The Thought Collective’s Diverse-city Trails: Little India Trail

Enjoyed The Thought Collective‘s Diverse-city Little India Trail. With such a groan-worthy pun, no prizes for guessing that there is a link Ben & Jerry’s, of the delicious ice-cream-with-corny-names fame.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeThe aim of these Trails (there are two others in this series – one in Toa Payoh and the other in Jalan Besar):

Thinkscape’s [Learning Experiences (LEs)] are designed to help people see current issues and institutions in a new light. We hope to help participants develop a sense of ownership over these issues, and propel them towards meaningful and much needed action. Thinkscape also aims to be a citizenship portal for young people. We encourage youths to explore and form opinions on issues critical to Singapore’s survival and success, maturing their own narratives and building harmony with our nation’s broader story.

The pedagogical approach appears to be one of curated social learning (if there’s such a thing! and vs. social constructivism) through the lens of narrative inquiry:

Thinkscape creates experiences that advocate new perspectives on industries, institutions and issues in Singapore. We believe that experience is a powerful means to bring conviction and reality to our learning.

Thinkscape’s Learning Experiences (LEs) take the form of trails and workshops, and are designed by The Thought Collective, which comprises of educators, social innovators and advisers from public agencies and civil society groups. Through building narratives for Singapore, we aspire towards transforming the social and emotional capital of our nation.

Having just returned to Singapore, I was keen to get to know certain areas again. Little India was one of the places I’d spent quite a bit of time in the past. Still, the trail was eye-opening.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeSome part of the trail (tour!) was an introduction to the Little India world through the lens of a Indian transient worker, usually working in the construction industry: here is where you’d go to get comfort food when you are off sick, here is where you watch your beloved cricket matches, etc.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Other bits helped us interrogate the architecture and use of space of the area – to understand the demographic and social changes that (may) have taken place in the last few years.

We were fortunate to meet the one of the few garland weavers left in Singapore. He had previously spoken to our trail leader of the frustration of not finding a worthy successor. The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Certain structures and signs (green fences, an open space converted into a car park, a row of shops, prohibition signs, and void deck obstacles were pointed out. They were put in place to discourage the congregation of foreign workers in those spaces, especially during the weekends, and to stop them from cycling through the void deck. The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

We peeked into some living spaces in pretty old terraces along Rowell Road, and then took a brisk walk through the red-lit back alley of Desker Road: The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Then there was the opportunity to talk to people in the Lembu Road open-space: The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

The pedagogical methodology of “experience and explore” rather than “educate” meant the trail leader’s commentary was somewhat ambiguous, though leaning slightly to the left. This seemed merely to reinforce the perceptions already in the minds of the participants (by sample size of people paying good money to walk around their own country, probably already laden with certain sympathies).

If I’d led the trail, I’d wanted to have been explicit about the concerns and cares of all stakeholders concerned in each case.

Assuming the first step to social cohesion is understanding the perspectives of a group you would not normally hear from or sympathise with, then airtime must be given to both the perceived victim (in this case, the migrant workers) and the perceived oppressor (usually, the rich, the ones in authority – the government or employers, the majority race):

  • not just to transient workers who may be lodged in overcrowded dormitories and have fallen foul of poor workplace practices, but to their employers who may have taken all measures to prevent such things from happening;
  • not just to foreign labourers with no place to congregate, but also to the old people living in the flats above who find themselves living their twilight years almost as if they themselves were in a foreign land, or think themselves in constant danger (a fear either baseless or based on experience) of being forcefully robbed and falling and hitting their head, etc.

I think we have all already been well-fed on the usual tropes of poor victimised migrant worker, and rich fat cat oppressive people in power. But the world is more complex than that, and there are more narratives (and not very straight-forward ones at that) from sinful people than we would like to listen to. Not all poor people are honest or un-opportunistic or non-manipulative; not all the rich got that way by stealing nor will they always fail to care for their workers. We need to be able to give all sides a fair hearing to be able to empathise, and seek real solutions. This is what justice looks like.

You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Exodus 23:2-3)

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. (Leviticus 19:15)

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeGot a bit fed-up with an Australian on the trail, who rolled out the usual “look at all the shiny condominiums and skyscrapers you have in Singapore, built by the blood of Indian workers. You don’t bother with proper safety regulations. And when they fall sick or have an accident, you send them home. You use and dispose them. Exploitation!”

When different groups spoke with various workers chillaxing in the square, they cheerfully assured us that not only were they cognisant of the necessary safety requirements (helmet, vest, ropes, belts, practices), they also knew the Ministry of Manpower guidelines for pay, overtime work, days of leave etc. And they were happy here. There was no work at home, so any sort of work in Singapore was a godsend.

And I recalled acquaintances in the real estate industry wringing their hands over how, much as they tried to implement safety practices on worksites, holding weekly nagging sessions, checking safety gear at the gate, implementing spot-checks, and even fines, terrible accidents still occurred. Some workers, convinced that this namby-pamby society was encumbering them with all sorts of unnecessary safety equipment took them off at every opportunity.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeIn addition to the need for multiple perspectives on certain social issues, I thought there was too much conflation of the purported aim of the trail. The trail leader kept asking what could be done to help transient workers to “integrate” and “assimiliate“. As a Malaysian Indian and I pointed out, (i) it takes two hands to clap; and (ii) transient workers aren’t interested in integrating or assimilating. They were here to earn money to pay off agent fees, then send the bulk back to family, and hopefully save enough to return home and raise their kids and start their own business. And this isn’t just the goal of transient workers but also more generally of the bulk of white-collar types like teachers, IT professionals, researchers.

Being clear about the aim helps us craft solutions more specifically. So while there is no need to help them to assimilate into Singapore society, there is alot that can be done to make them feel welcome in our country, just like you would a visitor to your home.

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Little Vietnam (Guillemard Road) and Immigration Policies

Had my pho fix on the way home from London, but we were quite happy to help F satiate her Vietnamese food craving at Little Vietnam Restaurant (facebook, 511 Guillemard Road, #01-25, Grandlink Square). Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

Possibly because the place was staffed by Vietnamese people, the pho, bun bo hue, bun xeo, and fried quail tasted exactly right.

What a pity if Singapore, like so many countries in Europe and in the rest of the “Western” world, were to close her borders to immigrants. We would lose more than good food from around the world.

Remember Philipp Rösler, the dynamic Vice-Chancellor of Germany a few years ago? He was born in Vietnam, adopted and raised in Germany, and identified as a German. Yet, his “Asian face” was raised as an issue, instead of his achievements as Health Minister and Federal Minister of Economics and Technology. Whether or not this was the reason why his party did badly at the polls, he resigned as chairman of the Free Democratic Party thereafter, and is now on the board of the World Economic Forum. If race had indeed been an issue, it would have been stupid of the Germans to deprive themselves of a good public servant just because of a problem with the colour of his skin, not with his intellect or leadership or integrity.

A few months ago, I commented to an Indonesian friend that the dislike of foreigners seemed quite rife in the Singapore society I’d returned to.

“Not dislike, she’d said,”outright hatred.”

“The government keeps bringing in foreign talent who take our jobs” goes the common refrain, not just in Singapore, but all around the world. But surely this xenophobia bodes especially badly for Singapore.

quail. Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

Taking a leaf again from Rawls and applying the presumption of good faith, I thought to examine Lee Kuan Yew’s past speeches to understand the rationale for our immigration policies, and not only that but how the need for talent for the survival of the nation impacts taxation and education policies:

  • the need for talented people to lead the country:

    From 23 years of experience in government, I have learned that one high-calibre mind in charge of a Ministry, or a Statutory Board, makes the difference between success and failure of a major project. A top mind, given a task, brings together a group of other able men, organizes them into a cohesive team, and away the project goes.

    That was the way Goh Keng Swee set about the Ministry of Finance in June 1959. He picked Hon Sui Sen as his principal lieutenant, Permanent Secretary (Ministry of Finance), and then in 1961 made him Chairman of the EDB. Hon Sui Sen collected an able team in the EDB and Singapore’s industrialization slowly and steadily gathered steam.

    Even in 1982, I find it difficult to imagine how we could have made the economic development of the last 23 years without the ability, the creativity, and the drive of these two able men. Whenever I had lesser men in charge, the average or slightly above-average, I have had to keep pushing and probing them, to review problems, to identify roadblocks, to suggest solutions, to come back and to discover that less than the best has been achieved.

  • the inability of Singapore to withstand potential harm brought about by mediocre leaders:

    Decline into mediocrity disastrous

    There may be those who believe that having sound men with modest minds in charge of the government will not make all that difference. Indeed, an anti-elitist ethos prevails in many Western countries, especially amongst New Left groups in Britain. They glorify mediocrity into a cult. They condemn excellence as elitism. They advocate wild programmes to dismantle their own institutions of excellence because the children of manual workers are under-represented in these institutions.

    There is a heavy price to pay if mediocrities and opportunities ever take control of the government of Singapore. And mediocrities and opportunities can accidentally take over if Singaporeans, in a fit of pique or a moment of madness, voted for the politics of opposition for the sake of opposition. Five years of such a government, probably a coalition, and Singapore will be down on her knees. What has taken decades to build up in social organization, in industry, banking commerce, tourism, will be dismantled and demolished in a few years. The World Bank has a queue of such broken-back countries waiting to be mended: Jamaica, Uganda, Ghana, Nicaragua, to name a few recent casualties seeking emergency World Bank aid. At least they have land for plantations or mines to dig from, or rivers to be dammed for hydro-power and irrigation. Singapore has only got its strategic location and the people who can maximize this location by organization, management, skills and, most important of all, brains. Once in disarray, it will not be possible to put it together again.

    Singapore, a small, barely established, nation, cannot afford to have anything less than her ablest and her best, to be in charge of the government. If we are to preserve what we have, and more, to build on the present, and achieve further heights, we cannot have mediocrities either as Ministers or Permanent Secretaries. Prompters and ghost-writers are a luxury for those who have large margins of safety due to their large size, great wealth, and considerable institutional strength.

  • the negative knock-on effects of having mediocre or bad leaders:

    Here we see a law similar to Gresham’s at work. Gresham pointed that bad money drives out good money from circulation. Well, bad leaders drive out good men from high positions. Idi Amin was a bad leader. He killed or drove out good Ugandans, ruining Uganda for decades. Solomon Bandaranaike was not an evil man like Amin. But he was a bad leader who brought race, language and religion into the centre of political debate. He ended up, intentionally or otherwise, by driving out good Ceylonese, and later Sri Lankans, from politics, whilst able administrators took jobs in UN agencies, leaving their own administration impoverished of talent. On the other hand, a good leader, in government or in large corporations, attracts and recruits top talent to reinforce his own capability to overcome problems. Hence the high quality of Germans in top position under Konrad Adenauer, and of top Frenchmen under Charles de Gaulle. Charles de Gaulle’s Cabinet included Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, both to become French Presidents.

Ok great, one might say, so where can we find this talent? What about within the Singapore population?

  • the lack of natural talent in Singapore due to its small population:

    What was the most important single factor for Singapore’s rapid development since 1959? Without hesitation, my answer is the quality of the people. For not only are our people hardworking, quick to learn and practical, Singapore also had an extra thick layer of high calibre and trained talent . In the protocol list of the first seven persons in Singapore, I am the only Singapore-born. The President, CV Devan Nair, the Chief of Justice, Wee Chong Jin, the Speaker, Yeoh Ghim Seng, the two Deputy Prime Ministers, Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam, and the Minister for Finance, Hon Sui Sen, were not born in Singapore. One Singapore-born out of the top seven Singaporeans! This is the size of the contribution from the non-Singapore-born. If we had relied solely upon the talent of our natural population pyramid, Singapore’s performance would not have been half as good.

  • well what about giving scholarships so that our best and brightest will, in return for university expenses being paid for, come back to contribute to society? Well, we know how that’s going – scholarship holders accuse the government of violating their rights and tricking them into bondage for a few years while they were still teenagers! They feel justified in breaking their bonds for better job offers elsewhere.
  • the lack of a wide range of talent even amongst remaining non-bond-breaking scholars:

    Let me spell out our talent problem. Most of our scholars went into medicine, the law and engineering, but none into banking or finance because they were professions that were not open to our bright students. Even now our banks want to reserve their top jobs for the sons of the families that control them. Moreover we draw our talent from only 3 million people. A short mountain range is unlikely to have peaks that can equal Mt Everest. You need a long mountain range like the Himalayas…

  • the lack of necessary leadership traits in remaining non-bond-breaking talented scholars:

    Alas, not all of these bright minds have strong characters, sound temperament, and high motivation to match their high intelligence. I have found, from studying PSC scholarship awards for the last 15 years, and reading confidential reports on their work in the public service and the SAF, that the scholars who also have the right character and personality, effectively works out to 1 in 3,000 persons. In the 1970’s, our annual births went down to 40,000. The numbers of talented and balanced Singaporeans will be between 12-14 persons per annum at one per 3,000.

bun bo hue. Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

That’s tough. How can we get this paltry number to stay in Singapore? Well, there are school programmes to instil love for the nation in schools but many teachers and students and parents dismiss them as mere propaganda, not realising that it’s not the PAP who will lose out but they themselves. And perhaps, also, it means we can’t assume that all theories of distributive justice and equality of opportunities are right in all circumstances and can be applied wholesale to the Singapore context:

  • preventing brain-drain by instilling patriotism and self-respect, and holding off punitive taxation:

    Now, we ourselves may be threatened by a brain-drain of Singapore-grown talent. These figures have serious implications for us. The figures for engineers and other professionals are less devastating only because they are less professionally mobile across national boundaries. Unless we are able to instill patriotism and self-respect, unless we succeed in inculcating a sense of commitment to fellow-Singaporeans in our talented youths, we can be creamed off. We shall become diluted like skimmed milk. We must ensure that because Singaporeans value their Asianness, they will not want to be tolerated and patronized as minorities in predominantly Caucasian societies. Therefore, any policy which denies trained talent its free-market rewards by punitive taxes, as in Britain, must lead to a brain-drain and to our inevitable decline. It is the chicken and egg cycle. As long as we are able and growing, our talented will stay and help our economic growth. Because they stay, we can offer them comparable standards of life, and decent prospects for their children’s future. Furthermore, we can attract talent from abroad to work in Singapore. The reverse cycle will be devastating and swift in bringing about our ruin.

    The Singapore-born must be the pillars on which we can place the cross beams and struts of foreign-born talent to raise us up to higher standards of achievement. If we begin to lose our own Singapore-born and bred talent in significant numbers, then the pillars are weakened, and additional cross beams and struts cannot make up for pillars. The Singapore-grown talent must, by the nature of his upbringing and schooling, be the most committed, the most emotionally and intimately attached to Singapore. We shall lose our own Singapore-grown talent if our policies punish the outstanding and the talented by progressive income tax with the objective of income redistribution. It has happened in an old established society like Britain.

  • amidst the usual sometimes green-eyed chatter about growing income inequality, and the common sneering at elite schools and disdaining the perceived elitism of the Gifted Education Programme, training and rewarding the talented might actually be the best for the whole society:

    It is in the interest of the not-so-talented that the talented should be adequately rewarded for the contribution they can make to the total progress of Singapore. Drained of our trained talent, Singapore will be like a man with a truncated right arm, unable to function effectively.

    If a brain-drain ever happens in Singapore, if our brightest and our best scatter abroad, because of populist appeals to soak or squeeze our able and successful professionals to subsidize those who are less able, less educated, and less well-paid, Singapore will be ruined. The sufferers will be the mass of the workers and their families who cannot emigrate because they are not wanted by the wealthy and developed English speaking countries.

And since we have such a small local pool of talent, who may not even stay in Singapore, how can we entice foreign talent to come and help us survive in the future? Foreigners “prepared to start life afresh in a strange new environment, are usually exceptional in enterprise, drive and determination to succeed – key attributes for high performance”.

  • Everyone knows that Shanghainese are the brightest and sharpest of people. But few know why. It is because for over a hundred and fifty years, ever since it became a treaty port for the foreign powers it has drawn the ambitious, energetic Unless we change our mindsets, we will be out of this race. We have to go out to tap talent. To get top talent, you must take in those who have not yet reached the top but are on their way up because when they are in their 30s we do not know which of them will make it to the top. You will only know when they are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. This is the way to protect our future.

  • Singaporeans must realize and accept as desirable the need for more of the able and the talented to come to work in Singapore. We have to compete against the wealthy developed countries who now also recruit such talent. We have to make these people feel welcome and wanted, so that they will make Singapore their permanent home and contribute to the overall progress of all our people. We should encourage them to take up permanent residence with a view to citizenship so that they can enjoy the same opportunities to buy HDB executive flats and HUDC homes as Singaporeans, and to shoulder the same responsibilities. They can give that extra boost which has lifted our economy andour society to heights we could not have achieved if we had depended only on Singapore-born talent.

all quotes a mash-up from: “THE SEARCH FOR TALENT” BY LEE KUAN YEW, PRIME MINISTER

And also this arrow from LKY:

Instead of getting high quality men; we have imported over 150,000 unskilled workers as work permit holders. Instead of importing first-class brains, we have imported unskilled brawn. To continue this policy is to court disaster.

LKY was a magnificently holistic thinker. As Christians though, we have even more reason to welcome foreigners whether of the brain or brawn variety. Though we are not part of a nation like Israel, nor do we intend to build a nation in this world, the rationale for care-for-sojourner still stands:

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Actually, our incentives are greater – we haven’t just been rescued from slavery and brought to a mere physical Promised Land as the Jews were; we have been rescued from spiritual darkness and eternal death and brought into the light and given eternal life. And we have been given God’s Spirit in us who helps us think his thoughts after him. So if God does not change, then his compassion for the weak, helpless, and the foreigner has not either.

The Modern Fear of Boredom. The End of History. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia)

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaNo more seats left on the Bangkok – Butterworth train, said the man at the ticket counter at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Railway Station.
What about tomorrow?
Not for tomorrow, or the day after, or the rest of the week, or the next week, said he matter-of-factly.

It looked as if I wouldn’t make it back to Singapore in time to meet a friend before he flew back to London. AirAsia wasn’t an option since my passport had less than 6 months’ validity.

I checked out of Lub D hostel anyway (tip: Siam Square one is more accessible than its Silom sister) and returned to the station with my pack, planning to get any train anywhere. On a hunch, asked a different counter if there was a ticket to Butterworth.
Oh yes, do you want it for today? Which seat do you want?
I threw my baht down and did not ask why.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaGrabbed some Thai snacks from a provision shop in the station. Just after the train chugged out the station, a lady came around with menus – there wasn’t a restaurant car we could go to but she said she would bring the food to our seats. The English menu was shorter than the Thai one and there was a slight difference in price. And unlike the culinary desert of the Trans-mongolian train journey, there was also the option of getting something from the itinerant vendors who seemed at liberty to ply their wares, hopping on at one station and off at the next:
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia

After a magnificent sunset that looked like paints of red and orange and yellow and purple splashed across the evening sky, the train attendant came around to convert the seats into sleeping berths, complete with pillow, bedclothes, and curtains for privacy and to block out the light:
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
The carriage was pleasantly clean and would have been perfect, had a screeching toddler not kept the whole carriage up all night.

The second most common question asked about this trip was:”Aren’t you afraid of being bored along the way?”

But exactly is this “boredom” of which they speak? And why is this boredom so dangerous or nasty that it is assumed that any sensible person would avoid it at all costs?

Train attendant converting seats into berths. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaMartin Heidegger considered this existential fear of boredom and consequent craving for novelty and stimulation, a sickness of the modern age. Joseph Brodsky agreed:

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. this predicament, after all, has been sufficiently glamorised onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

By rejecting God, humans found their lives to be merely fleeting moments in infinite time, and completely meaningless, and if there is no meaning, then nothing is worth doing. And a life of boredom is all there is.

A major cause of this boredom, says Andrew Potter in his chapter The Authenticity Hoax: The End of History, is that elucidated in Francis Fukuyama’s essay, The End of History?: the universal, homogeneous state of human civilization sharing liberal democratic ideologies and free-market driven consumer cultures:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognise its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilisation that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

And by getting “history started once again”, he meant a return to (i) totalitarianism in the form of communism or fascism, or (ii) the ethnic nationalism that liberal cosmopolitans imagine has been lost.
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter sees signs of the first already in the rise of totalitarian theme parks in former Soviet states and the shocking nostalgia for the past – the mass murders and torture and unjust imprisonments and repression of communism and fascism are ignored and replaced with a sepia-toned time when things were more real, more authentic.

And the second has been seen all over the world as countries close their borders to immigrants and nativism is on the rise, and anti-immigration policies are regularly laid-out as voter bait. Radical Islam and Islamic fundamentalism as espoused by groups like the al-Qaeda (and I guess now the ISIS), says Potter, is essentially an authenticity movement devoted to the rejection of American consumer capitalism. In what Benjamin Barber terms “jihad vs. McWorld“, “religious and nationalist identity-movements [rebel] against cosmopolitanism, mass media, and consumerism”.”In the mind of Osama bin Laden, Qutb’s rejection of Western rationalism became a hypertrophied revulsion for “America”, which was jihadi shorthand for every aspect of the modern world, from politics (individualism, democracy, secularism) to business (globalisation, trade, commerce) to pleasure (consumerism, alcohol, sex).”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaBut while little distinguishes several Western authenticity movements from Islamic fundamentalists in their diagnosis of the problem with the world, their solutions are quite different. The latter petition, rally people to their causes, harass, or just go off-grid; the former want to takeover the world and return us to cavemen – because, Potter says, “the creation and sustenance of an authentic Muslim community…requires a great deal of conformity of thought, of worship, of dress, and of habit” and so is impossible to “settle into peaceful co-existence with modernity”.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter’s conclusion, then, is that first we need to recognise that “the confused and self-defeating search for something called authenticity, is itself nothing more than a hoax”.

In The Authenticity Hoax: Progress, The Very Idea, Potter suggests:

  • “coming to terms with modernity involves embracing liberal democracy and the market economy as positive goods. That means no just conceding that they are necessary evils, but that they are institutions of political and economic organization that have their own value structure, their own moral foundations, which represents a positive step away from what they replaced.”
  • “…perhaps it is time to rehabilitate the very idea of progress: not the blind conviction that things are getting better all the time, but the simple faith that even when humans encounter obstacles, we’ll figure things out, through the exercise of reason, ingenuity, and goodwill. Faith in progress is nothing more, and nothing less, than faith in humankind…”
  • “Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the trick to doing philosophy is knowing when to stop asking the questions that lead us awry. When it comes to the modern search for authenticity, the irony is that the only way to find what we’re really after might be to stop looking.”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaI’m afraid I would have to disagree with Potter’s suggestions. He has mistakenly thrown the baby out with the bathwater by:

  • assuming all religions to be alike and not bothering to examine the truth claims of each. If the biblical claims are indeed true, then it is no wonder that, as he so astutely observes, humanity’s search for authenticity must necessarily fail. Because of Jesus claims to be the only person who can reveal what God is truly like, because he is the only person who has ever seen God (John 1), then any other attempt to understand what we were made for and what would be good to do with our lives must fall flat on its face;
  • assuming that human motive and intellect are essentially good (but what is “good”?) and worth having faith in; and
  • assuming that we should just shut up now since we’ve tied ourselves up in knots, rather than realising that he hasn’t found any solution to the problem because he has ab initio rejected the only solution – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created and have their being (John 1).

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapor

The Porosity of Borders, Myth of the Country, and International Student Ministry

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia)

Photograph Kronvalda Park, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Countries. States. Nations. The myth of borders. The conflation of cartography with reality. The assumption of fixed geography separating distinct genetics, cultures, practices, languages, thought-patterns, worldviews.

These folk ballads of uniqueness are what undergird much nationalism, nativism, anti-immigration policies. But how firm are these foundations?

  • first, as political entities, nations are particularly fragile. Any flip through the history books tells us that much;
  • whether co-cumbent with politics or not, the lines that delineate the state too are morphous and its edges, even in times of political stability, fairly vague.
  • thirdly, with international or cross-border trade inevitably comes the exchange of ideas and thoughts, and even cultures. And in this day and age of the internet,
  • And what of the practice of endogamy, enforced by political powers in various places in history? What if no person was truly local?

I was telling a Latvian the names of two guys I knew – Martins and Miroslavs. “Miroslavs” is not Latvian, he’d sniffed, that is a Russian name with an “s” stuck at the end to make it seem Latvian. But poor Miroslavs had been born and brought up in Latvia and called it his home, knowing no other. Would he be welcomed as a local if he’d merely changed his name?

What can Americans mean by being against migrants when most of them (other than American Indians) only arrived on that continent a few generations ago? The same question can be asked of Australians (other than the Aboriginal people), and of the citizens of many countries clamouring for nativism. In fact, if we backed up far enough in anyone’s family, we’d find that they weren’t always living in the same geographical area, and even if by some small chance they were, that little patch of land would not always have been within political boundaries of the same homogeneity.

Photograph mittens "lovingly hand-knit by latvian grandmothers" by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph mittens "lovingly hand-knit by latvian grandmothers" by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

These mittens say they have been “lovingly hand-knit by Latvanian grandmothers”, scoring high on fuzzy authenticity. But what if I told you though the experienced hands that manufactured these were local, the mitten patterns were designed by a Japanese lady living in England, based on Latvian and Scandinavian patterns? Would that make them less authentically Latvian? If you wanted to “buy Latvian”, would these make the cut?

Photograph poster for the performance of Reinis Zariņš, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

You say “čaikovskis”, I say “Tchaikovsky”. And what about “classical music”? One cannot say it is authentically Latvian, though neither can one identify it as the music of Austria or Germany or Italy.

And what of imported authenticity? That is, authenticity that isn’t locally traditional (if that can ever be defined) but is part of an internationally recognised conceptual package?

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph Miit Tiim Cafe, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

The third wave, specialist coffee movement is a good example. in most countries, it can be in no way authentic in relation to its products: coffee beans being commercially grown in only a few countries. Yet all across the world, these places sell authenticity – back-to-basics, grassroots, homemade, vintage, unprocessed comfort.

Whne came upon Miit Coffee (facebook, Lāčplēša iela 10), it seemed terribly familiar. The coffee counter (with its uncommon Opera coffee machine), the bicycles hung precariously on grey walls, the plaid shirt and beard and thick-rimmed glasses combo, the denim aprons with their assymetrical leather straps, the vegetarian/vegan food menu, the brewing options (espresso, in milk, Chemex, V60, Aeropress), the coffee beans identified by their varietal and place of origin. (The beans were bought from Andrito Coffee Roasting which was founded by former Latvian Barista Champion Andris Petkēvičs. The fact that there was even a barista championship of course indicated the pervasity of this non-Latvian culture.)

Photograph Miit Coffee, Riga, Latvia by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

L the Latvian was amused. E the Singaporean was delighted at the prospect of “normality”. I, not having eaten anything since that bowl of soup a few posts ago, was just plain ravenous. That plate of vegan food was mighty fine as was the coffee, but hey I could be biased.

Now how about international student ministry or international ministry within a church?

To the Galatians, Paul wrote:

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:28-29)

  • There is an equality amongst Christians that is more than political-correctness. It is an equality because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and all have been saved by the death of his Son.
  • Why is there a tendency then, especially in U.K. churches, to separate the foreigners from the locals if they can all speak the same language? And how would you define someone as foreign or local – by citizenship? By skin colour? If so, would you direct a black American to “the international group”?
  • If it is because of different practices that they are split, then doesn’t God’s word advise that these are all opportunities to show love to each other?
  • How would this church tendency entrench prevailing attitudes of people seeing another with a different accent or skin colour as the Other, the altern?
  • And, in any case, how would this cohere with what has been discussed above?

(About a month ago. a curate from London was a visiting speaker in Singapore. While we were having tea, he pointed to the thick toast we were sharing and asked,”Where did you get bread from? Is it from the Brits?” This was as if I’d gone to London and asked if they’d gotten their tea from the Chinese or Indians. It was probably mere small chat, but it hurt because the mere assumption of alien-ness reinforced the gulf between us, when we should have been brother and sister. I probably didn’t help much, being sarcastic in my reply and mentioning “colonial masters”.)

Photograph breakfast at the Latvian grandparents' house, Riga by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Photograph dinner at the Latvian grandparents' house, Riga by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px That night, we were hosted by L’s grandparents. Her grandmother prepared a feast for us, then she and her husband retreated to the kitchen. No, no, they wouldn’t want to eat with us – they didn’t understand English, so they would eat, standing up, by the cooker. Much as I appreciated her embarrassment, this was also one of the few times in my life that I’d been starkly reminded that I am first and foremost an Outsider, a Stranger, a Foreigner, an Alien.

Photograph Latvian grandmother's flower arrangement by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px