rovik. reads: when breath becomes air

I was on the bus back from Manchester to London, having the row to myself and feeling hungover from the night before. I had an hour worth of reading left in the book and was already invested in Paul’s life, having learned so much about him from the first half of the book. He announces he has cancer – it’s not a spoiler, that’s the whole premise of the story, but somehow I’m still rattled by the news. Later on, I find tears on my cheeks. “Stop being emotional,” I tell myself, “He hasn’t even died yet.” As the chapter closes, I let myself cry unabashedly because I have to grieve for Paul, and also, with Paul. I’ve only had one other book affect me this much in my life, and that was when I was 15 and still naive to the world. How did this book get to me? How did Paul, a person I have never met and will never to get to meet, make such an impact on me, a reader? These are the questions I will try to answer here.

Paul has an interesting story to present. He’s always been curious about the human condition, having a deep affection for literature and the humanities as lenses to understand the mind and soul. He also encounters an intuitive interest in biology to connect the imaginative to the real, driving a frustration with academic theories and a lean towards medicine and surgery.

Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection. My brief forays into the formal ethics of analytic philosophy felt dry as a bone, missing the messiness and weight of real human life.

Paul ends up doing his residency focusing on neurosurgery. This is the first part of the story, the part before cancer. Here, he has already begun elucidating deep truths about life and death, finding connections between the work he’s doing and the greater ideas that he has found in his readings.

Don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness. Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

The concept of life had stakes attached to it now, and he was beginning to understand more about the role of the doctor as a healer. The striking part of his narrative so far is how he recognizes that many times the doctor is not so much the provider of promise as much as he is the facilitator of grasping with reality and a preparer for pain.

The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

At this point, I am compelled by Paul’s deep introspection and wisdom. This book is already sufficient for the average medical student in reminding them of their roles and realities and is inspiring for the casual reader to understand how medical practice is not just a technical endeavor. He has a beautiful writing style, pacing between broad anecdotal pieces and reflective asides in a manner that brings rhythm rather than interruption. It is at this point of comfort however where we must face Paul’s changing reality.

Paul recognizes his body is not functioning as it should. This makes sense, he’s a doctor. He suspects cancer but as with many of us, he acts as if it could be something else. Yet, he is also quick to promptly preliminarily self-diagnose himself and seek examination for cancerous cells. He is right, he has lung cancer. The tables have turned, and Paul is now the patient instead of the doctor, although the flip isn’t completely made. Paul still attempts to understand his condition as a doctor would, yet recognizes that he’s stealing time from himself maximizing the remainder of his life.

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

The rest of Paul’s story takes on a magnificent depth in understanding how to live with death clearly on the horizon. He ponders on his own ambition, his relationships with family and his legacy. He decides to have a child with his wife, even though he would have limited time with the baby.

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

The sense that Paul is a deep thinker, connected with the grander elements of humanity and life, moves the reader to develop empathy with a distant character. He has articulated the moanings and frustrations of so many before him, not experiencing anything new himself but being able to evoke poetry and sense onto it all. Paul’s last words end with him holding his daughter in his arms and sharing the joy she brings to him.

This is where the book takes an abrupt turn. I flip the page to hear a new voice – that of his wife, Lucy. I put down the book. I need a break because I know where the story is about to go. I only have around 10% left. Being mentally prepared doesn’t help. Lucy’s words continue to inflict emotional impact as she documents Paul’s eventual deterioration and his struggle to keep being human.

“I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I would continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that at times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.” – Lucy

The last 10% is a stop and start process as you grapple with the realization that the person you spent an hour and a half to get to know is now no longer. Death has played another cruel trick and Paul’s words, while belonging to a dead person, continue to provide life and clarity in the darkness of it all.

I really loved this book and it is my favorite read of the last 12 months. Paul’s writing is very fluid and the book is easily read in around two hours. Its ease of language is balanced well by its moments of depth that compel reflection and pause. I give this book my highest recommendations to all my peers. Here are my ratings:

Readability: 5/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 5/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 5/5

Would I Recommend? – Absolutely!


rovik. at the theatre: the birthday party

The absurd has become something of a familiar place recently. I had heard about Pinter’s association with the likes of other famous absurdist thinkers such as Camus and Kafka and was very excited to see The Birthday Party being put on in London. Seeing Toby Jones and Pearl Mackie, two of my favorite English actors, as part of the cast convinced me to buy a ticket for what ended up being a true delight for the intellect. I won’t spoil the play because I highly encourage anyone in London to try to catch it during its limited showing, but I will discuss alongside my review of the actual play, some of the key themes addressed in this ‘comedy of menace’.

For those who are unfamiliar with absurdism, the way of thinking evolved out of post World War 2 Europe when the world seemed like a bleak place. It essentially is an observation and reflection of humanity’s quest to seek meaning and purpose in a world that doesn’t seem to provide any. It is not nihilism in the denial of meaning in life, but rather an acceptance than meaning seems elusive and may not be the object of pursuit. If you want to explore absurdism in a digestible way,  Franz Kafka’s stories are a deliciously addictive way to do so.

The Birthday Party takes place in a ‘boarding house’ in an English seaside town. The time and exact location are not immediately known, and hints are given throughout the play with a care to not give enough to be precise. The cast is a small ensemble – we have Petey and Meg who own the boarding house, Stanley who is the only actual boarder, Lulu who is a young attractive woman in her 20s that is a friend of the owners, and finally Goldberg and McCann who are suited men that are interested in staying for a couple of nights.

The status quo, one that is established as a routine without change is set up to be challenged. The meaning of actions, in the beginning, is worth less than the actions themselves. Meg is an almost stereotypical illustration of the domesticated housewife, focussing on preparing meals and ensuring that the men in the house are satisfied. Petey, her husband, is more than happy to not only entertain this but support it as well. Stanely, on the other hand, is a symbol of rebellion, only to the level where it excites the mind but does not actually engage in action. He berates Meg and then compliments her, calls her ‘succulent’ but then insults her ability as a wife. It is teasing, flirtation and everything that a Kierkegaardian would despise.

Introduce Goldberg and McCann, symbols of disruption, who ironically enter suited up as businessmen, stiff and proper. They hint at a possible ‘assignment’, again another misdirection by Pinter that things may become clearer. What is initially a slightly comical reenactment of monotonic countryside life is turned on its head by the dark intentions of these characters. They convince Meg to throw a birthday party for Stanley upon hearing that it’s his birthday (we never find out if it actually is), and that’s where the story becomes really exciting. I won’t spoil the rest of it, but I’ll just say that Meg’s delusions of routine and Stanley’s desire to be a rebel get challenged. We see in different ways how humanity fails to truly embrace the absurdity of the world and instead double back into areas of safety or comfort.

The play as a whole is a treat because the audience must decide if they want to pause and process the event that just passed or indulge in the visual spectacle continuously being presented in front of them. There’s no time to think, but think you must. Pinter artfully places silences and pauses that suggest relief but instead convey intense tension. The setting is perfect and the characters more layered than what first meets the eye.

I was personally a big fan of the performances of all the characters. Toby Jones did not disappoint as a convincing Stanley that conveys the madness of his character but Zoë Wanamaker (Meg) and Stephen Mangan (Goldberg) were the actors that truly carried the moral weight of the play. The set was beautifully bland (in the spirit of the scene) but dynamic and versatile in conveying the areas in and out of our sights. There are themes of sexuality, truth, and deception that are well complemented by intentional lighting, prop use (they use a lighter/match flame frequently in the play), and staging. Visually, you will not be disappointed, especially in the Harold Pinter theatre where space is appropriately tight to convey an almost portal-like sensation. The play does not do much for women, and perhaps it is a function of its period of conception, but it’s disappointing that such strong actresses don’t have much depth beyond being means to convey the cruel ends of the male characters.

Watching theatre in London, not just West End shows but independent and art shows as well, is a privilege that I’m glad I was able to afford. The Birthday Party is one of those decisions that I’ll look back at my time in London and be grateful I had the opportunity to take advantage of. Here are my ratings:

Script: 4.5/5

Performance: 5/5

Production: 5/5

Overall: 4.83/5


rovik. and friends discuss: dealing with social media

I don’t think I could imagine a world without social media. I started using Facebook around 4-5 months after it became publically available and have been an early adopter and experimenter of most other platforms since then. In some ways, social media gives me the space to maintain friendships that span across the globe and also continue to be a content creator that adds value to those communities. Yet, my understanding of social media is maturing as a result of two factors: the first is the recent tide of news reporting on how platforms have been infiltrated by malicious threats and the second is the range of academic readings that I’m exposed to that reveal a much more complex understanding of the topic. The result is a realization that not too many people know what’s going on, perhaps including the social media giants themselves.

My discussion group met to chat about this topic and as always we had some readings to get the ball rolling. Here they are for you:

  1. Why Is the U.S. So Susceptible to Social-Media Distortion?
  2. How Has Social Media Changed Us?
  3. Encoding the Everyday: The infrastructural Apparatus of Social Data
  4. Is Social Media bad for you?

The tendency to fearmonger on social media’s effect on our lives is understandable. We’ve seen a drastic change in the way we interact, and communication happens almost as equally online as it does offline. For some people, the skew is even more extreme. Yet, I always push back against those who argue that gone are the golden years where face to face communication was the only way people interacted. We live in a new normal now and the focus should be on how do we adjust for the current effects rather than reminiscence on the past that we can (and should) never return to.

It’s been more than a decade since Facebook entered the public consciousness and we can see how our lives have changed. What’s interesting to note is that over time we’ve created a second identity for ourselves – our digital identity and that becomes more understandable as soon as we realize that social media isn’t just another arena for us to conduct our social engagements. Each platform affords the user specifically encoded actions and options that in their way constitute a new form of sociality. Facebook’s ‘Like’ option is perhaps the most notorious example, allowing us to quickly show our support or acknowledgment of something. The closest physical comparison that was made was that of applause, yet the ‘Like’ feature has since evolved to occupy a meaning of its own. What we do online can no longer be compared to be equivalent or substitutable for what we do physically. Sure, some things are more comparable – chatting to someone in a chat application and physically having a conversation for example, but even there we can see distinct differences in how those activities are conducted. So, rather than grieve that most people only constitute themselves as who they are online, perhaps it’s time to recognize the dualistic nature of our digital and physical identities and engage in it not like a zero-sum game but rather as a new addition to modes of expressing one’s self.

This doesn’t excuse any of the platforms, old and new, from the effects they have caused on society at large. Studies have shown that social media can be attributed to a significant source of stress and depression for many people in the developed world. The open availability of social media and the nearly boundless opportunities to engage with a world that isn’t that kind can naturally lead to some problems. Bullying, comparing lifestyles, ‘fake news’ and so many other social phenomena have made their way onto these platforms, taken advantage of strictly encoded affordances and impacted how people use social media. Another factor to recognize is that people have different sensitivities and proclivities, something we are well aware of in traditional psychology. Some people need more structured control of what they’re exposed to, some need tools to assist in developing discipline and some need no additional feature at all. Yet because most social media platforms tend to have a draw and lock-in effect (you don’t want to be the only one not on Instagram, do you?), most people are forced to encounter platforms that are too rigid for their personalities. We preferred platforms that would enable more adjustments and adaptations for each user. Currently, there’s a swath of browser plug-ins and widgets that help do these for you, but why can’t platforms encode these adjustments themselves? For example, why can’t we tell Facebook that we don’t want a newsfeed and it still provides its other features to us? It will be able to maintain its users for a much longer lifetime period without the frustration that builds up with it. The same can be made for almost every other platform – instead of making every user request part of some big feature update, perhaps what is necessary is a recognition that sometimes options should be provided for different user personas. This would truly recognize that social media exists to support a more diverse understanding of society than we currently do.

The last topic discussed was the future of social media. There are some themes here that are widely agreed on to be changing the way we engage with each other. Video is still on the rise as a content medium that has strong engagement rates and can communicate information richly. But even more than that, we’re seeing how live videos are transforming sociality. Not only are people watching live videos online, people are broadcasting more of themselves and having conversations around these videos. The most successful example of seizing this trend has to be HQ, the live game show application that allows people to participate in a trivia game show and chat at the same time. Granted, no one actually reads in detail what’s happening in the chat section but the idea of being able to engage in a live activity online with others is profoundly transformative in how we understand sociality. People are recognizing that their lives can have meaning in relation to others and are continuing to engage with that truth. The other big theme recognized was that of context-specific social media. Right now, we have groups trying to plug-in to existing platforms such as Linkedin to host conversations and sociality for new contexts (e.g. a book club). While these platforms are designed to support such highly generative movements, users are starting to recognize the limitations of these platforms because as mentioned before, the affordances are strictly encoded and not meant to support all forms of sociality. So new platforms are being created to cater to niche markets and they draw richness in those domains. Does the increase in the number of platforms in the market mean that we’re going to see a reduction in average user populations for each platform? I don’t think so. People currently are used to multihoming on different platforms for different purposes, and so we’re going to see an increased specialization of platforms with the shared data economies of scale being achieved through APIs and cookies. The digital infrastructure is able to support this and so it’s definitely not far from being achievable.

So there we have it, an attempt to better understand social media from both technological and sociological perspectives (very typical of a socio-technical product such as the social media platform). It does provide some insight into why we have gotten to where we are and some forecast into where we could be going. The exciting element in all of this is that social media is in no way a final product – it evolves as we evolve and so we can petition through our actions and our voices how we want the platform to be constituted. We are not powerless in this new normal and that should make us feel empowered.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my understanding of social media? Have I missed something? Let me know!


rovik. reads: the handmaid’s tale

It had been a while since I read a fictional book, and when it came to it, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was high on my list of books to explore. I had heard a lot about it, especially since it was made into a TV series on Hulu and was compared to as the possible dystopic future that Trump’s election signaled. A year has passed since his election and we know now that while he is heavily problematic, Atwood’s future is still a bit far away from Trump’s reach.  Is the book feminist literature? Is it worth the literary analysis beyond simple appreciation of the content? Atwood herself debates some of these topics in her foreword in the latest edition and paints a more complex understanding of the book than I thought of before.

The Handmaid’s Tale has a striking premise. Multiple dystopic elements have come into play – fertility rates are incredibly low, civil war breaks out and warring governments take territories. One of these is Gilead, a theocratic Old-Testament abiding dictatorship that stratifies the population. Women are stripped of most of their rights, and a hierarchy is established in society. Men, especially those who are officials within the dictatorship, are the most important, and their blue-clothed wives enjoy the privileges that come with the association. Women are divided into green-clothed Marthas (helpers), striped-clothed lower class women, Aunts (older women who indoctrinate the lessons of the land) and red-clothed Handmaiden. This is where Offred (meaning the woman of Fred) comes in. She’s a Handmaid who has had her kid and lover taken away from her, been brainwashed into becoming subservient and then been sent to bear children on behalf of the family where the wife is no longer fertile. It’s a highly plausible social structure when given proper thought, and one that is scary yet oddly familiar.

There are many things that I enjoyed about Atwood’s book. The evolution of Offred throughout the story is initially subtle and then all of a sudden, bold and daring. The feminist moment isn’t forgotten, and in fact, it is mentioned that Offred participated in college protests and other forms of activism on the issues surrounding womanhood. Yet, here she is faced with a situation where her body and self are made separate in function.

I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.

The book explores various ways Offred tries to maintain control of parts of her life. She initially refuses to accept the situation as permanent, believing that things will tide over. The book is divided into chapters labeled ‘Night’ and then other names (occurring in the day). We can see a sharp distinction in Offred’s inner thoughts at night where she is mostly alone and must confront herself, the one person that is hidden in all but body in the day. The days are not without routine, and over time, Offred faces a possible reality where she becomes accustomed to her new life.

Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.


I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born

Eventually, two main twists prevent this from happening. The first is the manipulation by Fred, the commander and man of the household. Fred wants to engage in the ‘fun’ that comes with promiscuity and treats Offred as a mistress, breaking the implicit contract that is placed between the handmaid and the commander where the relationship is purely physical without emotions.

The problem wasn’t only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore . . . I’m not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy . . . You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage. Do they feel now? I say. Yes, he says, looking at me. They do.

The second is the involvement of Offred in ‘The Resistance’, an underground movement mainly driven by others in the community and that Offred only is tangentially involved in.

“I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.”

As a reader, I do not know how I feel about Offred. Compared to most fictional books, Offred is a pretty underwhelming heroine. At the end, she is still at the whim and mercy of the people around her. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, given that if the situation was truly plausible then so too must be the impossibility of escape or control. Offred truly is a character to be both sympathetic to and yet in some regards, in admiration of. She has found aspects of her life she can control, and she has found ways to navigate the system to give her her own small victories. It isn’t a rallying cry for women but still consoling that all is not lost.

Literarily, the book has a lot to enjoy. The use of colors and symbols is strongly visible throughout the book, from the color of the uniforms people wear to the use of biblical constructs almost ironically. The use of a dictatorial structure to instill control is strongly juxtaposed with Offred’s fight for her own control of her personal being. Perhaps the most memorable takeaway is the quote etched for Offred by the previous handmaid:

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

It sounds like Atwood’s message to us all. The book has no ending, no real conclusion. It leaves the possibilities open and has an afterword that adds more to our understanding of Gilead rather than of Offred’s eventual path. I imagine it’s because Atwood doesn’t really want us to focus on what happens to Offred eventually, but what has happened in the story already described. Is the horror of Gilead insufficient to stimulate your mind or must you really need a knot to tie things up neatly for the story to provoke you? The message is the battle we must fight and the oppression we must tackle. The process is more important than the result.

I haven’t had a piece of fiction that has been as intellectually delicious to read in a while so The Handmaid’s Tale was a very welcome pleasure. Here are my ratings for it:

Readability: 5/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 4/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 4/5

Would I Recommend? – Definitely a must-read modern novel for today’s young people


The Singapore 2018 (Recommended) New Years Resolution List

I was thinking about resolutions recently because it’s the season for it. 2018 will be an interesting year for me because while the bulk of it involves finishing up my Masters in London, I’m also planning to continue priming myself for my return back to Singapore. I’ve been keeping in close touch with the news and trends in my home country, and spending a good amount of my time back reaching out to people just to get an insider opinion on things. As I thought about my resolutions, I realized that it may be useful to initiate an agenda at a public level for everyone to consider adding on to their own lists. Singapore needs civic society and with all these trends and changes, perhaps a list like this can start the conversation on what can be done to move forward the country.

Here are the disclaimers:

  1. This isn’t an authoritative list. These were derived from ideas and conversations and are open to being modified as well.
  2. This is a starting point for a discussion. In the research world, agendas are useful to directing future conversations and work and this aims to do the same.
  3. This isn’t necessarily the same as the policy level agenda setting that the Prime Minister does in his National Day Rally. This is aimed at civic society – us, the public. This aims to crystallize the key conversations and elucidate tensions and opportunities for more active work.

Resolution 1: Recognize Difference around Us

The news has been fraught recently with topics on race, religion, and class. Singapore’s Gini Coefficient is one of the highest in the world and the evidence of elitism and tribalism continue to show signs. It’s true that the quality of life in Singapore has seen an overall improvement but at the same time, we must accept that different people lead different qualities of life in our country, a fact tied essentially to their backgrounds.

Here’s an example. A child from a lower-income background would not be able to afford private tuition, especially at the rates being offered these days, at the same level as someone from a middle to higher income background. While public education aims to equalize the playing field, the grading system is essentially built on a curve that favors those who are able to learn more faster. Unless a lower-income student is especially talented, the system is stacked against them, especially when considering the ‘holistic’ promotion of CCAs and outside enrichment without regard for class sensitivities. Singapore’s fabled meritocracy could merely be a guise for class-based advancement.

That’s for class. I could write paragraphs on the phenomena surrounding difference in race, religion, abilities and various other social identities. It troubles me when I read comments on forums that scoff at identity-based conversations, citing western liberal bias. I agree we must challenge all ideas, western ones included, but that does not reduce its ability to add to our lives. Heck, democracy was a concept that came from Greece and we’ve adapted it here. While policy has a role to play in equalizing the playing field for all identities, we as civil society must also start practicing compassion and sensitivity.

We must start considering the social circles we function within and the actions we participate in – do they push us away from other Singaporeans? This country is not an ethnostate and is increasing in its heterogeneity. We need to recognize and embrace difference in our lives, by participating in activities that reach across identities rather than are exclusive to them. We need to diversify our circles and both add and derive value to and from various communities. I hear many gripes about the increased presence of foreigners in our country but I question if we’ve made the effort to engage and seek friendships before judgment. The trajectory is set – Singapore is an open country and its heterogeneity will increase within a condensed space. We need to recognize that our lives are sometimes just our own and cannot be extrapolated to the general public. We must live in consensus and compromise, and that starts with seeking to appreciate and celebrate difference.

Resolution 2: Advocate and Organize, Speak Truth to Power

This is a slightly political one, but civic society is intertwined intimately with politics. I’ve been watching the increase in prolific legislation from the implementation of the EthnoPresident to the recent proposed Films Act Change. It worries me that overall trend in legislation has been an effort to essentially curb and control the freedoms of our citizens, without too much effective pushback. These add to existing restrictive laws on organizing in public spaces and media censorship for example. We’ve heard multiple times that Singapore is a unique country with its own interpretation of the degree of freedom necessary for its citizens, but I think we forget that interpretation is a function of the views of the people in power, not the people on the ground. It is the government that has decided that it has this prerogative. While our country functions on an elected democracy that has people in power meant to represent us, I question how often we voice our views strongly enough for our representatives to hear us.

Ultimately we live in a country that is meant to enable a quality of life satisfying to us. The ability to create economic value is not our primary objective, it is the ability to derive self-worth, pursue our dreams and be safe. Riding off of Resolution 1, that ability does differ from person to person and requires people to be vocal about their needs and desires. We need to slow down the restriction of our freedoms as civil society, by truly participating in the instruments of our democracy. Form advocacy groups, come up with agendas, lobby to your Members of Parliament and demonstrate – all within the boundaries of the law.  Do not do it out of fear of an oppressive government (I personally reserve my own views on the existing government), but do it out of your own hope for your country. Most of the recent laws were passed almost without compromise or modifications (check the Hansard), a sign that alternative views were hardly accounted for.

We may be comfortable now with a government that can pass laws without pushback, and we should trust the leaders we elect will have our interests in mind. But we must also trust ourselves more, and we must trust that we as a complete society should be in control of our destinies. Politics is not just for politicians, it is for every citizen. If you care about something, find a local NGO or advocacy group and contribute your time and resources to it. If you believe something is wrong, advocate and demonstrate. Work across different groups, from the PA’s own committees to new disruptive organizations. This has the pleasant side-effect of building community leaders that have matured with their ear closer to the ground and of a different breed from most technocrats.

Make it loud and make it bold. Our mentalities have been cultured to not want to disrupt the peace, but if you’re quiet, who listens? I truly wish for an academic study on the level of integration of public feedback in policy work – I suspect we’ll be surprised (or perhaps, not surprised) at how much our voice has mattered so far and should matter moving forward. It is not about the PAP or about the opposition, it is about the practice of civil society and a robust democracy.

Resolution 3: Enable our Talents, Represent Singapore

To the more regular readers of my blog posts, you’ll be familiar with my passion for seeing Singapore represented on a global stage. I truly believe the people in our country are exceptional and have so much to offer. It’s exciting to see our music and arts scene finally growing and flexing its muscles. Local industry is starting to support the arts more, allowing for more performances and pop-up shows. People are spending money on going to events that stimulate their creativity. Our sports teams are also doing amazingly, with more medals coming in and more locals supporting our athletes. It’s an exciting time for Singapore, but we need to ramp up heavily where Singapore needs to go.

One of my favorite things to see around the world, be it in Buenos Aires or Austin or even Shanghai is that these cities bleed culture. Music, sports, and talent are not just products – they’re an embedded tapestry of policy, industry, spaces, and people. You feel and notice culture but you can’t measure it. So far in Singapore, I feel satisfied with the effort put in by policy, only because I know it can go so far. What needs to happen though is that we need to encourage more creative and innovative spaces around our country. Not just restaurants and bars, but all sorts of training centers, labs, experimental venues and artistic domains. It has to lose a sense of control to gain a sense of opportunity. The industry needs to be more daring and people need to spend their money and voice to support these ventures.

We need to also bring these views to the international level. Another debate that confuses me is that notion that Singaporean culture is difficult to export because we’re ‘not that special’. Firstly, we are extremely special. But more than that, Singapore’s business and ventures stretch far and wide across the globe. Similar to how most global powers use their businesses to transport culture to the counties that they’re embedded in, we too can share what we have through the many global enterprises we house. As individuals and as civic society, we can advocate and share. We can celebrate a new brand of local heroes.


I condensed my thoughts to three resolutions because I wanted to focus but I’m sure there are others that can be added to the list – feel free to comment if you think something else should be prioritized. What is important though, is that while I’ve given suggestions of how these resolutions can be realized, that we all identify simple habits we can practice or decisions we can make to advance these resolutions.

I’m personally planning, once I’m in Singapore for good, to join a community group that does work with low-income students, to participate in an NGO that works on censorship policy, and to carry on my entrepreneurial skills from The Hidden Good to the music and film industry.  These are side involvements to my main job and are part of my effort to participate as a citizen in my country.

How could they look like for you? I’d love to hear some of your ideas. Also, if you disagree or want to debate some of my views, please do so – I appreciate a friendly engagement.

Regardless, this is my last blog post of the year and if you’re a regular reader, look forward to a post in 2018! Happy New Year!


storytime: two

There’s something about a city that doesn’t change, he thought to himself. One would think that in five years, you would find some new additions to the skyline but not in Chicago. No, in Chicago, old is gold and tradition is the mission.

The smell of beer and popcorn distracted Chris from his destination. Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, and also to the belligerent fans that never stopped believing. He was one of them for a while. Bandwagon fan, but a fan nonetheless. He never understood baseball till he came to the US. He still didn’t but at least he was a Cubs fan now.

Ayy, he’d say, you know the story of the Cubs? If they can win the World Series after more than a 100 years, what’s stopping you from getting your ass into a career?

Those were good days. The city was a giant playground and Chris never stopped playing. He and his chaps would find themselves in some divey bar at some point of the night, drilling through two to three pitchers at a time. Sometimes they’d run into another group of friends and it would become a giant party. There was no escape from the raucous created but why would you want to run? You’d want to become part of the celebration.

Today wasn’t a big celebration day, however. Chris was on his way to a bar, yes, but for very different reasons. She was a bartender there, and that’s where she had told him to meet her.

I can’t make time for you, but if you really find it so important to chat you’ll have to catch me at work. You’ll have to wait in line though, the regulars at the bar won’t give me a second to breathe, she made it clear to him. Chris almost decided to forget about it, but he wanted to do this and he knew this was less about her and more about him.

He was here now, standing in front of the wooden door that separated him and her. Gracie’s, the neon light sign said. It flickered every other second and the buzzing noise emanating from it was nauseating. The place looked small, with what looked like oak wood window frames and polished stone walls. Classy, Chris thought, just like her. He took a deep breath and walked in.


There’s not really anyone here, he said, now looking straight at her.

You’re just too early… I guess that’s good for you, she replied. She was wiping the glasses in front of her, getting ready for the crowd that would come in an hour.

Chris paused. He took another sip out of the IPA sitting in front of him. It was a good pour, and the beer was her recommendation. You’d like this one, she said.

You look great, he said. There has to be a way to make this natural, he thought.

Thanks… You’re not too bad yourself. How’s Amsterdam? That’s where you’re studying now right?

Rotterdam actually. It’s not too far from Amsterdam, he corrected her. This was an interesting sensation. Chris didn’t feel the rush he expected to feel chatting with her again. No feelings, no missed emotions, nothing.

So what brings you here? I’m sure you have other people waiting to hang out with you, she started.

Chris looked around at the bar before answering. It was larger on the inside, filled with old road signs and baseball memorabilia. Very divey, just the way I like it. He turned back towards her and saw that she was waiting for an answer. I just needed to know how the story ends, Chris said to her, I just needed to know how to write this chapter closed.

She put down the glass she was wiping and then placed her two hands on the bar in front of her, leaning on them. There wasn’t anything to end Chris. There wasn’t anything….., she replied.

I know that now, Chris said. There was another pause.

We had fun, that was it. It was a series of fun events and then you were off, she said, trying to fill the silence. Anyways, don’t you think you built it up too much? All of this was in your head, don’t you think?

Chris looked down at his IPA. The foam was still sitting healthily. A good beer was a beautiful thing. It was balanced, strong and intimate all at once. He looked up at her and felt the same.

You know, I watch a lot of Netflix, he said. Something I never understood was why people always answered questions thrown at them with a story. It seemed long and draggy, and yes I understood it made for great plot development, but do people ever actually talk like that? Do people ever actually tell a story to convey a point? If you ask me, I think they know they can land the point in a simpler way, but the story connects the point to something greater. The story makes whatever is happening right at that moment universal. Yea, Ginnie could have fucked Thomas’s best friend, and all Thomas would have had to have said was “Fuck you, Ginnie, you’re a whore”. He would have made his point. But when Thomas tells the story of the man who betrayed the trust of his platoon just to earn his own freedom, Ginnie knows that while she’s never comparable to a man in a uniform, that she’s complicit with the darker forces of deception. Thomas has just done something that humans have struggled to accomplish for a long time. He has connected the dots.

She stared at him and then picked up another glass to start wiping. Are you Thomas in this story?, she asked him.

No, I’m Chris. And you’re not Ginnie, far from it. It was just a story, he said.

Pretty meta, don’t you think? Even you could do better, she chuckled.

Chris laughed with her. I probably could, he said. His beer was almost over.

Remember that first night we went out? The city was beautiful, she said.

So were you, he sneaked the comment in.

She smiled.

Something you told me then still hasn’t left my mind. You said that you felt alone in this world, that no one could ever understand you, her voice had become softer now. Have you found someone who can?

I thought you did, he said.

Silence, once again.

I wrote a story about us, he spoke. What happened between us was magical, regardless of how wrongly I misinterpreted it. I wrote it down and took some creative freedoms with it, but it’s there. I just didn’t know how to end it. Now I do.

And how’s that, she asked.

With this, he said and slowly leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek. He sat back down and looked at her as she smiled. Goodnight, he continued, and remember that I always wished you well.

He finished his beer and got off the stool. She was still smiling now as he walked away from her, towards the door.

 That’s it, he thought to himself, here’s another part of Chicago that will always stay in the past.


rovik. reads: the present age – on the death of rebellion

Engaging in discussions on philosophy is a useful occasional activity. It improves the rigor of the mind and sharpens the wit. It’s not something I enjoy to a dense degree – I can’t quote Plato or Nietzche off the top of my head, but I believe the main trains of thought have shaped a lot of modern thinking and are worth some consideration, especially as we strive to champion new forms of living. Kierkegaard stands in this line as someone who is worth reading. One of his seminal works, The Present Age is ripe with conjecture and contemplation on the nature of self-reflection and the controversy of the media, providing a solid challenge of perspectives that are relevant to this day.

Kierkegaard lands two main points in this work: the first is that we have become overindulgent in acts of ‘reflection’ and have lost the passion for action and the second is that we all have become leveled by institutions such as ‘the public’ and the media.

Reflecting in lieu of Acting

Kierkegaard distinguishes between two ages – The Present Age which is indulgent in discussions and reflection and The Revolutionary Age, referring mainly to the time before the present when passion drove action.

“Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm and shrewdly relapsing into repose.”

It’s worth noting that Kierkegaard is an established theological philosopher, passionate about his faith and thus ties much of his thesis to it. According to him, we have evolved as individuals in caring more about the discussion over action instead of the actual act itself. Sometimes, discussing the act satisfies our conscience and provides no impetus to actually engage in the act itself.

“Intelligence has got the upper hand to such an extent that it transforms the real task into an unreal trick and reality into a play.”

We can think of relevant examples almost immediately – when we ask someone why they don’t engage in charity, their ability to rationalize it reduces the focus on the fact that it’s simply the right thing to do. Passion is lost, and self-reflection has become an indulgent frivolity of the individual. Kierkegaard makes a relatable snipe to the fact that sometimes we engage in discussion over the topic so much that we choose not to act out of exhaustion.

“Reflection is not the evil; but a reflective condition and the deadlock which it involves, by transforming the capacity for action into a means of escape from action, is both corrupt and dangerous, and leads in the end to a retrograde movement.”

There is, of course, a large area for critique here. Firstly, it is widely agreed that action without thought is a recipe for disaster, especially with politically and economically complex decisions. It’s also worth noting that Kierkegaard himself is subject to his own meta-critique. He is a philosopher who engages in acts of thought rather than action. He is ultimately evidence of the need for reflection. But it is this quote which lands his point the best:

“What is talkativeness? It is the result of doing away with the vital distinction between talking and keeping silent. Only some one who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk–and act essentially. Silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life. Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it. But some one who can really talk, because he knows how to remain silent, will not talk about a variety of things but about one thing only, and he will know when to talk and when to remain silent. Where mere scope is concerned, talkativeness wins the day, it jabbers on incessantly about everything and nothing…In a passionate age great events (for they correspond to each other) give people something to talk about. And when the event is over, and silence follows, there is still something to remember and to think about while one remains silent. But talkativeness is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness.”

How do we engage in a discussion that is valuable and in relation to producing and engaging in action rather than viewing an action as a distant object? How do we stop contemplating and start generating? These are worthy ideas to think about because as society evolves and humans become subject to the ‘system’, our ability to act gets reduced and we become satisfied with the mere contemplation of acting. It is this trap that we must escape from and that Kierkegaard continues to expound on.

The Societal Leveling of the Individual

“In order than everything should be reduced to the same level, it is first of all necessary to procure a phantom, its spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage–and that phantom is the public.”

Kierkegaard has a known disregard for the media, especially since historically, the media at the time critiqued some of his earlier work to a perhaps unfair degree. But he makes an important claim here: the reflective state is a result of a desire to be appreciated by a phantom ‘public’.

“A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.”

The media is a big pusher of this trend, citing the ever notorious ‘public’ as a reason or cause for desire or disruption. Are we not merely a collection of individuals rather than a homogenous group? How can the public want one thing? Even if it is 60% of them according to a survey, every individual is almost guaranteed to want a different version of the same thing. This societal leveling of the individual reduces the desire to become a passionate being and instead relegates the person to merely a constituent of a larger phenomenon.

“The levelling process is the victory of abstraction over the individual. The levelling process in modern times, corresponds, in reflection, to fate in antiquity.”

This can be seen in art and advertising mostly, where the desire to be accepted and seen by the ‘public eye’ drives work. It is this reinforcing system, where art and advertising are products of the reflective state and yet encourage more of it too. Kierkegaard drives a lot more focus on this point in the direction of religion and Christianity, areas worth exploring if you are a theologist or interested in religion, but these are extendable from the points laid above and not as widely relevant as the application in media.


This book was a tough read. It’s extremely short (some even call it a pamphlet rather than a book) but it’s very dense and takes a lot of pauses to fully understand Kierkegaard’s main points. Perhaps it is because it challenges almost every major tenant of our modern society which is built on discussion, debate, and rhetoric rather than actual action. It is worth noting that while major actions have shaped our history, the work behind those actions spanned many long and arduous discussions. Is Kierkegaard relevant to our society or is he a dangerous influence? I’d argue it’s worth considering his skepticism of modern society at a personal level. Can we avoid the leveling of society and find passion in our individuality? Can we catch ourselves when we become indulgent in reflection rather than in relation to action? These are worthy checks to add to ourselves to become stronger as individuals. Because our worth comes not just from our participation in a global ‘public’ pool, but also in our ability to be an individual and be unique. We cannot lose the essence of who we are.

Here is my review of the book:

Readability: 2/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 5/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 5/5

Would I Recommend? – As part of a wider philosophical exploration, yes.