How green are Uber and Lyft? Independent study to clear the air

I was at the Disrupting Mobility conference at MIT last week where this study was announced. A little original report: 

Peer-to-peer ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft often tout their services as a means of getting people to ditch their cars. But their environmental impact is an open question. While firms claim their offerings are good for the environment, skeptics say ride-hailing services might crowd out less-pollutive alternatives like biking and walking, or contribute to urban sprawl by making it easier for people to get around.

A new study announced last week (Nov 13) will help settle that debate. The study, to be conducted by the University of California, Berkeley and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Urban Solutions program, will survey ride-hailing users and tap the companies’ own data, reported BetaBoston:

“Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley, said she hopes to gather at least 2,000 pieces of data from at least two cities to measure the environmental impact of the rides, asking riders information about the car they took, their demographics, and what they would have done if they hadn’t used Uber or Lyft. The ride-hailing companies will send the survey to users and add their own anonymized data on details such as how far drivers had to drive to pick up their passengers, Shaheen said.

The research “will help us understand current and potential impacts”, Shaheen added.

It will examine users of Uber and Lyft’s long-standing ride-hailing apps – the companies have been around since 2009 and 2012 respectively – as well as the newer UberPOOL and Lyft Line carpooling services, launched in the past year.

The study, expected to be completed in 2016, is funded by the Hewlett Foundation and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. Uber and Lyft are not contributing financially to this work, said the NRDC’s Amanda Eaken.

A pilot survey last year by UC Berkeley researchers compared taxi and ridesourcing trips and users in San Francisco, but was too small to draw solid conclusions about whether ridesourcing displaced public-transit trips. However, it found that 66 per cent of those rides would have taken twice as long by public transit – if nearby transit was even available.

Tim Papandreou, innovation director at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said these services were taking off in cities anyway, ahead of policy. “Our position has been, we need a third-party verifier [for companies’ claims],” he said. “If they share data with us as a city, it becomes publicly available.” 

This is a great move. I’m thinking about my own cab-hailing and ride-hailing behaviour. I’ve certainly been tempted all too many times to save myself the long walk home from the subway station because Uber or Lyft are there and available. On the other hand, in my more penny-pinching moods, I’ve been put off taking a cab or Uber: each transaction is a little bit of friction, financially, and the pain to the pocket of a pay-per-use system can sometimes deter me from using at all. But different groups of commuters are not me, and they’re going to behave differently. My guess is that these services will *both* get *some people* to ditch the car, and others to take auto trips instead of train/ cycling/ walking — and policy + context + urban geography + culture are going to play a big role in determining where that balance lies.

What I’d like to see next: a labour version of the NRDC/ Berkeley study – economics, actual impact on drivers, costs and benefits – do drivers make enough to cover the $9,000 / yr the average American spends on a car? What are drivers’ qualifications? Is it a de facto social safety net or are they slipping further and further behind with no insurance coverage?

I know the ride-hailing companies are certainly collecting their own data on their own driver pool. And I know that they tout themselves as a way for drivers to make a little extra spending money for a few hours a week. But the critics’ charge is, as urbanist Adam Greenfield said at MIT last week: “The only reason Uber is competitive is because it externalises everything and sheds the cost onto us.” 



From the banyan’s shadow: What Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy means for young Singaporeans

Note: This is an expanded version of an essay first published on Quartz.

In the wee hours of Monday morning (March 23), Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died after having been hospitalised for pneumonia since February 5. He was 91.

This year I will be 31 – the same age Lee was when he started the PAP in 1954. By 1955, he had won the seat for Tanjong Pagar constituency, and by 1959, just before turning 36, he was sworn in as prime minister. Perhaps in a young country many things may be done by young men. (By contrast, the minimum age of candidacy for a US president is 35.)

I sometimes wonder what harsh words Lee in the 1980s might have had for his younger self, the idealistic upstart lawyer who defended trade unionists and, like many young people in colonial societies at the time from Africa to the Caribbean, thought he could talk the British into turning Singapore over to self-rule. But the fact remains: at 31, Lee and his fellow party members (and their rivals) were out there campaigning for the city they believed in, hearing citizens’ grievances, and generally putting their money where their mouths were.

My generation may not fully agree with his politics even as we benefit from some of his policies. But can we love Singapore as fiercely? Can we look clear-eyed at Lee’s legacy and work out for ourselves which parts are worth carrying on and which parts are more burden than gift?

One of the key things Lee and his cohort did for the island-state was entrench the rule-of-law doctrine. Singapore’s systems and institutions evolved from British colonial ones – the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau has been around since 1952, before the city attained self-government in 1959 or independence in 1965 – but laws this time around were enforced. And when it came to corruption, the stick was balanced by a fat carrot of high civil- and public-service salaries so workers were less likely to take bribes.

At the same time, some have critiqued Singapore as paying lip service to the rule of law and ignoring the spirit of justice, in situations ranging from detention of activists without trial to defamation and libel lawsuits. Yes, and my generation needs to understand the tumultuous context in which Singapore’s rule of law doctrine came about, and decide for itself how far to adapt it for the future.

And there is no doubt about Singapore’s meteoric economic progress since independence. The popular ‘swamps to skyscrapers’ trope is a myth, but if Singapore was quite as healthy a commercial hub under colonial rule as some critics make it out to be, how then does one explain the tremendous support he enjoyed from my parents’ generation? Perhaps it was because they saw their quality of life visibly rise, with more equitable provisions from sanitation to public transport to affordable housing for all. Public parks, for instance, were distributed across Singapore for the benefit of all citizens, not just the moneyed elite.

But these, while necessary, are not sufficient.

If a country is to thrive over the long run, it must be able to move on from its founding fathers while upholding and adapting the founding principles that made it great. I think of former Foreign Affairs minister George Yeo, who in 1991 spoke of freeing non-state civic institutions to thrive: of needing to “prune the banyan trees so other plants can grow”.

This pruning, and the flourishing of other plants, has carried on for some years now. Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been prime minister since 2004, and though the elder Lee remained highly influential he took a less active role in public life and parliamentary debate. In 2011, he stepped down as Minister Mentor after the People’s Action Party posted its worst general-election result with just over 60 per cent of the vote. (The party abolished the Minister Mentor and Emeritus Senior Minister posts to give the Prime Minister and his team room to prepare for the future, he said.) So while his passing marks the end of an era, it may be less of an inflection point for Singapore than many think.

A leader such as Lee Kuan Yew, who made himself redundant, who stepped down to hand over the reins within the party even as he ensured the party remained in power, would understand the principle that societies evolve, generation by generation. And so I believe my generation must address some key considerations for Singapore’s future.

Inequality and elite governance

Effectively addressing the bread-and-butter concerns of everyday folk was what bolstered Lee’s rise to power. But today intergenerational mobility is beginning to ossify, while income inequality is among the highest in the developed world. If you want to talk about bread and butter issues, what about advocating for the least of Singapore’s people, those left behind by Singapore’s much-vaunted economic growth and those on whose backs that growth is still being built?

As for high pay, every policymaker should be at least aware of perverse economic incentives – and of their own privilege. High salaries do run the risk of becoming a perverse incentive in which people enter government or civil service motivated by money. (On the other hand, if you didn’t pay MPs anything at all you might get only the already wealthy running for office – much as unpaid internships reduce socioeconomic diversity in media. And today, to a great extent, Singapore’s public service is genuinely selected on the basis of merit, not class or parental connections.) And if we think a policy of elite governance has created a two-tier system of insiders and outsiders or fostered top civil servants out of touch with the ground, remember the elite civil service is not the only career path, reject this two-tier system, or for those already in it, aspire to serve or govern as best you can.

Economic growth

A greater concern is the nature of Singapore’s economic growth. Is the foundation of its growth becoming a new vulnerability for Singapore? In the drive to grow Singapore’s economy as fast as possible in the early decades of independence, the infant state went big on foreign direct investment as a path to wealth. Between 1970 and 2013, foreign direct investment ballooned from US$93 million to US$63 billion (note: source: UN statistics at, USD$ at current prices and exchange rates). And so industry today continues to be dominated by multinational firms that site their manufacturing and regional head offices here.

That strategy has worked very well for the last three decades, but it presents a different kind of vulnerability if Singapore doesn’t grow its own startups and support homegrown enterprises fast. Various factors hold back innovation and entrepreneurship in Singapore – the rent is high, for instance, and the prevailing culture encourages risk-aversion in young people – so it’s up to my generation to try to overcome those. Furthermore, some have argued that Singapore’s emphasis on growth and money as an end in itself has fostered a “vacuous sense of national identity”. The onus is on my generation to go one better.

Beyond benevolent authoritarianism

Most pressing of all is to make amends for Lee’s heavy-handed repression of dissidents and critics, and reform media laws. Perhaps that was justified in those early tinderbox years when a spark could set off riots, but today an informed electorate would rather have a larger say. (On the ‘benevolent’ part of benevolent authoritarianism: without openness or sunshine laws, there is little to ensure that future politicians are as benevolent, not corrupt, or even telling the truth at all.) Singapore and its institutions would be stronger and more trusted for a more open media that enjoys greater credibility and legitimacy.

In 1968, addressing the University of Singapore, Lee said, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.” In a delightful irony, about a decade ago, his granddaughter Li Xiuqi wrote a poem that speaks for a generation accused of being too far removed from the turbulent early years of Singapore’s birth: “Not being born, I didn’t know/ This time when Singapore boiled and bled … I didn’t know; I didn’t share;/ I didn’t fight; I wasn’t there./ And so, although this is my land,/ I only love it secondhand.” (Li Xiuqi, ‘not being born’)

Li speaks for my generation – the last generation to remember Lee Kuan Yew alive, as a dynamic politician and elder statesman, not just the frail party member waving from the stands at National Day Parades. But I am also a parent-to-be, and I think Li also speaks for my future children and their children, born to a world beyond the banyan’s shadow, for whose Singapore I am now working.

Being told precisely what to do can be comforting in the short run, but in the long run, Singapore’s citizens must find our own way in the world. Are we bold enough to engineer, as Lee did, disruptive change where needed?

A final word: Yes, go ahead and mourn. By all means, mark the benefits of Lee’s legacy. But remember that it alone is not sufficient to carry the country forward – and that neither the best nor the worst of Singapore’s features can be attributed to him alone. And then do what he would have done himself: pick right up and carry on fighting for the Singapore you believe in.

The real lesson was his leadership by example: instead of sitting around complaining about being stifled by past regimes, instead of stretching out your open palm in supplication, have a vision and stand up for it. Perhaps even devote your life’s work to it. Never waver.

The other day, a friend wrote by way of Facebook eulogy: “From here on, my dear Singaporeans, it’s all on us.” The thing is – it’s been all along.

A mildly grouchy screed about the Gifted Education Programme

Cross-posted from my Facebook, where it lives as a friends-only note.

Preface for non-Singapore readers: This piece assumes a mild level of familiarity with the Singapore education system. The Gifted Education Programme, introduced in Singapore in 1984, is a selective scheme for high-IQ children that over its history has taken in 0.5 to 1 per cent of each batch, offering them specialised education and higher teacher-student ratios. (Note, I repeat, high-IQ children. This does not automatically translate to high levels of anything else, a fact that is often forgotten.) As of roughly five years ago, the centrally-run GEP exists only at primary school level (P4-6); previously, it was at both primary and secondary school levels but was phased out as secondary schools introduced a broader range of programmes for high-ability students. 
Not long ago, I finally finished Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. The finer points of the novels don’t need to be discussed here and everyone should read them anyway, but a chunk of the trilogy is set at Brakebills College, a highly selective, first-rate college of magic. It’s possibly the only North American college of magic in this particular universe, as Unseen University remains firmly in Discworld (phew) and Hogwarts appears to be a part of those halcyon Empire days in which a young British wizard could go round the colonial world post-O.W.Ls and work for Gringotts Bank as a curse-breaker.

In any case, over the two and a half years I took to read the trilogies, I could not get it out of my head that Brakebills shared many characteristics with the Gifted Education Programme (GEP for short) in Singapore: selective, exclusive, arcane, and no one beyond the GEP really knows what goes on in the programme…which is why so many misconceptions exist about the GEP. I can’t really blame people; there’s so little information and so much misinformation. While doing a little research for this piece I went and looked on the truly terrifying Kiasuparents forum…never going back there.

A little back story: From Primary 4 to Secondary 4, 1994 to 2000, I was in the GEP. At the end of Primary 3 I blithely went off to take the first round and then the second round of tests. I don’t recall the second-round tests as being particularly gruelling, just a couple of hours of puzzles in a breezy, sunlit room. (In fact, when friends with nine-year-olds ask me about the testing process, here’s what I tell them: don’t treat it as an OMGTEST DIEDIEDIE. Treat it as “Here’s two hours of puzzles and you literally have nothing to lose; go and have fun, and if all else fails, don’t despair! Turn your test paper into origami.”)

When the results came out and I got in, off I went. My parents didn’t know any better or worse, hadn’t really heard anything about the programme, and decided that it seemed like a nice opportunity for a kid to have. I was always a weird, awkward kid with my nose in a book, and a little apprehensive about leaving the friends I’d painstakingly talked into being friends with me (!) over three years, but when I arrived in P4 and later in secondary school I made friends who will be friends for life. Finally, for the first time in my life, I fit in somewhere that was not MPH bookshop or a library.

With that experience in mind let me try to fix some misconceptions. Sorry, I can’t fix any misconceptions about Brakebills though.

In recent weeks the GEP has been in the news, especially after it emerged that nearly two-thirds of current GEP pupils get some sort of external tuition.

– The GEP caters to middle/ upper-middle-class kids who can afford to get external tuition or enrichment from fancy places like the Learning Lab.
This is true to some extent. Sure, 2/3 of GEP pupils have external tuition, and half live in private housing – well above the 1/5 of the overall population who live in private housing.
However, that still leaves 1/3 of children who don’t get tuition, and 50 per cent who live in HDB flats. I don’t know how much the two overlap, but I’m willing to bet the answer is ‘at least some’.

– They’re going to succeed anyway. Or ‘if this is the top 1 per cent of the cohort, why are they only within the top 10 per cent of each PSLE cohort? Does this mean the GEP is underperforming?’
Don’t be ridiculous. First of all, grades are not the sole purpose of education. Neither is ‘success’ (when it is defined narrowly as grades). Failure teaches you more than success does. I feel like this is one key lesson of the Magicians trilogy too, by the way – its protagonists, despite being very smart and capable, grow up far more and learn far more by having risked and failed repeatedly than by having sailed through life. And isn’t that a very adult lesson to learn? Sadly some people here have never learnt it.
By the way, people who are successful (conventional definition: doing well in exams, rising fast through the career ranks, earning lots of money etc) are often smart, but not all people who are smart are successful. Nearly all people who are very good at basketball are tall. Not all tall people are good at basketball.

– Why don’t you just let them skip a grade?
The GEP is not about covering more material in a shorter time. It’s about learning to be self-directed and develop your own interests. Besides the regular schoolwork, my primary-school classmates and I also…
…built shoebox dioramas and wrote poetry by way of doing book reports
…learned about pi, the history of the number zero, and how to calculate the height of the school flagpole with a shadow and a protractor
…designed a haunted house and turned our classroom into one for a school fun fair, figuring out how to darken the windows (black rubbish bags), what crazy-ass costumes to wear, and how to position ourselves for maximum scare factor
…fed the fish in the school fishtank and cleaned it of snails every week
I’d say that’s a pretty normal (and awesome) childhood. What’s more, I still had time to go to the library every couple of weeks, and play badminton and 3D Tetris (really have to love shareware…yes this was the 90s) with my sister.

– Being intellectually gifted means you’re good at all academic pursuits.
HAHAHAHA I really have to laugh when people assume this. I’m not going to lie, I was a complete flop at physics in secondary school, a massive deciding factor in what stream I applied for at junior college. (Goodbye, chemistry. *wistfully*) In JC I floundered through two years of History before finally cottoning on just in time for the A levels. While devoting all my study time to struggling to get an A in History, I neglected to study for Maths and wound up with a C. In my case being intellectually gifted means that I am a little better with words and maybe a little faster to grasp new concepts (but not necessarily better at remembering or applying them) than the average chipmunk.

– If a kid tries and fails to get into the GEP their delicate emotions will be damaged.
See above on failure and success. Maybe it’s true that the implicit message children receive when they don’t get in is that they’re not good enough. But how they react is entirely up to them – whether to cry and stop trying altogether, or go off and develop their own skills and interests.
By the way, these days we don’t praise children for being smart. This leads to children who give up far too easily when they think they might fail at something. These days we praise children for trying hard, which leads to resilient children who keep trying.

– And then if they get into the GEP they might be a small fish in a big pond, whereas they might have topped their ‘normal’ primary school.
Again, did we say that topping the class was the point of primary school? What ultimate life value or lesson is there in easily topping the class?
I don’t know about you, but I really like being a small fish in a big pond. I don’t like being too comfortable. I like being challenged and I like doing things that are a little bit difficult for me, a little bit out of my comfort zone, such as trying to learn R programming. Not long ago I wrote my first story for Might have looked easy, but it took me five rounds of edits.
A lot of us seem to feel the same way. In this essay for Shin Min Daily News, my GEP ex-classmate writes that the programme challenged her – an inveterate daydreamer – to sit up and pay attention in class.
You know what else it taught me? HOW TO BE ORGANISED. (Ex-classmates: hands up if you panicked every time you had to submit your files with the content page.)

A semi-valid criticism:
– If you get into the GEP at primary school, you are set for life.Unfortunately education in Singapore seems to be very path-dependent, with very little ability to move between paths. It does seem to be true that if you get in at primary school, you are more likely to attend a through-train school that gets you straight to the A levels and from there to a top university – just because your peers around you are doing the same. But so what? Does it make you a kind or generous person? Does it make you a person with passions, ambitions, or a conscience? Does it make you a person I can respect? None of this is guaranteed.

These days I don’t remember, or even know, what schools my friends came from any more. I don’t really care, either. If we get along, none of it matters.

Two valid criticisms:
– If it’s good enough for the high-IQ kids, why isn’t it good enough for the rest?
I am really grateful for my terrific time in primary school, and I’ve always wished that the same opportunities for individualised, specialised teaching could be offered to every child in Singapore.
If every school is a good school, why are some classes in some schools getting more resources and more teachers than others? Why shouldn’t they all get the same resources? The solution is not to take resources away from one set of children in the GEP, but to offer the same resources to  all children. A level playing field doesn’t mean cutting down a few, it means that every child deserves to be lifted up to the same level.
I realise this is a huge sum of money – if you offered the same resources to the 99% as you did to the 1%, you’d be spending 99 times more. But if we as a society consumed less tuition and enrichment classes (or if some of those private tutors actually paid their taxes, AHEM), we’d have more to spend on the public school system.
The Singapore education system, I’ve realised, is fantastic for the exceptional child, but really lousy at addressing the needs of the median child. Every child deserves better.

– It doesn’t groom risk-takers, status-quo-questioners, anarchists, or disruptive innovators.
I’ve never heard this one from anyone else, but it’s my own observation really. Correction: it doesn’t groom enough of these people. Neither does any other aspect of the Singapore education system or Singapore society in general. (I don’t know if that means I’m expecting too much of the GEP??)
Sure, we had classroom debates and literature teachers who opened our eyes to different ways of looking at things. I don’t know if that necessarily translated to ‘real life’ or if we, like so many of our peers from those “top” schools, became risk-averse Organisation Kids, taking scholarships and becoming civil servants, lawyers, doctors and consultants because that was the safe default option. (What’s an Organisation Kid? See this Vox piece and the original 2001 one. There are civil servants, lawyers, doctors and consultants for whom their job really is a calling (…consultants??…) but if you drifted into one of these because you had the grades and it was a relatively stable, safe bet, you’re an Organisation Kid.)

In the end, most people in Singapore have no idea what the GEP does or what it is for. I’m not sure I do either. But I know that my own time in the programme was a fabulous childhood, and seems to have produced a reasonably well-adjusted adult.

What other questions do you have about the GEP? I’d be happy to answer, but you should keep in mind that this is my perspective only.

Edited to add a few more things.

– GEP segregates students so that they never rub shoulders with peers from different academic backgrounds.

This is semi-true. I would argue that today’s through-train system harms integration more than the GEP – which after all is only 1 per cent of students overall, and maybe 10 to 15 per cent of the school cohort in a school offering the programme. In the past, by the time I got to RJC, probably 20-30 per cent of the cohort was not from a Raffles school. (Sadly, some of those who came from elsewhere felt like they never fit in.) Today, with through-train? They’re all from Raffles schools. Can you see the problem here? In that sense also there’s even more riding on the PSLE today than there was 15 or 20 years ago, and I really worry about that too.

– The GEP fosters elitism.

Semi-valid criticism. If you can’t tell which of your friends was GEP or not, the GEP has not fostered elitism. On the other hand, I’ve seen forum letters from JC students complaining that their JC looks like a dump compared to the ITE and why should the ITE get such nice facilities when JC kids will be leaders of Singapore? (OK, here is the problem…stop telling kids that they are going to grow up to be Singapore’s leaders, they are misinterpreting it as a given. The other giant flaws in that logic are 1) ITE kids will never be Future Leaders and 2) Future Leaders of Singapore ought to be given a red carpet and an air-conditioned bubble. Who says? Buzz off and start from the bottom.) I hope that brats like this are few and far between. Again, if you never rub shoulders with people who are different from you, you might develop a bit of an elitist mindset. I don’t know how to fix this but someone clever ought to go and tackle this.

– I need to send my child for special prep tuition so that she can get into the GEP.

This is not a problem caused by the GEP in and of itself, but by the way the programme is  structured and marketed.

This is a problem caused by people assuming a lot of the above: that getting into GEP will set you up for life (not really true but it looks that way from the outside), that being surrounded by brighter peers will motivate a child to work harder (maybe true some of the time, but actually only if those peers are within reasonable reach), and that the GEP will make my child smarter (I’m not a psychologist and therefore cannot tell you to what extent IQ is pliable).

Actually, the underlying problem here is that people think the GEP and academic streaming is the be-all and end-all, the One True Way to get your children to succeed in life. If everybody else thinks the same way, who can blame parents? It takes really special parents to say ‘screw this nonsense, I will trust the school and teachers to provide the education that my child needs, and do my best to provide opportunities that foster my child’s development. I will trust that my child will turn out fine eventually, whether he makes it into all these special programmes or not’. It takes a tremendous amount of trust. And when even teachers themselves don’t trust in that, we are in huge trouble.

Also, 1) you can’t always buy opportunities, and 2) opportunities don’t always come in the form of commercial classes or even school programmes. Maybe they come in the form of a grandparent who will take a kid to the library every week and give him their own library card so he can borrow double the books. Or an older sibling who is hugely into music and patient enough to teach a younger sibling how to play the guitar. Or family camping trips to the beach with picnics and kites and games and all your cousins at the same time. I dunno, make up your own.

PPS: The underlying underlying problem is actually widening inequality. So the popular perception is, if you don’t make it to GEP/ top school/ other special programme, you are stuck. Actually you are not stuck if, as my ex-colleague put it in a lovely essay about not having a university degree, you don’t take no for an answer and keep asking nicely.

On governance, culture, and failure

I was just thinking about the newly-released Sustainable Singapore Blueprint (more thoughts on that later. I am astonished that even people in the environment community are surprised at the breakdown of recycling rates by material and sector – industry recycling is thriving, household is not), and the targets in it.

After six years of covering Singapore, I realise that the Singapore Government simply does not commit to targets it cannot achieve – whereas in other cities and countries the attitude is ‘if we hit these targets ahead of or on time, they weren’t ambitious enough’.

Interestingly, the public in those countries seems to agree. I’ve even heard that attitude – ‘if we hit these targets early, they weren’t ambitious enough’ – from CEOs and CSR heads of listed (foreign) companies talking about their sustainability policy.

Sure, I get that policymakers elsewhere might not always be looking to the long term, and might not even be around to be held accountable for the policies’ success or failure when accounting time comes.

But to what extent is the Singapore public less forgiving and more likely to take agencies to task for perceived failure? Is this a reflection of how failure is perceived and reacted to in Singapore society? Is this why we’re afraid to be ambitious? Not a pretty thought.


Seen at the National Museum, Singapore

Now reading

What I’m now reading: 

Kevin Roose – Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits

Roose talks to The Billfold and Vox about who still goes to work on Wall Street (i.e the global finance industry) and why, and how oddly risk-averse these young people are who deal with immense amounts of money and risk every day:  

In my experience, when I was following these eight people, the ones most likely to wash out were the ones without clear reasons for being there in the first place. The people with pragmatic reasons, like having lots of student debt to pay off or having immigrant parents and wanting to build a better life for them, tend to stay. The kids who got into trouble were the ones who did this as a kind of cultural drift. So I think it has less to do with what they study than with their basic motivations.

It’s an awfully familiar narrative here, too. I was from a ‘gifted’ programme in school (we can debate the merits of that one until the cows come home) and went to a string of ‘top’ schools, and so many of my peers have drifted into the high-achieving scholarship-ivyleague-civil service/ consulting/ finance track, because it’s a default option. Because expectations. Very few people are off saving the world in dramatic and startling ways. (Very few of us will ever save the world in dramatic and startling ways anyway, but we can at least try to leave it better than we found it.)  

An acquaintance who says he floundered in that same gifted programme and didn’t get good enough grades to even make it to university, recently did a Reddit AMA on checking off an awful lot of the conventional Singaporean checkboxes but on his own timeframe and for entirely different reasons. Now that’s purpose. 



Once upon a time there was a young man named Ken, whose neighbourhood was strewn with other people’s litter: plastic bottles, empty cigarette packets, drink bags, and so on. Ken was terminally annoyed with this and, being a rather civic-minded individual, mounted a personal campaign to pick up bits and pieces of litter. “If I pick up just one piece of trash each day, that makes my neighbourhood one piece of trash better,” he reasoned.

One day, he happened to pick up a plastic Ice Mountain mineral water bottle. As he was brushing the grass off it and looking around for the nearest dustbin – poof! – a genie appeared. “YOUR WISH IS MY COMMAND,” he boomed.

Ken lurched away in shock. “What are you doing in a mineral water bottle?”

Ken thought for a second, torn between asking for a litter-free country and for every other human on the face of the earth to be removed. Either would do the trick, he considered. “Please, Mr Genie, help my fellow humans see and fix the damage their waste is causing,” he said. “Oh, and I’d like to offer you a proper vase to live in — a good pewter one,” he added as an afterthought.

Around him, people reeled as they began to notice the tissue and cups and cigarettes that they walked past, blinded, every day. Within minutes the streets were clean. In the coming months and years they would protest confetti, useless National Day freebies, and balloon releases. Ken took the plastic bottle home, where he decanted the genie into a proper pewter vase in a display cabinet and promptly recycled the bottle. And they lived happily ever after.


(This piece written for Ken Jin Tan while crankily picking up litter after my run this morning)