Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Exactitude in Science,

In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J. A. Suarez Miranda

Written by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. English translation quoted from J. L. Borges, A Universal History of Infamy, Penguin Books, London, 1975.


The story above is written by Jorge Luis Borges. In it, he narrates this empire where map-making attained such sublime levels that the cartographers were able to evolve a map of the Empire which was on the scale of 1 : 1. A full sized map representing or replicating the entire Empire. Of course, the map was eventually seen as fairly useless and left to decay. And fragments of this map remain in the fringes of the Empire, providing the occasional shelter for beasts and beggars.

It is a fascinating tale. Entire theories of representation and simulacra are packed into this brief paragraph which is a fiction but made to look like a true historical source by Borges. He even cites a non existent book and a non existent author. It is a rich paragraph for critical theory. But as always, the map leads me to Singapore.

There are many maps of Singapore. Perhaps the most common are tourist maps which one picks up at the arrival hall of Changi Airport. They depict the locations of tourist attractions and places of interest. Done in a neo-classical style with icons and symbols representative of the locality.

And then, there are other types of maps. Maps charting the path to Singapore's future. These are the national level campaigns which our Government is very prone toward. Courtesy Campaign and Singa. Productivity Campaign and the "good better best, never let it rest" Bee. Stop at Two birth control. Recently, there was a Frog for the Environment. A few years back, to herald the global world, there was the HeartBeat Singapore campaign. In technology, we have the Wired Nation. Its most recent incarnation , iN2015 and Wireless@Sg. In industry, we have that grand and ambitious map of Singapore as the life sciences hub.

To sell these maps, the national media exercises its role of responsible nation-building. They hype these maps. Front page screaming headlines. Story after story of pioneering successes which act like guarantees of eventual success. The media helps to build these maps. Make them bigger. More realistic. More attainable.

And we are left with a massive map of Singapore. A map that is even bigger than the actual territorial size of Singapore. Its bigger because we are building maps which draw on future time. Projected futures.

With such a map beckoning, many Singaporeans follow the path that has been so boldly charted. In Life Sciences for example, many a young Singaporean decides to make their career choice at the age of 16. Opting for a diploma in biomedical engineering, in life sciences. Others make that decision at 18, going for an undergraduate degree in life sciences. They follow this particular map of Singapore.

Except that many of these maps lead into indefinitely deferred futurities. In life sciences, we have a pool of trained personnel ready to populate the hub. But is the hub ready? Are we now a life sciences hub? Or is this map fraying at the edges?

There is a tendency for cartographers to forget that these maps into Singapore's future are massive social programs. That citizen's lives are at stake. Cartographers build these maps, fill the maps with beautiful embellishments, achieve a scale beyond even 1 : 1. But this has always been the template of Singapore map-building. The founding father, MM Lee, was the foremost cartographer. He mapped Singapore from Third World to First, involving first and foremost a massive social program to create a population able to fulfil the needs of the simultaneous industrialisation program.

Subsequent mappings have been less spectacular in visible success. From Elia Diodati, there is a pessimistic paper by Paul Krugman; suggesting that Singapore's success is perhaps one-off and cannot be replicated again. We achieved almost universal literacy, its not possible to train the entire population to be PhD holders. In many aspects, Krugman's paper illuminates various social maps in Singapore today. chief of which is the foreign talent program. It is a form of social engineering and programming. In regime thinking, it is a requisite for the map of Singapore to be realised. For the map to work, to be successful.

There is a funny thing about maps. Most times, you never see people drawn into maps. The cartographers usually pay more attention on aspects of territorial accuracy, legend-ising structures, detail of relief. People are usually not part of maps. The problem is of course, when the cartographers lose themselves in the exactitudes of crafting that map. Lost in the measuring of longitudes and latitudes. Lost in the intricacies of detailing the relief and beautifying the map. They create a perfect representation. A perfect map. But it is useless, cumbersome and left to decay.

Now do you understand? Why the need to connect with the people?

But time and again, we fall into that rote template established by our founding father, the pre-eminent cartographer. and when we build this new map, will we again forget to draw people into these maps? You do not need people to be cartographers. But you need a radical and creative deconstruction of cartography. Can we have a map of singapore with people in it?

Borges ultimately has the answer. and so as this entry began with him, it ends with too with this dead and blind writer, half a world away :

"Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy"


PS : For those interested in my earlier entry on HWZ, bloggers Cobalt Paladin and Tan Gowing have their views on the valuation of HWZ and perhaps, the un-soundness of the deal. They are of course, more accurate than me.


Blogger Elia Diodati said...

Borges is one of my favorite authors!

2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic entry! ^___^

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bravo yet again!

11:48 PM  
Blogger *The Lunatic Fringe* said...

Dear Xenoboy

I am at a loss for words...

If you publish a book comprising all your blogposts, I think you could have a small retirement fund building for you to use to emigrate from our little red dot!

Kudos and bouquets!

This is what uniquely Singaporean should be about!



2:28 AM  
Blogger sei-ji rakugaki said...

another lovely post.

2:41 AM  
Anonymous Jol said...

:The earth is round and flat at the same time. This is obvious. That it is round appears indisputable; that it is flat is our common experience, also indisputable. The globe does not supercede the map; the map does not distort the globe.

Maps are magic. In the bottom corner are whales; at the top, cormorants carrying pop-eyed fish. In between is a subjective account of the lie of the land. Rough shapes of countries that may or may not exist, broken red lines marking paths that are at best hazardous, at worse already gone. Maps are constantly being re-made as knowledge appears to increase. But is knowledge increasing or is detail accumulating?

A map can tell me how to find a place I have not seen but have often imagined. When I get there, following the map faithfully, the place is not the place of my imagination. Maps, growing ever more real, are much less true.

And now, swarming over the earth with our tiny insect bodies and putting up flags and building houses, it seems that all the journeys are done.

Not so. Fold up the maps and put away the globe. If someone else had charted it, let them. Start another drawing with whales at the bottom and cormorants at the top, and in between identify, if you can, the places you have not found yet on those other maps, the connections obvious only to you. Round and flat, only a very little has been discovered."

Sexing the Cherry, Jeanette Winterson

2:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Xenoboy,

My apologies on posting comments on 6 month old posts. But I stumbled on your blog only a few days back and have found them to be immensely articulate and interesting.

I am one of the "foreign talent" and have been in Singapore for about 6 years now. When I first came here from India, I was awed by the place and how neat and clean things were, how "everything worked", the excellent infrastructure (a pet gripe of all Indians), the "quality of life", etc etc. I was an admirer of LKY.

After having lived here, I feel stifled even though I am not a citizen - not even a PR. I have no complaints physically. Haven't been subject to overt or covert racism.

After a long time, I started understanding why I felt stifled even though I am not the sort who is bohemian.

For starters, everything on a superficial level (and I mean it literally) is perfect. That is simply not natural. A certain amount of chaos is natural.

Then the whole supremacy of the state and the future. One is constantly exhorted to worry about the future and all its perils. The state is more important than the nation and the people who constitute it.

Third, people count for nothing. As I read in another blog - you are what you do for the economy. Who does Singapore belong to if not the people. Why is the foreigner more important than a local?

Fourth, the concept of meritocracy. Are there any objective measures of merit?

Fifth - this is run like a corporate. It is enough that I work in one. I don't want to live in one.

I read a beautiful line somewhere that "we must live and not just keep preparing for life". It seems all that most people do here is to prepare for retirement. Living in the future is a waste of time.

I have since then decided to pack my bags and head back to India and live. Not just prepare for retirement.

I wish you all the best in making this a more humane place - and not just a "vibrant city" with a lot of "lifestyle options".

6:55 PM  

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