Stan Lai - The Village
The Straits Times
Published on Jun 01, 2013
Affluent, two-career families are pulling away from the pack
By Alison Wolf
IN THE developed world, where middle incomes are stagnant, today's race goes to the superfamily. It's a throwback in many ways - tight-knit, nuclear, husband- wife-and-kids - but with a twist: two successful, highly educated, well-paid parents. And it's a key reason why the top section of society is pulling away from the rest.
It all began in the 1970s, when educated women penetrated every part of the professional labour market. They also started to take less and less time out of work when they had children, and began to earn serious money.
Across the rich countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the group of leading developed economies, women now hold half of the "Class I" professional and managerial jobs.
These are the jobs of the top sixth of society by income: the jobs of the elite.
This can be hard to square with the flow of stories about unequal pay for women. But highly educated women now have work lives that are very like those of highly educated men, and increasingly different from other women's.
People at the top marry among themselves.
Of course, people have always tended to marry their own kind, a process known as assortative mating. But this behaviour has increased.
Partly, this is because women are now more educated. In the past, male doctors could not expect to marry female doctors, as hardly any existed. So they married nurses. But that isn't the whole story. Increases in assortative mating go well beyond what you would expect statistically from the rise in female graduation rates.
Women often suspect that men prefer to marry women much less intelligent than themselves. If that were true, they could certainly have gone on doing so - but they haven't. They want to marry women like them.
But it isn't just assortative mating that marks off the elite. Once married, professionals with college degrees are much more likely to stay that way. Among the well-off, intact marriages are still the norm.
It's easy to miss this widening gap between elite marriage patterns and those of everybody else. The media reports the breakups of the rich and famous. And we also, most of us, know couples where one would love to marry and the other won't.
Nonetheless, the statistics are clear.
The majority of elite men marry, and marry women very like themselves. Graduate professionals have divorce rates that are much lower than those of other groups.
Across the developed world, graduate fathers are overwhelmingly likely to be married to the mothers of their children at the time their children are born. This remains true in societies marked by soaring rates of illegitimacy.
In the European Union as a whole, more than a third of all births in 2009 were to unmarried women. In the United States, the overall figure is about 40 per cent. But less than 5 per cent of births to white American graduate mothers were extramarital in 1965 and that figure's unchanged.
Today, Western societies boast a phalanx of affluent, graduate two-career families, determined to advance the interests of their children. And while elite families don't love their children any more or less than anyone else, their increasingly distinctive family lives put them at a huge advantage.
As recently as the late 1970s, having a first child after the age of 30 was highly unusual for women of any class. For the bulk of society, it still is. But live among today's graduate classes and you might get the impression that no one even contemplates pregnancy until 30 looms. In Britain and France, the proportion of graduates having a baby before 30 has halved in the last few decades.
By the time elite families have children, they are a good deal richer than other parents. These are, for the most part, families headed by two adults already well into their careers. And most will avoid the financial fallout of a split.
The last quarter-century has been a period of growing inequality in many developed countries. After the Great Compression of the mid-20th century, inequality has grown again, most markedly in the US.
The ones we notice are the super-rich. We are shocked by million-dollar bonuses. But it's not just the 1 per cent who are cleaning up. People in the top 15 per cent, those in jobs that today bring in upwards of US$70,000 (S$88,800), have been doing pretty nicely too.
Inequality among men has grown. But inequality among women has been growing fast - and on many measures even faster. The number of women with seriously large incomes has exploded; gender gaps have vanished among young professionals.
The much-cited male-female gap in average pay exists because so many women are in low-paid jobs - care, retail and cleaning - often work part-time, and often drop out of work for years when their children are young.
Child-care costs are extremely high in many countries but, for professionals, paying them is conceivable. Two-career families are the main users of formal child care. Having money to start with makes it easier to stay in well-paid employment, and having money makes it easier to help your children.
The tendency for children born into the top fifth of the income scale in the developed world to still be in the top fifth as adults is high, and surprisingly uniform. At this level it's the same, generation to generation, in Denmark as in the US. Elite families are doing a good job of keeping their children rich.
Yet these parents are also very anxious, and rightly so. Competition is international. Formal education is ever more important as a gateway to the sunny uplands. Surveying the the world, families are not sure if anything will be enough.
In the late 20th century, university education exploded across the globe. A degree brings large benefits in terms of earnings and opportunities.
However, in key respects, education is a positional good, meaning that its value lies partly in how it is perceived by others, and there lies the root of professional parents' angst.
It is not just about gaining a skill, as it is when you learn to drive. It is just as much about telling the world, through your educational success, whether you are better than other people, or worse. It is about competing. And the best way to signal your quality is to get a degree from a top brand like Harvard or Oxford.
As the world globalises, as English becomes ever more dominant as a global language but wealth moves East, more and more families have the resources to back their children's futures. And they are mostly in a state of stress. The very scope of higher education on offer creates a winner- take-all situation.
This makes families everywhere obsessed with education. Out-of-school tutoring is booming worldwide; what was once seen as a Japanese quirk is now a big growth industry in Britain.
But the families that can really spend on education are the elite, those whose incomes let them buy the most expensive commodity of all - other people's time.
International boarding schools and top British public schools cost upwards of US$46,000 a year, and this can stretch most families' finances.
The strains are particularly apparent among the independent schools of the big cities, where so many two-career families live. In New York, the competition to get one's children into the right (private) nursery leading to the right (private) kindergarten, and on through to high school and a top university, leaves parents exhausted and desperate.
All this means that family income today has a stronger influence on whether you go to university than it did a few decades ago. That is because it is now more or less automatic that a child from a professional family gets a degree; lower down the income scale, it is still only the most academically inclined. And of course it's not just whether you go to university, it is also where.
So what does the future hold for this family-driven society of ours? More of the same.
When British sociologist Michael Young wrote The Rise Of The Meritocracy, he was not just coining a new word, but writing a satire. The book ends with revolution, as the unselected rise up against a state run along strictly meritocratic lines. Any serious change in today's university entry patterns, or any serious attack on top schools, would also require a revolution. But no government can rule against its elites for more than a short time. And all the trends that are drawing today's superfamilies away from the pack look set to continue into the future.
There is, however, one counterweight. Many high-earning professionals don't have children, and elite families are mostly small. Top people don't have many children, in part because rearing elite children is a very expensive affair. So even with assortative marriage, even with intensive parenting, and all the right education, there will, still, be some room at the top. But only some.
The writer is an economist and professor of public-sector management at King's College London. Her latest book is The XX Factor: How Working Women Are Creating a New Society.
This article is an adaptation of a piece that originally appeared in Prospect magazine.
Copyright © 2013 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.
THE ELITE WORLD
SINGAPORE: More than 80 per cent of respondents in a survey on the perceptions of violence say they would not intervene if they knew that a friend, relative or neighbour is being abused by a partner.
The survey, conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), found that the main reason for their inaction is that they do not know how to help.
Other reasons cited are the fear of the abuser's reaction and the feeling that it is none of their business.
The survey also found that while nine in 10 people recognise physical violence, only seven in 10 recognise non-physical violence.
To address this, AWARE has joined a global campaign called "We Can!", a ground-up initiative to trigger change in social attitudes towards violence.
Over the next three years, the campaign aims to mobilise more than 1,000 individuals and community groups who will make a commitment to work towards a violence-free society.
These individuals, called "Change Makers" will be ambassadors of gender equality and non-violence through art, performance, sports and community networks.
The campaign has so far recruited 80 Change Makers.
THE religious landscape in Singapore is a dynamic one. Buddhists, the country's largest religious group, have become proportionately smaller when we compare data between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.
Meanwhile, those who profess Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism and no religion experienced proportionate growth during the same period. This dynamism is evident not only between faith communities, but also within each faith community. The changes within the local Protestant Christian community are a case in point.
Two years ago, we embarked on a major survey of Protestant churchgoers in Singapore. Our sample consisted of approximately 2,800 Christians from some of the mainline churches, such as the Anglican, Methodist and Bible Presbyterian denominations, as well as non-denominational independent churches and megachurches.
The objectives of this study were to capture the socioeconomic profiles of Protestants and to understand their attitudes towards money and finance, politics, sex and sexuality, and perceptions of compatibility with other faith and ethnic communities.
While it is widely recognised that a large proportion of the Protestant Christian community in Singapore is middle-class, the study revealed that its middle- class character is neither unitary nor static.
Our study shows that although the level of education among those attending mainline churches and megachurches is comparable, they do have different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Broadly speaking, those who attend mainline churches have largely inherited their middle-class status, while those who attend megachurches tend to be part of the "new" or aspiring middle-class.
Our data shows that those who go to mainline churches are more likely to have lived in private property and have better-educated, English-proficient parents who are themselves Christians. In contrast, those who go to megachurches are more likely to have lived in public housing and have less-educated, non-English- speaking parents who are non-Christians.
Along with this discovery, we also found a trend in attitudes between mainline and megachurch Christians that we sought to explain with class analysis.
Members of a varied social group like the "middle class" may create social distinctions among themselves through types of education, family background, language proficiency and lifestyle tastes, also known as cultural capital. The effect of these social distinctions is evident in the way different subgroups engage with their social environment.
Our survey found that mainline-church Christians were more likely to participate in civil society. They were more comfortable with expressing their moral or political views through the public sphere. This suggests a sense of confidence consonant with the possession of cultural capital as long-time members of the English-proficient middle class.
Conversely, megachurch Christians were less likely to see civil society or public civic discourse as a means to express their moral or political views. Instead, many preferred to keep their moral and political opinions private among friends and colleagues. For them, private and informal networks were favoured for exercising moral influence.
On the issue of money and finance, we found that megachurch Christians were more likely to see a stronger relationship between the material and the spiritual.
Unlike mainline Christians, congregational and financial growth were seen by megachurch Christians as signs of divine blessing and personal faithfulness.
Market rationality was also extended to church organisation. For example, those who attend megachurches were more likely to agree that full-time church staff should be paid market-competitive salaries.
But why is there such a strong relationship between the material and the spiritual among megachurches?
There is certainly a penchant among megachurches to use quantifiable indicators of "faithfulness" and "blessing". This inclination to express Christianity in the language of market ethos and logic, we argue, converges with and appeals to the economic aspirations and consumer habits of many young, upwardly mobile Singaporeans.
These Singaporeans, in turn, not only find a brand of spirituality that is conducive in capitalist Singapore, but also empathy with fellow Singaporeans undergoing the same class transitions.
There were also other interesting trends with regard to relationships with other ethnic and faith communities. Although we found that all denominations were overwhelmingly in favour of sharing their faith, megachurch Christians differed from mainline Christians in their relationship with other communities.
There are two main differences. First, we found that megachurch Christians were more sensitive to negative reactions from other faiths when proselytising. A possible explanation for this is that megachurch Christians are more likely to have come from non-Christian backgrounds.
This, together with their greater proficiency in Mandarin, may have helped sensitise them to how other faiths view Christian proselytisation.
In this sense, the class-transitional nature of megachurch Christians may have endowed them with a broader sensitivity, as opposed to those who have inherited their class status.
Second, while all denominations were found to be conservative with regard to issues related to sex and sexuality, such as premarital sex, the moral status of homosexuality and abortion, megachurch Christians were more likely to have and have spent time with homosexual friends.
This may be due to the "seeker church" orientation of megachurches, whereby the distance between the church and the secular world is minimised to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity. Seeker churches thus make it a point to extend their reach and perhaps establish a presence in different spheres of contemporary culture, such that the conventional lines between church and society are blurred.
Another class-based explanation may also help shed light. Local studies elsewhere show that Christians and Muslims in Singapore have significantly more negative attitudes and less tolerance than Buddhists and free thinkers do towards homosexuality.
Given the transitional nature of many of our megachurch Christians - both from working- to middle-class, and from non-Christian to Christian beliefs - it is possible that they may have retained some of their tolerance for homosexuality.
In summary, our study demonstrated that the Protestant Christian community in Singapore is complex, dynamic and differentiated. It is not unreasonable to assume the same of other faith communities in Singapore.
As such, any accurate analysis of the religious landscape in Singapore will have to take into account the social and cultural distinctions within respective faith communities.
The authors are senior fellows at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The report - Different Under God: A Survey Of Church-going Protestants In Singapore - is available at major bookshops at $29.90.
The Straits Times
Published on Jan 14, 2013
WHO ARE SINGAPORE'S MEGACHURCH MEMBERS?
In contrast, members of mainline churches tend to be from middle class
By Leonard Lim
MEMBERS of megachurches tend to be from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds, a large-scale study of Christians here suggests.
It found that younger members of these churches, those aged 29 and below, tend to come from less privileged and non-English-speaking backgrounds, and live in public housing.
Megachurches in Singapore are commonly understood to comprise New Creation, City Harvest, Faith Community Baptist Church and The Lighthouse.
In contrast, members of mainline Anglican and Methodist churches, as well as independent churches, tend to have middle-class backgrounds.
Responses from some 2,660 Christians across 24 churches were analysed for the study.
Researchers Terence Chong and Hui Yew-Foong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies have written up their findings in a book entitled Different Under God.
They said the findings suggest respondents from the mainline denominations and independent churches are part of the "established English-proficient middle class", while those from megachurches constitute part of the "emergent middle class".
The study was motivated by the rise of megachurches in Singapore. In the past decade, they have catapulted into public consciousness, complete with images of their rock concert-like worship services and charismatic pastors. Their congregations have swelled from a few thousand to as much as over 30,000.
The study was done through questionnaires and covered Christians' attitudes towards issues such as money, politics and sexuality. It was conducted from December 2009 to January 2011.
Just over a third of respondents were aged between 18 and 29, with the authors accepting that this group was overrepresented compared to those aged in their 30s, 40s (about 20 per cent each), 50s (16 per cent) and 60s (7.1 per cent).
Of the respondents, 21.7 per cent were from the Methodist Church, 22.9 per cent from the Anglican Church, 16.5 per cent from independent churches, and 36.4 per cent from megachurches.
Another finding was that megachurch respondents were more likely to see numerical and financial growth as signs of divine blessing and personal faithfulness.
This, said the authors, also suggests that megachurches articulate Christianity in the language of market ethos and logic, thus "converging with and appealing to the economic aspirations and consumer habits of many young, upwardly mobile Singaporeans".
Civil servant Michelle Toh, who has attended New Creation for four years, said the findings largely matched the background of most of her church friends.
"Many of us, including me, are first-generation Christians," the 25-year-old who lives in public housing said.
"But within my cell group of 40, there is a good mix of those living in flats, condominiums and landed homes."
Sociologist Daniel Goh, who has studied megachurches for more than a decade, said that their theology resonates with young people from the working and lower middle classes as they aspire very much to be upwardly mobile in terms of socio-economic status.
But he disagreed with the authors' conclusion that these Christians had achieved upward mobility, saying instead they "are finding their aspirations blocked in the secular realm", as evidenced by the widening income inequality.
"The extra spiritual push from megachurch membership is helping them overcome the obstacles to achieving upward mobility," the National University of Singapore don added.
Copyright © 2013 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.
The Straits Times
Published on Jan 14, 2013
WHO ARE SINGAPORE'S MEGACHURCH MEMBERS?
CHRISTIANS from megachurches were found to be less likely to support public interventions in policy matters, the study found.
Only a third of those surveyed agreed with the statement "Christians should collectively express their views on public policy issues in public".
That was lower than the figure for independents (49.2 per cent), Anglicans (52.1 per cent) and Methodists (56.7 per cent).
Sociologist Daniel Goh said the findings confirm his own qualitative research. He said: "The comparisons should not be interpreted merely as a snapshot in time, but in the light of the history of political conservatism of megachurches and the history of social action of the Anglican and Methodist churches."
Despite their conservative outlook towards speaking out in public, megachurch respondents were as likely as their counterparts from other denominations to allow religious values to influence their views on public policies.
Those from megachurches (87.9 per cent) were most likely to agree that their Christian values influence their views on public policy issues such as casinos and abortion.
The corresponding figures for the other denominations were between 83.6 and 87.2 per cent.
Copyright © 2013 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.
The findings suggest that many members of the mainline Anglican Church - some of whom worship at St Andrew's Cathedral (above) - and Methodist Church are part of the "established English-proficient middle class". -- ST FILE PHOTO
Literary works are turned into artworks to help the public appreciate Singapore writers
If you are a regular jogger at Punggol Waterway, a flash of colour may distract you from your morning exercise.
The bold lines and comic-book colours of a newly painted mural at Sunset Strip depict seven robots who, at first glance, seem to be your usual hollow-hearted tin toys. Take a step closer and you will notice something strange: The robots are in love. As a pair of droids give each other sidelong glances, evocative lines in text bubbles hover over their heads: "STUMBLED OVER YOU," says one.
"COULDN'T GET UP," confesses another.
The 16m by 4m mural, titled Accident, is the work of Sonny Liew, an illustrator and comic book artist. It is based on a poem of the same name by Gilbert Koh, a lawyer who published his first poetry collection, Two Baby Hands, in 2009. Accident is one of four works commissioned under Project Lava, an initiative by the National Arts Council, in partnership with the Housing & Development Board, National Parks Board and National Library Board.
The project aims to engage audiences through artworks that visually reinterpret local literary works, and which will be placed at prominent locations around Singapore.
Mr Paul Tan, director of Sector Development (Literary Arts) at the National Arts Council, said: "Project Lava hopes to build greater awareness of the interesting Singapore writers in our midst and inspire greater appreciation for the literary arts."
The other three works are The Point Of Arrival by Tania De Rozario, based on Cyril Wong's poem of the same name; Born Of Paper by Charlene Shepherdson, based on Catherine Lim's short story Paper; and Choice Cuts by Amanda Lee and Winnie Goh, based on original texts by Singaporean authors and industry professionals such as Alvin Pang, Ng Yi-Sheng and Life! writer Corrie Tan.
These works are smaller installations displayed at community libraries since last month. They will be moved to a new library each month and remain up until March next year. Liew's mural will be at Punggol Waterway until May 2014 and there are currently no plans as to what will happen after that.
The process of painting the mural was not an easy one for Liew (above), who received the Young Artist Award from the National Arts Council in 2010.
Earlier this month, someone defaced the artwork with a black crayon and scribbled over two of the seven robots.
"I was a little upset as I had spent many hours on the mural, but I realised I can't control it," said the 38-year-old. The work took two to three months to paint, with the help of about 20 friends.
Liew had to repaint over the crayon marks, but he acknowledges that to reach a wider audience, certain risks have to be taken with the artwork.
Putting art in public places is like "taking an expensive handbag from a shop and putting it outside on the street", he said.
"If it's in a gallery or a collection, most people won't be able to see the original pieces."
De Rozario's work features two chairs and a table, all in clinical white, and close to 500 pins spread out in a grid-like pattern along the table top. Around these pins, thin white thread is looped to spell out the last four lines of the poem.
Explaining the process of re-interpreting an existing literary work, the assistant lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts said: "As an artist and writer, it has been an interesting experience for me, trying to create an art object that evokes an emotion similar to the one I first had when I read The Point Of Arrival."
The 31-year-old added: "I think we use different parts of our brains when we create or react to words or images or objects. It is interesting exploring that space in between both these languages."
Liew agreed that a fusion of the visual and literary has its advantages.
"To me, part of what makes comics interesting is that the interaction between the visuals and the text makes new meaning. When you combine them, you get something new," said Mr Liew.
Fortunately for him, the poet who supplied the text was pleased with the final result.
"I did meet Gilbert afterwards to ask him what he thought. I was worried because while everything in his poem was in lower-case, I made everything upper-case and broke up his poem into word balloons. Luckily, he still said he was quite happy as he had never seen his work in a visual form before."
We may live in land-scarce Singapore but we should not live in shoebox apartments, says veteran architect Tan Cheng Siong.
He speaks from experience.
After World War II, his father's trading business failed and the family - including four children - had to live in a two-storey shophouse in Chinatown with many other families. All the space they had for themselves was a 3m by 5m room.
At the time, he says "space was tight" but he and his siblings were young and their "needs were simple".
However, housing needs have changed and we now "need space to find ourselves and be ourselves", says Mr Tan, 75, who gets all fired up when we touch on his pet topic of residential housing.
He has devoted his life to building upwards in the quest to provide quality homes - something he insists can still be done, even in crowded cities.
His status as a pioneer was cemented when he designed Pearl Bank Apartments - the first residential super high-rise in Singapore. Completed in 1976, the apartments in Outram opened many doors for him, then 39 years old.
He went on to introduce condominiums to the middle-class in Singapore, with Pandan Valley condominium off Holland Road, built in 1978. Subsequently, he worked on other private housing projects such as Meyer Road's The Atria - where he now lives on the top floor - and Hawaii Tower, also along that road.
His contributions to Singapore's residential landscape led to him clinching the Designer of the Year award at the President's Design Award earlier this month.
Mr Tang Guan Bee, 71, principal architect of Tangguanbee Architects, who received the award last year, had nominated him.
He says Pearl Bank and Pandan Valley are "enough to make Mr Tan a recognised figure in architecture". On top of that, his passion for architecture, which still continues, can "help set the tone for the younger generations", says Mr Tang, who has known Mr Tan for 40 years.
Pearl Bank Apartments, Mr Tan says, was his "first good work". It was visited by architects in the region and even written about by academics, he adds.
But in the beginning, not everyone was comfortable with the concept of living in a 38-storey building. "People were asking, 'Is it dangerous? When the wind is strong and I open my window, what will happen?'" says Mr Tan with a laugh, whose horseshoe-shape design helped to maximise the sea view from Pearl's Hill.
He also came up with a structure of interlocking duplex apartments so that the place could be easily configured into two-, three- or four-level apartments to accommodate different needs.
Anticipating concerns from home- buyers about not getting to their flats should the lift break down, his design included eight lifts servicing every floor.
Eventually, Mr Tan says, they sold the 280 units. Many of the buyers were educated civil servants.
But everyone was curious about the new building. Even Mr Tan's father - a merchant of commodities such as rubber and pepper - snuck into the construction site and climbed the half-completed building to experience his son's creation.
The bold design was a statement of nationhood, says Mr Tan. "This was the new Singapore. We wanted to show that it has what it takes to survive," he says, punching his fist in the air.
He was influenced by French architect Le Corbusier, a pioneer of Modern architecture: "His work inspired us to build a brave new world."
But for all his passion and enthusiasm, being an architect was surprisingly never part of the childhood dream.
Born here in 1937, he is the second of four children and only son. After his senior Cambridge examination - the equivalent of the A-level examination - "I wanted to be a teacher", says Mr Tan, whose mother was a housewife.
But when a job at the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) - the predecessor of the Housing Development Board (HDB) - came up around 1957, it piqued his interest. He applied and got the job as an architectural technician. So he stumbled into the field almost by accident.
While working at SIT and HDB, two things sparked his interest in architecture. Studying plans of SIT buildings at Tanglin Halt and trying to figure out how to lower the cost of construction by 2cents per square foot was one of them.
"We found that if we didn't have a water pipe and just had a spout for rainwater, we could save money," he says proudly, making a spout with his hand.
He was also part of a team tasked to look at the redesign of Toa Payoh town. "That sparked my interest in housing," says Mr Tan, who took night classes for seven years which culminated in a diploma in architecture from Singapore Polytechnic in 1965.
He worked in the day, attended class from 5.30pm to about 9pm and went home to complete assignments. He later earned a master's degree in urban planning at the National University of Singapore, once again studying part-time, which he completed circa 1972.
This work ethic held throughout his career. His son Tan Zie Chon, 33, an architect at his father's company Archurban Architects Planners, says: "When I was young, I remember I would spend time in his office helping to make models."
Mr Tan has two other children - a daughter, 35, who is an artist, and another son, 31, a writer. He is married to Mrs Tan Ping Ping, 65, a housewife.
Mrs Tan says in Mandarin: "He would wake up early in the morning to work on his projects. And besides work, there is nothing else but work.
"Ok, maybe some golf," she adds good-naturedly. The pair was introduced by mutual friends and married in 1973.
After HDB, Mr Tan worked for a year at Seow, Lee and Heah Architects. Once he was a registered architect, he started his own company Archynamics Architects in 1967 with Mr Chan Fook Pong and Mr Kenneth Chen.
At the time, he had rented an apartment in River Valley Road. Its two rooms served as an office while its living room was used for drafting. "That was fun," he recalls. Business was smooth for him, he adds, as he had gained experience working at his previous firm.
An amicable split between partners resulted in his second company Archurban Architects Planners in 1974.
Singapore is not the only landscape he has left his mark on. In the 1980s, the Chinese government invited him to help develop residential projects. "We saw only worker housing and urban housing such as shophouses in Singapore. It reminded me of my days in Chinatown."
In 1993, he helped build the first public housing project in Shenzhen. He then introduced the idea of condominium living with Dong Hai condominium.
"It was an eye-opener. People were surprised that they could live in such lush surroundings. It was like a Shangri-la."
At this point in our conversation, he excuses himself and picks up a call from a friend congratulating him about his President's Design Award. "I'm just lucky, again," he says humbly, thanking the caller profusely for the well wishes.
Once he is off the phone, he apologises and continues where he left off, telling Life! how mayors of different Chinese cities and waves of developers would visit Dong Hai to learn from it.
"Now they are doing it better than us," he says, adding that 80 per cent of his business is now in China as the country is "urbanising relentlessly".
He set up an office in Shenzhen in 1997 and has since been shuttling between there and Singapore. He is back here once every month for about a week.
Over the years, he says he has become more of a thinker, philosophising about the way cities are built and the direction they are headed. "Society needs ideas to solve problems," he says. And these ideas are of a cultural nature, he adds.
His message for Asia is this: "We must build cities for people."
Looking back in history, he says, cities were built for gods, kings, warriors, merchants, for industrialisation, for the government "but never for people".
In such cases, he says: "People either rebel or they abandon the place."
He says public housing in Singapore has been an "amazing feat", compared to squatter housing in other Asian or South American cities, but more can be done.
This is when he unleashes his new theory of "Bionicas", which comes from the root word bionic.
Buildings age, he says, but there is no need to discard them - just change the parts. "Just like a bionic man or woman, the parts change to become better."
With changeable parts, "people and buildings can act as one unit and grow old together", he says, interlocking his fingers for impact.
One feature of his theory is what he calls "skyland". He says that in the future, every HDB unit could be built with an attached piece of land so owners can use the land however they wish. The land could be the size of another flat.
For example, a young couple might use the land next to their apartment as a garden, but as they start a family, they could create a new room in that plot.
So these pieces of land in the sky would be altered "to fit your lifestyle as you grow". This do-it-yourself model, he says, would help Singapore retain "quality people and a talented population" as they would not feel stuck in their HDB apartment for life.
He has proposed his idea at seminars but is not working on any project just yet.
The vision can also be applied to his beloved Pearl Bank Apartments. "Keep the structure but change the interior, retrofit it with energy-saving features," he says. "We should not allow a building to remain a ruin or a relic. Rejuvenate it."
He understands buildings are torn down for private profit but says that that happens only when the authorities increase a site's plot ratio and developers stand to gain from rebuilding. So the authorities can save important buildings by maintaining the plot ratio, he adds.
As for accommodating a projected six million people in Singapore, he says not that many more apartments need to be built. What needs to be built are quality apartments, which people can grow old in and call their own.
Although Pearl Bank has had several collective sales attempts - in 2007, 2008 and last year - none was successful. Now there is a website (www.pearlbankapartments.com) by residents to raise awareness of its architectural importance. Mr Tan says: "I will cry if they tear it down. If they must do it, do it after I'm gone."
But with a mind as active as his and a body as fit - he plays table tennis on alternate days with his staff members in China - it looks like he still has it in him to see through his vision for the future.
Walking Life! to his apartment door after chatting for two hours, he slips in one more example to justify his new theory. He says homes should be looked upon as infrastructure such as airports, roads and schools, which are not just torn down but changed and improved.
"Humans change so fast, buildings change so slowly - my Bionicas can help," he says.
As we shake hands, he adds: "I'm not a dreamer. But I dream a little sometimes."
THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE
Why Violence Has Declined
By Steven Pinker
Illustrated. 802 pp. Viking. $40.
It is unusual for the subtitle of a book to undersell it, but Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature” tells us much more than why violence has declined. Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard who first became widely known as the author of“The Language Instinct,” addresses some of the biggest questions we can ask: Are human beings essentially good or bad? Has the past century witnessed moral progress or a moral collapse? Do we have grounds for being optimistic about the future?
If that sounds like a book you would want to read, wait, there’s more. In 800 information-packed pages, Pinker also discusses a host of more specific issues. Here is a sample: What do we owe to the Enlightenment? Is there a link between the human rights movement and the campaign for animal rights? Why are homicide rates higher in the southerly states of this country than in northern ones? Are aggressive tendencies heritable? Could declines in violence in particular societies be attributed to genetic change among its members? How does a president’s I.Q. correlate with the number of battle deaths in wars in which the United States is involved? Are we getting smarter? Is a smarter world a better world?
In seeking answers to these questions Pinker draws on recent research in history, psychology, cognitive science, economics and sociology. Nor is he afraid to venture into deep philosophical waters, like the role of reason in ethics and whether, without appealing to religion, some ethical views can be grounded in reason and others cannot be.
The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.
Pinker assumes that many of his readers will be skeptical of this claim, so he spends six substantial chapters documenting it. That may sound like a hard slog, but for anyone interested in understanding human nature, the material is engrossing, and when the going gets heavy, Pinker knows how to lighten it with ironic comments and a touch of humor.
Pinker begins with studies of the causes of death in different eras and peoples. Some studies are based on skeletons found at archaeological sites; averaging their results suggests that 15 percent of prehistoric humans met a violent death at the hands of another person. Research into contemporary or recent hunter-gatherer societies yields a remarkably similarly average, while another cluster of studies of pre-state societies that include some horticulture has an even higher rate of violent death. In contrast, among state societies, the most violent appears to have been Aztec Mexico, in which 5 percent of people were killed by others. In Europe, even during the bloodiest periods — the 17th century and the first half of the 20th — deaths in war were around 3 percent. The data vindicates Hobbes’s basic insight, that without a state, life is likely to be “nasty, brutish and short.” In contrast, a state monopoly on the legitimate use of force reduces violence and makes everyone living under that monopoly better off than they would otherwise have been. Pinker calls this the “pacification process.”
It’s not only deaths in war, but murder, too, that is declining over the long term. Even those tribal peoples extolled by anthropologists as especially “gentle,” like the Semai of Malaysia, the Kung of the Kalahari and the Central Arctic Inuit, turn out to have murder rates that are, relative to population, comparable to those of Detroit. In Europe, your chance of being murdered is now less than one-tenth, and in some countries only one-fiftieth, of what it would have been if you had lived 500 years ago. American rates, too, have fallen steeply over the past two or three centuries. Pinker sees this decline as part of the “civilizing process,” a term he borrows from the sociologist Norbert Elias, who attributes it to the consolidation of the power of the state above feudal loyalties, and to the effect of the spread of commerce. (Consistent with this view, Pinker argues that at least part of the reason for the regional differences in American homicide rates is that people in the South are less likely to accept the state’s monopoly on force. Instead, a tradition of self-help justice and a “culture of honor” sanctions retaliation when one is insulted or mistreated. Statistics bear this out — the higher homicide rate in the South is due to quarrels that turn lethal, not to more killings during armed robberies — and experiments show that even today Southerners respond more strongly to insults than Northerners.)
During the Enlightenment, in 17th-and 18th-century Europe and countries under European influence, another important change occurred. People began to look askance at forms of violence that had previously been taken for granted: slavery, torture, despotism, dueling and extreme forms of cruel punishment. Voices even began to be raised against cruelty to animals. Pinker refers to this as the “humanitarian revolution.”
Against the background of Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.
Since 1945, we have seen a new phenomenon known as the “long peace”: for 66 years now, the great powers, and developed nations in general, have not fought wars against one another. More recently, since the end of the cold war, a broader “new peace” appears to have taken hold. It is not, of course, an absolute peace, but there has been a decline in all kinds of organized conflicts, including civil wars, genocides, repression and terrorism. Pinker admits that followers of our news media will have particular difficulty in believing this, but as always, he produces statistics to back up his assertions.
The final trend Pinker discusses is the “rights revolution,” the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this “the worst thing I have ever done.” In 1975 it wasn’t uncommon.)
What caused these beneficial trends? That question poses a special challenge to an author who has consistently argued against the view that humans are blank slates on which culture and education draws our character, good or evil. There has hardly been time for the changes to have a basis in genetic evolution. (Pinker considers this possibility, and dismisses it.) So don’t the trends that Pinker chronicles prove that our nature is more the product of our culture than our biology? That way of putting it assumes a simplistic nature-nurture dichotomy. In books like “How the Mind Works,” “The Blank Slate” and “The Stuff of Thought,” Pinker has argued that evolution shaped the basic design of our brain, and hence our cognitive and emotional faculties. This process has given us propensities to violence — our “inner demons” as well as “the better angels of our nature” (Abraham Lincoln’s words) — that incline us to be peaceful and cooperative. Our material circumstances, along with cultural inputs, determine whether the demons or the angels have the upper hand.
Other large-scale trends have paralleled the decline in violence and cruelty, but it is not easy to sort out cause and effect here. Are factors like better government, greater prosperity, health, education, trade and improvements in the status of women the cause or the effect of the decline in violence and cruelty? If we can find out, we may be able to preserve and extend the peaceful and better world in which we live. So in two chapters on human psychology, Pinker does his best to discover what has restrained our inner demons and unleashed our better angels, and then in a final chapter, draws his conclusions.
Those conclusions are not always what one might expect. Yes, as already noted, the state monopoly on force is important, and the spread of commerce creates incentives for cooperation and against violent conflict. The empowerment of women does, Pinker argues, exercise a pacifying influence, and the world would be more peaceful if women were in charge. But he also thinks that the invention of printing, and the development of a cosmopolitan “Republic of Letters” in the 17th and 18th centuries helped to spread ideas that led to the humanitarian revolution. That was pushed further in the 19th century by popular novels like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Oliver Twist” that, by encouraging readers to put themselves in the position of someone very different from themselves, expanded the sphere of our moral concern.
To readers familiar with the literature in evolutionary psychology and its tendency to denigrate the role reason plays in human behavior, the most striking aspect of Pinker’s account is that the last of his “better angels” is reason. Here he draws on a metaphor I used in my 1981 book “The Expanding Circle.” To indicate that reason can take us to places that we might not expect to reach, I wrote of an “escalator of reason” that can take us to a vantage point from which we see that our own interests are similar to, and from the point of view of the universe do not matter more than, the interests of others. Pinker quotes this passage, and then goes on to develop the argument much more thoroughly than I ever did. (Disclosure: Pinker wrote an endorsement for a recent reissue of “The Expanding Circle.”)
Pinker’s claim that reason is an important factor in the trends he has described relies in part on the “Flynn effect” — the remarkable finding by the philosopher James Flynn that ever since I.Q. tests were first administered, the scores achieved by those taking the test have been rising. The average I.Q. is, by definition, 100; but to achieve that result, raw test scores have to be standardized. If the average teenager today could go back in time and take an I.Q. test from 1910, he or she would have an I.Q. of 130, which would be better than 98 percent of those taking the test then. Nor is it easy to attribute this rise to improved education, because the aspects of the tests on which scores have risen most do not require a good vocabulary or even mathematical ability, but instead test powers of abstract reasoning. One theory is that we have gotten better at I.Q. tests because we live in a more symbol-rich environment. Flynn himself thinks that the spread of the scientific mode of reasoning has played a role.
Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century. He therefore suggests that the 20th century has seen a “moral Flynn effect, in which an accelerating escalator of reason carried us away from impulses that lead to violence” and that this lies behind the long peace, the new peace, and the rights revolution. Among the wide range of evidence he produces in support of that argument is the tidbit that since 1946, there has been a negative correlation between an American president’s I.Q. and the number of battle deaths in wars involving the United States.
Reason also, Pinker suggests, moves us away from forms of morality more likely to lead to violence, and toward moral advances that, while not eschewing the use of force altogether, restrict it to the uses necessary to improve social welfare, like utilitarian reforms of the savage punishments given to criminals in earlier times. For reason does, Pinker holds, point to a particular kind of morality. We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably. Therefore we will want to tell others that they should not hurt us, and in doing so we commit ourselves to the idea that we should not hurt them. (Pinker quotes a famous sentence from the 18th-century philosopher William Godwin: “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”) That morality can be grounded in some commitment to treating others as we would like them to treat us is an ancient idea, expressed in the golden rule and in similar thoughts in the moral traditions of many other civilizations, but Pinker is surely right to say that the escalator of reason leads us to it. It is this kind of moral thinking, Pinker points out, that helps us escape traps like the Cuban missile crisis, which, if the fate of the world had been in the hands of leaders under the sway of a different kind of morality — one dominated by ideas of honor and the importance of not backing down — might have been the end of the human story. Fortunately Kennedy and Khrushchev understood the trap they were in and did what was necessary to avoid disaster.
“The Better Angels of Our Nature” is a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline. But what of the future? Our improved understanding of violence, of which Pinker’s book is an example, can be a valuable tool to maintain peace and reduce crime, but other factors are in play. Pinker is an optimist, but he knows that there is no guarantee that the trends he has documented will continue. Faced with suggestions that the present relatively peaceful period is going to be blown apart by a “clash of civilizations” with Islam, by nuclear terrorism, by war with Iran or wars resulting from climate change, he gives reasons for thinking that we have a good chance of avoiding such conflicts, but no more than a good chance. If he had been able to see, before his book went to press, a study published in Nature as recently as August of this year, he might have been less sanguine about maintaining peace despite widespread climate change. Solomon Hsiang and colleagues at Columbia University used data from the past half-century to show that in tropical regions, the risk of a new civil conflict doubles during El Niño years (when temperatures are hotter than usual and there is less rainfall). If that finding is correct, then a warming world could mean the end of the relatively peaceful era in which we are now living.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His books include “Animal Liberation,” “Practical Ethics,” “The Expanding Circle” and “The Life You Can Save.”
SINGAPORE - About half the respondents in a survey of married individuals here have considered divorce at some point.
While the finding appears startling, amid rising divorce rates over the past decade, counsellors and observers noted that it reflected reality as people become more open to acknowledging and talking about marriage problems. At the same time, it underlined the resilience of marriages here given that the respondents did not eventually go down that path, they said.
The survey, which involved 408 married individuals in total, was commissioned by Marriage Central - a work group under the National Family Council - and conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
It was part of a study that aimed to find out "resilience factors that can mitigate marriage crises, as well as acceptance towards the use of social service interventions for marital problems", according to Marriage Central.
IPS research fellow Mathew Mathews, who led the study, noted the survey's small sample size and said it was not meant to be representative of the state of marriages here.
Between February and May, in-depth interviews were conducted on 85 couples and 15 spouses. The researchers found from these that a "good proportion" of this group had contemplated divorce at some point during marriage. This prompted them to conduct a self-administered survey with 108 of the initial respondents, as well as another 300 married persons - from various ages, racial and religious backgrounds - via door-to-door visits.
The result: Almost 52 per cent of the total number of married persons surveyed had considered divorce at some point.
According to the study, common marital stressors were interference by in-laws, sexual impropriety and infidelity, communication and personality difficulties as well as misaligned priorities and different aspirations.
Marriage Central Chairperson Anita Fam said: "The findings from this study, especially the stories of couples who went through very challenging periods but persisted in working on their marriages, show that there is hope for troubled marriages."
Ms Celine Edmund, a marriage counsellor at Singapore Counselling Centre, said she was not surprised at the findings.
"All these marriage problems have been ongoing for a long time - only (the subject) has always been a taboo," she said. "It is coming to the surface because people are more willing to talk about it now."
Nevertheless, she said that "more people still need to know that there is nothing wrong with seeking marriage counselling".
Jalan Besar GRC Member of Parliament Lily Neo, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Social and Family Development, said she was initially surprised by the survey findings but pointed out that, "despite considerations of divorce, these marriages stayed committed and resilient".
Among other things, the study found that family, friends and religious advisors are often primary informal sources of help that couples reach out to when faced with marital issues. It also found that couples opt for counselling too late into their conflict "which makes progress through counselling difficult".
It recommended that training opportunities be made available for family and friends of couples whose marriages are on the rocks. One complimentary post-marriage counselling session should also be included in marriage preparatory packages, the study suggested.
Ms Edmund felt that the cost of counselling - which can go up to more than S$100 per hour at private counselling centres - could deter couples from seeking help.
But Ms Chong Cheh Hoon, who heads Marriage Central's Family Education and Promotion Division, pointed out that voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) offer counselling services at affordable rates.
The fees are even waived at some VWOs, depending on the couples' monthly household income, she said.
Ms Chong noted that the imposition of a fee helps to ensure that the couples are committed to undergo counselling.
Compared to a decade ago, the general divorce rates last year were significantly higher.
The rate for males rose from 6.3 in 2001 to 7.6 last year, while that for females climbed from 6.4 in 2001 to 7.2 last year.
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