The compulsory MCO update

It is a bit embarrassing that a few entries ago, I mentioned wanting to write every day. I failed that, obviously, but again nobody should care, least of all me. This is the kind of fake-goals that we set to make ourselves feel good.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown (it is a lockdown practically, despite the mouthful terminology used by the government), I came up with a list of personal goals: to finish a book every X days, to finish Y online courses, to complete Z number of projects. I was ambitious and wanted the lockdown to be productive.

But if there is anything that this global pandemic taught us, it’s this: your goals don’t matter much. By all means, set goals to force yourself out of the bed at 6.30am and to actually do something useful throughout the day. But at the end of the day, the amount of work that actually gets done matters very little. So why not do things that you enjoy, at a rate which is enjoyable to you, not to keep score.

In the grand scheme of things, more powerful forces are at work making the world go round. You can plan this and that and do a lot of busywork, yet if everything is at a standstill, nothing can move forward that much. Imagine putting a fish in a closed fishtank, and throwing the tank into the ocean. You are now that fish.

I’ve heard some businesspeople complaining that they completed a major project, but the counterparty (normally the government) is not operating as usual and comes up with plenty of bullshit excuses like we can only accept the delivery of the project in a face-to-face meeting, we cannot get the approval by this and that officer since they are working from home, we cannot deploy the system remotely, Zoom is insecure, and so on. So the entrepreneurs can’t get paid. So much for planning and executing.

I feel guilty sometimes for enjoying this MCO “vacation” because I am having a great time, yet many people are in fear of losing their livelihood, and for some, the ability to provide basic necessities to their families. I sympathize with those who suffer, I really do. I help where I can.

But let me just say that this lockdown (or Perintah Kawalan Pergerakan) period has been pleasant for me.

I am a natural introvert so there’s not much difference between my life before and during MCO. Playtime with my boy toddler, reading a good book with a hot mug of Darjeeling tea on the side, simple lunch and dinner every day, are all I need to have a good time. Yes, I am that boring.

I do watch Netflix every now and then (every Tuesday I restlessly wait for the newest episode of Better Call Saul to be available) but digital content is not necessary for contentment at home. Screen time is a distraction if not done for work or some useful ends. Going online does not equal entertainment; there are other ways to amuse yourself other than grinning all day at a piece of metal covered in a plastic case, while it basks your face in blue lights.

If I let myself be bombarded and awed by every shiny new viral meme funneh fake news social media online-phenom, I am no better than a snotty teenager (with all due respect to teenagers). Adults should learn how to sit tight and do nothing. And that’s how I’ve spent my days at home: a lot of contemplation, reading, thinking, writing, daydreaming and doing nothing.

What a good life, indeed.

Shout out to our great heroes: the medical frontliners, the police and armed services, and the people along the supply chain who ensure that the basic needs of people (food, telco, water, power, cash & medicine) are met.

I was right

Refer to my previous entry: Will there be WW3?

Finally, common sense prevails. The US and Iranian leadership chose the right path: immediate de-escalation. Leaders from both sides have given tough-sounding but conciliatory statements. Even Trump sounded magnanimous.

Crisis averted for the time being.

Iranian admitted that the Ukranian flight was shot down by their own missiles, which mistook it for a military aircraft. Sucks for everyone involved, but at least the incident will be resolved through the normal channel, rather than devolving into a casus belli.

The Iranian leadership gave a strong signal with their bombings of American targets in Iraq. It was purposely made to avoid any Iraqi and American casualties, only to give the message that they have the capability to inflict mass casualties and destruction to nearby enemies. Enough to make some Gulf countries shaking in their boots, and stand up in respect whenever Iran is mentioned.

Yesterday, Iran made a statement that the bombings were sufficient retaliation for the earlier American attack towards General Soleymani. PR-wise, the statement was a brilliant move. With one stroke, they managed to assuage their supporters at home who were baying for blood, while putting fear in the hearts of their Middle Eastern rivals, and, at the same time, reconcile with the US. Wins all around.

One thing for sure: Iran is blessed with highly rational leadership, a fact known for many decades to Israeli politicians and intelligence agencies. Watch the 2012 interview with Meir Dagan, the legendary head of Mossad, on the American news show 60 Minutes. Dagan explained that all his calculations in the Middle East were made with the assumption that Iran is led by a “rational regime”, and that attacking Israel (which Benjamin Netanyahu called for at the time) was a really stupid idea.

I am sure the American letter agencies (CIA, NSA, etc.) came to the same conclusion.

The clerical class and hardcore Islamists in Iran seem to have this fanatical obsession with Islamic eschatology. Even us Sunnis are a bit weirded out with how fanatic they seem, but that’s how the Shias roll. But we should not let these appearances of external piety cloud our geopolitical judgment. The Iranian leadership is intelligent and rational, not crazy.

Iran has been waging a silent but highly successful campaign for Middle Eastern supremacy in the past two decades. Foreign affairs pundits used to joke that Dick Cheney was an Iranian agent: the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq benefit none other than Iran.

Iran has never been in direct conflict since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, yet the Iranian circle of influence in the Middle East has grown steadily since 2001: now Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq are part of the Shia crescent. Every destabilizing events in the Middle East: Iraq war, ISIS, Saudi-Yemen war, etc., seem to strengthen Iran. All these without a single drop of blood spilled in direct conflict.

Now that Iran has become quite the contender for the top dog in the Middle East, they are not going to blow all the advantages away in a haphazard attack towards a military superpower, despite the vague allusion by their clerics that Shiite victory and supremacy will bring closer the End of Days and the arrival of the Islamic Messiah. They learnt their lesson from the Iran-Iraq war, where they lost millions of their people in what seemed like a pointless war. No, Iran needs to play smart. Support the proxies, choose the battles wisely, and when the heat is too much, retreat while saving face, as what they did with the US recently.

Iran is playing the long game.

Write long, write daily

I love writing, but I am not good at it.

This blog is the only place where I write.

Writing is hard, even for something which not many people will read.

Putting ideas into words is difficult.

Finding the right words takes time. I believe in an extreme rule of writing: there is such a thing as the correct word for each occasion. A thesaurus may give synonyms of a word, but in my belief, there is a platonically perfect word for every usage. Finding this perfect word is tough. Context is a bitch. To be a good writer, you need a good ear. Great writers have perfect pitch.

Making a piece of writing flow smoothly takes even more time: you have to scan your piece from the beginning, and to register all logical gaps and pieces that do not fit together and clunky constructions. And then, fix them one by one. Grammarly only makes your task slightly easier by catching obvious mistakes; it does not catch tone, flow, semantics, and voice.

I resolve to not suck at writing. Perhaps, one day, to be good at it.

There is only one way for me to do it: write more and read more.

I do much less reading nowadays — too much work and too little free time which I spend not sleeping or watching Netflix.

So I have to write more.

Therefore I will update this blog daily. And every entry will be long-ish. No short updates. I am living life on hard mode. And unlike my previous blog, no memes or jokes or funny pictures that you can find at places like Reddit. Only serious attempts at writing, daily. I don’t do gimmicks like clickbait titles and all the SEO nonsense. This blog is not optimized for anyone. It is what it is, a record of my thought on various topics, with some updates on my personal and professional life. Nothing more.

Why I don’t have a FB page

Today, someone asked me why I don’t have a Facebook page.

I do. In fact, I have more FB pages than most people:

These are the projects and companies in which I play an active role, so I consider their Facebook pages to be mine as well.

Of course, I understand what she was actually asking: why don’t I have a personal Facebook page?

The answer is simple: I value privacy and tranquility in my personal life. I do not miss much by not being on Facebook: anything on Facebook worth reading I will still hear about, either through my friends or my wife. The rest I do not bother.

Will there be WW3?

As far as geopolitics goes, today is a day of crazy (the Ukranian plane crash, the attacks on the US bases in Iraq, saber-rattling by the top leadership).

However, I believe that things will de-escalate soon. An actual war at this time does not serve any side of the conflict well. None of the players are stupid, as much as people like to think of Trump as an idiot. Iran is a nuclear power, and an all-out war with Iran will only benefit those who sit this one out, namely China, and perhaps Russia.

Islamic countries will make noises as usual, but when push comes to shove, none will side with Iran to face the US, except maybe the Iranian satellite states (the “Shia Crescent”), and grudgingly at that. However incompetent they may be in domestic politics, the American leadership is not crazy enough to think that ground invasion of a nuclear power is possible.

I think there won’t be a WW3. There is no reason to believe that if a war breaks out, it will take place on any theater beyond the Middle East. It would be better for all parties to work on de-escalation: stage bullshit attacks with no casualty, announce some sort of PR victory to save face, do the “Death to America” song-and-dance half-assedly for the home crowds, and open a backchannel to discuss ways to stop things from getting worse. And throw out some Dollars while you’re at it. Obama threw billions to Iran and there was no escalation during his presidency.

I am an optimist, but in case I am wrong, may Allah save all of us.

Keeping things simple

Yesterday, I was in a mall. I wanted to buy a bottle of perfume from a store. This is a chain store with many branches in Malaysia and in other countries.

I normally carry cash around (not much of an e-wallet guy), so I think of any retail transaction like buying a donut*: take item, go to cashier, pay cash, pocket the change, exit store. End of transaction.

But not this time. First, the saleslady asked me whether I have a certain e-wallet account, so I could be eligible for a 5% discount. I said no, cash please.

Then, she asked whether I would like to apply for membership.

I said no, not interested. I don’t shop there regularly anyway.

Then, she suggested that I download the chain store’s own mobile app — available on Android and iOS — and explained that by downloading the app, I can collect points, get exclusive offers, and redeem points by buying more stuff at any store nationwide. I will have access to a dashboard complete with bells and whistles, all at my fingertips, not to mention notifications of upcoming sales campaigns.

I said no.

She then asked if I wanted to buy a shopping bag. She phrased it in the most middle-class way possible: rather than buying a shopping bag, I would be “making a contribution in support of their no-shopping bag campaign”.

No. I can put it in my work bag. It’s a small bottle — just 100ml.

Then, almost exasperated with my refusal to do any other transaction except paying in cash, she made a final attempt to upsell by asking me for my birthdate (and my IC to verify it). So I could receive a special discount for my upcoming birthday.

I finally said no for the last time.

After what seemed to be an eternity in the upsell limbo, I paid for the purchase, pocketed the change, said thank you, and left.

Call me old-fashioned but if I step into a store, I just want to buy something, pay in cash and leave. Why is it so hard to do so nowadays?

*RIP Mitch Hedberg

Reading “Nadiem Makarim”

Last Friday, Khairul (the CEO of Pandai.org) lent me a copy of “Nadiem Makarim”.

rbt

It is the authorized biography of the founder and former CEO of Gojek, the Indonesian startup unicorn, and currently the Mendikbud (Menteri Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan) of Indonesia.

Khairul told me it is not easy to read because it is written in BI. What’s the big deal, I said, I can read English quite well. It turned out that he meant Bahasa Indonesia. OK, I can still read Bahasa Indo, but I admit that some words I don’t understand so I have to guess what they mean. Safe to assume I understood 99.9% of the content.

Here are some takeaways:

  1. Privilege is the surest path to success, and early privilege is the best advantage that can be bestowed to a person. The world is unfair, and whether we like it or not, privilege matters. Nadiem had a privileged background (a grandfather who was part of the Indonesian independence movement, a father who was a distinguished lawyer, basically a wealthy and socially influential family). He went to the Dalton School in New York for secondary education and the United World College in Singapore for pre-university education. That leads, later, to an Ivy League university, then McKinsey, then Harvard MBA, the whole shebang. He was set up early for success. This was spelled out unapologetically in the first few chapters. Of course, a privileged upbringing is not sufficient for success in life, as the many people with similar pedigrees but much more modest achievements can attest. However, and this is my point I’d like to emphasize, more than intelligence and work ethics, the most discerning factor that determines success is the early advantage that comes from a privileged upbringing. Take note, parents.
  2. He is deeply patriotic. He spent most of his youth outside Indonesia but have never lost the deep desire to serve his homeland. He would’ve had a high flying career with any foreign company he cared to join, but he staked his early professional life on a fledgling startup whose objectives are to serve fellow Indonesians and make Indonesia a better place.
  3. Gojek started slow but grew fast. The company was on concierge mode for the first few years of its existence: Gojek employees would take calls at its call center from people who want to order ojek (motorcycle) to go somewhere. Gojek grew organically for the first 3 years, yet a huge part of Gojek success later can be attributed to their early days, where it is more a consumer-facing company than a technology company. Once they move on to the ridesharing app model, the exponential growth started, and within a few months, the number of drivers increased more than a hundredfold.
  4. Nadiem has extraordinary people skills. He is as comfortable dealing with Gojek drivers as he is with his Harvard classmates or the tech types or the Indonesian elites. Great choice as Minister whose mandate is to serve the public.
  5. He works hard for Gojek and would stop at nothing to ensure its success. In a later chapter, there is a story of how the Indonesian government once tried to shut down Gojek. Nadiem and his team did whatever they could and pulled all the string the could pull to keep Gojek from going down. Finally, he managed to secure a meeting with Presiden Jokowi, and made an impassionate plea to him, which resulted in the Ministry of Transport rescinding their earlier decision to ban Gojek.
  6. Sometimes, you need to watch from the sidelines. When Gojek operated in its early years, Nadiem was often away working at other companies (first at Rocket Internet, and then later at Kartuku). He was the CEO of Rocket Internet Indonesia, and while working there, he can only manage to work on Gojek part-time. Yet, the experience and perspectives he obtained outside the company helped him to steer Gojek to greater heights when he returned to work full-time at Gojek.
  7. Get creative types aboard. Gojek is the brainchild of Nadiem and two co-founders that he met at Harvard Business School (where he was also classmates with the two future founders of Grab). The three Harvard founders of Gojek have technical and business backgrounds. So, one of their earliest decisions was to bring in a fourth co-founder who has a design background. He came up with many of the Gojek brand identities which are still used until today. A good lesson for startups.

Verdict: A good read worth spending a couple of afternoons on. Candidly educational for startup founders like me. Though at times the writing feels too hagiographical.