and social networking, I have a new friend who knows much more. Among many accomplishments, she has been a TED (Technology, Education, Development) Conference fellow. I have already followed up - and gained inspiration from - several of her suggestions and have several more to explore. Among them are TED Ideas Worth Spreading, Oprah’s Soul Series Webcast and Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford Commencement Address.

Our exchanges lead me to think about reciprocating with podcasts that I had found particularly valuable. Here is what I wrote.

I know your uTube and podcast gifts were given with no expectation of reciprocity, however, in the same spirit, I wanted to reciprocate. Here are my two favorite Speaking of Faith podcasts among scores to which I have listened. “The Wisdom of Tenderness is an interview with Jean Varnier, the founder of L’Arche. L’Arche is a community centered around people with mental disabilities. His insights on humanity and the nature of love are what made this encounter special for me. “The Happiest Man in the World is an interview with Tibetan Buddhist Monk Mattheu Richard. Among many insights, his metaphor equating compassion with sunshine - the sun’s warmth is given independently of the recipient’s “worth” or “character” - is one that has particularly remained with me.

If you have favorites worth sharing, I hope you will follow my friend’s example. We can always use a bit more inspiration as we seek to chart our path through life and respond to its challenges.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The aging process - thoughts, questions and issues

A few days ago I was asked by a colleague to prepare notes for a briefing he was giving on “Key Issues for the Future of Asia with Regard to Aging.” Though - obviously - I am aging myself, I had never viewed aging as a subject of study. The project evoked a set of “thoughts, questions and issues” that I thought might be of interest.

  1. Aging issues need to be framed in the context of models that take into account population dynamics within a broad context – these suggest the range of options that are possible
  2. Cultural issues and cultural sensitivities are more relevant in this area than many others where planning is undertaken. Lee Kuan Yew’s attempts to shape the marriage decisions of Singaporeans, when Prime Minister, provide one illustration.
  3. Singapore becomes an important case study because the issues of reaching and sustaining an equilibrium population have surfaced earlier – also Singapore’s population is more accepting of planning initiatives and the skills available for implementing planning are greater. It is both “the canary in the coal mine” and a test bed for solutions in this as well as many other areas.
  4. Should lengthening life – as opposed to increasing the quality of life be a priority if tradeoffs are to be made. Is there an optimal length of life as there might be an optimal age structure? How should this be determined?
  5. When dealing with aging issues, how should the responsibilities of the individual, the nuclear family, the extended family and the state be balanced?
  6. How do marriage and child-rearing decisions enter into the age structure picture? Are there interventions that can alter these decisions?
  7. What does gerontology have to say about these issues? Should this be a research area? (The NUS Center for Gerontology Research?)
  8. How can programs to address aging bring generations together rather than segregating them? As a dorm resident I am particularly sensitive to the importance and value of this? Young people can benefit from the wisdom and experience that compassionate, elders who are willing to listen provide. The elderly can benefit from the energy, idealism and creativity of the young.
  9. Since changing attitudes both to marriage and child-raising, as well as aging are important, what role should and understanding of culture and spirituality play? These considerations can be included in System Dynamics Models?
  10. Members of aging population cohorts should be included in the discussion – has anyone asked Minister Mentor (Lee Kuan Yew) for his thoughts on this topic; including the discussion of research and research topics?

Friday, June 04, 2010

Making a difference in one student’s life

According to the Dalai Lama (see his book, How to Practice: A Guide to a Meaningful Life), Buddhist teachings can be summed up in two principles: (1) If possible, help others. (2) If that is not possible, do no harm. Among many professions that offer almost limitless opportunities to help others, being a professor is one. But the students who pass through our lives soon move on to the business of their lives. That is as it should be. If we have made a difference, we learn about it only rarely. This posting is about one of of those times.

The other day, I had lunch with a doctoral student in the University Co-Op. She told me about a professor who in two encounters, had taken time to impact her profoundly. “Have you told her about the difference she made in your life?” I asked. The student’s response was surprising. She blogs regularly and had described the encounter in a posting. Then she had sent her professor a link. How wonderful the professor must have felt when she read what this incredibly thoughtful student had written. What follows is the the text of her posting, with only some minor redacting so that it will not be possible to identify the professor or the student. The blog was entitled


Had an interesting meeting with an amazing woman today - Jessica Standish. Jessica is a visiting professor from Canada, spending one semester at our School. I was first introduced to her at one of our lectures where she gave a presentation on her research method, econometrics, and I was completely impressed, by her knowledge, her style and her dedication. A week or two later I sought her out and had an inspiring meeting with her. Then came the phase of assignments and exams and I lost touch, but would occasionally bump into her in School. After almost a month I met her again today and now feel sad that I should have sought her out more often as I do not know when I will see her again - I leave for Indonesia this Thursday and by the time I get back in August she would have completed her term here (hopefully to return next year).

Today we discussed the suitability of an activist like myself, in the field of academia. Recently I have had a lot of questions churning in my mind which I needed to air out and get some honest feedback. What is uncommon about this woman is that she is one of the most practical persons that I have come across, but who respects and honours idealism totally. And she is brutally honest, something that I personally respect in people.

Jessica said that this PhD for me is my Rite of Passage and I should focus on that aspect. She said that academic institutions pride themselves on being rational, but that is a misnomer. Each institution has its own set of values, norms and traditions, and there are upholders of these traditions who need to be acknowledged. She gave me practical tips on how to go about my PhD business, which I plan to adhere to in toto. What is fascinating about her, which I shared with her too, is that almost all the opinions she shares with me I take it as serious advice, while the same thing if something else had advised me I might have considered it as a perspective and dismissed it. I still do not understand how she gets to me :)

But I am thankful that our paths crossed and hope to meet her again in future too. She did say that if and when she comes back to this School, and gets involved with the PhD programme, she would like to be a part of my Research Committee. I do hope that day comes soon. I just have so much to learn from her!

Wikipedia: Rites of passage have three phases: separation, transition, and re-incorporation. In the first phase, people withdraw from their current status and prepare to move from one place or status to another. There is often a detachment or ‘cutting away’ from the former self in this phase. The transition (liminal) phase is the period between states, during which one has left one place or state but hasn't yet entered or joined the next; the person adjust to the new status. In the third phase, having completed the rite and assumed their 'new' identity, one re-enters society with one's new status, a re-incorporation.

A footnote from Dormgrandpop for students. When a professor - or in fact anyone - makes a positive difference in your life, tell them about it. Even better, post an acknowledgement in your blog and send them the link.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

My house is shabby but it is comfortable

A major contributor to Singapore’s remarkable development success story is a unique political economic philosophy that combines aggressive state planning for the long-term with free market capitalism. Singapore’s Prime Minister of many years, Lee Kuan Yew and its Finance Minister, Goh Keng Swee (who recently passed away) were among the most influential architects and implementers of this philosophy. Like some other aggressively planned societies, Singapore has essentially ended homelessness (a moral blight on America’s economic success story) and provided high quality health care and education for all its citizens. But Singapore’s leaders and its people struggle, as do leaders and peoples in all capitalist societies, with providing financial incentives for the most able citizens, while keeping the gap between rich and poor between within reasonable bounds - and even deciding what is reasonable.

I have wanted to write about this visible dilemma that Singapore faces but puzzled how to do so. I still know so little about this fascinating, engaging, sometimes paradoxical society. If years of studying and writing about Sri Lanka have taught me anything it is is that foreigners should not express facile generalizations about a society in which they are guests without several years - perhaps many years - of experience and study.

For me, however, the puzzle was solved when I encountered a moving essay on the subject by a highly respected Singaporean physician. It first appeared in a professional newsletter during the 2007 recession, to which it refers. Two years later it was reprinted in Singapore’s leading daily newspaper, The Straits Times. I encountered the essay in journalist Tom Plate’s new book, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, to which I introduced Dormgrandpop readers a few days ago. The essay is entitled “My House is shabby, but its comfortable.”

While I worry about the poorer Singaporeans who will be hit hard, perhaps the recession has come at an opportune time for many of us. It will give us the incentive to reconsider our priorities in life.

Decades of the good life have made us soft. The wealthy, but also the middle class in Singapore, have had it so good for so long, what they once considered luxuries, they now think of as necessities...

A mobile phone, for instance, is a statement about who you are, not just a piece of equipment for communication. The same attitude influences our choice of attire and accessories. I still find it hard to believe that there are people carrying handbags that cost more than thrice the monthly income of a bus driver and many more times that of the foreign worker laboring in the hot sun, risking his life to construct luxury condominiums he will never have a chance to live in. The media encourages and amplifies this ostentatious consumption.

My family is not poor, but we have been brought up to be frugal. My parents and I live in the same house that my paternal grandparents and their children moved into after World War II. It is a big house by today’s standards, but it is simple - in fact, almost to the point of being shabby. Those who see it for the first time are astonished that Minister Mentor LKY’s home is so humble, but it is a comfortable house, a home we have got used to. Though it does look shabby compared to the new mansions on our street, we are not bothered by the comparison.

Most of the world and much of Singapore will lament the economic downturn. We have been told to tighten our belts. There will undoubtedly be suffering, which we must try our best to ameliorate. But I personally think the hard times will hold a timely lesson for many Singaporeans, especially those born after 1970 who have never lived through difficult times. No matter how poor you are in Singapore, the authorities and social groups do try to ensure you have shelter and food. Nobody starves in Singapore...

Being wealthy is not a sin. It cannot be in a capitalist market economy. Enjoying the fruits of one’s own labour, is one’s prerogative and I have no right to chastise those who choose to live luxuriously. But if one is blinded by materialism, there would be no end to wanting and hankering.

After the Ferrari, what next? An Aston Martin? After the Hermes Birkin handbag, what can one upgrade to? Neither an Aston Martin nor a Hermes Birkin can make us truly happy or contented. They are like dust, a fog obscuring the true meaning of life and can be blown away in the twinkling of an eye.

When the end approaches and we look back on our lives, will we regret the latest mobile phone or luxury car that we did not acquire? Or would we prefer to die at peace with ourselves, knowing that we have lived lives filled with love, friendship and goodwill, that we have helped some of our fellow voyagers along the way and that we have tried our best to leave this world a slightly better place than we found it.

We know what is the correct choice - and it is within our power to make that choice.... We should not follow the herd blindly.

The essay’s author is Dr. Lee Wei Ling, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s Daughter and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s sister.

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