A book for every year in Singapore

Four friends produce the first in a collection of essays that commemorate each National Day

THE BIRTHDAY BOOK: WHAT IS SINGAPORE'S NEXT BIG THING?

By 51 writers, edited by Malminderjit Singh

Ethos Books Singapore /Paperback/ 249 pages/$25 with GST or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 959.57053 BIR

With economists further slashing their growth forecasts for Singapore last Friday - stoking fears of more retrenchments - many people might find it hard to glean how much hope lies ahead.

Fifty-one writers here, however, have a wealth of clues to that and they have penned their views in The Birthday Book.

  • Meet a brilliant thinker

  • Austrian sociologist Helga Now- otny will speak at The Big Read Meet on Oct 26.

    She is the former president of the European Research Council and is Professor Emerita at ETH Zurich, Switzerland's equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    She is also a visiting professor at the Nanyang Technological University here.

    Join Prof Nowotny and senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai for questions on Prof Nowotny's new book, The Cunning Of Uncertainty, from 6.30pm in The Pod, Level 16, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    Already, readers have written in with questions about the book, which was featured on The Big Read page earlier this year.

    Seats are limited. Sign up at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary and look for The Big Read Meet.

Launched at the National Library Board on Aug 27, the book is the first in a collection of essays that will commemorate each National Day, beginning from this year.

The corp of writers will grow with each anniversary, so readers can expect 52 writers next year, 53 writers in 2018, and so on.

This commemoration through compilations is the brainchild of civil servant Aaron Maniam and former Business Times journalist Malminderjit Singh. The latter also edited all 51 essays.

The pair will pose a different question each year to the essayists. This year's question is: What is Singapore's next big thing?

Entrepreneur James Chan bankrolled the book project to the tune of $25,000. Associate publisher Ng Kah Gay of Ethos Books here, got the first edition of The Birthday Book out and is committed to seeing the series through. Both men were Maniam's schoolmates at Raffles Institution.

Ng, 37, says he sees it as a win-win proposition for Ethos Books. "The volume of book purchasing here... won't sustain us if we are to depend solely on it… What Ethos wants to do is produce a book of such quality that it will compete, on the basis of quality, with international publications and, at the same time, we want also to invest more effort in marketing. So we will have to depend on fewer books, but transacted at higher volume."

That strategy is paying off.

As at Oct 7, The Birthday Book has sold about 800 copies of its 1,000-copy print run. It is now into its second run, which will be out in stores here mid-next month.

  • FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS


  • 1 Why and what do younger Singaporeans worry about the future of Singapore?

    2 How might Singapore become an epitome of a country whose people are ageing meaningfully and robustly?

    3 How might policy-makers here engage with, and persuade, Singaporeans to their points of view?

    4 What would everyone in Singapore have to do to make it a smart nation?

    5 What should Singapore preserve of its heritage and why?

There are also plans to sell it on Amazon.com.

Singh, 37, says their book is for "anyone who's got an informed view, or wants to get an informed view, about Singapore. He or she doesn't have to be Singaporean, just anyone who takes an interest in Singapore and wants intelligent views on it".

He and his three collaborators on this project have also launched what they call a "movement" in civil society called The Birthday Collective. You can join it for free via its Facebook page of the same name.

It sounds suspiciously like OurSGConversation - an initiative by the country's leaders to start national conversations on Singapore's future in which Maniam, 37, a director at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, also played a part.

Ng says: "What you see in this book in a way is emblematic of civil society as it is… There are a lot of good intentions, but good intentions don't translate into action. What is required is for real groundwork, based on a real understanding of the ground… So the danger in putting out a book like this is whether the ideas it carries are substantive."

Chan, 35, quips: "We're figuring it out as we go along."

It shows. Those who proffer solid views in this handsomely designed book are in the minority. Among them are:

• Strategic planner Cheryl Chung, co-founder of Quad Research, on what being a smart nation means: "Data, as culture, also means that we must expect it to drive our decision-making and, in some cases, change our behaviour. Of course, as Plato pointed out, human behaviour stems not just from knowledge, but also from desire and emotion - the latter two conveniently and squarely, in the domain of stories. Can we bring the storytelling element back into data to help us make better decisions?"

• Zakir Hussain, this newspaper's political editor, on how pasar malam here might evolve: "Such markets also tend to foster a sense of community - in spite of the crowds, shoppers tend not to jostle… might mobile libraries, and even Wi-Fi stations or digital terminals take up space at these markets to bring books and technology even closer to people?"; and

• Ervin Yeo, an assistant vice-president at property developer CapitaLand, on his birthday wish for Singapore: "That Singapore can put aside our champion grumbling and continue to be the hardworking, industrious, rugged nation that will always make the grade." Onward, Singapore.


Just a minute

THE GOOD

1. The Birthday Book is a rare compilation of reflections by emerging as well as established leaders of younger Singapore on looming issues in a time when most of Singapore will be elderly; what sort of ideas investors want to back next; and why more Singaporeans should sell their ideas to the world.

2. The book's editor, Malminderjit Singh - who conceived the idea of this tome - relished going through the great variety of writing styles and approaches to the question, "What is Singapore's next big thing?" The book is a panoply of prose and includes a recipe for rojak, a design brief to shape future Singapore, a letter to one's younger self and Singh's own mock news report on regional ties.

3. This concentration of so many of Singapore's best and brightest in one volume proves a handy primer in lateral thinking.

4. Judging this book by its cover, it is one of the most handsomely designed ones in recent memory. There are arresting graphics, punchy capsule profiles and lovely cream paper is used. Other Singapore publishers should take a leaf from Ethos Books' sophisticated approach to this book. It would do much to lift the face of Singapore publishing worldwide.

THE BAD

1. The quality of curation for this volume is patchy and, no doubt, compounded by the tight production timeline. There are at least 22 essays which should be required reading in schools here, including those by Bernise Ang, Mohamad Saiful Md Anuar, Sheila Pakir, Cassandra Pee and Tong Yee. But there are also many other writers who seem to say a lot, but do not have very much to say. At least one borders on the vacuous because the writer shows scant regard for the evolution of independent Singapore's place in the world.

2. This book is crammed with jargon. The writers' liberal use of such is ample proof that they are learned, but they would have been wiser if they had helped their readers break down their complex ideas such that they would inspire even schoolchildren.

THE IFFY

1. In some of the essays, such as James Chan's musing on Singaporeans' approach to technology, the writers introduce important but little-known ideas such as blockchain. Asked why he did not explain that, Chan says he does not want to "spoonfeed" readers and that Googling would tell them what it is. I am not sure that sort of approach would win the book many fans, especially as people value convenience.


Fact File: Big idea at the back of a cab

The Birthday Book was conceived in the back of a cab sometime in May this year.

Friends Aaron Maniam and Malminderjit Singh, both 37, were sharing a ride home in a taxi when they hit upon an idea: Why not commemorate National Day yearly in a post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore by compiling views of current and emerging young Singaporean leaders in diverse fields?

Maniam is the director of industry division at the Ministry of Trade and Industry and a well-known poet. Singh is a former Business Times journalist who now works in the think-tank, Head.

On why they wanted to do a book, Singh says: "It was important that we continue the momentum after SG50… which gives a platform for reflection and I felt that we needed deeper reflection. I felt that the conversations in the public domain, especially online, are superficial.

"I also wanted a platform for younger Singaporeans who are going to be stakeholders of the future to be able to express their thoughts and opinions on that."

So they hatched a plan: For the country's 51st birthday, invite 51 younger thinkers here to mull over, in 1,200 words, the question, "What is Singapore's next big thing?".

For the next National Day, invite 52 writers, not necessarily from the initial crop and put out another edition of The Birthday Book. And so it goes.

They immediately sought out Mr Ng Kah Gay, associate publisher of Ethos Books Singapore. Mr Ng, 37, happens to be Maniam's classmate from Raffles Institution.

Maniam also roped in entrepreneur James Chan, 35, his junior in the school, to underwrite the publication.

The rub, of course, is that if you are going to call your creation The Birthday Book, it would have to be out in time for National Day.

That gave the four of them, who have been civil servants at one time or another, only three months to invite 51 people to write the book, edit their efforts and get everything ready to the presses before Aug 27, when they would launch the book.

Maniam and Singh tapped their networks for people who could contribute essays to the book.

Singh says: "We knew the people from our networks were leaders in their own fields."

They add that there was no risk of groupthink because their networks were distinct and diverse.

Asked why the quality of essays is so uneven, with only about half of the 51 writers having solid views, Chan says: "We did not pick them just for their writing ability. It was more about featuring interesting people… I didn't expect every article to be equally punchy, but that's not how we curated it."

Singh edited all 51 essays and admits that quality control was "a challenge", as only 10 per cent of all the essays that came in were "good to go upon submission".

Among those he found a joy to read were former Straits Times journalist Grace Chua, 26; naval officer Thia Shan Zhi, 24; and stand-up comedian Rishi Budhrani, 31. Singh adds: "While we did improve on the essays - I would say quite substantially - there was still a lot more work that could have been done if we had more time, including perhaps going back to some authors and saying, 'Look, add more depth and meaning to this.' This book is like an iPhone 1, so we will add value and improve it as we go along."

Chan says: "We need to shape our young to be more daring to question things. There's no reason The Birthday Book cannot be edgier; it needs to be edgier.

"We had trouble convincing some of the edgier people to write for us because they might view us as the Establishment. We want them to come in at some point."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'A book for every year in Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe