My guest today is Jeevan Vasagar (@jeevanvasagar). Jeevan is the Environment Editor at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and author of LION CITY: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia, which is today’s focus.
In this conversation, we cover Singapore’s past, its future, and the process of writing his book.
I hope you enjoy my conversation with Jeevan Vasagar.
[00:00:39] – [First question] – Jeevan’s background and history with Singapore
[00:02:50] – Were there always plans for a book?
[00:04:34] – Can other countries replicate Singapore’s success?
[00:07:37] – The failed union with Malaysia
[00:10:34] – How much credit can Lee Kuan Yew take?
[00:12:53] – The influence of the Lee family going forward?
[00:14:29] – The future of Singaporean politics
[00:19:41] – The role of media in Singapore
[00:22:03] – Singapore and Climate Change
[00:24:19] – The process of writing a book
[00:30:32] – Most undervalued life experience?
[00:34:40] – Influential books?
[00:35:49] – If Jeevan was 18 today?
[00:36:48] – Plans for the future
Connect with Jeevan:
- Follow Jeevan on Twitter
- Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia
- Connect with Jeevan on LinkedIn
- Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy
- Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia
Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favourite podcast platform.
Kalani Scarrott (00:39): My guest today is Jeevan Vasagar. Jeevan is the environment editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and is the author of Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia, which is today’s focus. In this conversation, we cover Singapore’s past, its future, and the process for writing his book. So please enjoy my conversation with Jeevan Vasagar.
Jeevan, thank you so much for being here today, but I think maybe an interesting place to start would be about your background and history regards to Singapore.
Jeevan Vasagar (00:59): Sure. So Kalani, thanks very much for inviting me on. I guess, I’d start by saying that Singapore is an incredibly personal story for me. So it’s the country my father grew up in, I’ve got a half-sister there and other family. But really the thing that got me interested in writing the book and interested in writing Lion City was this sense that there’s an idea of Singapore that has this powerful place in the world’s imagination. So I moved there as the FT correspondent at the end of 2015, and I was there for the Brexit vote in the UK. And during the Brexit debate, Singapore emerged as this model for the UK outside of the European Union. And that’s what really planted the seed of the book. It was very strange thing to me, how could Singapore become so successful that it was a model for this power that had been its colonial overlord.
And then it got me thinking, “What exactly was Singapore’s special source?” “What was the factor that made it succeed, where so many other postcolonial nations have struggled?” So I was going to try and answer those questions in the book and also set them in some kind of historical context, but also sort of tell the personal story of myself, my family, and what had brought us to Singapore. And one of the sort of real kind of starting points for me about thinking about Singapore was that to start with, I mean, I did admire the place. I thought this was a country that had gone through this extraordinary transformation in the decades, since it become independent, had become one of the richest and most advanced societies in the world. And yet when I was living there, there was this kind of strange feeling of living within a gilded cage. There was a sense, there were certain things you weren’t allowed to talk about. Certain areas that Singaporeans themselves didn’t go. Before I moved to Singapore, free speech seemed an arbitrary value to me. I wasn’t sure why it was so important.
And then when I went there, I thought this is, oh, this is something I really, really value and Singaporeans aren’t allowing their minds to go to certain places. And I sort of wondered why that was and wanted to unpick some of that in the book too.
Kalani Scarrott (02:50): Yeah. So was there always a plan to write a book or, and you were just waiting for an idea or was it sort of spur of the moment? How do you sort of think about that?
Jeevan Vasagar (02:57): Sure. So, I mean, obviously I’m a journalist. My background is with the guardian and with the financial times, and I’ve been a foreign correspondent for years. So based in Africa for the Guardian and then based in Germany and Singapore for the FT. So I’ve always been a professional writer. There’s always been a sense that I’ve been looking for a book to write, looking for the right topic. And when I arrived in Singapore, I thought this was it. This was the sort of the place that I’d been wanting to write about. It brought my history together. And it also brought together some really interesting ideas about how you build a society. I mean, there’s almost a sort of science fiction sense to Singapore I think in that, in the 1960s you almost… No society’s ever quite a blank slate, but you almost have this place that has so few vested interests, such enormous power concentrated in the hands of a small group of people, small group of men, basically, and a chance for them to sort of make this world what they will and make this kind of nation, what they will.
And you end up with a society that is very much kind of created pretty much in the image of one man, created the image of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister. So her to try and unpick that and to say, what are the sort of merits and flaws of this situation was really compelling to me. And I think one of the things that is really striking about Singapore is that it is atypical. So much of journalism is about writing about the problems in the world, writing about societies that have failed, writing about experiments that have gone wrong. Utopian ideas that have ended up in total misery. Singapore was pretty much the opposite of that. It was a planned engineer society that it ended up in a relatively successful state. And this is extremely unusual, I think, in the history of the world.
Kalani Scarrott (04:34): Yeah. But you mentioned Singapore being atypical. Do you think then, that can be repeated and what has to be repeated for that to happen with other countries looking to learn off Singapore?
Jeevan Vasagar (04:43): That’s a great question. And it’s a question the world sort of asks itself constantly. I remember when I traveled around Africa. So I was in living in Kenya based in Nairobi and traveling around Sub-Saharan Africa for the Guardian, years before I moved to Singapore, and you would regularly hear people saying, “My country’s going to be the Singapore of Africa.” Leader saying, “I want a copy, Singapore.” Most prominently, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, set his sights on being the sort of Singapore of Central Africa. Singapore’s incredibly difficult to copy. I think there are two sort of essential things about Singapore’s success that you really need to focus on. One of those is the complete determination to stamp out corruption. From the beginning Singapore’s bureaucracy, Singapore’s government was very, very clean and Lee Kuan Yew insisted on that.
And there’s a famous story of a government minister who was suspected of corruption, suspected of taking bribes and Lee Kuan Yew sort of called him in and basically asked for his resignation and the man went home and committed suicide. That was the level of shame, the level of stigma that was attached to corruption in Singapore. The other part of it, I would say, is this really powerful, strategic sense? So Singapore’s leaders, you always have the feeling they’re looking sort of far into the future. They’re thinking, what direction is the world traveling in? How can we get there? How can we take commercial advantage of the direction the world is traveling in? So a really good example of that is containerization. So in the 1960s, when it wasn’t clear which direction shipping was going in, they took a gamble and built the first container port in Southeast Asia.
It wasn’t clear at that point, that container shipping was going to dominate the trade between Europe and East Asia, as we know it has done, but it turned out to be an absolutely fortuitous gamble. Absolutely the right thing to have done, but obviously a lot of money kind of went into converting the port at a time when this wasn’t clear. So that’s just one example of the way in which Singapore sort of always looks for the future and always says, how can we position ourselves? How can we make the maximum advantage out of what’s going to come next. And I think it’s really difficult for countries to copy Singapore on both those fronts. I think when, on the question of corruption, clean governance, I mean, it’s incredibly seductive, I think, once you get into power, to say, “I’m going to reward my friends, I’m going to cream off a bit of government money. I deserve it.” And that is a really powerful seduction and it’s absolutely destructive.
It results in people losing all faith in government, losing all faith in straightforward and honest means of getting ahead in society. It’s really, really damaging, and the ability to see the future. Again, Singapore’s taken lots of gambles. Most of those gambles have turned out to be correct. I mean, there was one, I think we can come to later that wasn’t, which I think was the union with Malaysia, but for the most part, Singapore sort of played its cards right. And I don’t think, I’m not sure the same can be said of many other countries in its position.
Kalani Scarrott (07:37): Yeah. So I’d love to go deeper on that failed bit of the union of Malaysia, if you’d love to discuss it and go through it, Walk me through it.
Jeevan Vasagar (07:43): Sure. I mean, it’s a really kind of interesting moment for Singapore, because I think, if you, as you know, Kalani, you’ve been to Singapore, you’ve been to Malaysia, you know how closely aligned those two countries are. And I sort of know it on a family level. So my dad grew up in Singapore, my mom was born and brought up in Malaysia. So the other side of Johor Strait. If you look at those two countries, they’re really cousins, very, very similar ethnic mix, similar mix of religions, similar foods, similar climate, bound together economically. So Malaysia’s tin and rubber, traditionally exported through Singapore laborers coming in from China and India, coming in through Singapore and going to work on the rubber plantations on the tin mines in Malaya. So these countries really, really bound together.
So you can see that at the sort of moment of liberation from British Empire, this is the point which people think, yes, these two countries, these countries work together as a broader political economic social unit. They belong together. I think there’s obviously a kind of really fundamental reason why that didn’t work and this is sort of a delicate subject, but it is essentially to do with the desire amongst the Malay majority in Malaysia, for a state in which the Malays are essentially in a privileged position. And it’s a complicated word and it’s worth unpicking for a second and looking at what sort of Malay privilege I think means in Malaysia. I think for a lot of proponents, a lot of the Malay proponents of that, they look at a situation in which the majority of the people in the country were traditionally also amongst the poorest people in that society needed to be elevated, needed support, and to make economic progress.
Set against that, Lee Kuan Yew, a Chinese man governing Singapore, surrounded largely by other men of Chinese descent and you have a situation in which it looks like the Chinese elite, who’ve always sort of, been a powerful commercial interest in Malaya, it looks like a serious situation in which that Chinese elite is threatening to sort of take over the whole country and run it for their benefit. That’s not, I think where Lee Kuan Yew was coming from. So my sense is that he was genuine about his belief in meritocracy, genuine about his belief in creating a society in which everyone would benefit regardless of race. I mean, I think that that is open to dispute the two sides of that, but you can see why a union, a Federation, but with those two conflicting ideas that its heart might break apart. In the long run, I think that was a good thing for Singapore.
I think it’s harder to say whether it was a good thing or not for Malaysia, it’s hard to read the counterfactual of that. But I think it’s pretty clear that Singapore’s sort of free of interference from Kuala Lumpur, I would say, has done better for itself than it would’ve done otherwise.
Kalani Scarrott (10:34): Yeah, it’s super-interesting topic and it’s hard to talk about Singapore’s history without mentioning Lee Kuan Yew. But how much of Singapore’s benefits and the positive aspects do you think he’s responsible for directly and even some of the flaws? How much can be directly attributed to him do you think?
Jeevan Vasagar (10:48): There’s really a handful of occasions in history where you have a single political leader who’s completely associated with this turning point in a country’s fortunes. So for me, I was in Germany just before I was in Singapore. And I think the figure of Bismarck in Germany is one of them, this absolutely dominant figure. de Gaulle in France is another. And I think Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore is clearly the outstanding Asian example. So if you think about the moment when Lee Kuan Yew came to power in 1959, Singapore was extricating itself from the British Empire, an incredibly uncertain situation had an economy that was based on exporting commodities like tin and rubber to the world, really heavily dependent on the British Naval base. And neither of those things could be taken for granted. So as you know, the prices of commodities can go through wild swings and the British very soon after independence announced they were withdrawing their Naval base.
Lee I would say, was this really unusual figure in Singapore. So to some extent, sort of outside Singapore and society. So he was a member of the English-speaking, Chinese elite, absolutely brilliant mind who read law at Cambridge, and was near the top of his cohort there. And he was someone who sort of came to learn Chinese as an adult. So someone who was instinctively attuned to the colonial past, someone who might plausibly be able to see himself as the heir of Raffles. I mean, I think, for me, absolutely Singapore’s success is really closely connected to Lee Kuan Yew’s political genius and that political genius, I think for me, lies in a combination of ability to listen to experts, to bring in people from outside and really hear what they had to say and to cut through all the noise, to reach conclusions about what really matters. And a lot of those sort of big decisions he made, turned out to be really, really fortunate for Singapore.
I mean, I’ve mentioned corruption and their determination to stamp out corruption, but I’d also say that being firmly pro-Western at a point when the world was split between communist and capitalist camps, that decision to sort of opt for the West was a really fortunate one for Singapore. So I think, I think Lee has really, really, really closely bound up with Singapore success now.
Kalani Scarrott (12:53): And maybe going forward with the Lee family, how much influence do you see them having going forward?
Jeevan Vasagar (12:58): Yeah, a really good question. I mean, I think the Lee family is profoundly associated with Singapore’s success and it’s a relatively unusual situation in a society as an advanced and as prosperous to Singapore that you have the son of the founding prime minister as the current prime minister. As you maybe know Kalani and maybe not all of your listeners do. There’s been a sort of family feud that’s broken out in the Lee family since Lee Kuan Yew died. And the core of the dispute is pretty dull, it’s to do with the family home in Oxley Road, near Orchard Road in Singapore, and what was to become of it. As we understand it, Lee wanted that house to be ripped down. There’s a dispute in the family about what to do with the house. Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter saying that the house should be ripped down as her father wished. Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister appearing to… Well, officially excusing himself from the decision, but apparently seeming to side with those who want the house preserved. And it’s bit unclear what’s going on there.
But the essence of the dispute has been or the result of the dispute has been that I think the Lee family name has been somewhat tarnished in Singapore. There’s been a lot of bad blood, a lot of sort of mud slinging in public. And I think that means that there’s a limited scope for another generation of Lees to take power in Singapore. And my sense is that Singapore is ready to move beyond the Lee family shadow at this point.
Kalani Scarrott (14:29): So yeah, in terms of moving past the Lee family shadow, how do I put this? Singapore’s demographic is what? 3/4 ethnic Chinese. So what factor or role does that play in the future of Singaporean politics and what might it look like going forward?
Jeevan Vasagar (14:46): There are two kind of important questions about the sort of future of politics in Singapore. And one of them is the question of the race of the leadership and whether that matters. And another is the question of this sort of hybrid system that Singapore has, which is something with the sort of forms of democracy and certainly the appearance of democracy, but not always the essence of democracy. So I’ll take those in turn. So if you look at the question of sort of who leads Singapore, it’s always really been pretty much accepted that there’ll be an ethnic Chinese leader at the helm of Singapore. Now, the question is sort of accepted by who and what that means? And I think it’s always been an elite view that this is what matters for Singapore. I’m not sure that’s sort of widely shared by the general public. There are some amongst the elite who say that this is what the heartlands want, this is what the sort of core voter and the core always in brackets, Chinese voter in Singapore, expects to see. They expect to see a Chinese person in charge.
I would say that has been an evolution of a Singaporean identity that goes beyond race and that most Singaporeans accept each other as citizens. I mean, there are, there are clear problems with race, there are clear problems with prejudice, particularly anti-Muslim prejudice, I would say in Singapore, but also sort of anti-Indian prejudice. There are kind of multiple sort of racial problems, but I would say, an outstanding candidate from any community would be accepted as prime minister in Singapore. And I think Singaporeans ultimately A, see each other as Singaporeans, but B, sort of value exceptional qualities in their leaders and respect exceptional qualities, really strong leadership and sort of outstanding educational qualifications would sort of trump all those other factors. So the real sort of test case for Singapore recently was that of Tharman Shanmugaratnam who was the person that everybody thought ought to be prime minister in Singapore and wasn’t, and seemingly because of his race, I think it was sort of pretty kind of explicitly said that because he was of an Indian background that would never happen.
And I think it was a real shame. I think that was a moment at which Singapore could have sort of broken free of that sense that it’s always going to be a Chinese-led, Chinese-dominated society and said, here’s the right candidate, here’s the person who could lead us forward, but that didn’t happen. I think it will happen in future. So I think the other question in terms of Singapore’s future is which way does it tip? So you’ve got, if you take a step back and look at the sort of broader picture across the rest of east Asia, you’ve got a set of countries that have shifted from dictatorships basically to democracy. So Korea, Taiwan are the two really prominent examples. And then, you’ve got another society, which is pretty clearly said, we’re no kind of democracy, just China, China under Xi is very clearly an autocratic state.
And then you’ve got Singapore, which is this sort of strange kind of hybrid. So Singapore does have elections. These elections are meaningful. The ruling party will take account of them, but there isn’t really a sense that the system is going to change. There, isn’t really a sense that people have much input into the direction of society outside of election time. So it’s sort of halfway house between these kind of full democracies and these sort of full autocracies. I think the question for me is sort of which way or tip? I do think this is an unstable hybrid. I think it sort of is going to tip in one direction or the other. It’s always a bit foolish to sort of predict the future, but my hunch about this, is the rise of China is going to play a really interesting part in this.
So if you look at China becoming increasingly powerful, the Chinese model establishing itself as clearly one of autocracy, I think a lot of Singaporeans are gonna look at that and say, actually, we don’t want that. We don’t want to be this kind of society. What we want is something much more like Taiwan, like Korea, like Japan. We want to have more of a say, we want to have more input. So you saw signs of that with the strength of the opposition party in the last elections, and the fact that at the last election, after the result of the last election, the leader of the opposition was give this official title of leader of the opposition, given an office and funding for that. This is very different from what I think Singapore’s leaders would’ve done in the past. Well, what we know Singapore’s leaders did in the past, which to set out to sort of smash the opposition and say, don’t allow those people to come anywhere near power, they’ll ruin Singapore.
So there is much more of a sense of, the people’s wishes being taken into account. And in this case, the people’s wishes for more of a balance in parliament for a range of voices. And I think, the rise of China is just going to make that starker and going to make Singaporeans want more and more democracy. And I think that’s the direction in which Singapore system is going tip. Having said that, it’s been a long time, it’s been decades and decades of this hybrid and all of the people who’ve said it’s unstable, it will end at some point have been proven wrong. So I’m ready to join that group of people who’ll be proven wrong, but that’s my hunch about the direction of travel in Singapore.
Kalani Scarrott (19:41): Yeah. And how much harder is it with the sort of tightly-controlled media as well? Do you think social media and stuff helps maybe open that up?
Jeevan Vasagar (19:48): Yeah. So a really good question about the part that the media plays in the political debate in Singapore. So clearly the state media and most of the sort of print media and Singapore are largely toothless. Their teeth have been pulled by the government over time. The people in charge of those organizations are pretty much accepting that they have to sort of tow the party line at all times. There’s very little room for dissent. I think social media does offer a space for an alternative, but it’s also kind of pretty tightly controlled or reasonably tightly controlled in Singapore. And the way that it tends to be controlled is through libel through the use of sort of libel suits. So you have the case of Roy Ngerng, for example, the blogger who made some, perhaps some rather intemperate remarks about the prime minister, some ill-judged remarks about the prime minister and was then sued and kind of lost this libel action.
So, on that case, I would say that I don’t agree with what he said, I’m skeptical about whether it was right to say it, but I do feel the response to him was disproportionate. This was sort of one small man, one blog, set against the sort of the forces of the state, a slap down would have been enough without taking him to court and it resulted in him losing his job and then leaving the country. So, and people sort of watch that kind of thing and feel, observe this extraordinary response to sort of to criticism and take the lesson from it, which is that you don’t do this, you don’t challenge. So yeah, I mean, I think somehow the people’s voice does get heard in Singapore.
So you do get, social media does provide some kind of outlet for that, but even there, the Singaporean state has means of, has ways of controlling you basically. So there are limits to, to citizens freedom there, but I think ultimately, think there is a recognition in Singapore that’s foolish to try and completely sort of muffle social media to try and completely control what people have to say. There is a value in listening to what people have to say and to having this sort of means of correction. But yeah, that evolution is very, very slow and painful.
Kalani Scarrott (22:03): Yeah. Until we get into the details about nitty gritty of writing your book, is there anything that we haven’t talked about that’s consequential for the future of Singapore?
Jeevan Vasagar (22:10): So I think the really kind of obvious sort of challenge facing Singapore is the challenge of climate change. So it’s a maritime city in tropical Asia. Is facing rising temperatures, is facing the threat of increased flooding. I think that Singapore is relatively unusual in terms of its neighbors in that it has enormous resources, it has the ability to armor itself, it has the ability to kind of raise the newer parts of Changi. It can build sort of shore offenses and so on, but there is a limit to which Singapore can protect itself from the change that’s coming. So that’s the real sort of threat that’s approaching Singapore and the real thing that Singapore needs to think about in terms of its future and in terms of sort of protecting itself.
Kalani Scarrott (23:01): Do you think Singapore has a big role in how they can defend against that, I guess, or a role or are they just, sort of not sitting ducks, but how much can they actually affect their future do you think?
Jeevan Vasagar (23:10): Yeah, I mean, in terms of sort of affecting the sort of big mechanisms that drive climate change. I mean, there aren’t very many Singaporeans, so the decisions that Singapore makes aren’t necessarily consequential by themselves. I think where Singapore is important in that respect is as a role model for other Asian countries. So if Singapore says, we can manage with less air conditioning, we can rebuild the city, rebuild our offices, so they need less air conditioning. We can reduce energy demand if Singapore can sort of blaze a trail there. I think that’s really, really important for countries like India and Indonesia that are sort of coming up behind it in development terms and looking to see what kind of society they want to be and how much energy they need. Singapore to-date hasn’t necessarily set a very good example in that respect.
Very famously sort of the air-conditioned nation, a very heavily kind of energy-intensive society. But when I was interviewing for Lion City, for the book, I spoke to a number of architects who are really rethinking how to build in Singapore and how to make the city greener and how to make the city use less energy, basically. So there is a chance in which that it can become a role model for a sort of better Asian society.
Kalani Scarrott (24:19): Oh, perfect. So you’ve already discussed the why of writing the book, but I’d maybe love to hear more about the, how. So walk me through the whole process, start to finish, because I’d love to just know like what is writing a book like for you?
Jeevan Vasagar (24:29): Sure. So writing Lion City was a very long road and writing any kind of book is a long road, but especially your first book I think. It was something of an unexpected challenge for me in the sense that I knew that I could write. I knew that I could produce thousands of words relatively easily. What was daunting about it was the sense that you’ve got to produce 80,000 words, and this is a much bigger task than any you’ve done before. And it isn’t really the same as producing a series of news articles. So if you’re used to producing a set of 500-word news articles, you’re not producing 160 of those, you’re producing something that has to live as an entire organism, and has to hang together, work together. So when you made a point early on in the book, when you need to build on that later on, develop it, unpack it, think about what that means, reach conclusions about it.
The other part that was hard for me as a reporter was commenting on the situation. So very often as a reporter, I’ve been in an observer, I’ve talked to people, I’ve allowed other people’s voices to speak through me, but I haven’t said that I myself am kind of taking a view and giving a sense of which direction Singapore is going to go in. And that was a very hard habit to break. So I had to really consciously say actually, a book is a moment when you have to make a judgment, when you have to sort of come down one side of the line or the other. In very, very practical terms, I mean, there were a couple of things that were really quite challenging. And one of them is perhaps going to sound quite comic, but it’s I like a drink, as many people do, but in the year that I was writing the manuscript intensively, I basically didn’t drink at all.
So I was completely teetotal pretty much for that entire year. And you sort of begin by thinking, well, I’m sure I can have the occasional drink sort of once a week. You very quickly realize that the more alcohol you have, the fewer words you write the less day, and the whole process just takes longer, you’re going to miss your deadline. So, I was basically, kind of completely dry for a year. And the other part, which is maybe more surprising is that it was really hard to do exercise. So I’m a keen runner and sort of like to go out and get fresh air as often as I can. But actually, going to do exercise tires you out, and writing is this sort of physical activity. You need sort of really high energy levels. So you do need to eat.
You do need to find some way of doing exercise often a sort of 10-minute walk, but going for a 10K run is pretty much the worst way to start your day, because you spend the rest of it in this sort of pleasant haze, which sort of, fine if you’re working, but not so good if all you’re doing is sitting there concentrating and sort of pulling out some of the contents of your brain, getting them onto the page. So that was the thing that was a sort real surprise for me about the process of writing.
Kalani Scarrott (27:13): Oh, I never would’ve thought about that. So that’s great to hear though.
Jeevan Vasagar (27:16): I don’t know if that’s a sort of bleak news for you if you’re a sort of big fan of exercise. I mean, it was quite a wrench for sort of a thing of thinking, “Well, do I really need to give this up?” And realizing actually I do, and it’s not really going to possible to combine the two activities.
Kalani Scarrott (27:30): Yeah. Because it’s probably the opposite of what I thought would happen. I thought maybe going for the run to maybe help free-flow the ideas, because you’ve got that stress out the way. But yeah. So what any other process for collecting information for the book? Is that lots of interviews? You mentioned with the architects as well, how much of with your time just interviewing people, talking to people, what did that look like?
Jeevan Vasagar (27:46): Sure. So, the first phase of writing a book was a research phase in which I read as much as possible. So that was basically spent in the library, reading all the literature there was on Singapore and thinking about what the gaps were. And as ever, when you begin to write a book, you set off thinking, “Well, I’m sure that hardly anybody has written about this topic,” and you very quickly discover there are sort of 20 books on the subject, and then it becomes a question of sort of looking for the spaces, thinking about what those authors haven’t said, thinking about why they’ve said what they said and why you disagree. And one of the things that I thought when I read all the literature was that, very often people fell into, on either side of the line in Singapore. So either they would say, “Singapore is this incredibly problematic country, it’s a dictatorship, Lee Kuan Yew sort of brook no opposition,” or there would be the alternative version of saying, “Singapore should not be criticized, because it’s this great role model of development.”
And I thought there was a way to synthesize the two to think about both of those things together and think about what Singapore has achieved, but also looking at the cost. And I reckon the cost in the book, I talk about the repression, I talked about the sort of political prisoners that have been held in Singapore and looked at what the cost, the price Singaporeans have paid for their development, but that attempt sort of pull those two strands together was what was missing. So in terms of process, I guess if you are sort of beginning to write a book, that’s a really important part of it to think about what else people have said and what they haven’t said.
And then yes, there was a year or so spent doing interviews and thinking about who I want to speak to, thinking about the structure of the book overall, and then what I needed to sort of make that structure work. So I decided kind of pretty early on that I need to begin with history and to give readers a sense of where Singapore came from. Some of the deep history of Singapore going back sort of hundreds of years as a trading center, but also thinking about Raffles and thinking about the colonial history and then giving people a sense of who Lee Kuan Yew was and how he sort of engaged with sort of the other sort of founders of Singapore. And then, I started to map out the rest of the book as a sort of series, basically of thematic chapters, looking at different aspects of life in Singapore.
And then, it was a question of sort of who I needed to speak for those chapters. So it was kind of identifying the right voices and finding the time for them to speak. And that was very journalistic. That was very much like sort of chasing interviewees and working out what the right thing was to ask them and making sense of what they had to say. And there was also, I was for to chunk of the time when I was writing the book, I was out of Singapore, I was in the UK during lockdown. So I went back once for a research trip, but otherwise it was all on Zoom. It was all, many of the interviews were done remotely.
Kalani Scarrott (30:32): Yeah, mate, that’s no mean feat, and you’ve done an incredible job, because you don’t see all the backend work of a book getting put together. So hearing about it is yeah incredible. To move into maybe my final round of closing questions. What do you think is the most undervalued life experience that university-aged students don’t give weight to? What’s an underrated skill or maybe an experience that you think they should have?
Jeevan Vasagar (30:50): That’s a great question Kalani. So I don’t know what the education system is like in Australia. In the UK, it tends to encourage specialization quite quickly. So we do a limited number of A-levels, usually sort of three or four a levels, and people tend to go down the arts or the sciences route. So they sort of pick one stream basically. So I did arts, I did English history and German and then did a literature degree. So what I would say was missing in my education after the age of 16 was the breadth of scientific knowledge. And that’s something that I regret. And I think that something that I lost with that was also the quantitative side of thinking.
So my education was very good at thinking about things qualitatively and I really enjoyed my degree and the sort of focus on literature helped me think about stories, helped me think about the narrative impulse and helped me think about the stories that we tell each other and how those can be used and what lies behind the stories, which is a really critical thing if you are thinking about politics or if you want to go into journalism and that’s what you’re interested in. But I think there is an element of sort of dealing with numbers, of dealing with statistics that is would also been really useful for me in my career as journalist. And I didn’t do much of that. I did some advanced maths, but I didn’t do a lot sort of beyond 16. So that’s something I regret. I guess, I’ve always sort of giving advice now.
What I would say is think about the breadth of your education and think about if you are focusing on a science route, think about taking a language or if you’re going down the arts route, think about doing maths or think about doing chemistry and just sort of maintaining some of the breadth of your education throughout. The other thing that was incredibly useful for me in educational terms, perhaps the single-most sort of practically useful thing was learning a language. So I did German for A-level and then did German alongside the English at university, just sort of maintained my German, kind of kept reading literature and German. Did a sort of German-speaking course with a tutor. And then I went to work in Berlin as a journalist and that wasn’t by chance. It was the fact that when an editor’s looking at our newsroom saying, “Who do I send to Berlin,” I can immediately put my hand up and say, “I speak German. I can go and do this.”
So I mean, in your case, it may be people sort learning Chinese or learning Malay or whatever it is the sort of local languages to you. But again, it’s that chance of saying very oftentimes you sort of, you go on a business trip and people are speaking English anyway, but there is a huge advantage in being able to speak the local language, being able to kind of move seamlessly through it and to say, “Yes, I’m the person you should send to Jakarta because, I understand, and this culture I’ve spent a year living there, I’ve studied Bahasa Indonesia, I’m the man for this job.” So it’s a real way of sort of making yourself, pushing yourself to the front of the queue.
Kalani Scarrott (33:29): Yeah, exactly. And you probably connect on a better level, even if meetings are in English, being able to connect and understand, I think is hugely beneficial.
Jeevan Vasagar (33:35): Absolutely. Yeah. If you know the cultural cues, if you know what’s going on, when people are sort of speaking to each other, aside from the table, you have a sense, you’re not sort of completely blind in deaf in that situation basically. Yeah.
Kalani Scarrott (33:48): Exactly. Yeah. And it was interesting you mentioned how you wish you had more of a quantitative side, because I’m probably the flip-side. I’m just learning now with the podcast and writing how important a story and narrative and just selling yourself is. I always thought if I just presented the numbers, that was enough.
Jeevan Vasagar (34:01): Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, the world is composed of two things, isn’t it? It’s composed of numbers and words. And to give up one or the other at an early point in your education, seems very odd to me. I understand the word side of the world very well. I wish I understood the numbers side of it better basically. So I did work on the numbers side when I worked at the FT. So a lot of that, there’s obviously kind of a reasonable quantity of maths involved in business reporting, but it’s all sort of, it’s kind of basic maths. So it’s sort of arithmetic essentially. And at the journalistic level, not much beyond that. So, I wished I’d kept up some of my advanced math, I think that might have been useful to me at that point in my career.
Kalani Scarrott (34:40): Yeah. Fair enough. And early on, has there been any books, classes, or experiences that have been influential in shaping your world view?
Jeevan Vasagar (34:46): In terms of sort of thinking about the world and thinking about society? I mean, it’s quite an old book now, but Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which I’ve read a couple of times while working as a journalist and the sort of central idea of that book is basically about the relationship between the strength of a country’s economy, the strength of its military and the robustness of its welfare state and how to sort of maintain those three things together in order to maintain its standing in the world in order to protect itself against external rivals and order to keep its people happy, and the ways in which different societies have balanced that. That’s been really influential book on me and on my thinking and has helped me to understand the different societies I’ve been in. So that’s the one book I’d recommend reading, if you want to understand the sort of world as it is today.
I mean, it came out some time ago, there are references in the book to the Soviet Union, a country that doesn’t exist anymore. But that sort of central idea of what matters and in the longterm, it’s sort of economic growth that is really key. That’s a lesson that stayed with me basically.
Kalani Scarrott (35:49): In terms of, if you were 18 today, where do you think you would be spending your time? Where do you think the biggest opportunities lie? Where would you be spending it, whether it’s internship, travel, building certain technical skills, like you said, how would you be spending it?
Jeevan Vasagar (36:00): Yeah, a great question and a really hard one, because it obviously depends on kind of, I think it’s sort of impossible to sort of think yourself back into the shoes of being 18, because your mind is so different then, to what it is now. I think the really kind of obvious sort of challenge now, the really obvious question is the one of climate and the question of sort of how we run our society in a less sort of energy-intensive way or in a way that’s more sustainable. So I guess that’s the sort of question that I’d probably apply myself to now, if I was 18. I don’t know which end of it I’d apply myself to. I mean, I think there are several different sort of questions, different challenges that need solving, but I think kind of one of those questions is one that I’d be trying to answer.
Kalani Scarrott (36:48): Yeah. And lastly, what plans or vision do you have for yourself in the next, maybe five or 10 years? What are you most curious about going forward?
Jeevan Vasagar (36:54): So I think I’d come back to sort of climate point. And I was that I think in terms of the environment, I think we’re at a state that is similar to February in the sort of first year of COVID. So if you think about where we were in that year, there were some societies that were really acting to sort of deal with the crisis. Others that were sort of slightly in denial, saying, “The Chinese flu will never reach us.” And there was a sense that something was coming down the track, we didn’t know quite what it was or how much the change or how much of a drastic change was needed. I think the question, the thing I’d like to do now as a journalist is to get a sense of how to persuade the public, that this is going to be a crisis that affects us all. This will require drastic changes to our lifestyle, but if we make some changes now, some more moderate changes now, we’ll avert more drastic changes in future.
So to be able to say, “Look, we’re in February, let’s not get to May, let’s not close our entire societies down, but let’s do the actions we need to do now in order to sort of head that off at the pass.” So that’s a sort of real, kind of the challenge that I’m really thinking about now, the one that I’m trying to sort of, trying to get grips with.
Kalani Scarrott (38:05): Yeah. That’s a great way to wrap up. And before I forget, obviously, anything you want to plug, mention your book, where can people find you?
Jeevan Vasagar (38:11): So yes, my book is, my book Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia is available online at all good bookstores. So yeah, I hope you enjoy reading it. Thank you. Thanks very much for having me on Kalani.
Kalani Scarrott (38:25): No, thank you so much. I had an absolute blast today, so I really appreciate it.