No durians? Just eat strawberries

Change can be disturbing, but people should go with the flow, say ST readers at Big Read Meet

Big Read Meet regulars Hans Schniewind (far left) and Jean-Michel Bardin say Singaporeans are lucky as train breakdowns are part and parcel of life in most other countries.
Big Read Meet regulars Hans Schniewind (left) and Jean-Michel Bardin say Singaporeans are lucky as train breakdowns are part and parcel of life in most other countries.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Ms Rohaya Mustapha, an architect turned-housewife, used to think life was smooth-going.

Then she went through a divorce, and also had to confront her parents' mortality. "The suddenness of these changes showed me that everything is not always going to be all right," she said at the Big Read Meet on Wednesday. "When anything goes wrong, we are required to pause and manage our expectations better."

The 59-year-old mother of three was among the 61 readers who turned up to talk about The Cunning Of Uncertainty by Austrian sociologist Helga Nowotny.

Professor Nowotny, 79, is a former president of the European Research Council, an independent scientific body. She also steers the yearly Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings in Germany, in which Nobel Prize winners mentor young scientists.

In her book, she examines why people fear circumstances they cannot control and insist on being guided by past experiences, which are often of little help. She also hints at how to prepare for sudden change.

Ms Rohaya said: "People of my generation are now finding that even the rains are uncertain, even the durian and mangosteen seasons are uncertain, but I suppose we have more alternatives today like strawberries, so people are not so affected by such changes."

Fellow reader Ng Kah Gay, 37, associate publisher of Ethos Books here, said later: "When there was a regularity to the durian and mangosteen seasons, there was also the possibility of anticipation. But going with the flow, we incline towards responding to, and away from anticipating, as a mode of experience."

Mr Ng and Ms Rohaya were among the 10 newcomers to the meet, the non-fiction book club which I moderate monthly.

Readers were thrilled when they learnt that Prof Nowotny had agreed to speak at a meet on Oct 26, when she would be in town as a visiting professor of Nanyang Technological University.

Quite a few readers cited the more frequent MRT breakdowns in recent years as a prime example of disruption.

But meet regulars Hans Schniewind, 57, and Jean-Michel Bardin, 63, reminded them how lucky Singaporeans actually are as, by most other countries' standards, the train system here is among the most reliable globally.

Mr Schniewind, an economist and Singapore permanent resident from Germany, noted how commuters there hardly groused about a recent five-hour delay in Berlin's train services. Mr Bardin, a retired IT professional, cited similar experiences with the Paris metro.

Many readers wondered why Prof Nowotny would write a book on overcoming uncertainty, when unpredictability is "the human condition" in a dog-eat-dog world.

They agreed, however, that the pace of change has quickened disturbingly.

General practitioner Stephen Phua, 62, said such frenetic living is leading to more youth here popping anti-depressants and sometimes committing suicide.

He added: "The amount of information we are processing today is unprecedented. Society needs to reset itself and find a way for people affected by change, not leave it to fate."

One way to cope better, said meet regular Patrice Hoffman, 46, is to be always aware of what is going on around us, perhaps with the help of apps that, say, track traffic flows.

"It's about flex," the strategic account manager in a human resource consultancy said.

"You must try to move forward. If you meet obstacles, find another way that might also take you forward. Keep going."

•The next Big Read Meet will be from 6.30pm on Sept 28 at the Central Public Library at Basement 1, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters, 100 Victoria Street, and will be on A Chance Of A Lifetime: Lee Kuan Yew And The Physical Transformation Of Singapore. Sign up for the meet at any NLB e-Kiosk.

•From Oct 1 , you can similarly sign up for Professor Helga Nowotny's meet, which will be from 6.30pm on Oct 26 at NLB headquarters, Level 16, The Pod.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2016, with the headline 'No durians? Just eat strawberries'. Subscribe