Come September, NUS Press will release, with a grand book launch, its latest book ‘Floating on a Malayan Breeze’, by Sudhir Vadaketh. Mr Vadaketh is currently Senior Editor for Industry and Management Research at The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
I had the great pleasure recently, of being able to interview Mr Vadaketh on his career and his latest venture, ‘Floating on a Malayan Breeze’. The book discusses the events since Singapore’s separation from Malaysia and the different trajectories the two countries have followed as a result of the politics over the last 45 years. An exceptionally warm and friendly gentleman, Mr Vadaketh sat me comfortably in the grand conference room of The Economist’s offices in Raffles Place, and chatted for a little over an hour about everything under the sun, from education to economics, from interests to career.
Note: In the interest of keeping it short, sections of the interview have been left out of the article. Read the complete transcript here.
Anirudh Krishnan: I’m really excited to be interviewing someone at The Economist, because I’ve been reading it for years! Can you tell me a little bit about what you actually do? What is the Economist Intelligence Unit?
Sudhir Vadaketh: Essentially the two biggest units within the Economist Group are the Economist itself, and then the EIU, which is where I work. The main difference between them is that for The Economist, the target audience, we like to say is your mass intelligence market. Basically anybody out there that wants to read something that is a critical thinking piece would possibly be a reader of the Economist. The EIU’s target audience tends to be corporations and governments and depending on the research, some NGOs would also refer to our work. The two units are somewhat similar simply because they sit under The Economist Group brand, but they are also quite separate in many ways because editorial is completely separate and independent.
What I do exactly is Thought Leadership, also known as Industry and Management Research. And that’s basically the unit that deals with big pieces of research that are commissioned by other organisations. I work with a lot of people – contributors, statisticians, and people in our econometrics team in the UK. We interview people, take the findings, and write the story. We often use confidential information from particular sources and it could be governments or multilaterals like the World Bank and the IMF. On occasion they provide us information only on condition that it won’t be released publicly, so our papers are not available to the public. My role is usually as the editor of the paper, although I do occasionally write. I’ve been doing this for two years. When I joined in 2006, I joined a unit called the Economist Corporate Network – that’s senior level advisory. That’s providing macroeconomic, political, business advice to companies and governments.
AK: So the title of your new book, “Floating on a Malayan breeze”… that’s quite an interesting title, because ‘Malayan’ is not even a term that’s very often used anymore. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came up with the title?
SV: Okay there are several things going on. Some are sort of larger socio-economic political issues, and some are more personal to me. The personal part is that I have a lot of relatives in Malaysia, and from the time I was a young boy, I’ve spent a lot of time travelling through Malaysia. I’ve always regarded Singapore and Malaysia as one. But of course, as you grow up, and as you learn a bit more about political systems and economic systems, then you begin to unpick some of the differences between the countries and start to think about why the countries have developed along different trajectories. For me the thing that I was very conscious of is the impact of political boundaries on human consciousness and individuals’ consciousness: so how much your identity, your sense of being is attached to your country. My feeling was that even though I felt very comfortable travelling around Malaysia, for a lot of Singaporeans, and this is mostly because of political boundary, they don’t share that same sense of comfort and ease travelling around Malaysia. For them there’s very much this invisible barrier there. So there’s a whole ‘we’ versus ‘them’ thing going on when Singaporeans go over to Malaysia and even when Malaysians come over to Singapore. A lot of that obviously is because of the political boundary, and you’ll find this anywhere in the world so it’s not something unique here. Anywhere you have a political boundary, people develop different imagined communities and senses of identity.
My personal feeling was that it’s a big shame that I feel so comfortable moving around these countries and you know.. a lot of people in both our countries don’t feel that same way. I really have a personal sense of being a ‘Malayan’, but not many others do. The larger reason is that the sort of more socioeconomic political high level reason is that there has, because of all these misunderstandings, misconceptions, separation between the countries, there hasn’t been enough integration between the two countries. Obviously there’s a very high degree of economic integration.. trade between the two countries is very high. But in many other spheres of life, and even within economic integration, it hasn’t happened to the degree it should. Whether its Singaporean companies feeling comfortable setting up and operating in Malaysia or vice versa, Singaporean firms hiring freely from Malaysia, it hasn’t happened to the degree it should, in my opinion.
That’s the kind of larger level reason. There are many complementarities between the two countries, and if we had better integration, if we were more ‘Malayan’, I think it would serve both countries well.
AK: About your book… would you consider it more of a collection of memoirs or something just very much academic?
SV: I think I would say that it sits in between an academic book and a plain travelogue. It sits in between. And that has been one of the challenges but also one of the exciting things for me as a writer. I’m looking forward to seeing if people appreciate this sort of narrative style. The fear is that you end up alienating either side. The academics think it’s too casual, the casual readers think it’s too serious and too dry. But I would say it’s positioned in the middle. It deals with serious issues in both countries, but I constantly try to bring in the travelogue aspect, which is my best friend and me cycling around Malaysia. That initial trip had been in 2004. I try to bring in more travelogue aspects of me, first-person, going to Malaysia and experiencing Malaysia, to complement the serious discussions of everything from politics economics, social issues, race religion.. you know, I deal with very traditionally sensitive issues in both countries.
AK: Due to the fact that you’ve dealt with such sensitive issues, are you apprehensive of the fact that it might be received in a very polar manner, with some people really liking it, and other people really lambasting you for it?
SV: I try to write in a very balanced fashion. I’m quite confident that the majority of people in the middle will appreciate it. Of course there are always going to be on the fringes of any political spectrum that don’t like what you say, and that’s possible. I mean I’ve got criticisms of the PAP in there, criticisms of Barisan Nasional – the Malaysian ruling coalition in there. Of course there are going to be die-hard PAP fans and die-hard BN fans that don’t like what I have to say. I think the benefit of having worked at the Economist Group for 6 years is that you do learn to always tell as many sides of the story as you can before arriving at your conclusion. So you want to be opinionated but you want to give fair hearing to all sides of the argument. And I try to do that in everything I write about in the book. But no, I’m not too worried about that.
AK: How did you come up with the idea of cycling instead of traveling in a more conventional manner, in a more comfortable manner?
SV: So this kind of gets back to a lot of the misconceptions and differences between our countries. In 2004 when Sumana (Rajarethnam; my best friend) and I decided to do this, the stereotype of the Singaporean was, driving in their car, barrelling through Malaysia, you know.. the richer neighbour who’s just coming here to shop, to eat and then is going back.. right? It’s a classical rich-poor neighbour travel narrative that you have anywhere in the world. We wanted to kind of turn that stereotype on its head, and say “Okay.. we’re not gonna go there as the richer neighbour with lots of money. We’re gonna go there in a very simple fashion.” Actually initially we thought of walking <chuckle>. But obviously we wouldn’t have been able to cover as much distance in the limited time that we had. Walking was an option, but then we finally decided on cycling. Your whole entry into a new community is very different when you cycle [rather than drive]. So that was something that played quite heavily on our minds, that cycling would allow us to come in a very simple unobtrusive way, coz the whole point was that we wanted to talk to ordinary Malaysians. It gives you great access to people whom you want to speak to.
We also gave ourselves a very harsh 10 Ringgit a day limit. I mean 10 ringgit a day, when you convert it 3 USD, 4 SGD: it sounds very little but in reality, you can get by in Malaysia on 10 ringgit a day. You can’t buy a lot, but everyday, essentially we wake up, we eat carbo-heavy meals, start cycling, talk to some people on the way, another carbo-heavy lunch, then cycle again, then have a fairly light dinner. I mean it’s obviously difficult, and some of the minute economic decision that we had to make, were you know, things that we never had to think about in the past. To keep to the 10 ringgit budget, we were making economic decisions that you know, the majority of Singaporeans never have to think about. Through giving ourselves those quite harsh limits, we also learnt a lot of things along the way, experienced a lot of things that we wouldn’t have living in Singapore.
AK: And how would you say that the really tight budget contributed to your overall experiences? Did it help you kind of break into the psyche of the common people there?
On the one hand it’s obviously very artificial. So at the back of the mind, we all know that if there’s an emergency, we can just call mama and papa and somebody’s going to help us. I would never say that I can completely relate to somebody else that spends that kind of money. But having that limit I think allowed us access, because we were going very simply, shunning all the modern comforts, and the luxuries of modern life. It’s very different when you hole yourself up in a hotel, and you don’t interact with people in the same way. From a personal point of view, and I think this applies especially to Singaporeans who generally grow up in quite comfortable surroundings, that it just gives you much better perspective on life, and on what you really need to survive. You know we often , in Singapore, assume that we need a million and one things to survive. But you know through this one month trip, Sumana and I realised that you can have a fantastic time with just very little money. And it wasn’t just surviving. We were really having a fantastic time. We were meeting tonnes of interesting people, hearing lots of amazing stories, some of which we recorded while others we didn’t. We had probably seen more of Malaysia than 99% of Malaysians, and this was all on that same budget. This trip just gave us more perspective into how that might not be the case, and how people with much lower incomes, living in much humbler surroundings, might actually be able to enjoy life as well as you and I do.
AK: How did you go about planning this trip. I mean it should have been quite difficult owing to the fact that you were on bicycles. Was your itinerary really quite fixed, or was it fairly spontaneous?
SV: We decided to make it fairly spontaneous. We just had a few key markers, and guidelines in our mind. We wanted to visit every state capital, and we had to be in KL before the wedding day of our close friend. That was it. But aside from that, day to day, we would wake up and I wouldn’t know where we would be sleeping that night. It would just depend on how far we managed to cycle. And finding a place to sleep was the other huge difficulty all along the way. In some ways, the physical challenge was not as bad. The physical challenge, I’d say it was strenuous for the first 2-3 days, and then your body gets used to it, cycling about 80 km a day. But the emotional challenge of finding a place to sleep every night is really taxing to the mind. So getting back to your question, every morning we did not know where we were going to end that day. It was very, very spontaneous in that sense.
AK: Was it difficult for you to move from writing and editing these big reports, to actually start writing your first book?
SV: Yeah, I mean that was a huge challenge. So I’ll tell you about the different writing and editorial challenges, because there’ve been different challenges along the way. Initially our writing was way too academic. We had just come from 6 years of university and all we were used to writing were academic papers and articles essentially, and reading academic texts. There tended to be way too much emphasis on unnecessary details about politics and history of Malaysia. We didn’t quite know how to marry the more casual travelogue aspects of the story, with you know, what we thought was important, that we had to write something that was the authoritative book on Singapore and Malaysia <chuckles>. We were trying to put in a lot of history and all kinds of political details , that actually now, I realise that the reader doesn’t actually want to read. That was the initial challenge. I suppose later on, from 2006, when I joined the company, I could feel my writing becoming a lot more accessible. Then the other challenge was like what you mentioned, it’s more about how you move from writing these pieces which you have a firm deadline on. You know exactly what you need to do, and you just get it done. With a book you’ve got a long-term deadline, there’s nobody motivating you, and it’s completely just on your own time. That’s one of the basics about it which I’ve struggled with over the past 6 years. You can’t see the end of the tunnel, there’s no deadline, and nobody’s putting a gun to your head. I think these things will change with my subsequent books if I do get to write some, because now that I have my first book under my belt, I will be able to get publishers more interested right at the start. So with my first book, you know, I spoke to a couple of publishers at the beginning and they all said the same thing: come back to us when your manuscript is done. I think many first time authors might face this challenge: publishers don’t want to read a half-written manuscript.
In terms of the writing style, there’s only a little bit of difference between writing your articles and papers, and writing a book, because I’m trying to position it between academia and casual reading.
AK: Was it also difficult kind of focusing on a particular direction to your book, as you were writing it? Because often, when you have such overwhelming experiences, such an overwhelming NUMBER of experiences, it is difficult to organise it, to put it in a particular narrative, put it in a particular direction..
SV: That is true, and you’ve hit on two major challenges. The first was deciding on what to cut out. When you come back from your bicycle trip, you feel like you have one thousand amazing stories, and everyone of them has to be expounded, and somehow you know, has to work itself into your book. And I think over the years you realise which ones to cut out, and which ones are the more pertinent ones. So deciding what to leave out and what to expand on: I think that’s something you just gain with experience, over time, and getting feedback from different people, readers, on what’s interesting and what’s only interesting to you..
AK: — because YOU experienced it .
SV: Yeah. The other challenge was initially.. our first assumption was just, let’s write this chronologically. I think over 2-3 years it became quite apparent to me that a chronological book wouldn’t really work. And it’s related to the first part, because a chronological book would be of much more interest to the two of us [Sumana and me] because we’ve lived through those things, than it would to any common reader. We had to decide how to structure the book, and for this I actually got a lot of guidance from other books that I’ve read that I thought were interesting. Ultimately I decided to structure it thematically. And so what happens is that you decide on your themes that you are going to cover. For us, it’s the usual suspects.. there’s a section on politics, on the economies, race, religion, and some of the things I mentioned earlier. So I structured it by these themes. And then we slowly decided which cycling stories would fit better in which chapters, and which ones on others. It was quite a long evolution to get there, from initially wanting to write just like a chronological travelogue.
AK: Thank you so much for your time, Mr Vadaketh. It was a pleasure.
SV: Thank you! Feel free to email me if you have further questions.
Read more about Sudhir Vadaketh and his latest book at his blog. Mr Vadaketh’s book ‘Floating on a Malayan Breeze’ is published by the National University of Singapore Press (NUS Press) in Singapore and will be released in September 2012.
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