Happy New Year, 2021!

Finally, 2020 has gone, and 2021 has come. Even though it may still be a very difficult year, as a lot of people have been predicting and forewarning, a new year still brings new hope, and in this situation, any sliver of hope and any light at the end of the tunnel is very much appreciated. So, let’s cast aside those doubts, be a true believer for once, and bow our heads and pray for a better year, a year that will mark the path back to recovery, a dream of spring at the end of the cold wind of winter.

A new year is also the opportune time for reflection, for sitting down and calmly looking back to the year that has just passed, to see what has happened, what has been achieved and what has been missed out. And for this very special year, with more misses than hits, something stood out quite prominently, something memorable that helped define the year 2020 for me.

  1. Covid-19

Covid-19 takes centre stage of the year 2020, and for no good reason. Even though the disease started in 2019 (hence the name), it started wreaking havoc mainly in 2020, bring the whole world to our knees, and crippling worldwide economy. Trillions of dollars were thrown out by governments trying to salvage the situation and save lives and livelihoods, not to much effect, especially economically. Global trade was crippled. Borders were tightly shut. Hospitals were flooded with patients, many in critical condition. And people started dying, at a dizzying rate. Life as we knew it was upheaved and turned upside down. When the number of cases started getting out of control, due to the ease of spreading of the virus through the air, many countries started enforcing lockdown and quarantine, sending billions of workers to work from home, and then billions of children to home-based learning, a method of virtual classes. We were not prepared for it, and up until then, changes towards flexible working and flexible learning were only done at a very limited scale and scope. Overnight, experiments had to be turned into large scale practice, and employers scratched their heads to find a way to ensure business as usual, or as little impact as possible, while sending all their employees home. And when the schools had to shutter, and children continued their learning from home, that was when all hell broke loose.

Parents had no choice but to split their time between work and child support, to help their kids to learn effectively from home. For those unlucky ones who did not get the necessary help, or were lack of equipment for online learning, the results started tumbling in a fee fall. Parents became stressed as it was already less productive to work from home, and then they even could spend less time doing work, and struggled with finding the time to support their kids. Fortunately, Singapore managed to control the situation quite well, and after almost 2 months, the lock down (or Circuit Breaker, as they preferred to call it here) was lifted partially. Children started going back to school, and employees could go back to work, albeit just part time as well, and a little bit of normalcy started taking place in the tiny island. But it was far from pre-Covid normal, and we still had to wear masks, gather in small groups only, and painstakingly plan for every smallest event and activity beforehand, since the venues could only accept a small number of people at one time, and therefore could quickly run out of slots. It would take a long time until life could really be back to normal, probably by end of 2021 or even somewhere in 2022. Until then, we can only live with it, and learn to treasure each tiny change for the better, for a positive change, no matter how small, is very precious nowadays, especially when looking out and seeing what is still happening in other countries.

2. Elections

Posters of Progress Singapore Party and People’s Action Party contesting for West Coast GRC at Ayer Rajah Food Centre on Sunday, July 5, 2020. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

Year 2020 was also the year of elections. First, we had Singapore’s General Election, also called GE2020. It was one of the few general elections held in the midst of the pandemic, amidst tight security and very careful considerations in order to ensure safety of all who were involved. There were rumours that the election would be postponed until after the pandemic was over, but since that day seemed to be far away and very unpredictable, the decision was made to charge ahead and get it done with, so that the next government could focus totally in handling the pandemic. Fortunately, no major incident happened during the election, and the event did not turn into a super spreader as many were afraid of. That was the first time I voted in a general election, and the feeling was quite special. Before that, I had already been a grassroots leader, and had chance to work with MP to take care of the residents in my constituency, but being able to select and vote for the MP I wanted to support was still a milestone that I really treasured. It’s a show of democracy in practice, which is very precious and rare in the world even nowadays, and I am deeply grateful that there is democracy in the second country I call home.

It was also the first time I volunteered in a general election, as a polling agent. The job was quite simple. I just had to sit there at the polling station with a list of voters in hand, and mark those who had come and voted. It was quite a simple task, but it allowed me to get close to the polling station, and soaked in the feeling of the election, which only happens once every 5 years. It was a memorable experience, and even more special when the polling time was extended last minute from 8pm to 10pm. I had the chance to witness the sealing of the ballot box. Everything was very orderly, civil and transparent. What an unforgettable experience, and I will be happy and honoured to take part in the process again, in 5 years.

Another notable election this year is the US Presidential election. I already wrote a long article dedicated to it, but that was before the result came out. Now that the dust has finally more or less settled (despite Trump’s desperate efforts to still try to reverse the results last minute, which I don’t think has any chance to succeed), the ugly truth of Trump’s presidency is being unveiled almost on a daily basis, especially given the fact that he has lost and is running out of time to implement his insidious plan. From rejecting Congress efforts to save American lives and livelihoods in the midst of the pandemic, which his incompetence contributed much to bringing America to the current state, to pardoning those who are loyal to him regardless of whether they deserve to be pardoned or not (in his mind, whoever is loyal to him is more than deserving to be pardoned, no matter what crimes they committed), to trying to wreak havoc on the election result in particular, and the American democracy in general, Trump is on the way towards cementing his legacy as one of the worst US presidents ever. Now the only hope is that someone or something can stop him from causing more damage in his 18 remaining days in office, and that what he has done can be reversed by the next president. Otherwise, God save America.

3. Career advancement

2020 was the year that I changed job twice. Early in the year, right before the pandemic hit, I moved from a great company, where I had spent more than 3 years, to embark on a new adventure, in a totally different industry. At that time, things were still pretty normal in Singapore, people were still out and about, no mask required unless you were sick. Then shortly after I joined, things started going downhill pretty quickly, and I spent the rest of my short stint there working from home during the Circuit Breaker period. That was when I saw the ugly side of the place, where management was dragging their feet when it came to pandemic response, among other things. I knew it was not the right place for me, and fortunately I found a great opportunity, a silver lining right in the eye of the storm, when so many were losing jobs. So I made a move again, right after the Circuit Breaker was lifted, and managed to go back to office part of my working time, and the rest is history. Now, I get to work in the field I love, in a wonderful project, with a great team that inspires me to try harder everyday, and we can go back to office partially now to collaborate, innovate and crack hard problems together. So I count myself very lucky and I am very grateful for that.

And that is it. One memorable year, a year that is not like any year before. A year that will go into history, and talked about again and again in many more years to come. It was a difficult year, but it still passed anyway, and now with 2021 at the door step, the only way is upwards and onwards. And may we all catch the favourable wind as we sail forwards from the wreckage of the storm. Happy New Year 2021. Please be kind with us, we have a lot to catch up on.


Cilka’s Journey – A story of incredible suffering and perseverance

If you think the story of Gita and Lale in The Tattooist of Auschwitz was heart wrenching, you will be much more depressed after reading Cilka’s Journey. So, if you are looking for a happy and light-hearted, cheerful read for the incoming festive season, this is not the right book for you. It’s dark, sad and sorrowful, yet it paints a realistic picture of a time not long ago in history, and the suffering of those people who were unlucky caught and trapped in that time and place. It’s depressing, but at the same time it proves once again that human has the strength to fight against all odds and overcome the greatest obstacles in their quest to get back their right to live a normal life.

If you have read The Tattooist of Auschwitz, you will likely remember Cilka, Gita’s friend and the girl who helped save Lale from a doomed fate. It turned out that she was not as lucky as her friends, and suffered much more and longer than them for a crime that she never committed. Her only crime, if it is considered a crime, is trying to stay alive against all odds. And because of that, she was sent to another hell on Earth: The Soviet Gulag in Siberia.

Not many people can survive one concentration camp, but poor Cilka had to endure not just one, but two of them, and they were both notorious for their poor living condition. The only consolation, if you can consider it so, is that at least before being sent to the gulag, Cilka knew how much time she would be spending there, which was 15 years as of her sentence, and that she would be less likely to receive a bullet on her head out of nowhere than in Auschwitz. Other than that, things seemed to be quite the same, and the hard labor and sexual abuse and malnutrition, which was enough to kill even the strongest man, was helped by the bitter cold of the arctic circle. How could a young girl, just barely out of the most infamous death camp ever, manage to survive another ordeal like that. But then she did, and that was the silver lining that made the book not just all gloom and doom in the end.

Unlike the previous book, this story is more fiction than fact, and only based loosely on the life of Cilka. The milestones are correct, but some characters where made up, and the details of what happened to Cilka in the gulag were filled in by the author as she did not have as much first hand material as the first book. However, it was still a riveting read, and it painted a very clear picture of the brutality of the Soviet gulag, a place decided to condemn those who were deemed guilty of the most serious crimes.

In summary, it was a heavy and dark read, but it was insightful to me, and helped shed light on what life was like in the Soviet gulag. And what I felt was most encouraging was that, in spite of all those hardships, there was still love and humanity shining through. Cilka might not have survived had she not received the help from the kind doctor at the camp, who took a big risk taking her in and training her up as a nurse and caregiver. And her time there would be much more miserable without the genuine love and care from her roommates, who were willing to share whatever little they had left, not knowing what would happen the following day. It was moments like those that makes the story more bearable. People are really more selfless and united when they share the same hardship and have to endure a tough life together.

Cilka’s Journey may not be suitable for everyone, but it will be enjoyable for those who crave a love story with a happy ending, and don’t mind going through some dark chapters with brutal facts of tough lives. It will be even more enjoyable for those who have some background in history, or love those stories based on real life events, or want to learn more about history through the lives of those who have lived through the period themselves. And no matter what your decision is, you should feel grateful and lucky that those camps are no longer exist, and contribute to making sure that no such camp exist or no such awful living condition and violation of human rights is tolerated anywhere in the world. We have gone through a dark period in our history, and we should try our best to let it be history and not current affair.

Biden v. Trump, and the battle for the heart of the nation

Firstly, I don’t normally pay much attention to presidential elections, especially of a foreign country far far away from where I live. However, this time, I was glued to the screen, refreshing the live result page every few minutes, enduring a rollercoaster ride of emotion, from almost lost hope to some distant light to outright happiness. That sudden change of perspective can only be brought about because of the names on the ballot: Biden against Trump. Order against chaos. Predictability against unpredictability. Normalcy against mess. Thank God, the former has triumphed over the latter. And hopefully things will get back to normal again soon.

Four years ago, Americans made a choice, an unconventional, controversial one, and led the whole world to an experiment, into the unknown. Four years passed, and the experiment has failed. What is Trump’s legacy? What is his contribution as the commander in chief? What will history say about him? Time will tell. But I really cannot see many positive notes. Rise of nationalism, populism, racism, and division. America first becomes America alone. Deletion of Obama’s achievements and efforts to build a better future and save the Earth. Climate change denial. Withdrawal from long run agreements and allies. Embrace of overseas autocrats. And 200k+ American deaths can still counting.

It’s unfathomable that, after all those things, more than 70 million Americans still voted for him and trusted him to lead them for another 4 years. I don’t know what will happen if that really becomes true, and I really don’t want to know. And it’s even more incredible that a major party in America is still standing behind him and supporting him, even kowtowing to him and entertaining the thought of him coming back in 2024. I hope that will not come true either, and Biden should do whatever he can to change the minds of those voters and make sure that dark future will not come true.

There are lots of work waiting for Biden come January 20th, 2021, and Trump, in his last days in office, is making it harder for Biden to succeed. He is tearing his own administration apart by his own hands. He is planting seeds of doubts, division and more chaos in the country, in hope that Biden fails to clean up the mess and he can then use that against him if he ever runs for presidency again. Biden’s on the other hand, seems to have his first tasks already cut out clearly for him: Bring America back to where it was 4 years ago, and clean up the path along the way. However, some damages might have been long done, and it will take a lot of time, talk, actions and negotiations to get back what has been lost and win back the trust that is no longer there.

I want to remember this photo as the character or Trump’s presidency: Defensive, arrogant, ignorant and against allies. No one can do everything, and no one can do it alone, even if you are the most powerful country on Earth. COVID-19 is the living proof of that. America cannot singlehandedly stop the virus or invent and product the vaccines alone.

As Biden has made clear in his recent speech, he wants to bring America back in the game. To build bridges, not walls. To unite the people and mend the severed bond. To be the leader of the free world again. And to set the right course for the world to follow. Those are monumental tasks, but he has experience, and he sounds like he has the plan. So, good luck to him and good luck to America. It will be a tough time ahead, but I really hope that he will succeed, America will be truly great again, America style, not Trump style, and at the end of the term he will groom a worthy successor, who will be ready to battle Trump once more should he manage to rise again.

Atomic Habits – A practical book with lots of bite-size tips

Atomic Habits is a very practical book with lots of bite-size tips that can be applied right away into your daily life to make a change right away while you continue reading the next pages. The principles in the book are not new. They have been mentioned before, in other self-help books, some famous, some not really so. What makes this book stand out from the crowd, a huge best seller, and one of the hottest books of 2019 is the sheer volume of tips, practices and advices that can be applied to make the theory become applicable and kickstart the changes in your life.

As the author also readily admitted, he was not the inventor of that theory of behaviour change. What he wanted to do in the book is to present real life examples of that theory in practice, mixed with some success stories to make it credible and convincible. That’s why he only briefly mentioned the principle briefly, and that is: Long lasting changes need to come from inside. It’s hard to change your identity, but once it takes place, the change will be more or less permanent, as opposed to changes in outcomes, or even processes, which can still be regressed or reverted quite easily.

As stated in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, the process to create a new habit or change an existing one involves 4 elements: Cue, Craving, Response and Reward. James Clear also built the bulk of his book on these elements, and the different ways to manipulate them in order to make a habit stick or go away. However, while the former delved too much into case studies on the power of a good or bad habit, the latter was more methodical, and solely focused on solving the problems in order to get the prize, and not starting from the prize itself. So, if you have not read both books, I suggest you read Atomic Habits first, followed by The Power of Habit. The second book will motivate and encourage you to work hard on your habits, and the first one will teach you how to do so. Combined together, they will make the change less painful and more desirable so that you can start getting the ball rolling.

An interesting point that I would like to mention in this book arises from the quote above. Many self help books encourage you to set goals: daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, yearly goals, life goals. However, James was totally against it, as he felt goals were temporary, and could not lead to lasting changes. He argued that once you have achieved your goals, you would be likely to stop trying and then the new habit would be gone soon after. I am not against this idea, but not 100% agreeable to it either. For me, having a goal to work towards is quite important. It gives me a purpose, a target to reach. Then when it comes to the method to reach that goal, that’s where the tips in this book come in handy. If I can make the steps I must do to reach the goal become habits, they will be easier for me to do, day in day out.

Another concept presented in the book is the power of compounding. We often hear about the power of compound interest in financial planning and investment. Here, James showed us the power of compound improvement on your life. I really like this application, and it’s encouraging to see how far I can go if I make a small progress each day, every day, consistently.

One effect to watch out for is the so called plateau of latent potential. Whoever wants to make a habit stick should try to avoid this pitfall. Basically, it means the change needs to build enough momentum before it can make visible impact on your life. Until then, the impact may be dismal, and you may feel discouraged, but you should hunker down and plough on until you can see the light. I rings very true to me, and looking back, I could see many times in my past where the effect was short lived and the habit could not stick just simply because I did not try it long enough. A seed needs enough time to sprout under the soil, during which you will not see anything but an empty pot. But once it has sprouted, it will grow leaves very quickly.

In this review, I do not want to focus too much on the practices, simply because there are too many of them, and they have been described and explained very well in the book. I just want to say that, even though not all of them may be applicable to you, you are likely to find something suitable for you there. They are not abstract concepts, you don’t need to look up in the dictionary in order to understand them. So, if you really want to change your habits, or create a new one, don’t procrastinate any longer. Grab the book, dig in and start applying right away. Good luck and all the best to you. May your habits make you who you would like to be.

Talking to Strangers, a book that left me confused

One of the most hyped books of last year is Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell. It was always not available in libraries, and stayed long on top of the best seller list in bookshops, so when I had a chance, I immediately jumped at it and grabbed an electronic audio book version, just perfect for my morning run.

If you have never listened to an audio book before, this will be the perfect one to start your listening journey. The audio was well crafted, read by the author himself, with lots of audio scripts and interviews and paired with an interesting background music and songs. Not the usual boring monotonic recitation of the text. I was pretty surprised and impressed. The team really put in effort to making the listening experience different and pleasurable.

When it comes to the content, the book started out great, with a suspenseful spy story. I love the large number of case studies and stories presented, it made the book really a page turner. Moreover, most of those stories are quite recent, so you can easily relate to them and link them with current events happening in the world nowadays. That’s what I love about this book. It’s like a curated collection of current affairs and their meanings.

However, what left me confused was the theories derived from the stories, and the lessons that the author wanted to impart to us. After all, every great book should teach us something new that benefits our lives, and that is what Malcolm wanted to do here as well. Unfortunately, instead of learning something, like how best to talk to strangers, I was left confused when the book ended. The villains became the victims, and what was black and white in the beginning suddenly turned to a greyish color, and nothing seemed to be so sure at all. And I kept asking myself, should I talk to strangers, and how should I do it, so that I will not be fooled and lied to or taken advantage of?

As the author rightly said, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking to strangers totally in this time and age. The world has become so big that you encounter strangers everyday. And I guess what he wanted to tell us is that, when you talk to strangers, you should not be too quick to judge or prejudice him or her, not too quick to draw conclusion, but also not trusting totally without a doubt or sliver of suspicion. You should tread your steps carefully, with caution and humility, and be alert to all the potential red flags. Humans are complex, and many are misfits who do not act or speak following social norms. And talking about social norms, they may not even be norms at all, since they differ greatly across cultures and groups.

Despite all the confusions, I still feel it’s a good book that’s worth reading. All the case stories are interesting, and may spur you to research further to know more, especially the spy case, the murder case and the campus assault case. And despite the fact that the morals of the stories did not really land on me, I managed to derive some useful conclusions that are applicable to me:

  • Exercise caution and humility when talking to strangers, especially for the first time
  • Watch out for red flags and ponder on them, but don’t immediately jump into conclusion,
  • Everyone is different and there are misfits, so don’t judge others quickly based on social norms
  • When in doubt, place more emphasis on objective evidence than subjective thinking and opinions
  • If you have some doubt, but not enough doubt, you should start looking more closely and see if something is amiss
  • Humans are quite bad at assessing others, especially based on expressions, behaviours and reactions. So don’t jump into conclusions right away. Not everyone is transparent. And even transparency is in the eyes of the beholder.

That’s it. Happy reading. And tell me what you think once you finish the book. Do you agree with me or do you think otherwise?

Happy 55th Birthday, Singapore!!!

So, the celebration has finished, the concert has ended and tomorrow is a new working day, when everyone will come back to their own business amidst a pandemic that is still wreaking havoc everywhere and an economy that is still in shambles. However, it’s very encouraging to witness people’s courage and mental strength, and to have the opportunity to set aside all our worries for a few days to celebrate the birth of our nation, to be united in one cause and to recognize the efforts and even sacrifices of so many people to keep the country moving and to protect lives while finding a safe way to get to a new normal. It was a special, unprecedented National Day celebration, where many usual activities could not take place to ensure people’s safety, but it was also a very special celebration where we reflect and realize how far we have come, how much progress we have made, and then look forward and start planning for what we would like to see in a near future.

Even though the celebration was smaller this year, I felt a stronger sense of attachment to the programs lined up then in previous years. It was the first time my whole family took part in the National Day Observance ceremony, since it was broadcast live on TV, and not as early in the morning as before. And then came the brilliant idea of bringing the celebrations to the heartland and close to the people. Now everyone became part of the celebration, just as everyone became part of the NDP when the fun packs were sent to each household instead of only available to the small group of NDP participants. The cost may be higher due to the duplicated events and the higher number of activities, but it is worth it, and the uplift in spirit and mentality brought about by this event, especially in this difficult period, cannot be calculated just on money term only.

Since the border is still tightly closed, Singapore tourism has come to a standstill, and the government is doing all they can to support the industry and keep it running, while encouraging locals to come out and spend some money, so that the businesses can have some cash flow. The same strategy was also adopted by other countries, but for Singapore, it may be less effective due to the tiny domestic market and the weak demand due to concern of unemployment and therefore the urge to save rather than spend. So, to do our small part in helping to sustain the economy, we went to Sentosa, once the crown jewel of Singapore tourism and a must visit destination for all the tourists coming to Singapore. We have not been there for a long time, and we were quite surprised by the crowd over there. Although that meant a snaking queue and a long wait for us to enter the S.E.A Aquarium, it might be a good sign that the country was on the path of recovery. Or it might be due to the fact that the Adventure Cove was still shuttered. That I am not sure. But it was good to see that the inside of the aquarium was still well maintained and the marine animals there seemed to be doing quite well even after a few months of no visitor at all (the same could not be said of the Singapore Zoo, which really showed visible sign of a skeletal crew and reduced maintenance)

However, the same could not be said of the remaining part of the island itself. Outside the area belonging to Resorts World Sentosa was a starkly different scene. The attractions looked unattractive and the facilities showed little attention. Old attractions closed down without any sign of new ones springing up to take over their places. Even the grand Merlion, which was planned to be torn down for something new and exciting, was still standing tall, a sad reminder of the impact of Covid-19 on large scale projects and plans. Many BTO projects have been delayed, transport plans have been adjusted, and the plan for Changi Airport Terminal 5 may not even come into fruition at all. And who knows, faced with huge costs and an unpredictable future, Genting Corp may also shelve the plan to expand RWS. I wish they won’t, but I am also prepared for the worst. After all, Malaysia is also heavily affected by the pandemic, plus the unstable political climate at the moment.

So, we’re done with our small contribution to making Singapore great again. There was only one activity left to do in order to wrap up a long and exciting National Day celebration: Fireworks 🎆 You may argue that it’s an act of luxury on the government, especially when there are so many people out there who are struggling financially. Well, it may not make sense economically to shoot firecrackers to the sky, but it makes a lot of sense mentally. Again, it’s a sign of hope, and an assurance that everything will be okay. It’s extravagant, and it shows that the government is still capable of affording that, and we are not down to our last breath yet. Some more, it gives people joy and happiness, hope and confidence, and that is ever more important in times like this. It gives people something to talk about, and it shows that Singapore is still ok. We are still celebrating, and that really matters. That is something that NTUC vouchers cannot really buy (of course NTUC vouchers are also important, I never disagree with that, and I have nothing against it at all).

Happy Birthday Singapore! Let’s get through this together and we can have a bigger celebration next year. You’ve got it!

The Song of Achilles – The old story made new

To tell the truth, my knowledge of Achilles before picking up this book was just limited to Troy and his Achilles heel. I watched the movie Troy, starring Brad Pitt, long long ago, but I did not know by then that the flow of events portrayed in that movie was so far from the Iliad by Homer. Only after reading this movie that I came to realise how sophisticated the story of Achilles was, and why he was regarded as one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology.

Although Achilles was most associated with the Trojan war, it was nice to be introduced to the young boy long before the war started, and knew how he grew up to be the warrior that he was known to be. And it was very interesting to learn how his story intertwined with the story of Patroclus, his friend, soulmate, partner, lover and most loyal associate. I never heard about Patroclus, and never knew about that relationship before, so it was really an eye opener for me, and it showed how open and liberal society was, thousands of years ago. Does it mean we are going backwards, and turn more stereotyping and close minded as we become more modern?

Another refreshing aspect of the book was that the story was told from the view point of Patroclus, and not Achilles. Achilles was the center of attention, so it would be good to avoid the limelight, and look at how events unfolded from the backstage. In that case, Patroclus offered a perfect position for telling the story, from the time of his birth, to his struggle to find a place in the society at that time, to the evolution of his relationship with Achilles, to his eventual demise and what came after that. I came to know a lot more about Achilles and the people around him, not just the hero Achilles, but the young man Achilles, who was very much human, with love and hate, anger and sorrow, frustration and satisfaction. He was proud, but not to the level of the gods in Olympus. He was powerful, but he was still a mortal. And he had a great, beautiful, albeit non-traditional love. Such a 360 degree view of the hero we came to love was quite rare, and exciting.

As much as I love Achilles, I felt even more connected to Patroclus, and his life and his journey. It was interesting to see how he felt from grace, and redeemed himself through his efforts and actions, and ended up winning the love and respect of all the soldiers who witnessed his heroic final act. He was the perfect example that people should be given a second chance, and one mistake, no matter how big, should not close all the doors in front of that person forever. He killed one person, but he saved many, and those should be counted when judging if he were a hero or a villain. He might not get the recognition that he deserved, but he had the undivided love of Achilles, and for him, that would be enough.

Seeing how much the two men loved each other, I could feel the pain of Patroclus when Achilles lost his way and was overcome with pride and selfishness. And I could feel even more clearly the pain of Achilles when Patroclus died. A big part of Achilles died with him that day, and from that day on, he was not himself anymore. He had no more joy, no more happiness, just a warrior who knew no fear, even the fear of death, and to him, his eventual death must have been a relief, for he finally could be reunited with his best friend and lover. Therefore, even though the ending was sad, it was the best that could happen in that situation, and it was a consolation that they were finally together again.

4×5 original

The book also delved into the complicated relationship between Achilles and his mother, the goddess Thetis. Here I love the way the author interpreted the reason for their love-hate feeling towards each other, and the role it played in the big picture of his life. And I learn why Achilles was born. I don’t think all those details are present in the original Greek myths, and that is the reason why the book is so successful: It weaves together the disjointed stories, and add its own interesting insights, stories, connections and interpretations. Well done Madeline. I cannot wait to get hold of and devour another book of yours in a near future.

Circe – A refreshing take on ancient Greek mythology

Circe *oil on canvas *148 x 92 cm *1891

When it comes to Greek mythology, the first thing that may come to your mind is those disjointed, separate stories and legends of gods and demigods and monsters that are loosely connected to each other, making them hard to remember and quite messy to organize. You are absolutely right on that, so here comes the first effort to string those stories together, and I really enjoyed the way the story flowed and the characters were introduced by the book. So if you were discouraged by Greek mythology in the past, give Circe a chance and you may change your perspective totally, just like me.

Written by the talented Madeline Miller, the same author of the book The Song of Achiles, Circe cast the Greek witch and goddess in a rather positive light. It is a story of love, and everything in the story was driven by love. It was love that caused Circe to violate the ultimate rule of the gods, and therefore was abandoned to the beautiful but isolated island for eternity (after all, she was a goddess so she was immortal). It was love again that drove her to help Daedalus, the skilled craftman who made the labyrinth to trap the minotaur inside. It was also love that drove her towards Odysseus, the war hero on his long trip to return home to Cretes and his waiting wife Penelope. And finally it was love that drove Circe to make her final decision with Telemachus, son of Odysseus, the man she had loved deeply, and transformed herself forever.

If you follow traditional Greek mythology closely, you will notice that there are some differences in the details between that and the story weaved together in Circe. For example, the ending was the opposite of what was told traditionally. Also, there are differences in the introduction of Glaucus, the god of sailors and Scylla, the sea monster. That may offend those Greek purists who don’t want to accept any other variety of the story. However, to me, a casual reader and follower of the myths, the tweaks are all done for good, in order to link the stories together and make it become a whole. It helps me relate to the characters better, make the stories more logical, and encourages me to continue reading. So, in terms of story telling, Madeline Miller has done it well, again.

So, in overall, I love this book. It’s a really new, refreshing take on the characters that we have grown to love or hate over the years. The stories are told smoothly and naturally. The characters are introduced logically and groomed adequately to give enough time to create connection with the readers. And the twists and turns are peppered sparing but just enough to make the story less routine and more exciting. It’s definitely a novel, not a book of ancient history. Perhaps that is the reason why the book is so successful, HBO decided to make a mini series out of it, which will be airing very soon.

In summary, I love Circe the book. It’s a nice book, it’s easy to read, and it tells a beautilful story of love and desire. It’s both new and familiar, with the golden formula of weaving some novelty into a familiar story that we have grown to love over the years. It builds great characters and grooms them up, giving them enough space to come alive and for us readers to get to know them and connect with them. And best of all, it reportrays Circe, not as an evil witch, but a girl who is deeply in love and willing to go all out to follow her love and do whatever it takes to keep and grow her love and make it bloom. She is very human in this story, yet still divinely different, and that is the bright spot that makes the story really intriguing and exciting. So, if you have not yet, go ahead and pick it up, and you may be charmed by Circe’s magic spell, just like me.

Never Split the Difference – A great book on negotiation

Written by an ex-FBI negotiator, this is a very good book on negotiation skills. Although the tactics mentioned in the book are based on established scientific theories and studies, they are presented not like a research paper, but with full of real life examples and case studies, making the methods, tips and tricks more relatable, understandable and applicable. The writer himself also took pains to ensure that the tools he provided there could be used in real life, and not just restricted to major crisis negotiations, but also everyday situations, such as negotiating for a pay rise or promotion, or bargaining with your kids, or discussing with your spouse. That’s why I personally feel that the book is quite useful, and I can see where and how to apply what I learn from there almost immediately. To those people out there who are against self help books, and hesitant to pick up another self help, thinking they are more or less the same anyway, give this one a go and hopefully you will learn something useful and applicable there, and your time spent reading it will not be wasted after all. And to those who love Money Heist, you can ignore all the tools and techniques, and enjoy the real life cases presented in the book (trust me, there are a lot of them, enough to salivate and keep you entertained throughout the whole book). Long story short, I believe you will enjoy it, and learn something useful for your life.

There are a few tools mentioned in the book. The most important ones are:

  • Mirroring:
    • Action: Repeat the last three words or the keywords spoken by your “opponent” (basically whoever you are negotiating with). Start with “I’m sorry” and avoid “Do you mean”.
    • Impact: Make the person question his / her own idea / instruction / decision and start negotiating with himself / herself
  • Tactical Empathy and Labelling:
    • Action: Use phrases like “It seems like…”, “It sounds like…”, “It looks like…”. Label the emotion. Call out what the other side may be thinking or feeling.
    • Impact: Create rapport and show tactical empathy toward your opponent and make him / her feel that you are on the same side and become less defensive
  • Perform accusation audit and anchor down your opponent’s emotion and expectation in the beginning
    • Action: Think of all the accusations possible that the opponent may have towards you and say it out upfront. Also, it’s good to state the worst possible outcome first to establish a low base for negotiation
    • Impact: It helps your opponent become less aggressive and more willing to listen. They may even feel uneasy that they had such bad thoughts about you before, and become more receptive to the negotiation
  • Use open-ended, carefully calibrated questions: How and What
    • Action: Use How and What questions
    • Impact: Put the opponent in the thinking mode and make him / her solve his / her own problem in the way that you want to, without you having to say it our yourself
  • Use Ackerman’s rule when making an offer
    • Action: Start with 65% of the desired price, then 85%, then 95%, then finally the desired price.
    • Impact: The low initial offer anchors down the other side, and the gradual, diminishing increase creates the perception of reaching the limit
  • Watch out and look for Black Swan: Hidden information that once revealed will change the entire negotiation.
    • Action:
      • Look for misinformation, constraint, and hidden agenda when something seems to be unreasonable and not making sense
      • Analyse the negotiation: Is there any real deadline? Is there any necessity to deal? Is there any competition?
      • Discover and use leverage: Positive (ability to reward), negative (ability to cause pain) and normative leverage (social norm, code of ethic, code of conduct, belief, religion…) during negotiation
    • Impact: Black Swan can change everything

As always, the monster is in the detail, and although the tools sound simple, it takes lots of practice to use them naturally and effectively. It will surely start out as super weird and awkward, but I will give it a try. After all, they have been used multiple times to defuse tension in nail-biting negotiations before, where lives were on the line and the stakes were super high. So I guess it will not be a big deal if you try to use it with your kids and receive a weird look from them, but if they really work for you, then voila!

Besides those major tools, the book is also peppered with other tips and tricks that you can use in every day situations, like bargaining at the market or negotiating for a change of role or promotion at work. I just list them down here in the order of appearance in the book, but I will not go into detail for each, since it will take too much time.

  • Go into the negotiation with a lot of different hypothesis, but not assumptions. During the negotiation, test those hypothesis and weed them out based on the information gathered on the scene
  • Listen attentively and with no cognitive bias for consistency
  • Slow the pace down. De-escalate the tension. Let the other side talk more
  • Use the right tone and voice for the situation: Either commanding voice (not recommended) or cheerful playful (most often used) or Midnight FM DJ voice (to calm down the opponent)
  • Embrace “No”. A fake “Yes” is a dead end but a real “No” starts the conversation and gets the ball rolling.
  • Aim for “That’s right”, not “You’re right”. Saying “That’s right” will make the person think about it and may start the momentum for a significant shift later on.
  • Use deadline to your advantage and let the deadline be know if there is really one. Also, most of the deadlines are not really immoveable. “No one is killed on the deadline”.
  • Be careful with fairness. It may make people explode and be unreasonable if they feel that it is not fair.
  • Play with the feeling of loss aversion. People are more scared of losing than excited about winning.
  • Some tips for nailing the best offer possible:
    • Let the other side go first with the offer
    • Offer a range with the lower end being your expectation
    • Pivot to non-financial terms if hit roadblock
    • Use non-rounded number
    • Offer a surprise gift to win favour
    • Ask “what does it take to be successful here?”
    • Give an extreme first offer to nail down the base and push the other side to go for the highest possible budget
    • Reject the other side’s offer 4 times to anchor down before making your own offer
  • Beware of the appearance of a committee in the background and seek the support of the committee if decision is made by committee
  • Pay attention to non-verbal cues. Try to get face time during negotiation
  • Get the confirmation 3 times by using calibrated question, summary, and labelling
  • Look out for lies, pronouns and the number of words used by the other side. Frequent use of “I” means the person is not decision maker, while frequent use of “we”, “he”, or “she” means the person is actually the decision maker.
  • “Yes” is nothing without “How”.
  • Use your own, real name during the negotiation. That helps make the negotiation more personal and calm the other side down.
  • Use humour and humanity to defuse the tension
  • Use familiarity to create rapport and establish common base for negotiation

And there you have it. Some new tools in your negotiating arsenal. I know, it takes a career to master all those skills, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so go ahead, pick one and try to apply it in your every day conversation and see how it goes. It may change your life for the better, and it may help you nail a good offer for your new job. Good luck.

P.S. I tried the tips for salary negotiation, including going for an extreme first offer, providing a range, increasing the figure gradually and using non-rounded number, and managed to nail a healthy increment for my new job. Yay!!!

36 and counting, age is just a number

Ok, so I have just entered my 36 years of age. It’s a significant number, considering that I am Asian, and we follow the 12th Chinese Zodiac sign. 36 years means I have finished another full circle, and now entering a new circle, starting again with my zodiac animal, The Rat. And while not much positive has been predicted about those who were born in the year of the Rat for this year, and it might be even worse, considering that we are going through the worst pandemic of a century, which may as well last until the year of the Ox rolls in, it is still a cause for celebration, since a new age is always a milestone to remind yourself of what you have achieved, what you are aiming for and what you have missed in life.

The first twelve years of my life was quite lost to me by now. It was a distant past, something I could not really recall in much detail anymore. It was a difficult period, when my homeland, Vietnam, was still under isolation and trade embargo from almost all other countries in the world. We had a hard period of life by then, where everything was lacking, and livelihood literally means struggling to put food on the table on a daily basis. Salary from official job was not enough, and the distribution system applied by the government of the day meant we might have double the amount of rice we could consume during the month, but not much meat and only barely enough vegetables. So, naturally, black markets sprang out at every corner, to balance the supply and demand, and people scrambled to find some part time jobs to earn more money just to get by day by day. However, I was too small to remember that, since I was just staying at home and quite immune to the harsh reality of the world outside my front door.

Fortunately, bad things did not last, and the country opened up in 1990, when I was about to start going to school. It took a few years, but the people sprang up fast, like a spring that had been pressed down for too long. So, by the second part of my first 12 years of life, the situation has improved significantly, and I did not recall many hungry days. We still had only simple meals, but we had food on the table, and life was getting better day by day.

My primary school years were quite peaceful, unlike what children are going through nowadays. There was almost no tuition, and not much homework or pressure to do well, at least in my school. I just went to school every day, then back home to have my meals, and play around in the small playground downstairs my block. And that basically wrapped up the first twelve years of my life.

The second twelve years of my life was defining and transformative. I spent the first 6 years in Vietnam, where I entered secondary school, and then high school. I studied more, school work became more serious, and I started learning more about the world out there. Of course, it was nothing compared to those children in developed countries. I had my first flight when I was 16 years old, as the aviation industry in Vietnam did not open up for commercial flights until recently. Prior to that, we travelled mostly by train if we had to go long distance. And I had my very first overseas trip, fatefully to Singapore, the country I am calling home, when I was 17 years old. At that time, travelling by air was a luxury that not many people could afford, and going overseas was rarely heard of, due in part to affordability and also to the visa restrictions, which is still a big problem of Vietnamese passport holders nowadays.

Thanks to an award in English competition in high school, I was selected to participate in a 1-week summer camp in Singapore. So there came my first overseas trip, which really transformed my life. Although Singapore at that time was not as modern as it is nowadays, it was still a totally different world from what I saw in Vietnam. It was the first time I set foot in a subway, and I was overwhelmed with so many machines at the train stations, in shopping malls, on the streets. I knew there was a different, better world out there, and so when it came to the time when I had to choose a university for me, my first choice was NUS, the university that I had also visited as part of the camp program. I got in, and it changed my life totally.

National University of Singapore

And so, the second part of the second 12 years of my life was spent mostly in NUS, where I studied Computing. To tell the truth, I was no computer genius, and I even sucked in programming in high school back in Vietnam. I did not even fully understand what computing was, so when I was offered the course, I was a little troubled. I wanted to study business, as the common perception was that business means money, and in my innocent mind, studying is for working, and working is to earn money, so it’s best to study something that can help me earn more money when I go to work. However, after weighing it against all the local alternatives, I took a leap of faith, accepted the offer, and it has practically driven my working life all the way until now.

NUS SOC, my alma mater

I left Vietnam, went to Singapore, studied, felt in love, found the girl who would be my wife, and graduated with a decent degree, much better than I had thought, and better than I felt I deserved (some kind of impostor syndrome here I guess). Fortunately for me, at that time, the government’s immigration policies were still quite open, especially for graduates from local universities, and so shortly after finding a full time job, I got my Permanent Resident application approved, and it basically started my process of growing roots here in this new home.

My first job upon graduation was with SingTel, a local conglomerate and Singapore’s largest telco

That wrapped up my 2nd 12-year run. I got out of university, found a girlfriend, and had a job. Pretty normal, right? But then in 2008, the financial crisis happened, right after I left Singapore and joined CyberQuote, a subsidiary of PhillipCapital, the largest local stockbroker in Singapore. And so my third 12-year period started out with a global financial meltdown. Jobs were lost, but luckily I was not impacted, thanks to the recession proof nature of technology industry. In fact, with business slowing down, companies flocked to IT to automate processes in order to reduce costs, so we had quite a lot of things on our hands and we were pretty busy. The only drawback was that increment was frozen, and bonus was dismal as companies tried to increase reserves to tide through the storm and invest in future recovery. Anyway, it was not too bad and we got out of the crisis quite quickly in Singapore, so no long term harm.

After the global economy bounced back from the recession, it has been a rosy 10 year run. Economies were doing well, there were plenty of jobs created, and life was pretty normal. I changed jobs a few more times during that period, and finally got in financial services industry, working in IT developing banking products. So it’s kind of going full circle for me. I have been in love with financial markets for a long time, but I got into IT, and now I can finally marry both my love and my profession, which can be considered quite a good career path for me. And I moved up the ladder a bit, from a developer to a project manager, which is also a good thing for me since I am no programming genius of any kind at all, even though I can do some coding now and then. So, my career path is more or less set, maybe for the next 12 years or so.

Career aside, my personal life was also transformed during these 12 years. I got married. We had 2 lovely beautiful children. We bought our first home. And we officially became Singapore citizens. All those significant milestones paved the way for us and defined our path for the next 12 years of my life. Of course, plans may change and nothing is set in stone, but unless something very significant happens that veers us off course drastically, I don’t think we will change direction so much.

So, what will the next 12 years of my life consist of. It’s quite a long period to predict, so let’s not go into detail and just have some broad strokes to define the direction while not limiting ourselves to unexpected things that may come on the way. For me, what I will want to achieve in my next 12 years include:

  • See my son through to college and help him to get into a good school that can maximise his potential
  • Accompany my daughter on her education journey and help her discover what she wants to do in life
  • Spend more quality time with our ageing parents and see them as frequently as we can
  • Buy a car
  • Move house
  • Have a stable career. Be on top of my game and be “so good they can’t ignore me”
  • Start building a solid foundation for future retirement
  • Travel to new places. See the world and gain new experiences
  • Maintain good health and healthy lifestyle. Strive towards work life balance. Find the sweet spot.
  • Aim for quality instead of quantity. Fine tune our life, relationships and possessions. Only keep what sparks joy.
  • Give back to society. Volunteer. Donate. Provide help
  • Keep on learning and upgrading myself. Try new stuffs and discover new hobbies. Find something I will want to do for the rest of my life (other than work)

Ok, 12 goals for the next 12 years. Not a lot, but I believe that if I can achieve all those 12 goals by the end of the next 12 years of life, I will be in a much better shape for the subsequent 12 years of my life. So, time to stop daydreaming and start working hard while keeping my eyes on the goals, and if Godspeed, I will be there.

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