Reflection on a Grain of Sand

This was originally a reflection I wrote for a class called “The Search for a Habitable Planet” with Professor Bryan Penprase at Yale-NUS College.

From ages three until six I lived in Rarotonga, the largest island of a disparate group in the middle of the Pacific that make up the Cook Islands. This meant that I grew up during those three formative years with the night sky more clear and visible than I’ve ever seen since. Asking questions about space, and the earth’s place in it, probably came naturally with all those stars and satellites spread above me every single night.

Around age 4 my parents bought me a videotape of Sam Neill’s TV program Space. In my favourite episode Sam Neill stands on a beach and picks up a hand-full of sand. Letting the grains run slowly through his fingertips, he explains the vastness of space by saying that for every grain of sand on every beach in the world there are more than a billion stars, each with their own planets and moons. And so on that small Pacific island surrounded by one endless beach I let the grains of fine white sand run through my own fingertips and thought about the enormity of space. Though it may sound strange or ridiculous, I could comprehend it: that grain-of-sand analogy was the perfect way for my young and malleable brain to understand that this tiny island I lived on, surrounded by vast ocean, was itself the same as the tiny world we live on surrounded by vast space. And with that understanding came the sense that there was no doubt that there were other habitable planets out there: with so much sand on earth pure chance means we will eventually discover another planet like ours (said my young brain).

Space was my childhood fascination, and from ages five until ten I was determined that I would be an astronomer. But somewhere along the way I simply stopped thinking about space and the earth. Perhaps it was when I moved to Manila, a light-filled metropolis, and for a year didn’t see the night sky. Space practically exited my mind, and what filled it was concerns with how islands and continents within this earth can best organise themselves. Global affairs became my fascination: empires and wars, ideologies and negotiations. International Relations takes as its premise that the earth and the resources on it are finite, and therefore conflict is to a degree inevitable. Statesmen concern themselves with working within the confines of this earth to secure the interests of a subset of its people. Planets for me during this decade were the different continents that different ideologies occupied.

And now, reflecting on earth and space in the first year of my third decade on earth, I have a sense of incredulity: did man really go to the moon? Is a man-made object truly in interstellar space and still transmitting to earth? Everything that I have consumed my mind with for a decade has been confined to continents and islands and managing the conflicts that flare up in the world. How could humans have possibly exited this atmosphere and looked at the whole of earth at once? With so much still to do and organise on this earth, how is it possible that humans have left its atmosphere to search for other worlds? In this decade, planets seem almost to be fiction.

But when I think back to those grains of sand on all the beaches on earth I’m left with a sense of ridiculousness. How can people consume themselves with something so small? “Every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant”; “every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species”… has been absorbed in one infinitesimally small grain of sand no different to all the trillions of others. Even the Voyager 2 image of our “pale blue dot” privileges our position in the universe, because we can make it out amidst the darkness. I prefer to conceptualise Earth as a planet as just one of those grands of sand on one of the beaches on earth, indistinguishable from the rest.

The great irony is that humans only started leaving Earth’s atmosphere during a period of intense human competition and rivalry: it was preoccupation with portions of this Earth that led humans closer to discovering other worlds. Are other planets therefore only discoverable and reachable through human rivalry? In these moments of reflection, Earth becomes a symbol of the confines and preoccupations of the human mind.

What the Permanent 5 Can Learn From the Painting That Hangs Above Them

Copyright United Nations.
Copyright United Nations.

Note: I conducted research for this article in 2015 for an art history class at Yale-NUS College, and originally published this article version of my research on Fox & Hedgehog.

On the east wall of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) chamber hangs an enormous painting that all will recognise and yet be able to say almost nothing about. It is a grand backdrop, but little more, to the grander discussions occurring at the table before it.

The story behind this painting, its artist, and its present context is a complex one that highlights the tensions between the Security Council’s aspirations and its conflicted past; it is an important reminder to the Council that radical changes are sometimes needed, not just superficial adjustments. As I’ll explain, Per Krohg, the artist, made precisely this mistake when he reused work he had completed during the Nazi occupation of Norway as the centrepiece of his UNSC work, completed in 1950. Both Krohg’s painting and the P5 are remnants of the war, and risk failing precisely because, out of fear or misunderstanding, they refuse to reinvent themselves for the times we now live in.

Per Krohg’s painting is some five by nine metres, and is divided horizontally; the lower-third is executed in dark colours, the upper two-thirds much lighter with UN-white and blue motifs. Colour alone gives much of the work’s message: the lighter colours suggest peace, progress and truth, while the darker colours depict a hellish landscape. “Symbolising”, the UNSC tells us, “the promise of future peace and individual freedom”, the work shows a phoenix rising from a dark landscape into a light-filled world of progress. Though complex, with many panels depicting separate scenes, the painting’s overall message is simple: technology, justice and truth, united by the nuclear family and the UN-led world order, are forces that progress humanity.

Despite its initial simplicity and message, the iconography of this painting becomes deeply troubling the more it is observed. It is clearly a propagandistic image in favour of the UN-led order, but only a thin film separates it from being a troubling and conflicted remnant of war, and a symbol of what the UN has or could become. Created to represent the lofty goals of the world’s most inclusive and progressive organisation, the painting in fact depicts the opposite. It is so deeply rooted in the Second World War, with all of that period’s problems, that Gregory Maertz, an art historian specialising in the Third Reich at St. John’s University, even told me that Krohg’s painting “could easily function as nazi propaganda on behalf of national socialist eugenic (later eliminatory) ideology”. For instance, it is caucasian men and women who pull chained, black figures out of the hellish lower-third of the painting; it is caucasian figures who look through telescopes and microscopes in the upper-right of the image, and the same figures who weigh gold in the upper-left. And, of course, the centrepiece of the image is a caucasian nuclear family surrounded by Biblical iconography. These were the figures and motifs ever-present at Nazi art exhibitions throughout the Third Reich, in Munich, Oslo and Vienna, for instance.

It is the centrepiece of this painting that says the most about the painting as a whole, and, perhaps, the state of the Security Council today. What seems to be unrecognised or even unknown in the scholarship about Krohg’s painting is that the centre panel, depicting the nuclear family, is not original. In fact, the panel is almost identical to a painting that Krohg completed in 1940, at the start of the Nazi occupation of Norway. This other work, titled Peace, the Artist and His Family, is a forlorn painting, the man and woman at the centre of it both with downcast gazes, and even the children surrounding them looking melancholy. It can be read as Krohg’s reaction to the occupation, and the knowledge that he might be separated from his family. In the version Krohg produced for the centrepiece of the UNSC painting, the only changes made are that the figures have much lighter skin and hair, have subtle smiles, and the man and woman now have linked arms.

Per Krohg was an artist who was invited to paint a monumental work for the world’s most important room; he was tasked with encapsulating the notion of peace in a single image. But for Krohg, who had lived through the Nazi occupation, and even been imprisoned for a year by the Nazis, peace seemed only to function in relation to war. The same can be said of the Security Council today, a body whose permanent members remain because of the role they played in the Second World War; the P5 reflects global power in 1945, not global power today.

For Krohg, the United Nations was a promise of avoiding the preceding decade that he had lived through. The problem with reusing his own work from 1940 is not so much self-plagiarism as forever tying the Security Council chamber to a very specific war, and its very specific problems. The Security Council itself functions in the same way. By mooring itself, through permanent membership and the veto power, to a specific war and very distinct problems, the Security Council risks becoming a body that no longer has the power to inspire peace, just as Krohg’s mural today is more problematic than it is inspiring. Reforming the Security Council by expanding permanent membership to reflect present global power would be an immediate way for the Council to un-stick itself from the remnants of war.


In 2013 the United Nations completed extensive restoration of the Security Council chamber which had been ongoing for seven years at a cost of USD$1billion. If there was ever a time to update the physical Council chamber—or even Council permanent membership—to reflect the times in which it now operates, that would seem to have been it. When asked by a magazine about the changes made to the Security Council chamber, Michael Adlerstein, the assistant secretary-general in charge of the project, responded: “We didn’t change very much. The Americans and the Russians and the Chinese are all extremely nervous about Security Council reform and the slippery slope—‘If you change this, where is that going to lead us?’” He went on: “Whether it works for the world is a matter of opinion, but it works for the five permanent members, so there’s a great deal of reluctance to change anything.”

The image of the family, and the other tropes so prevalent in his painting, clearly worked for Per Lasson Krohg. Whether they work for the world is a matter of opinion. But the irony is that the permanent members of the Security Council are watched over by a painting that is meant to remind them of their role in maintaining and advancing peace in the post-war world, and instead should remind them of the dangers of being stuck in the past. The latter is the immediate lesson they should pay attention to, or else the former may become impossible.

If a Goldfish Could Remember

During my final teenage years I held and could not shake the idea that goldfish were a supremely lucky species. Goldfish lived, forgot, kept on living and forgot again, their memories famously said to last just three seconds. We humans are destined to remember forever: an indiscretion lasts a lifetime. We are, in other words, goldfish that can remember.

Not that my indiscretions were great, or that I really have any to recall at all. But it was nonetheless precisely this fear of mistakes, of regrets, that defined my decisions from ages eighteen to twenty. I think it was literature that did it to me. Literature and, perhaps, my knowledge that the lessons from literature were likely to be compounded in a world where collective memories are stored online.

Milan Kundera wrote, of a subtly different but somehow similar idea, that “Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions”.

For Kundera, humans should feel lightness in making decisions because there is no way we can determine good or bad decisions. Yet we must decide, and should therefore feel lightness about any ramifications of a decision we could not avoid. For those he disagrees with, we would feel unbearable weight because in every moment we make decisions that we must suffer the consequences of. I’ve always thought that Kundera sees humans as helpless in the face of grand decisions, and therefore paradoxically able to throw off any chains and burdens; most of us, however, see humans as culpable for decisions, and therefore prone to the feeling of weight.

But it seems to me that Kundera more closely describes goldfish than humans. Goldfish live one life, but are unable to learn within it; each three-second block is lived in a form of the dictum that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” With no memory there is indeed the impossibility of culpability for actions; mistakes and bad decisions will be repeated endlessly, and one can hardly assign any blame or fault to the goldfish. It is true that humans live but one life; but unlike the goldfishes’ life, a human’s can be improved based on past experiences.

A goldfish that can remember is a goldfish that makes a mistake and can resolve not to repeat it. A goldfish that can remember is one that is culpable for its actions. It still lives just one life, yet that life can be changed, improved, bettered through its course.

A goldfish that can remember can legitimately make a mistake once and claim innocence. But beyond that, a feeling of weight is appropriate: the feeling that weighs on our throats, just below our adams-apple, when we must make a decision the consequences of which we have previously seen. It is this weight that encourages learning, changing course, improving.

A goldfish that can remember is one that disavows previously held views when new facts or ideas come to light. Consistency is a virtue only for the goldfish with a three-second memory—consistency in what is practically insanity. Flexibility in light of new learning is the virtue of the goldfish that can remember.

I begin my third decade somewhat sorry for the simple goldfish, and thankful for being a goldfish that can remember. I am less afraid of saying and doing what I think and believe, where previously I lived in fear of saying or doing something I might later disagree with. I feel lightness because I can learn from mistakes; I can act and learn, then decide whether to repeat the action or not. The weight of consequence allows the lightness that comes from an ability to learn and to change course. The goldfish whom I so fervently admired now seems a poor fellow; the lightness of innocence is, in the end, the greatest of burdens.

What’s in a Flag?

If I had been looking for an example to describe a lilliputian dilemma, the phrase I decided to have title this blog, I would’ve done well to have chosen the “great debates” nations go through to change their ultimate symbols, their flags. It’s the sort of example where there isn’t truly a bad outcome, yet one where passions run high, and debate occasionally runs through to apocalyptic scenarios if change happens this way or that. I’m guilty of these passions myself, and am guilty of raising the topic far too many times with my friends in Singapore, for whom changing the New Zealand flag was not exactly vital world news.

What’s in a flag? Why the radically opposing views, to the extent that votes were sharply split between non-voters, pro-change and protest votes? And how does a nation decide on a flag when everyone seems to conceptualise of a flag in a different way?

For a flag is not viewed uniformly. I think first of our flag at the United Nations. I think of it flying outside our embassies and on our ambassadors’ cars in fifty capitals, and I think of it flying on the Beehive and sewn onto our soldier’s sleeves. Our Prime Minister first thinks of the flag being waved by thousands as the All Blacks play the Wallabies, and my friends think of it in their bedrooms at universities around the world. Others think of it as a sticker on their laptop, a patch on their backpack, or a profile photo on Facebook.

I do think of our flag in these other contexts, but after thinking of it in the international context, as a symbol of our country to the world. My international upbringing, and the fact that I currently live overseas, leads the international portrayal to be the one to come first to my mind. This situation will likely be reversed for other New Zealanders; indeed, many may find it incomprehensible that I first view what is fundamentally a domestic symbol in an international context.

Effective symbols must unite the different backgrounds that everyone, even those under one banner, inevitably have; they must take the variety of contexts that individuals’ backgrounds lead them to conceptualise of the symbol in, and look good in all situations. This is not an easy task. And I think it’s also the reason why so many of us in this country, amongst our friends and in our own families, have struggled over the past months to understand others’ points of view. For my part, I will admit that I cannot understand the perspective of wanting to keep our current flag with the Union Jack on it. I can conceive that others’ life experiences, and others’ mental visualisations of the flag, may lead to that conclusion; but because I don’t have those experiences or visualisation, I cannot actually understand that perspective. Some people very close to me cannot understand my support for the so-called Red Peak, and likewise I cannot understand why a logo-like flag could be preferred over it.

These debates and misunderstandings—in fact, not misunderstandings, but inabilities to understand—happening across New Zealand aren’t a result of the way that this flag referendum has been run. The process has been fine, in my opinion. No, these inabilities to understand are simply the result of the difficulties in choosing a single symbol that must conform best, on average, to the multitude of mental conceptualisations of the flag that four million New Zealanders have. Should we be surprised that many weren’t happy with the four shortlisted designs? I suggest not. Should we be surprised that the vote was split many different ways, including indifference and protest? Again, probably not. And should we be surprised if, at our first attempt, we don’t change our flag? No. Symbols are complex, they function through one’s own lived and thought experiences, and to find one that a majority of us prefer over the status quo is a task that should be expected to take time.

We will have referenda on the flag in future, and it might not be surprising if it does not succeed even at the second try. But merely having the debate, having the issue in the public mind for stretches of time, increases the likelihood of convergence in those conceptualisations of symbols. The longer people discuss, debate, and think about the issues, the more—gradually, yes—there will be subtle changes in opinion, just as polls have shown change in flag preferences since the debate started earlier this year. Over years, perhaps I will come to conceive of the flag more at sporting events than the United Nations, and perhaps others will come to see the vitality I see in the Red Peak. Gradually there will become more overlap in thinking and conceiving of a flag to represent this country, and as time goes on so therefore will the likelihood that we will get both a new flag and a flag that will best serve us.

“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object”—this describes my idea of the point at which people must be when there is convergence on a single symbol. Only when those metaphorical hearts speak in a similar way, and in ways that people cannot fully find words to describe, will there have been enough convergence in views of the symbol that there will be sufficient support to change the flag. I fully agree with Rowan Simpson on his reasons for supporting the Red Peak, for instance; but I feel that by having to explain in detail all the aspects of the flag that make it desirable, the inexplicable strong feelings that some have towards it are somehow lost. Only when we cannot explain the strength of identity we feel towards one of the symbols is it likely enough to get the groundswell needed for change.

For the record, I will be spoiling my vote in the second round of this referendum. I desperately want a new flag for this country. But the blue and black Silver Fern with Southern Cross is not, for me, the one, precisely because it is so easily rationalised, and because it gives me no feeling of pride and excitement that I cannot explain. Nor could I bring myself to vote against the blue and black for our current flag, which I truly feel does not represent this country I know. Change takes time, especially when it comes to finding a single symbol to represent millions. If what’s in a flag are the experiences and aspirations of millions, we shouldn’t be surprised that the first four designs we are presented with don’t quite cut it. As much as I want a new flag, I’d rather wait for the right one.

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Perspectives on Small States from Lithuania and Bulgaria

Two friends of mine at Yale-NUS, from Lithuania and Bulgaria, recently debated small states on Fox & Hedgehog:

Bulgaria and the Plight of the Small State: “As long as the country avoids consciously choosing between past loyalties and current prospects, national control will continue to be a chimera. One thing is certain—it is extremely difficult for the small states to be anything but a mere echo of their vociferous “partners.” Satellite states, puppet governments, and proxy wars may be in the past, but subtle directives, resolutions, oligarchic circles, and economic pressures are no less controlling.”

Lithuania and The True Strength of Small States: “Within their specific geopolitical frameworks, small states often become coveted assets. By maintaining their friendly ties with Russia and seeking its help, Cyprus, Greece, and Hungary can send the EU a powerful and clear signal of displeasure with certain policies. They can derive large benefits from outside powers such as Russia without having to make significant concessions.

The fight for smaller countries’ support can be seen in some situations as a game of tug-of-war. However, tug-of-war is won by getting the rope onto one’s side—not by letting it slip. With some wise maneuvering and strategizing, small states can create their own autonomy.”