Channel NewsAsia has graciously invited me for a live television interview on Monday, 3 November, at 8.50 am (GMT + 8) for its First Look Asia programme. We will be discussing trends in self-publishing. This is my maiden media interview, and I am really pleased and excited about it. Tune in if you can, and I will be following up on it with a blog post as soon as possible.
Education-centric website Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts kindly invited me to write a guest post for them. Here’s a short excerpt of the post:
Singaporean students have heard it all before. Go to school, study hard, get a good education, get a good job, settle down and start a family. It’s a tired refrain, repeated by well-meaning tutors, teachers, and school principals.
They mean well. Making a living wage, having a roof over one’s head and enjoying strong relationships are always desirable. But then what? This road offers no purpose in life, no formula to self-discovery, no way of contributing to humanity and no means of making meaning out of a complex existence. This meme treats students as bees churning out wealth and babies and little else.
Students are humans. They are not rats pursuing fragments of cheese in an endless labyrinth, nor are they the digits of capitalism’s invisible hand. While education should prepare students for gainful employment, the times are changing. Knowledge and skillsets in demand now may not be so tomorrow, and to live one’s life in the perpetual chase for grades and money is to exist solely for material comforts and to deny the full range of one’s inherent talents and strengths.
The purpose of teaching is not to create the next generation of workers. It must be to create the next generation of humans.
You can find the rest of the essay here.
The recent controversy over Focus on The Family Singapore’s sexuality education programme is leaving me conflicted. On one hand, I’m not enamoured of FoF’s material. I’ve had the distinct displeasure of sitting through one of their presentations, which attempted to portray viewing pornography as the first step to murder and violent crime. From what little I have seen of their material since, they are still pushing the agenda established by their overly Dominionist Christian leadership in the United States.
On the other hand, the feminist/liberal response to FoF also does not ring true to me. Agatha Tan, the originator of the controversy, claims that FoF promotes rape culture by teaching boys that no means yes. Rape culture, as I have debunked again and again, does not exist. Rape is neither normalised nor accepted in society, sexual assault is still treated as a horrendous crime, and rape is not commonplace. Further, this approach assumes that boys lack the intelligence to understand what nonsense looks like; that they are not held back by conscience, laws and the forces of the state; and that the only thing stopping men from becoming rapists is Right Thought and Right Education. Promulgated by self-proclaimed experts and other political dogmatists, of course.
A veritable flood of opinions is only confusing the issue. One commentator says that men are indeed visual creatures and women are more socially sensitive; another claims the study that shows the former is not legitimate and that any differences between sexes is simply a matter of generalisation. A woman thinks Tan is being childish because she recognises female behaviour as described in FoF’s material in herself; another woman thinks FoF is being insulting to all females. There is little space left for the truth, and even less for people to excavate it from the noise.
FoF’s material is based on dogma, but countering dogma with dogma still begets dogma. Likewise, FoF’s materials do portray stereotypes, but stereotypes have a grain of truth.
I have known men who are visually oriented and say exactly what is on their mind. I have known women who dress up their intent with fancy words and expect people to recognise that they want compliments without looking needy. I have known men so hungry for status and respect they tolerate no dissent. I have known women so concerned with status and being in line with their peers that they tolerate no one with differing views and hound such people incessantly .
I have also known quiet men who are touch-oriented. Women who speak exactly what is on their mind. Men who are truly unconcerned with social hierarchy. Women who can respect people with opposing views without agreeing with them.
Humanity is complex. Reducing people to absolute statements, either through well-known stereotypes or dogmatic pronouncements disguised as political correctness, blots out the identities and experiences of each and every human, greying out the multihued nature of humanity.
Everybody is different. But everybody is also human.
Principles, not dogma
There is great social good in teaching teenagers about sexuality and healthy relationships. However, public policy approach would by necessity require a one-size-fit-all solution, since attempting to administer such a program to every individual — indeed, every possible identity group — is going to be hideously expensive and time-consuming to administer relative to a universal approach. Conversely, private vendors are likely to provide advice tailored only to their target audience — meaning they are likely to push unwanted, unneeded or unnecessary advice to people outside that target audience. FoF is resounding evidence of this.
The solution to this lies in the roots of the problem: a public-private approach. The public sector — either through a formalised curriculum or contracting approved vendors — could teach a set of guidelines applicable to all people. People of specific identity groups — queer, Christian, female, etc. — can then seek out customised material specific to their needs from private players.
A public sector curriculum would by necessity be secular; age-appropriate; applicable to all people regardless of race, religion, culture or sexuality; based on empirical studies and good sense; and free from private interests. This points towards teaching principles to youths. These principles should include honest and open communications, integrity in behaviour, negotiating boundaries, keeping yourself safe while dating someone, respect and empathy. These are life skills everybody, regardless of biology or preferences, can learn and apply. Fortuitously, with the resources at hand it is also easier for the state to deliver such a broad program across Singapore (or, in fact, any state) than a single private player.
Private players would be able to supplement this approach with their own curriculum. For instance, an organisation may develop a program specifically for girls, another may want to conduct a workshop for QUILTBAG people, a third may focus on Muslims in particular, and so on. These organisations don’t need to be for-profit either; this could be NGOs, religious institutions, or volunteer groups. Neither do they have to be physical; I would expect these organisations to promote themselves and their material through Facebook, websites and elsewhere. With very rare exceptions I don’t see these private workshops being held in public schools — except, perhaps, as after-school activities, subject to approval and vetting. I think it’s going to be impossible for the government to regulate such curricula to the same degree of rigour as a universal curriculum, especially in niche areas where regulators have little to no practical experience. Perhaps a better approach would be to have a sanctioned body or bodies provide recommendations or seals of approval, indicating that certain organisations meet specific standards.
It’s time to take a step away from Focus on the Family. it is a symptom, not the disease. Instead of simply attempting to shout down the dogma of the day, the people and the state should start thinking about how to reform sexuality and relationship education to truly meet the needs of youths.
Reading this story on Quartz, I almost thought the writer, Pooja Makhijani, was talking about real issues. Issues like the greying population, the government’s ongoing attempts to leverage Big Data for its ends, the future of political expression in Singapore, a vulnerable economy dependent on maritime entrepôt trade and imports. Instead, the author spoke about lack of racial diversity in local literature, leading into Chinese privilege.
I would recommend Ms Makhijani hie herself to different libraries and bookstores and look more closely. If she cares for South Asian protagonists, she can look for A Candle or the Sun and Moonrise, Sunset by Gopal Baratham, as well as the Inspector Singh series by Shamini Flint. Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches and Isa Kamari’s One Earth capture stories from the Malay community, and Rex Shelley won fame for writing about Eurasians. Michael Chiang’s Army Daze has a multiracial cast of characters, while The Steampowered Globe has characters from different races and nationalities, and Stella Kon’s Star Sapphire posits a future in which humanity becomes so racially intermingled that from a human perspective the only races of note are humans and other extraterrestrials. If Makhijani insists on children’s stories, she will find bountiful material in Singapore Children’s Favorite Stories, There was a Peranakan Woman Who Lived In a Shoe, and tales of the Singapore Bookworm Gang. And these are just the stories written in English.
Talking about ‘Chinese privilege’ in Singapore literature is clearly a non-starter. But let’s go deeper and explore racial representation — or, indeed, anything that falls under the popular liberal progressive use of ‘diversity’.
Take a society where people are judged by their deeds, not their skin colour. The content of their hearts, not the cultural baggage ascribed to their race. The willingness to work with other people in the present, not however much their long-dead ancestors have been oppressed or have oppressed others. In this hypothetical society, the good will rise and the mediocre will sink. In such a society, race is merely an accident of birth — mostly irrelevant to day-to-day matters.
Now take another society where the worthiness of institutions, works of art, organisations and causes are judged by their commitment to racial diversity. One where the important thing is that alleged minorities are properly represented. Such a society would naturally prioritise ‘diversity’ over character. Such a society would, by nature, be racist.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says racism is:
Any action, practice, or belief that reflects the racial worldview—the ideology that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called “races,” that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural behavioral features, and that some “races” are innately superior to others.
The focus on Chinese privilege reflects the belief that there are separate and exclusive biological entities called ‘races’, of which ‘Chinese’ is one such race, that the Chinese race possesses inherent traits that elevate them above other races, and that this is undesirable. By tacking on the undesirability of ‘privilege’, it becomes socially acceptable to be racist.
By focusing on Chinese privilege, Makhijani is displaying her racism. By lamenting the lack of ‘brown faces’, she implies a believe that there is a race defined by brown skin coloration with innate traits distinct from other people, which means she is a racist. By judging a country by its racial makeup, and its body of literature by the skin colour of protagonists, she has demonstrated herself as a racist.
As shown above, racism is not simply about treating a race better than or equal to other races. It is about believing that race itself has a kind of value and judging people and organisations on that basis. That Makhijani’s racism happens to fall under the subcategory of reverse racism — one that is aimed against an allegedly superior race — makes her no less a racist than someone who sings the praises of or criticises people of a specific race. Instead of talking of specific achievements, actions, standards, anything that can be held up to standards, Makhijani is choosing the easy approach, judging people by the colour of their skin and not their actions.
As a writer, the word ‘diversity’ has always stuck in my craw. ‘Diversity’, in my experience, is simply reverse racism or reverse bigotry. It means elevating works solely because their characters happen to be the oppressed minority of the day, that stories are predominantly about hammering home the politically correct message du jour, and that everything else from craft to plot to characterisation to world-building mean little to nothing at all. To celebrate the ‘diversity’ of innate unchangeable traits — gender, race, sexuality — is to praise superficiality and treat people as little more than products of their genes and history instead of living, breathing, people. What matters is diversity of experience. Of character. Of the choices and divergences that spin into seven billion life paths, that things that truly make every person an individual.
If you take a collection of straight Chinese male physicists and insert a transgender Malay female physicist, you’re still getting a bunch of physicists, with no indication that any one of them is able to think outside the standard model and uncover the data that will reconcile classical and quantum mechanics. Chances are good that all you are getting are people who think in similar ways, and indeed the liberals and progressives I have seen talk a good game about ‘diversity’ and seemingly march in lockstep, and descend on nonconformists and critics like harpies. True diversity is to insert a home-schooled savant, a Catholic priest, a New Age philosopher, someone whose choices and experiences lead them to view the world in a different light. It is this, the cross-fertilisation of fields and the ability to bring multiple seeming disparate areas of expertise together, that lead to creativity, industry and the progress of humanity. Diversity of experience, not diversity of race or gender or anything but that which is relevant.
In closing, as a writer, it would be remiss of me to mention my own stories. First, let me describe them by Ms Makhijani’s metrics:
In November, an independent publishing house will be publishing a short story I wrote, which features a female Caucasian and a male of indeterminate racial origin. American Sons stars a white-Hispanic protagonist. My upcoming novel Keepers of the Flame has another white-Hispanic protagonist, and other main characters include a Hispanic, a Japanese female, a black man, two Chinese males, a white man, and a non-human being. I have recently completed another short story, featuring a protagonist of Sanskrit descent, and if this works out other characters will include a representative range of human and non-human entities. Yet another story features a gender-indeterminate/currently-female protagonist collaborating with a Brazilian, a Caucasian, and an Arab. My Singaporean stories include two Chinese males, a Chinese woman, an Indian woman, and divine and infernal creatures from Abrahamic, Norse, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. After I complete the American Heirs series, the next flagship series will star humans, a svartalf, werewolves, a dragon and other creatures.
By these descriptions alone, I have hit just about every diversity marker of the day. But I have also told you absolutely nothing about the stories themselves — often, not even the titles. So let’s try again:
In November, an independent publishing house will be publishing a short story I wrote about a dogged journalist interviewing a shell-shocked soldier accused of war crimes in the middle of an undeclared conflict zone. American Sons tells the story of Master Sergeant Christopher Miller’s race to stop a terrorist organisation from destroying the Republic of Cascadia, the last bastion of civilisation in North America. Keepers of the Flame shows the conflict expanding across the continent, with the Republic of Cascadia trying to fight an emergent terrorist threat, a new American Empire marching to the west, and a nascent artificial intelligence rising from the chaos. Another short story features a rookie secret policeman who must choose between the laws he serves and his personal ethics, which will come to define his series, tentatively titled Apes and Angels. The other short story has a team of paramilitary agents/terrorists raiding a top-secret corporate lab to uncover an illegal neural and physiological modification experiment — only to find that things aren’t what they seem to be. If this works out, this will introduce a hard space opera series. My (abortive) Michael Chang series follows a young magician’s journey as he is called by the gods to do battle for humanity, and if I ever pick up the series again I have a template for future stories. And the next flagship series, working title Cybermancer, follows a small group of unlikely allies — a former magician-turned-cyborg private peace officer, a full-cyborg deputy marshal, a gifted craftswoman, former Special Operations personnel human and otherwise — as they try to hold back and reverse a collapse of civilisation wrought by the collision of globalisation, technology and magic.
Looking over the two portfolios would tell you which is more interesting, and why. And this is why I cannot subscribe to notions of diversity that goes no deeper than the skin.