Friday, October 12, 2012

Singapore’s Three Rs: Racing, Risk-Taking and Rock

by Jeff Yang

Wall Street Journal, Oct 10, 2012 (source)

SINGAPORE– I’m as far removed from the typical demographic for motor sports as you can imagine — as a general rule, I hate cars, loud noises, crowds and fast-moving objects — but I begrudgingly admit that all four are essential to the visceral thrill of Singapore’s Formula One Grand Prix, which I watched a few weeks ago from the bleachers of the Bay Grandstand, above the only part of the storied racecourse where the cars jink directly under the viewing audience’s seats.

The Singapore GP runs on one of the few street circuits in Formula One racing, and it’s the only one to take place at night. The twilight visibility and the weird shadows etched by the course’s blazing floodlights make the race’s agglomeration of high-order curves, granny hairpins, switchbacks and chicanes even more hair-raising for both participants and gawkers. An error of a single inch can mean disaster, and so there are crashes. There are always crashes. This year was no exception: An apocalyptic collision at this year’s Marina Bay meet took out F1 legend Michael Schumacher, arguably the greatest driver of all time, as a braking error catapulted his car directly into the rear of France’s Jean-Eric Vergne.

Last week, Schumacher announced that he would retire from Formula One racing at the end of this season, citing the Singapore smash-up as one of the reasons behind his decision to hang up his helmet for good. During a career marked by unprecedented success — no driver in F1 history has won more pole positions, victories or championships — Schumi established a reputation as one of the world’s most accurate drivers, incomparably capable of following a “clean line” around the track that minimizes wasted motion and unnecessary braking. Many pundits have associated Schumacher’s skills with his cultural background, referring to his “ruthless discipline” and “controlled precision” as aspects of his native “Germanic efficiency.”

And yet, as any race enthusiast will tell you, control, precision and discipline alone won’t get you checkered flags. It’s the ability to creatively push limits and take risks, to not just flirt with disaster, but take her out to dinner and a movie, that divides great drivers from mid-pack finishers.

Schumacher’s brilliance was in combining near-flawless racecraft with the willingness to inject death-defying, pants-wetting craziness into the equation — if that’s what it took to win.

Which brings me back to Singapore and the Bay Grandstands, where I’d struck up a conversation with a few neighboring seatmates, Simon and Wee. I wondered: Were there any Singaporean native sons in the race? The question prompted a bark of laughter from Simon, who pointed out that competitive racers are unlikely to emerge from a tiny island where the cost of automobile ownership is among the highest in the world. (To own a car in Singapore, you have to first buy a Certificate of Entitlement, which can cost as much as $60,000; adding in other fees and taxes, plus the base cost of the car itself, sends the real price of, say, a Volkswagen Passat over $150,000.)

Besides, added Wee, Singaporeans aren’t taught to take risks or improvise: “Our kids,” he quipped, “only know how to go in a straight line.”

Of course, for half a century, that straight line has been headed nowhere but up.

Singapore’s educational system has been called the “turbo booster” that’s propelled the country into the first tier of developed nations. When it became independent in 1965, Singapore had a per-capita GDP of US$512; as of 2012, it had a per-capita GDP of $56,532, which, according to a recent report by Knight Frank and Citi Private Wealth, makes it the richest country in the world.

That’s a pretty amazing statistic, and it’s hard not to give credit to Singapore’s schools, which since 1995 have consistently cranked out top scores on global STEM benchmark exams — ranking in the top three on both math and science in the last three quadrennial Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study scores at both the 4th and 8th grade levels. (The U.S., by contrast, has struggled to make it into the top 10, regularly placing well behind the likes of Slovenia, Hungary and the Czech Republic.)

But while the Singapore system’s heavy emphasis on the embedding of fundamentals, constant drilling and high-pressure examinations is optimized for generating great test scores, it’s also a major contributor to the conformist, inflexible mentality that’s viewed as an obstacle to the nation’s ability to compete in a world driven by entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation.

On the eve of the Grand Prix, I had lunch with musician Inch Chua, slated to perform with her band the Metric System for the swells at the exclusive Formula One Paddock Club. Over Hainanese chicken rice at the legendary local eatery Wee Nam Kee, Chua shares an anecdote that effectively illustrates Singapore’s psychic rigidity problem.

“I was in a musical recently, and the director told me about a visit she made to a very famous girls’ school here,” says Chua. “As a part of her presentation, she gave all the girls a piece of paper, and instructed them to cut it in half. That sent the girls into a panic — they were all saying, ‘We can’t do this, we don’t have any scissors!’ So she told them just to fold it in half and tear it, and they started crying and screaming, because they couldn’t get the tear exactly even. That pretty much sums up Singapore for me.”

Chua, whom I met when she performed at South by Southwest last year, says that she was always the odd one out at school: “I was the one digging for worms in the mud, and having the teachers shout at me for getting dirty. And when they had us drawing circles in class, everyone else would be using a compass, and I’d just shssss, whip one off. The other kids would say, ‘That’s not a real circle!’ and I’d tell them ‘You know, not everything has to be perfect.’”

Given her childhood inclinations, it probably isn’t too surprising that Chua is now one of the leading lights of Singapore’s indie rock scene — which is, to be sure, not a very large or loud one.

“Rock music is very much an underground phenomenon here,” admits Mike See, cofounder of Chua’s label Riot! Records. “I mean, a lot of what you’d associate with it is officially frowned upon in Singapore. Back in 1972, the government barred Led Zeppelin from entering the country because they had long hair — they actually turned them away at the airport.”

Even now, points out See’s partner Eugenie Yeo, “at the biggest local rock festival we have, Baybeats, the police still come every year and arrest ‘suspicious looking’ people, which pretty much means anyone with a Mohawk.”

Now 23, Chua launched her career at the age of 16, after spontaneously auditioning for a band that had posted an online notice seeking a lead singer. She served as frontwoman for that band, Auburn’s Epiphany, for several years, while finishing her high school education.

“Then the founder of the band pulled an Axl Rose on us and decided to sack everyone except himself,” she laughs. “So the rest of us decided to start our own band, which became Allura.”

Allura was a breakout success, selling out the entire run of its first EP, Wake Up and Smell the Seaweed, and turning Chua into as close a thing as there is to a local rock celebrity. When the band was forced to break up in 2008 — “Every good band in Singapore dies because of National Service,” she says, referring to Singapore’s compulsory military conscription policy — Chua went solo, releasing an album called The Bedroom, which was picked up by MP3 blog aggregator Hype Machine.

“Suddenly, my album turned up on the site’s top five, next to Arcade Fire and other big-name bands,” she says. “And next thing you know, I was headed to South by Southwest — all while juggling my college final exams.”

Exposure to the burgeoning rock scene at SXSW in 2010 and again last year confirmed to Chua that in order to continue growing as a musician, she’d have to leave her beloved home.

“My analogy is that being an artist is like being a farmer,” she says. “In Singapore, there’s no land, and what space there is is walled up and crammed. You’re farming on apartment balconies. I realized I needed to go somewhere with wide open spaces” — where there’s room to be creative.

Chua now divides her time between Singapore and Los Angeles, which she calls “an amazing training ground; I’m meeting so many talented, hungry people.” She isn’t aiming to be a big star in the States, though she obviously wouldn’t turn down opportunities if they came. “For me, it’s really about learning things that I can bring back here, to Singapore,” she says. “We have so much to offer the world, culturally. But ever since our independence, we’ve been focused on building our economy. The arts have always been in the periphery.”

Singapore’s relentless focus on industry above all was critical to its “survival years,” the decades after its expulsion from the Malaysian federation.

“Forty-six years ago, Malaysia kicked us out, and we had no choice but to make it on our own,’” says Eugenie Yeo. “We were the unwanted, thrown-away child. And so we spent the next half-century doing whatever we could to get to the top.”

Yeo, See and Chua share reminiscences of PSAs featuring animated characters like Teamy the Productivity Bee, who until 1999 exhorted Singaporeans to max out their efforts in service of the nation’s growth with his signature jingle “Good better best / Never let it rest / Till your good is better / And your better best!” and terrible apian puns like “Together, we can bee productive!”

(Teamy is just one of dozens of behavior-modification mascots created by the Singapore government, from Singa the Courtesy Lion to Bobo the Water-Saving Elephant and Oscar the Food Safety Otter. I point out to them that the only U.S. equivalent I can think of is Smokey Bear, which underscores America’s lower standards: We’re satisfied if our kids aren’t out there setting fires.)

But what was necessary in the 20th century is becoming a handicap in the 21st, not just in Singapore, but in other Asian countries with similar social values and educational philosophies — most notably, China: As Helen Gao wrote in The Atlantic in June, “Students with ideas that deviate from the official orthodoxy often seem to struggle in China’s education system, as do students whose pursuits differ from the system’s rigidly defined standards for talent and success….Whatever your formula for innovation — diversity of thought, collaboration, risk-taking — you’re not likely to find it in abundance in Chinese schools.”

The irony is that the characteristics that Asia’s developing markets have suppressed to secure their rapid growth are almost certainly the very ones they’ll need most to stay on top in the new economic order. Individualism and irreverance; a willingness to break down walls and rewrite rules. In short, the things that (along with sex and drugs) make up rock and roll.

Seen in that light, Chua and others like her aren’t just forging a new path for Singaporean music. They’re highlighting a way forward for Asia as a whole — one that combines effort and craft with iconoclasm and attitude. In short, the future, like Formula One, may be a game of Inches.


Inch Chua and the Metric System, “The Chefalo Knot” Live

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