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.

Life planning using to-do lists

The most useful tool in my life management toolkit is my to-do list, which I write on a .txt file (keeping it simple!) and update daily.

Most people think about their lives as a series of short-/medium-/long-term plans. While it is sometimes necessary to take stock of the present and plan for the future, what is more important for me is breaking down the plans into actionable to-dos that I can act on today or within the next few days. More important, I believe, than life objectives, bucket lists, new year resolutions, and other “big picture” blueprints for how I should live my life.

Sometimes, I talk about my visions for the future, but I rarely plan for them directly. My approach is breaking them down into small steps, which are necessary to achieve the next step, which in turn will lead to the next step, which hopefully will lead me, step by step, towards the desired vision at the desired time in the future.

For example, I do not make a plan to “get into the blockchain industry by 2021”. (This is just an example, I do not actively seek to be in the blockchain business, sounds like too much hype for now).

This is how I will plan it: This coming Tuesday, I will spend 2 hours in the morning to

  • read 5 short articles about blockchain
  • watch 3 videos on blockchain
  • order or download 3 books about blockchain
  • shop for online classes or upcoming conferences/talks on blockchain technology.

After I do these, then I follow up with plans for the week after, e.g., reading one book on blockchain technology within 5 days. And so on.

If something seems too far ahead, I stop planning for it and just wait until the time comes. It makes living less burdensome; no need to keep track of so many things at once.

On the flip side, I like to plan every small thing that I have to do. An actual item on my to-do list: This Friday, after office hours, I will go to Mr. DIY to buy a small tube of elephant glue, and then go home and glue back a fridge magnet that had been broken in half by my son. It was his favorite fridge magnet, in the shape of a Friesian cow. The head of the cow is attached to the body with a small spring, so the head will bob if you give it a slight touch (toddlers dig that stuff). There is a duplicate one on the refrigerator of my office pantry, but I will not take that one home but instead fix the one I have at home. If I don’t plan to fix it, then it will remain unfixed for many months (most probably, forever).

The purpose of education is to develop complete human beings

In any education discourse, one should start with the basic question:

What is the purpose of education?

This fundamental question draws different answers from different people, depending on one’s worldview, upbringing, agenda, ideology or any combination thereof.

For example, an economist might view education as a tool for economic development. To them, the measure of the educational attainment of a country is closely related to the economic numbers, such as the GDP growth or productivity growth.

An industrialist, perhaps agreeing with the economist, would see education as a necessary process to supply the workforce.

A politician sees education as a propaganda tool. Was it Che Guevara or someone else who said that — and I am paraphrasing — give me the education of the youths, and I will capture the whole country?

The way we view the world affects the way we see education, and how we answer the fundamental question above. Furthermore, this worldview will impact how we think of how the education system should be.

A tech worker would push for more hard skills and digital competencies to be taught at the school level, while someone with a civil service background would prefer more emphasis on civic studies and nationhood in the curriculum.

All of these views are valid.

Our society is made of people from different backgrounds, all coming together to build a nation. A police officer, a wildlife conservationist, a computer programmer, a politician, and a gamelan performer, all have stakes in the nation-building agenda.

The purpose of education is to serve everyone in society.

The purpose of education is not just to impart literacy and numeracy, or to create the future workforce; it is to develop people into complete human beings. Human beings with different physical, social, intellectual, spiritual, economic and psychological needs. Human beings whose choice of life to live is practically unlimited. Imagine two diametrically opposite members of society. For example, imagine a rice farmer who spent his whole life toiling in the paddy fields, and a corporate head honcho working in her C-suite office in the Golden Triangle.

Education should serve them both, and everyone else.

What does it mean to be a complete human being? A complete human being, at a minimum, should be a good citizen, a good neighbor, a good member of society and a productive member of the workforce.

So how to educate people towards this goal, as their needs are different? We cannot cater to every student individually with tailor-made education, unless a student comes from a rich family and can afford personal tutors, like the princes of European royal houses in the 18th century. The rest of us have to go to school. The school has a system, which is supposed to approximate the ideal education system to develop complete human beings.

Students should be taught Language (which includes the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric). Mathematics and Science, to prepare them for economic and scientific activities in the modern world. Literature, History, Geography — to learn about the world around us through different prisms. Home Economics and Commerce to function as human beings. Moral or Religious Studies to develop positive values. Civics to learn how society — and the institutions that govern it — function. These are basic subjects that all students around the world learn at school.

In other words, the subjects we already have in school is a close approximation to the ideal education system. That is why people have been teaching the exact same subjects for centuries.

I never really buy the argument that the choices of subjects are obsolete, that this type of education system was designed during the industrial revolution to cater to the employment needs at the time (factory workers need literature and geography?).

No, even back then the education system was created to approximate the ideal education system, which purpose (I believe) is to develop complete human beings. It was not created mainly to churn out uncritical people so they can be put on the assembly line. This is somewhat of a modern education meme, but its veracity is not supported by historical facts (as a matter of fact, classical education thrived the most during the Industrial Revolution).

There’s a reason why schools the world over teach roughly the same set of subjects at the primary and secondary levels. It has been proven to work. It has created the modern world as it is. It is a close approximation of the ideal education system which caters to members of society with different needs.

And I am suspicious of any effort to radically change the curriculum away from the existing system and into a “modern” curriculum with an emphasis on technology. Either these efforts are driven by Big Tech (who wants to sell “education solutions” to schools and parents), or driven by misguided tech cheerleaders who know very little about the actual education system, but want to force their worldview on the education system using tech buzzwords like IR4.0 and Digital Economy. Alain de Botton called this type of thinking boosterism.

Let us get back to basics, leave the good parts of education alone, tweak the ones that do not work, and let us not radically change the system under the banner of technological boosterism.

The purpose of education is to develop complete human beings, not automatons.

Judging a book by its cover

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is nonsense.

Book cover design is a billion-dollar industry. The cover of a book (including the front cover, the back cover, and the dust jacket) contains the title and subtitle of the book, the name of the author(s), their bios, blurbs, recommendations, retail price, i.e., most of the things you need to know in order to decide whether to buy a book. So we can make a decision even if the book is shrink-wrapped (I am looking at you, Kinokuniya).

Same in life. We often make decisions by looking at the surface. Imperfect, but damn efficient.

Let’s take the adage literally. Last week I went to a bookstore in Subang Parade. On the nonfiction shelf, I saw a book by Michael Chabon. I know him as a novelist (with a Fiction Pulitzer under his belt), but this is a non-fiction book.

Once I saw Michael Chabon on the cover, I need not check anything else. I immediately picked it up.

(The book is titled Pops, by the way, and it is about parenthood.)

Why the snap decision? Chabon is perhaps the greatest contemporary novelist that I have ever read. I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in college, which blew my mind, and I felt a bit sad when I got to the end. I have also read his other novels Wonder BoysThe Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and Telegraph Avenue, which, though not as celebrated as Kavalier & Clay, were masterfully written.

So anything by Chabon, I believe I can’t go wrong with.

(It was an ok book. The first chapter is my favorite. It is about his conversation, during a literary party many years ago, with an older writer whom he looked up to. The older writer warned Chabon against getting married and having children, and said that by having one kid, Chabon will miss out on writing one book in his lifetime. Chabon now has four kids and he mused about the hypothetical four books that supposedly never got written. Chabon concluded that he need not pay any attention to these literary stillborns; his 14 books and numerous literary awards attest to his ability to balance his writing career with family life.)

Similarly, I judge films and TV shows on Netflix by their “covers”. I don’t read in-depth reviews before deciding to watch something or not. A cursory glance at the synopsis and the list of actors/directors/showrunners often suffices to find good films and TV shows.

There were misses at times, for sure. The Irishman, starring the big-screen Mafia triumvirate Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino, is too much of a slow burn. The Kominsky Method, though featuring two legendary actors Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, didn’t do it for me, and I never went beyond the pilot episode. But most times, looking at the cover is enough.

In social interaction, the first impression is often the most important impression we have of someone. If it is underwhelming, there might not even be a chance for a second impression.

So, judge away. And conversely, put on a good cover if you want to be read.

This is another example of signaling I wrote about in the previous entry.