Essential or not?

Today’s social media feeds were flooded by this screenshot and reactions to it.

Source: Plural Art Magazine on Facebook, which in turn was from the Straits Times.

Instead of jumping straight to the memes about the importance of artists (this I don’t dispute), I found three additional aspects of the spectrum of responses fascinating.

  • People reacted most strongly to “artists”, not so much “business consultants” nor “human resource managers”.
  • Almost everyone who expressed an opinion online did not ask what the word “essential” meant, which was interesting, because it was in the context of “keeping Singapore going”.
  • Why was so little attention given to the bottom right-hand corner?

On Artists

The first point was fascinating because the posturing for artists was so vigorous it reminded me of a discussion I had with artist friends. My layperson view of artists, and their professions would be limited because of the breadth of the industry. I know artists such as photographers, performing artists, and hobbyist musicians, but the field of art certainly extends beyond this.

The discussion first began with the question, “Are the arts important?” None of us disputed this. Without the arts, we would not be able to enjoy either the physical or digital world. Bad website design would plague us. Our lives would be poorer without music or fiction. The subsequent questions that followed, however, started to split us. They went:

  • How much would you pay for a work of art? How would you decide how much to pay, in broad terms? (E.g. a standalone item such as concert/book or an item with artist consultation such as a pretty website template)
  • If a free source of it was available of a comparable quality (not perfect, e.g. 720p vs 1440p video), would you get the free source at the expense of the paid source?

These questions are particularly pertinent in the face of the current pandemic. In Singapore, restoration of some forms of art (e.g. concerts, jams in bars/clubs) are only expected to return many months later, if they would even return in the form we are used to. The artists who resort to such work as a sole source of income may not be able to wait that long. In such uncertain terms, the question on how artists would survive in a changing economy will be reignited.

To sum up the first point from the artist angle, how much our arts would thrive is dependent on the feasibility of keeping the arts as a livelihood. For instance, if we are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for an American concert, but not a cent for a local artist, we would be collectively poorer in the long run as art with Singaporean flavour begin to decline. There are no straightforward answers to such questions of value and importance, but if we all can agree that the arts have a place in our society, we should rethink about how we can realise the value proposition for the artists to continue being able to produce work that we can enjoy.

It was also interesting, once we extrapolate to the other supposedly “non-essential jobs”, why the reactions were nowhere as vigorous. This deserves a different treatment. Surely the HR manager is important, for the HR manager, as part of his or her work, comprises talent retention and career progression in a large firm. They are part of a machinery that plans for each staff how best to match their skills and abilities to organisational need. Hence, it baffles me why the reaction vis a vis the “artist” classification was so much more vigorous than the other jobs. The second point shall take a stab at this.

What is Essential?

The answer to this question depends on the context and the times we live in. However, context is dependent on perception. Let me paint a scenario to explain this:

“There were several things that we were always thinking about — to be always on the alert, because death was around the corner at any moment, and hunger, constant hunger, where to find food.”

Freida Raisin, who was 8 at the time of World War II that ravaged Belarus. Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/1058728.html

If you had asked such a wartime survivor what were “essential” jobs during those times, the focus of the question naturally lends itself to, “Whatever that would allow her to find food, refuge and peace from conflict.” The food ration provider, the soldier and the engineer that went around fixing broken infrastructure would rank as essential. If you had flipped the question around on what was “non-essential”, it would necessarily be implied that these would refer to jobs that did not directly contribute to that aim.

The exact same line of reasoning probably applied to the Straits Times article. In this case, the context on what was essential was probably, “Whatever could get us past the COVID-19 crisis.” Hence it was natural that healthcare professionals rank top, followed by hygiene-related work (cleaners), followed by those that maintained essential infrastructure (food through hawkers and deliverymen, and sanitary matters through garbage collectors). There are others that maintain essential infrastructure, but their comparatively lower visibility from laypersons would not result in them ranking higher, be it network engineers maintaining Internet infrastructure or production line engineers who made sure personal protective equipment (PPE) lines kept running. Hence, when the question was then flipped on itself, any job that did not fulfil any primary crisis role would be “non-essential”. Technically the argument is logical. Emotionally, such logic would never go down well, especially with industries containing the most expressive people.

Perhaps the survey of jobs to select as “most essential” and “least essential” was set as multiple choice, forcing people to perform ranking choices so they could not answer, “All jobs are essential.” Would that have validated why the results looked the way they were? That would be beyond this blog post, but is food for thought.

To put yourself in the same conundrum with the word “essential”, let me post a thought question as such.

Suppose you were in a decision-making polity such as the Government. Currently, there exists a crisis whereby you can only activate 30% of the total workforce to be able to report to a physical site to work. Select a crisis of your choice (e.g. health, war, famine), impose the restriction in the thought question, and debate with yourself how you would select three out of ten people.

The Elephant in the Room

For all that the article screenshot was worth, the elephant in the room never quite made it to public discourse strongly. I personally thought this was a pressing topic vis a vis the debate we had over migrant labour. There was an attempt to take a stab at that hot topic with the question:

“If the salaries of a construction worker, cleaner or security guard were to be tripled, would I consider taking any of these jobs?”

Straits Times poll

The responses were roughly divided evenly, which gave some food for thought. This information could be combined with the question above in the top-right hand corner: the jobs that these 1,000 people did not want to do. (57% said they did not want to be a garbage collector, 44% did not want to be a construction worker and 42% did not want to be a cleaner) If the survey was representative, it hints to us that wages are unlikely to be the main driving force behind the reason for low local uptake in these sectors, which also happen to be sectors that contain a high migrant workforce count. We can use this survey to also perish any thought of wage-based arguments to encourage more locals to take on such jobs. But someone has to clean the streets, build our flats and ensure our rubbish is cleared up, which explains our migrant worker reliance today. While we may want to, on one hand, talk about the reduction of reliance of migrant workers, we have to also simultaneously realise that this is not a simple one-for-one “migrant for local” substitution. Discussions on what these industries face in restructuring and solutions for them to lessen their reliance on migrant workers would have to take a sectorial approach. For instance, garbage cleaning could eventually be highly mechanised through pneumatic waste conveyance systems, which would indeed get rid of the foul smells in the neighbourhood associated with the garbage truck, and the drivers of said trucks too. To replace them, there would be fewer but higher-skilled workers involved in constructing these infrastructure, and eventually learning how to maintain such a piece of technology. However, this approach would fail in the security guard sector, where a physical presence is needed, especially at critical perimeters of the building.

Now That We Have Cooled Down

Was the survey perfect? Probably not. But I was glad that this was published, eliciting some responses, because our responses to this survey do indeed let slip some of the inner thoughts we have as a society. My hope is that we go beyond the cursory “memes” of mocking the Straits Times, to have deeper discussions on what it means for us to ridicule the responses from the respondents. What does it say about our attitudes towards different groups of people in our society? We should be cautious of being too loud with our responses, but be exposed paying merely lip service to the popular sentiments of the day without thinking more carefully what said lip service entails.

On George Floyd: Doing the Right Thing

(Another 10 minutes read, apologies. Maybe my strong response goes beyond being edgy.)


Out of goodwill, I touched base with a few non-local friends who had opinions, or are affected by the sparks of protests ignited by George Floyd’s death. Deliberately leaving the questions open, I left it to my friends to develop their points on what they thought about George Floyd, and the types of issues that they describe. What did such a sampling result in?


Some of the topics that repeatedly came up include:

  • fights (and friends usually add the quantifier that it’s someone of a different race)
  • the feeling of being marginalised/oppressed
  • having to unfriend people recently because of supposedly “irreconciliable differences”
  • police brutality

The deliberate method of questioning employed suggests that most thoughts on such issues involving easily identifiable differences (in this case, race) is not guided so much by principle as it is by primeval responses.


I used George Floyd as a backdrop to transit to an ever-controversial issue in Singapore: the issue of migrant workers. Let me recast the problem as follows: given a set of migrant workers that help us with many jobs in Singapore, how do we optimise their distribution around the island? As a nation, we have not solved this problem well.
One incident that comes to mind is the Serangoon Gardens dormitory incident in 2008 (https://www.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20080906-86231.html). To briefly recap, about 1,400 residents in Serangoon Gardens signed a petition against the construction of a dormitory near their residences. Digging deeper, some of the concerns the petitioners claimed were:

  • fear of safety
  • fear of property prices dropping
  • fear of foreign habits pervading a “well-defined” Singapore way of life

I do not aim to validate or critique the reasons, neither do I aim to use this post to start a policy debate; these have been done for years and are still being done today in the public sphere vis a vis Lawrence Wong’s statement (https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/new-dorms-better-standards-be-built-100000-foreign-workers-coming-years-lawrence-wong). The debate has now extended to the question of use of public funds for “foreign housing” (note how the bias is deliberately structured).


What do these tell us? Our primeval responses have exhibited themselves right at home. When our way of life can be affected, it is convenient to pin the blame on an entity that looks different from us. In this case, residents in a housing estate can react adversely and blame “foreigners” for affecting how they live. It is a convenient target of blame analogous to how my friends claimed that people of a different race from them usually starts fights. (None of them thought of getting some statistics to support their causes in a free flow conversation, and many never got there, preferring instead to use their experiences to support their points.)


If the last paragraph looked convoluted, it can be summarised as the following:

“Self-Centredness”

As a Singaporean, I realised that almost all the work done to keep our lives running smoothly, to work towards allowing our dreams to take flight is done by a non-Singaporean. My HDB estate is cleaned by cleaners whose faces are displayed at my lift lobby. None of them are Singaporean except perhaps the cleaning supervisor. I have chatted with many bus drivers who drive us to wherever we need to go; many are Malaysians who describe their daily commute on odd hours by motorcycle, so that they can run the first trip at 5.30 am, or run the last trip at midnight. Considering the debate we have over fewer young people wanting to become hawkers, I expect my food to be served by a non-Singaporean with a higher probability as the years go by. Sales staff who assist me whenever I want to make a face-to-face purchase are likely not Singaporeans either. The list of examples goes to highlight just how dependent we are on migrant labour as a society today.

Many migrants arrive in Singapore for a better future owing to the higher wages in Singapore as compared to their host country. Their journey to Singapore is fraught with risk; an agent could cheat them, or that they may not assimilate to Singapore well. They may become homesick too. Many are also cognisant of their status as merely economic sojourners. At its fundamentals, many migrants view the exchange as a transaction that they can benefit from. They may never be able to earn as much as a local would earn or needs to earn. But their mission is clear — earn money, remit back to their families who eagerly await their progress, hoping that the risk of a foreign land is worthwhile.

What is the minimum we can do as Singaporeans? First, respect migrants for the work they do. For a start, ditch the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. The “out of sight, out of mind” mentality merely accentuates our self-centredness. Until magic becomes a reality, someone will have to upkeep the streets, drive the buses and repair the roads. If it happens to be a migrant that is doing it, we should respect them for their work and acknowledge their efforts. The same migrant will also have to live somewhere, eat somewhere and spend off-days somewhere. It would be selfish of us to balk at the idea of allowing migrants access to facilities that they helped build for us. Thankfully, as far as COVID-19 is concerned, I felt that the Government set a good example by taking responsibility for migrants on our land and spending state resources to nurse them back to health. The execution may be fraught with debatable complexities and constant frustration with changing advice, but Singapore has made a statement that it would take care of anyone that contributes to Singapore, in stark contrast to the fate of migrant workers in some other parts of the world (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-52655131). This is a strong statement of trust in the Singapore brand. Going forward, we should house migrant workers properly, and ensure that migrants can work alongside Singaporeans to build a better country.

To sum it up, we may not be able to influence how the George Floyd incident will reverberate through different societies. However, we can take the opportunity to right a long-standing wrong in Singapore. We can transcend beyond our primeval instincts to set a positive example on how different people can co-exist together and achieve win-win outcomes, fuelling the Singapore Dream in more ways than one. We can let dreams take flight, and also serve as the gateway for migrants to get out of the poverty trap without having to trade in their dignity.

P.S. This is not a policy piece, and will not cover other broad aspects of Singapore society. The intent, however, is to show how we can incrementally improve Singapore in relation to how we treat our migrants. After all, if we believe in the adage that “those in glass houses shall not throw stones”, let us harden our glass. We should still not throw stones, though.

On George Floyd, Freedoms and Ignorance

Instead of exercising freedoms of speech and expression (as what the United States claims to be a paragon of) to have open conversations about race, as well as about law and order, we see police brutality, race issues and protests unfurl across the country.

Years back, I was in the US myself. Showing public displays of dissatisfaction through placards and signboards is quintessentially American. In fact, I was greeted with protest signs and graffiti in many different parts of the US. I think such a freedom of expression in the US will persist simply out of habit.

However, a persitent and disturbing them recently is how voices of reason and voices of synthesis — people who try to bring conflicting parties to the negotiation table, are drowned out. This is no way to iron out any new agreement. Just because all of us have our own inclinations and biases does not mean that we are always correct; all of us have to, from time to time, remove ourselves from our self-created ideological bubbles, and understand what others articulate. Sometimes, from the outside, we may also look at ourselves and realise how our rose-tinted views within our bubbles could have clouded our judgement.

Recently I asked some friends who were more well-versed with the US situation (they live there) if they thought existing tensions in contemporary issues such as police brutality, racism or political standoffs could be managed or defused. None of them were particularly optimistic about it.

They were reasonable in discussing the issues that plague different parts of the United States, such as the rural discontent over how economic restructuring around the rest of the US has left them behind the value curve, and that those who have advanced look towards low-cost centres abroad to do much of the manufacturing that the Rust Belt used to do. Some expressed, too, the increasing level of danger given the increased scrutiny over race-based issues. While it could be statistically convenient to use easy-to-identify characteristics in demographic studies (example a public health research paper can say that a certain race could be at higher risk of a certain disease because said profile tends to have certain cultural habits that could aggravate a medical issue), it is not correct to pin down a certain race to a certain characteristic without proof. How helpful can it be to public discourse when we say, “Blacks are violent?” It brings nothing to the table; what kind of a leap of logic is this?

I am not sure if the Americans will eventually get their act together, but it highlights at least one model of civil society that is not constructive. Just because anyone seems to be allowed to spout what they want to say by law does not necessarily lead to said freedoms being applicable in practice (fear of being shot by another community, or being violated), neither does it lead to a constructive result if conflicting parties simply talk over one another.

Perhaps what we see today is also a symptom of the splits across different groups of people today. This is something Singapore has to watch out for in its populace as we continue to make difficult trade-offs. Few decisions, if any, will receive any sort of universal consensus today; these decisions were probably easy or simply rhetorical. Hence, what is left for us are tough decisions, especially with an unfriendly geopolitical climate. We get questions on whether we are too pro-China or too pro-US. Should we move beyond cheap foreign labour?

Before we head in first with our ideological lens, perhaps we should take a step back first, and do at least a simple study on the topics being discussed, before jumping in. Before trying to claim one power is superior to another, perhaps understand how countries set foreign policy, look at what said foreign policy tries to achieve, before wearing an ideological lens to articulate an issue. Even if we all claim to be more educated than previous generations, I have come to realise all of us still don’t know far more than we know.

Coming from a Physics background, we have an analogy for our ignorance. In the world today, the matter we are all familiar with is only about 5% of the universe, compared to dark matter (approx 27%) and dark energy (approx 68%). And most of our undergraduate course revolves around, well, matter, since we understand it far better than dark matter or dark energy. (I am sure you can carve out such analogies for different areas of expertise, for instance. No one can be an expert in all areas in cybersecurity, or business.) To try to be literate in a different subject matter takes effort, and even after a long while we are quite unlikely to be any expert on it. I am quite sure nobody, for instance, will seek advice from me on horticulture simply because the only seeds I can sow are seeds of doubt and the only food i can grow is food for thought.

I know I have written a long verbose post, but the main point I would like to return to about what’s seen in the US is that we should not gloat over it, since we are so far away from it, neither should we try to take sides assuming we know what is going on (usually we don’t). But we need to understand the dynamics that result in these explosive encounters, because we want to make sure that, in Singapore, we retain what we cherish: a functioning society that, through law and order, has the capability of keeping the peace with our diversity. We are by no means perfect, but I think our consensus for respecting the law has allowed us to discuss controversial issues without the level of fear that currently pervades the US today. It is ironic.

Circuit Breaker Diary: Week 2

(More mundane days are redacted.)

Monday, 13 April

The start of a new week.

The highlight today was takeaway during lunch. I went to takeaway food from a Japanese food stall and was greeted with emptiness. There were more stall employees than people ordering takeaway. How would any of these stalls survive when the relief payments dry up next month? What is everyone eating as a substitute?

Tuesday, 14 April

Another chain of online conferences. This time I think I adapted better to them. I think I did not feel as exhausted even though I ended them at 10 pm. Slight improvement.

I was glad to grace Toa Payoh Central’s TMC as TMD, especially considering this was their anniversary celebration! It was quite fun trying to be an online host, and especially when it was for a club I was not a member for. One of the old-timers even tried to challenge Toa Payoh Central TMC to do better, through me, thinking that I was a member!

Wednesday, 15 April

I recently got to know of a Brazilian friend as a result of the AWAE. Being a COVID-19 survivor, he shared some stories about Rio de Janeiro. After jumping through the imaginary language barrier (the videos were in Portuguese), I realised what it means to be in a dangerous environment. He says he wants to move to Asia in the future. 🙂 I wonder how to help him; he has got talent! Working through deserialization at the age of 22. At the age of 22 I was solving for energy levels in a 3-atom system in a linear chain.

Thursday, 16 April

(redacted)

Friday, 17 April

A day where I was on an audio or video conference for the whole day. How did I survive this?

After that, I did some reading and (yay) continued on the writing project after such a long while! Getting back to writing felt difficult because I needed some motivation to write something decent.

At the back of my head, I wondered how many people could truly be productive working from home. It takes discipline to transform home into an office, and work from it productively.

Saturday, 18 April

Like 8.5 million other people (at the time of writing, according to Youtube views), I watched the Phantom of the Opera. This was hauntingly beautiful. I will pay to watch the live performance, when it finally happens.

Sunday, 19 April

(redacted)

Circuit Breaker Diary: Week 1

Tuesday, 7 April

Woke up to the realisation that it is a circuit breaker. Thankfully some colleagues sent me some links on free courses on Pluralsight. Still trying to get used to work from home. It feels odd, because I never optimised my house for extensive work from home (WFH). How I wish I bought a good chair when I could.

First day of circuit breaker went on fine. Bought lunch from an old-timer stall which I have known for many years. Forbidden fruit tastes sweetest, after all. Trying to see what kind of connections I could remake. How many friends do we cross paths with, only to lose sight of them? Maybe Facebook has its benefits after all, keeping acquaintances within easy reach. But virtual connections do not beat the real one. Now I cannot go play sports with my friends for a month.

Wednesday, 8 April

A teleconference and then a Toastmasters meeting in the evening by video conference. Does that feel like a typical workday? By the time my 5 hours of virtual conferencing ended, I felt really fatigued. Did I really stay rooted to the chair for the whole duration of the calls? Maybe I need to be smarter and deliberately insert breaks to mitigate this.

Remembered that a communication trainer once mentioned about the importance of non-verbal communication. Through a camera, it is more difficult to infer visual cues as these can be selectively obscured by how the recipient chooses to focus his or her camera. For instance, can you really tell someone is lying over camera, if we do not have the opportunity to see his or her palms and feet? Or maybe to be confident that we sense trepidation in his or her voice as opposed to connectivity lag? Maybe we have all taken these non-verbal cues for granted in text messaging, and hence communication is more tiring. Thus, the advice to us was to OVERCOMMUNICATE. Does this not sound like how air traffic control works? But I guess OVERCOMMUNICATION means plenty of redundancy, and missing pieces of redundancy suggest that the message did not quite get through. That is partially why aviation is so safe nowadays. Feeling a bit sad now, because so many planes are grounded.

Thursday, 9 April

Some days into Pluralsight’s Java course. For someone that uses Python, learning a language like Java (properly) has its difficulties, but I am getting the hang of it. The large monitor screen at home helps. I realised that I am quite privileged during the circuit breaker; thinking about those who are out of work admittedly hurts.

For those who could leverage on free material during circuit breaker/lockdown/any isolation event, good, we are privileged. How about those who are now mandated away from their workplace, and are paid based on hours they clock in? Or some friends who are years younger than me, in their graduation years, only to enter the economy in potentially the worst time in years.

Friday, 10 April

How good is this Good Friday? By now I have tried to reconnect with quite a number of friends. Interestingly, some other friends have decided to play some sort of Bingo thing on Instagram. Looks like people are already bored. Would they sound deranged by Week 3?

Spent my Good Friday testing a new Capture-the-Flag (CTF) format after being invited by a fellow infosec buddy. Had fun for two hours. A bit slow, but at least I am not that rusty! It’s fun to make new friends while working through challenges.

Saturday, 11 April

I realised I no longer keep myself peeled to the news on COVID-19 updates. Usually a few people update me, either through private message, or the flurry of daily responses to every piece of COVID-19 news.

I was thinking about the possibility of not being able to find a prophylatic method to stop COVID-19. During the night, I was educated on the current research work in different areas of COVID-19 mitigation and treatment. Heard about “monoclonal antibody treatment” for the first time. In short, training the immune system to detect targets, and create antibodies to mitigate them. Reminds me of some random reading I did on incurable viral infections such as HIV, and how I ended up reading about CD4 and CD8 T-cells and the complexities of the immune system. Biological systems are complex; this was why I didn’t study biology in JC. I preferred simple systems.

Sunday, 12 April

The lady who saw my tingkat can said that it was cute. Changed from an old-fashioned cylindrical one to a cuter one that resembled an apple. Who said the only Apple products are Macs?

Also I thought it might be nice to write this to share one thought I had each day, now that circuit breaker gives me time to think. Maybe a diary-writing habit, or at least a 15-minute reflection session daily is helpful. (Interjection from my recent readings on OODA loops: maybe also include mental model training.)

A Different Dimension of the Novel Coronavirus (nCOV) Crisis

Is nCOV the same as SARS? H1N1? Or is it something else? Depending on who one asks, and which perspective you seek, one will get different answers. The dynamic nature of a crisis is such that there are information gaps, which I will spend some time to opine on.

Medical Facts

First, let us lay some factual content.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nCOV has a wide variance of symptoms. Some report little or no symptoms and recover well, but a small minority of cases result in death. The novelty of nCOV also suggests the difficulty in drawing analogies to other coronaviruses such as MERS and SARS.

For nCOV, there is no known “cure” for it; symptom management is usually prescribed. These may include life support for the most serious of cases. Prevention of virus transmission is similar to other contagious illnesses such as influenza; good hygiene and self-isolation on suspicion of being a nCOV carrier.

Beyond Medical Facts

An individual often asks, “What should I do?” This is a different question from the society at large, where the questions are more macroscopic in nature. In brief, the macroscopic responses in an epidemic are based on virulence, ease of detection and lethality. These usually result in containment and mitigation strategies. With the dynamic nature of a health issue, these can change with time, often making it difficult for an individual to react accordingly. The gaps in information to the individual are a fertile ground for havoc.

Making Up Opinions in the Information Space

Facts in a crisis are incomplete. Hence, we have to rely on our opinions and judgements to make decisions. The decisions we arrive at an individual level are often determined by our differing biases. Some of these individual decisions result in effects that reverberate across communities and trigger others to do the same, hampering macroscopic efforts.

Unlike SARS (2003) and H1N1 (2009), the crisis this time is discussed about largely through social media. Anybody can create and propagate information. This leads to reinforcing loops becoming viral (pun unintended), regardless of the accuracy or use of said content. One of these reinforcing loops is the panic buying episodes we have witnessed.

Let us use the panic buying episodes (first, masks and sanitisers, and second, food and toilet paper) as illustrations. One example that could lead to panic buying is as follows:

  • Concerned citizen reads an article of medical workers donning hazmat suits in a hospital.
  • The first impression of a hazmat suit that comes to mind is “serious medical condition”.
  • Given the interpretation of a “serious medical condition”, concerned citizen reads up on preventive methods along the lines of a hazmat suit.
  • Concerned citizen heads off to buy protective personal equipment (PPE) like masks, hand sanitisers and so on.
  • Concerned citizen then spreads this message to his entire Whatsapp chat group, fuelling the same cycle.

The consequence of this example is a horde of people buying all sorts of PPE without checking if said PPE is necessary. None of these actions, on their own, look incorrect in the face of a crisis at the individual level, but this results in a problem at the macroscopic level. They can further compound, such as in this list:

  • Primary problem: Shortage of PPE in shops.
  • Follow-up problem: Will people who need PPE have enough PPE to last a crisis of unknown time?
  • Perception management issue 1: What will others think if they see empty shelves of PPE (and then fuelling the panic buying cycle all over).
  • Perception management issue 2: How do we communicate with people who have been triggered to respond in “panic-buying mode”?

A medical crisis can quickly evolve into a perception management crisis because of virulent spread of information that does not aid the macroscopic response. Obviously, a mask shortage happens because people overbuy them! In a state of panic, rational communication becomes difficult. The subject of risk assessment is also difficult to communicate about, leading to gross overreactions because of an inaccurate assessment of risk level. That is odd, considering that Singapore has a risk assessment matrix in 2020.

Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON)

After SARS in 2003, it was clear that communicating actionable information was important. DORSCON was set up to communicate preventive measures to the public in the event of a public health issue such as this.

Bite-size information in a chart like DORSCON should help in the event of panic. But why did we overreact?

One shortcoming with DORSCON is that many of us are not familiar with its contents. Most of the time, DORSCON status is green, and hence is taken for granted. In low probability events such as epidemics, we are often untrained to think under panic, unlike people who are trained to react calmly to emergencies, such as firefighters, specialist military troops and negotiators. Hence, people overreact when they think not so much of the actual DORSCON chart when the status changed from “yellow” to “orange” as it is the colour change. (Orange is only one step away from red alert! Oh dear!) However, we shall leave this to an after-action review.

Total Defence is a Useful Paradigm — Use It!

If DORSCON is the “process”, the “principle” that helps us rationalise our collective defence is Total Defence that comprises of military, psychological, civil, social, economic and digital defence. I shall confine my focus on psychological defence, which is defined as the “commitment and confidence in our future”

As a Singaporean, I value my home because there exists nowhere else that I can call myself home in. Because of that, I feel disappointed when we start spreading fake news to spread panic unwittingly. I feel anguished because I want to try to stop the reinforcing loop of panic build-up. We can do better than overly panic about our future. How can we do that? Simple ways:

  • Keep calm and carry on with life: We have DORSCON to guide us. We can continue to obtain food supplies reliably, so please do not overreact and cause another crisis. Wouldn’t you feel silly if you look back at the year and bemoan that so much time was wasted “bitching about a virus”?
  • Follow the health advisories. PPE is for high risk profiles such as healthcare workers. We do not know how long nCOV will last. Hence, we need to ensure we are well-equipped for the long run. We don’t want our healthcare workers to themselves get infected and become super-spreaders.
  • Stay healthy. Eat well and exercise well, and upkeep personal hygiene. Soap and water is still best. No one will blame you for repeated trips to the washroom. Free walking exercise too.
  • Keep the information space clean. Do not spread news that will aggravate panic. If we all claim that the government should have anticipated panic buying, we should also do our part to not be part of a panic-induced decision. No point finger-pointing when more fingers point back at ourselves.
  • Look out for everyone’s psychological well-being. As the epidemic progresses, healthcare services will take a toll, and our heroes will be psychologically burdened. Keep their spirits up. They work overtime, and will receive abuse due to panic. No one wants to be abused.
  • Do not try to speculate. Besides spreading even more panic, speculation only makes one look like a gossip monger. We need actionable information, not information to scare ourselves. This is not Halloween.
  • Stop being xenophobic. While humans can tell apart nationalities, viruses do not care. Viruses spread regardless of race, language or religion. Nationality too.

The fight is all of ours, healthy or sick. We can triumph over this just like how we did against SARS. But it takes a whole-of-country approach to be confident in our future. I am, because we are far more prepared compared to 2003. Are you?

Another End of Year Post

Are end-of-year notes still a thing? Even if they are not, I think it is good to write them, even though I plan to take a different approach to this. I don’t think you, as a reader, would appreciate a “year summary” very much. However, there is a central question I have for this year, which I shall write about. (If you see a casual mention about yourself in the note though, be glad!)

The average Singaporean male lives for about 82 years on average. While we cannot predict exactly when we die, we can use some rough figures to estimate how much time, on average, is gone. For me, about a third of my life has elapsed. It may be useful to look at reflections not just in 2019, but throughout my life journey.

Often, when quizzed about the amount of time we have, we never seem satisfied. For me, I always think I have too little time. But 28 years (my age, really) of time is incredibly long. At the least, it has allowed me to develop as an individual capable of sustenance at the very least. While I am not a polymath, I still have energy in me for further development. There appears to be a paradox. How can I complain about time, considering the long average lifespan in Singapore?

The apparent paradox is resolved by realising that the average lifespan of an individual means little. Despite the Chinese perceiving long lives as blessings, these wishes do not provide any insight about the quality of life, or capabilities said human may possess. Someone may live half a life in sickness or in low energy. In Singapore, we see much more provision for wheelchairs today because of an aging population. I personally dislike the thought of having my view restricted to wherever a wheelchair can bring me to.

Many friends in my age group think about how life shall be like. Some would like to earn plenty of money to travel to Machu Picchu or the Alps. Others foresee themselves setting up a creation they can call their own — a family. The wish-list is long, but mine is quite simple, once I start to strip it down into its basics. Almost every New Year, when I write resolutions, they somehow only revolve around these: being the best version of myself, being able to maintain the best version of myself, and being able to improve whatever that may be around me.

I will probably only write about “being the best version of myself” in this post. If you find this is helpful, and would like me to write on the other two aspects, let me know.

Being the best version of myself is translated to self-improvement. However, I find “self-improvement” too vague, and almost every resolution I set with “self-improvement” in mind turns out to be quite unfocused. This is because “self-improvement” comes in many forms. These can take on personal perspectives such as being loving and kind. These can be targetted at competencies, such as being good at what one claims as his or her profession. These can also be role-based, such as being the best parent, child or colleague. Usually, to push for a clearer resolution, I focus on specific skills I would like to improve on. After obtaining the OSCP certification last year, I finally had time this year to pursue a wider range of skills, such as setting up vulnerable training laboratory machines, dabbling in exploit development, more web application attacks and a little wireless attacks. Additionally, being able to communicate about a technical topic (in this case, understanding and constructing vulnerable training laboratory machines) allowed me a platform to improve technical communication with a wide audience.

However, self-improvement is important, not just for skill development. It is also important to understand that, as mere mortals, we simply cannot be master at everything. However, realising what we lack about many things is quite easy. To put this in perspective, I remembered my Physics lecturer saying this:

There are four stages to learning:

  1. First, you don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. Next, you know what you don’t know. (Awareness)
  3. After which, you know what you know. (Competence)
  4. Finally, you don’t know what you know. (Subconscious Mastery)

Reaching subconscious mastery is difficult, but may be worthwhile. This is who you look up to as senpai, whose seemingly simple moves can be quite arcane. The senpai is one who has already mastered his or her craft through the dedication of thousands of hours to it. Anyone who has done a sport competitively would recount the rigour coaches put their students through, such that their basics become second nature. It would be nice to reach this stage of mastery, but this is difficult.

The stage which I would like to explain a little, vis a vis self-improvement, is the awareness stage. Awareness is not simply about “knowing the surface”. Often, it also means “being aware of what you don’t know”. This is arguably more important than simply knowing the surface because a good understanding of our lack of knowledge helps us avoid the over-confidence trap we see in the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In the Dunning-Kruger Effect, we can loosely place the “awareness” stage slightly past the fairly overconfident stickman in blue. As we begin to realise our lack of deep knowledge in a certain field of expertise, our confidence level drops. This is quite normal, and should not be disheartening. Often, this is the phase where we humble ourselves, recollect our thoughts, and think deeply about whether we should advance further. In some cases, we do not, because we appreciate that our limitations may not be worth the investment in trying harder.

Bringing this back to the “self-improvement” mantra I have each year, I prefer to divide this vague term into a few categories.

  • Building a breadth of understanding, so that I understand what I know and what I don’t know. This usually takes the form of “exposure classes” to many things. Exposure classes need not merely be limited to what sparks joy. Sometimes, one takes an exposure class primarily for awareness. For instance, it would be a good idea to understand what cryptocurrencies are, and what they are not, so as to be able to detect and mitigate potential “scams”, even though one may never ever dabble in the cryptocurrency market.
  • In areas where I find interest and competency in, develop deeper skills. This can arise from “exposure classes”. Sometimes I find that I am good at certain things, and that I could go further. This is typically where the try harder mentality comes in. I generally find a few opportunities to break out of “awareness” into “competence”. A few opportunities per year to try harder, I find, is quite good. Especially with a world everyone describes as “changing rapidly”, the ability to pick up new skills quickly and effectively is important.
  • In areas where I do not find interest, but I must know, I need to find a coach, mentor, or a guide, to pull me through. It is unrealistic to expect that I will enjoy everything. However, there are a range of skills, some of which survivalist, that I need to be good at. A good example over the years would be the Scouting experiences I picked up over my secondary school days. I would not claim to be an enthusiast at knot-tying or map-reading, but knowing such skills can turn out be quite useful outside Scouts.

While I shall not reveal any specific New Year resolutions for next year, my “self-improvement” chart every year does not differ too much from looking at it from these three angles. It is also timely to return to the beginning discussion where I had an apparent paradox of time. Why do I feel that I never have enough time? That is because I have no guarantee that said time exists, in the form I would like. Can I guarantee that I will be healthy ten years later? I cannot tell you for sure with any known probabilities. With such murky propositions, my best guess is really nothing more than, “Based on how I feel today, I think I should be fine next year, but ten years is a little hard to predict.” Because of the lack of certainty, we must always make plans, push for them to work out wherever possible, yet acknowledge that they can fail catastrophically through no fault of our own. Is this not yet another paradox?

Well, the apparent paradox can simply be resolved by the fact that short milestones are far less likely to be deviated from than long milestones. This lends well to the timeframe of a “new year resolution”, which really means we should take advantage of this trend: plan something at the start of the year and stocktake at the end of the year. Statistically we are likely to succeed than five-year plans most governments plan for. For those who find difficulty planning yearly, try this trick: think of a lofty dream one has, and then break it down into as many parts deemed necessary, and digestible in year plans. While we may never end up achieving the exact same lofty dream we wanted, we might, in our journey, discover a different lofty dream that may wind up being more appealing than what we first started out with. However, at the very least, on one’s deathbed, one can say that one tried harder to make something happen.

Life can be quite unpredictable, but the end of the year is a good time to stocktake, think about what went wrong and what went right, but do not take too much time to mull over this. It’s a great time to think about next year. Amidst the fireworks and festive cheer each new year, would you not hope to similarly sparkle and dazzle as well? Surely we can all try to aim to be the best version of ourselves, and it is not that hard to do so. Try harder.

对台湾旅游的感触 (Feelings about Taiwan Travels)

I travelled to understand the world and what the best talents could do – that was through a unique road trip through the United States.

I travelled to discover just how different people can be even in close proximity – that was through train rides for city escapades in Europe.

I travelled to sense, with my five senses, good quality produce at good prices – that was through my sensory journeys in Japan.

However, this time was different.

I travelled to a place famed for its night markets and shows. But beyond that, it’s not bustling Tokyo, neither is it a reinvented city with quaint charm and the graphic display of history like Berlin. It tries to be a technology hub, but is not San Francisco either.

However, this place sparks a different kind of joy. We can speak the same tongue, connect, and make new friends so easily. The joy of friendly people that welcome us as if we are one of them. It’s once again not Tokyo, where one is a gaijin as long as one is not Japanese. It’s also not San Francisco, where there still exists explicit racism. And it’s certainly not Berlin, where there exists certain shades of danger in quiet corners. Making friends here is effortless.

Welcome to Taipei, a city in Taiwan. A city where I have made many friends through common experiences. To travellers, what we remember aren’t so much the travel guides we read or the tourist dollars we spend, but the memories we forge with its people. Memories are forged with friends whom we share common experiences with, such as enjoying a simple walk in the park, a tea up in the mountains, or singing at a Taiwanese KTV.(我唱歌的能力还不到你们的水准。)I treasure Taiwan most for friends, and I have been honoured to meet so many of you!


改天,我一定找个机会回来台湾玩一玩!搭飞机很快,不到5小时。

P.S. To my newly-made Taiwanese friends, please don’t make me type an entire translation in Chinese, but I promise I will type more Chinese. 我会打多一些中文,因为我自己也觉得我的中文有进步的空间。我用英文打字是给机会学习怎么读英文喔!

Eva: Probably the Most Under-rated Airline I’ve Taken

Flight Details
Flight: BR216 from Singapore to Taipei-Taoyuan
Flight time: 4 hours 40 minutes (scheduled)
Departure: slightly after 1525 hours.
Arrival: approx 1945 hours. (plane caught up!)

Review

As a traveller who often leans for a full-service carrier instead of a budget carrier should the price differential not be great intra-Asia, I have expectations that the premium I pay is worthwhile.

This time, we travel on Eva Air, which departs from Changi Airport from Terminal 3. First pictures from T3: a pretty A350 of its alliance partner, Singapore Airlines.

Is this Insta-worthy? 🙂

Eva Air departed from a slightly far gate at Gate B9 this time, and it was a full flight. Just look at how full this gate was! Eva Air’s Boeing 777-300ER takes more than 300 passengers; I’d be in for a full flight.

Our Boeing 777-300ER. Not a kitty jet though.

Boarding commenced somewhat late (I arrived about 10 minutes into boarding). Interesting note: Eva also offers Chinese papers of both Singapore and Taiwan.

Nice touch of traditional airline service even though I don’t think Eva is a “traditional airline” by any means!

Note that Eva Air’s 777-300ERs have two configurations; a 9-abreast one (which I was on) and a 10-abreast one. The difference for economy passengers is stark; I’m lucky to get a more spacious configuration. Note that this is the long-haul product that also goes to North America.

Imagine stuffing another seat into each row. That’s the 777-300ER, 10-abreast. The 777 can get a bad reputation for being a squeezy plane for that reason. This, however, was thankfully spacious, like SQ’s 777-300ERs.

Amenities were standard: pillow, blanket for day-time flight. Interestingly the IFE was disabled during take-off, landing, and featured plenty of advertisements. Perhaps one cannot avoid these, or that such ancillary revenue is significant for Eva Air. Note for passengers who bring their own earphones: bring along your adapter or get only mono sound.

Still old-school!!!

For half the flight, I turned my economy seat into a workstation. Let us see how that turned out. Before we begin, let’s have some post-departure snacks.

Rice crackers and nuts. Yes, I’m on Eva. 🙂

Cabin crew went around with drink service. They had green tea, which I was glad about, since it’s my default go-to drink if I needed to stay awake on the plane.

Green tea. 🙂

After that, I had some time to type away on my computer. The picture below shows the importance of seat width; seat width also affects tray table width. I had a comfortable, robust working surface and had some spare space to put aside what I was done, or perhaps a phone that I could take reference to for this flight.

Fits my loyal 13′ MacBook well. Small charging light on the left also shows a working A/C power supply. Good!

Legroom was also great. The tray table was quite basic (no cup holder, which further underscored the importance of seat width to place my cup on the table while I worked on my laptop).

I started working on my laptop while listening to classical music on Eva Air. The sound quality was good enough to provide some sort of white noise to work for an hour, before meal service came.

Looking through the hard copy of a manuscript while working on a side project. Somehow I was on a page that documented my Delta flight, and my Emirates flight years ago.

Meal service, however, was disappointing. Perhaps, to the defence of Eva Air, there is no good time to serve dinner, so maybe their portions were… smaller? The quantity of the main course, however, was somewhat appalling. (Somehow economy portions have downsized: refer to https://donavan.sg/blog/index.php/2019/05/26/off-topic-a-travel-review-on-cathay-pacific/ for a similar case of sad economy class food offerings.)

Eva Air chicken option. I should have picked the fish with rice option; they topped the rice up to the brim, at least!

Gone are the good old days where economy class meals were a proposition to look forward to, e.g. the BKK-SIN flight I had a year back on SQ.

This was catering on SQ one year ago. The main course was larger than that of Eva’s. Not included in this picture: an ice-cream that was served after the main meal tray.

I couldn’t give a good airplane food review because I had gobbled whatever there was of the main course. Oh well.

The lavatory was quite a refreshing sight (literally). Flowers greeted each lavatory visitor, which was a nice touch.

Obligatory shot of lavatory. Meet the new addition to the “standard plane attire”: a pocket square. 🙂

Eva Air’s lavatory can be best summarised as an apothecary with its various potions.

Various potions on offer: facial mist, body mist, lotion and handwash. I am very impressed.

This was above and beyond what I expected in an economy class lavatory.

The AvGeek in me decided to ask for playing guides. My dreams were fulfilled. Standard set, not the Hello Kitty one, but playing cards are very much the entertainment of old-school flyers.

Eva Air branded playing cards.

But what really blew me away on this flight was the service oriented nature of the staff. While asking for playing cards, the stewardesses had a chat and noticed I was working away on my laptop. We chit chatted, and I dropped a passing comment about me not doing very much homework at planning my Taiwan itinerary. The stewardess worked out a make-shift solution together with me at the back of the plane; she, with the help of some fellow stewardesses, cobbled together a list of food places without even me asking for any such help. Included was also travel instructions on getting to the hotel. This was the above and beyond value-added service I managed to get.

A list of foods. So far I’ve had the duck blood and beef noodles from another place. There will be chances to try more food. 😀

I guess one reason for being partial towards full-service carriers is because of the service that staff provide on-board. At times, travellers like me are in a rush and hence do not always plan for things when we should. The service aspect of full-service carriers is important, and Eva Air certainly delivered with something they honestly never needed to do for a normal passenger like me. Taiwanese hospitality is very much real. Interestingly, I also had a short chat with the stewardess about Chinese education in Singapore, and she strongly encouraged me to write in traditional Chinese. Her reason? At least we understand why certain words in Chinese are the way they are, such as the Chinese word for “noodle”.

This probably looks more like the business class menu; I didn’t see this.

Eventually we landed in Taipei Taoyuan safely, and took a long walk to immigration.

Evening arrival in Taipei-Taoyuan. Somehow it was made to do TPE-SIN and SIN-TPE again, before being routed to TPE-IAH as this blog post was written.

Would I Recommend Eva Air?

Yes, I would! Service blew me away even though the meal left much to be desired. I did not even review the IFE very much; that was just how impressed I was at their service. Reminded me of my Singapore-Dusseldorf flight where the flight attendants, too, gave travel recommendations and tried to get me extra food for my journey ahead. I’ll probably pen a commendation letter for their great work.

Hidden Gem of Eva Air

One of the most underrated aspect of Eva Air is how their schedule is tweaked almost perfectly for departures to the United States from South-East Asia. Since I’m based in Singapore, let me use these flight timetables as an illustration of the short, natural layovers to North America on Eva Air (timetables caa 21 October 2019).

Arrivals (from Singapore) Connecting to Departures (to North America)

1745 (Singapore – SIN)
1910 (New York – JFK)
1920 (Los Angeles – LAX)
1940 (San Francisco – SFO)
1940 (Toronto – YYZ)
1950 (Singapore – SIN)
1950 (Seattle – SEA)
2000 (Chicago – ORD)
2200 (Houston – IAH)
2330 (San Francisco – SFO)
2340 (Seattle – SEA)
2355 (Los Angeles – LAX)
2355 (Vancouver – YVR)

Arrivals (from North America) Connecting to Departures (to Singapore)

0440 (Seattle – SEA)
0455 (Chicago – ORD)
0500 (Toronto – YYZ)
0510 (Los Angeles – LAX)
0510 (Seattle – SEA)
0515 (New York – JFK)
0520 (Houston – IAH)
0530 (San Francisco – SFO)
0545 (Los Angeles – LAX)
0550 (San Francisco – SFO)
0600 (Houston – IAH)
0740 (Singapore – SIN)
0925 (Singapore – SIN)

In both directions, connections are excellent for Singapore flights to North America. No weird long layovers in airports. Eva Air, moreover, tends to not be the most expensive option available, and is in Star Alliance, which means the possibility of collecting KrisFlyer miles for those with KrisFlyer that are based in Singapore too. (SQ codeshares on some of these Eva flights as well). The Eva options available for US destinations (many also *A hubs) presents an option for travellers based in Singapore who do not want to take the SIN-EWR, SIN-LAX, SIN-SFO or SIN-SEA non-stops, perhaps because of their price premium. Among the numerous one-stop itineraries possible for SIN to North America travel, Eva schedules are very compelling.

Will write more travel reviews as I go along. Ciao!

Value of our Values?

A number of my friends had strong responses to Prof. Koh’s claim of Singapore being a “first-world country with third-world people”. It was also fairly interesting some responses online became one of blame, as opposed to constructive feedback. That has been a theme for a while in civic society, which supports Prof. Koh’s claim.

Many people have dissected Singaporean behaviour in their respective articles, so I shall not provide yet another treatise on the same thing. Instead, I would like to point towards a certain word, “value”. A measure of value towards something is important because it tells us how much we are willing to work for it. For instance, our valuation towards having a quality education is important, because it allows us, statistically, to open more doors for opportunities.

It is perhaps in asking how much we value our values that is important. For a start, values are supposed to be principles we hold dear to. Some of us could value righteousness very much, and hence defend our friends in times of trouble. Others may value intelligence very much, and would stop at nothing to advance their knowledge on any subject matter. We may need to revisit the kinds of values that we value and perhaps re-adjust some of these. Let me give a few examples.

The Kampung Spirit: Many Singaporeans liken the Singapore of old to having a strong “kampung spirit”. Some of us lament that this “kampung spirit” is slowly fading away for other forms of interaction. Some of these observations happen simply because of the changes to our lives. For instance, the food that we may have bought from a provision shop, coffeeshop owner or from a market may now be bought on an e-commerce or food delivery website. This means that what was supposedly a human interaction with a constant supplier has now changed to at best, a variable deliveryman. But not everything has changed like this. To restart the “kampung spirit”, we can look around us and identify the people who belong to our social fabric. We need not look that far to do that. These could be the bus drivers who drive the same bus routes, or the stalls that we often buy our dinner takeout from. Say hi to them, exchange greetings and understand one another. While these may not directly amount to much, the social bonds we form with people around us could prove to be a spark to recover the “kampung spirit” we cherish.

Consumerism and Convenience: We have become far more prosperous than ever before. We also have a society of convenience today. Food is never more than a few clicks away on a food delivery website. We can now shop so conveniently and many of us are affluent enough to buy a lot of what we want. However, when is our consumption considered too much? I think we overconsume, and partially due to the convenience to consume far more than what we really need. Sometimes, these arise from our own doing. We buy a piece of clothing that looks pretty at first glance, only to wear it once or twice throughout its life cycle. We go to restaurants and order the maximum amount of food (presumably to impress on people one’s affluence), only to realise that our appetites may not be that limitless. Rethinking about our consumption patterns is important if we value our planet. After all, insatiable consumer demand does encourage firms to continue production in a bit to satisfy consumer demand whilst pocketing profit. If we could all consume less, the world would perhaps see less demand for such manic consumption. Fewer resources would eventually be expended and our planet could be better-off. (I shall leave the discussions on environment and economic efficiency to separate musings should I have time.)

This is a short post, but not all is lost as what the dystopian view is. There are some individual habits we have that we can change to be less of a “third-world person” that appears to lack manner, graces or even human decency towards others. Such a short article would not do justice to the actual breadth of the topic, but I hope I have provided a small, individual perspective towards how we can inch towards a slightly better people.

Aiming towards a first world country and first world people!