Singapore suggests

In January I spent three weeks in Asia, mostly in Singapore. As always it was a stimulating trip on many levels. The food was great, the company equally good and the workshops were a blast. I have been trying to put a bit of distance between myself and that experience. I want to figure out which parts were really important and blog-worthy (and which parts were fun when they happened but don’t have much long term meaning.) I do this because unlike some bloggers, if I write about something to soon after it happens, I usually emphasize the wrong thing.

So what are the “right” things I should share from my time in Singapore? In no particular order:

In Singapore, the recent New York Times articles about the dangers to workers who make the iPhones (and other smart phones) were front-page news. The most interesting thing to me was asking Singaporeans to explain why that was so. One school of thought went that since the newspapers are so strongly tied to the government, that same government wanted those articles to send a message to Singaporeans. Assuming that is true, the message that most Singaporeans heard was something like, be glad you don’t work in China or work harder so you don’t end up like that or how come our engineers can’t do something like that or…. I thought the article might have been interpreted as a way of humbling the 800 lb gorilla of globalization, the United States, but that was not an interpretation that I heard often. I heard all these various theories, mostly from my iPhone using peers by the way, who were tapping and talking on the same technology that was at the center of those articles.

What did stick out was how only an outside publication like the New York Times could produce such a hard-hitting and well-researched piece of journalism. The major English paper in Singapore, the Straits Times, was happy to reprint that story but they were not likely to actually produce such quality journalism itself.

There was also a fascinating political debate going on in Singapore while I was there. The government in power wanted to raise the salaries of the politicians. They argued that unless salaries in government were competitive with those of the private sector, the government would only attract workers who could not get jobs in the private sector (or were so wealthy they did not need to worry about their salary.) Either case would have meant that the government workers would not have been Singapore’s “brightest and best minds.” I heard arguments for and against the pay increase. What amazed me the most was that Singaporeans were even having such a discussion. The idea of paying politicians in the United States is so “off limits” that we end up with a political class that is in fact made up of many people who often can not get jobs in the private sector or who are so wealthy they do not need to worry about their salary. Either case, the system as we allow it to be deprives us of the “brightest and best minds.”

Speaking of politics, try to imagine how idiotic the current Republican presidential campaign looks from overseas. The United States, and in fact the entire world, face a litany of real challenges which will require hard work and leadership. For better or worse much of the world looks to the U.S. for that leadership, especially since they have their doubts about the E.U., don’t trust the Chinese and doubt the Indians are up for serious leadership responsibilities… And what are the presidential aspirants doing? Trying to outdo each other in terms of showing how far to the extreme political right they are… The mess that we are in now will only be addressed by building consensus, finding common ground and shared sacrifice. The rest of the globe knows that. Why political class (especially the Republicans in this country) will not address this is beyond me (and beyond the understanding of most of the rest of the world by the way.)

I was teaching workshops mostly to adults but I also did some teaching in a public high school in Singapore. In some ways it was one of the more fascinating experiences during my time there. American politicians frequently talk about how much better Singaporeans public school students do, for example, on standardized tests as compared to American students. What one of my Singaporean hosts pointed out was the worthless-ness of such measures. Most Singaporean students who test well do so based largely on rote learning and have limited creative imaginations, problem solving skills, etc. If scoring high on standardized tests would guarantee a nation a place on the world stage, then Singapore (and Taiwan where I also visited) would be major players, but we know they are not. Those countries, and most of the rest of the world, still look to our culture and our educational system as a place to learn the skills that are required for individuals (and nations) to move up the economic and creative food chain.

As happens every time I am in Singapore, I was involved in some wide ranging discussions on creativity in general and the challenges of teaching creativity. My teaching obviously was an effort to teach creativity (or at least set students on the path of mastery, which eventually can open them up to real creativity after they refine the needed skills.)

Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery has become a widespread concept over the last year, even in Singapore. In my classes it is something of a catch phrase for the importance of such concentrated practice (and how far many students have to go to get there.) The most refreshing thing about the idea of the 10,000 hours is it is great short hand way of getting photographers to face the fact that one more new camera or lens will get them no closer to the mastery they claim they want to achieve.

People in Singapore are used to hard work and practice so I suspect Gladwell’s 10,000 hours will become a common idea across their culture. Whether that practice is really the “good practice” that Gladwell describes or simple rote repetition is something that only time will tell. It some ways that idea, it is the mastery, not the machine, is an important idea that needs to be widely spread among photographers. It may not be such a good thing for the gear manufacturers, but it bodes well for teachers and workshops, and we know what that means for photographers like me.

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