“Now, be good adults, sit down and listen,” said 12-year-old Dylan Soh, facing a group of about 1800 people assembled in front of him, and gets a hearty, resounding applause.
The venue was Nanyang Auditorium, NTU, Singapore, where all things being in order a child of Dylan’s age would still have some years to go before he entered. But then again, the event is TedXSingapore’s “The Undiscovered Country” held on 6 & 7 November 2015 where discovery of limitless human potential is the undercurrent. After the initial sense of amazement, Dylan proceeded to wow the audience with the rendering of his own “Try song” and his story of the “Big Red Dot”, to show from a child’s point of view what Singapore is to him, today. Memorably, he says, “The hero of our story is female… [we need] to be fairer to the fairer sex.”
A citizen born in the social media age, his tale was about the importance of curiosity, resilience, self-belief and most of all self confidence. In Dylan’s narration, the “little red dot” was no “little red dot”, since it saw itself as a “Big Red Dot”.
In showing that size doesn’t matter as much as vision, imagination and attitude, Singapore is many things to many people.
On a used car bought for a hundred pounds, Tony Wheeler set out from London with his wife Maureen, in 1972 on a trip that took them across Europe and Asia all the way to Australia. As someone who has been visiting Singapore for about four decades, he had interesting stories and vintage pictures to share.
They landed in Australia with 27 Cents between them. Their first travel guide “Across Asia on the Cheap” came out soon. Tony quit his job as an engineer and devoted himself to full time travel writing and then the rest, as the cliché goes, is history. They travelled regularly and compulsively, sometimes with their young children on baby carriers in a day and age when that was unheard of. They wrote it all down and today “Lonely Planet” is a synonym of travel. Tony shared off the stage later “If there is a place, go see it”. And yes, they resold their used car somewhere along the way in Afghanistan at a profit, for a hundred and fifty pounds.
Among the pictures Tony Wheeler shared was a single photograph showing a small round side table with a typewriter and sheaves of paper lying around. That was the first manuscript of “Across Asia on the Cheap”. Location – Palace Hotel, Jalan Besar, Singapore which is where a seed was planted, and which was where it all began.
In being the setting when a seed is planted, a seed which would grow to be the most famous name in its genre, Singapore is many things to many people.
An internet pioneer, who was trained and excelled as a molecular biologist, Tan Tin Wee has several first and achievements in a glittering career. A few random samples – the first cybercast of a National Day Parade, First Chinese Website, First Tamil website using Tamil scripts.
Dr Wee highlighted the ubiquitous line that one gets to see in the footer of most emails – Please think of the environment before printing this email. Most responsible thought, yes. But have we paid attention to how much of data we are storing in cyberspace, and how much of energy such storage and retrieval consumes, and how much of such energy comes from non-renewable resources, urged Dr Wee.
Deriving from the symbiotic relationship where animal manure and plants are mutually interlocked in a positive cycle, Dr Wee explained how it might be possible to harness the heat from data storage centres for re-gasification of LNG which is essential before transmission in pipes to the end-users – a live example of out of the box thinking.
Providing an atmosphere that fosters excellence, inspires meritocracy and seeks to be ahead of the curve at all times, Singaporeis many things to many people.
“You’ve never seen data presented like this” announced the conference guidebook in the introduction about Dr Hans Rosling. A pioneer of Médecins Sans Frontières in Sweden, a physician, public health specialist, a statistician, founder of Gapminder foundation which developed Trendalyer software (since taken over by Google and to top it all, a sword swallower, Dr Rosling held the audience captive in the way he presented big data. Population, per capita GDP, time scale of decades – possibly dry topics all, nevertheless took a shape and life when Dr Rosling proceeded to narrate them in his unique style and present them on Trendalyzer. Among other things he left us with two simple and key truths.
In 1800 the global population reached its first billion, which grew to two billion people by 1930 and then quite inexplicably exploded to almost seven billion in the 2000s. Why so? In 1800s, the number of children borne by an adult woman was 6. The figure was the same in the 1900s too. Why then the exponential growth? It so happened that out of 6 children in the 19thcentury, only 2 survived to adulthood, whereas in the 20h century thanks to sanitation, vaccines and industrial advancement, four out of six children survived to adulthood, therefore, doubling the reproductive capacity in a family within a generation. A simple, insightful answer, based on statistical truth.
He further went on to show his prediction of 11 Billion by 2100, despite ageing population and declining birthrates, the world over. He parses the numbers on two fronts – age and region and painted a lucid picture of how that is not just possible but seems very likely unless, say, an asteroid crashes into our planet and wipes us all out like the dinosaurs.
In Dr Rosling’s presentation Singapore was a focal point and he highlighted its growth from a third world country to a first world country within a generation. In being an index for growth, and a bell-weather for global economic progress, to compare and contrast with other bigger and older nations, Singapore is many things to many people.
At the turn of the 20th Century the proportion of urbanized population in the world stood at 13%, fifty years later it stood at 29% and by 2030 it is poised to reach 60% with the two Asian giants leading the way. Singapore in any event is completely urbanized and has been that way for sometime. If it portrays a picture of a concrete jungle where nature takes second place over modernization, its far from the truth, for Lena Chan, Head of National Biodiversity Centre, National Parks said Singapore has a green cover of 46% which is the highest in the world for cities. Some astounding facts that came our way from Lena – Singapore houses 384 species of birds which is more than those in France, 318 species of butterflies while UK has about 60, 255 coral species, which is about a third of those in the world. National Biodiversity Centre and National Parks have transformed this garden city to a city in a garden and as Lena put it, a little green dot surrounded by blue.
Spasmodic Dysphonia is a neurological condition which affects the vocal chords and thereby impacts speech. For singer and songwriter Crystal Goh it meant to give up a career that was her passion. She simply woke one morning to find her voice had gone. While recovering from her therapy, she focused on song-writing and connected with two communities – juvenile offenders and children of prisoners, two of the most vulnerable groups in an urban environment. She spoke with great visible effort as she struggled to finish her words. Her message was one of resilience in the face of odds, belief and hope. Her voice still quivered and broke as she performed a song live. There must have been several lumps in throats as the entire hall was on its feet in rapturous applause.
And then there was Inch Chua, who shut herself up in Pulau Ubin, a rustic island off Singapore, in a house with no running water or electricity. In isolation and a process of self-discovery, she wrote and composed her second album from which she performed a spellbinding number.
There was archeologist Noel Hidalgo Tan, who spoke of the cave paintings in South East Asia – which are usually overlooked amongst archeological wonders such as Angkor Wat, Borobudur / Prambanan and Bagan – which have an importance in chronicling life in prehistoric times in the region. By showing paintings which could have been ritual, or educational, or terrestrial markings or simple a record of what was important in those times, Noel attempted to trace back living conditions to times gone by.
There also was Zakir Hussain Khokhon, a construction supervisor from Bangladesh who during his daily commute, with a pen and a pocketbook has written and compiled three volumes of poetry. I repeat three volumes of poetry. He treated the audience to a splendid oration about homecoming, migration and love in his native Bangla.
There were several others, who merit mention but have to be left out in the interest of brevity – performers, achievers, story-tellers who inspired, awed and enthralled the audience over the course of one and a half days.
Much has been achieved in 50 years, yet the place and its peoples do not believe in resting on their laurels. The future is uncertain and nevertheless exciting. The ingredients have been set in place by extra-ordinary vision and the present is currently poised to meet the future.
In displaying growth as a modern society, providing a predictable, safe, desirable and healthy life to its citizens Singapore checks most boxes. And yet, the artists, poets and special talents showcase another aspect. That arts, life and soul have not been forgotten under economic pragmatism and social advancement but have actually flowered and risen to new heights.
At once being a most watched and well recognized nation and also in some aspects an undiscovered country, which events like TedX seek to bring more to light, Singapore remains many things to many people.