What Is Our Time Here For? Redux

Note: This article was originally published in The Octant, the Yale-NUS College student newspaper.

As part of the Yale-NUS inaugural classes’ orientation week in June 2013 we sat through a lecture by Professor of Humanities (Literature in English) Rajeev Patke titled “The Liberal Arts: Making the Most of Your Yale-NUS College Education.” I don’t remember much from the lecture in what was a week far-too-filled with them. But what strikes me now, at the beginning of my final year at college, is how there was probably no more a prescient lecture that could have been delivered to an incoming class of students. Education isn’t something that merely happens to us; we must reach out and grab it. Guidance on how to do so is what I for one most needed at the start of my time here.

At that point I felt I had a good grasp on what the liberal arts were. They were one half of my decision to come to Yale-NUS, the other being its location in Singapore. My desire to study the liberal arts had arisen from feeling restricted when I looked at university study in New Zealand or elsewhere in Asia—I didn’t want to specialize yet. I didn’t want to spend my four years studying solely law or International Relations, and coming out with very little idea of anything besides. I still wanted to take more literature classes, some history, philosophy and economics, and, who knows, maybe even some cosmology.

What I also knew was that companies want graduates who have studied the liberal arts. The admissions office here at Yale-NUS, and every other small liberal arts college I looked at, stressed that the liberal arts would give me skills and knowledge that were in short supply. Liberal arts graduates were perfectly suited to be leaders, because they would have—and these are Yale-NUS’s words—“the appreciation and understanding of breadth and complexity of issues, capacity for critical thinking and problem solving, and effective communication and leadership skills.” Yale-NUS called those three components the “critical outcomes of a traditional liberal arts education.” Surprise! They are precisely the three things we’re told companies today need in their leaders. All this gave me a strong (if vague) sense that as a liberal arts graduate I’d leap ahead of all those who had done specialist degrees.

Yale-NUS made an effort to describe the other ways that a liberal arts education would benefit us, capturing this idea in the phrase “Four years to transform your life”. But after my first week at the College, I quickly began to forget about this amidst classes, extracurriculars, and the pressure from CIPE to start planning out my next summer. I wanted my life transformed, but it became difficult to transform anything apart from my next essay as life became a string of deadlines and events.

What also began to happen was that the pinnacle of each academic year became a prestigious internship or an exciting international “opportunity”. Dining hall conversation began to turn to this topic from the end of first semester, and reached fever-pitch a few weeks into second semester. CIPE’s events talked about the importance of internships in setting us up for careers. Thanks to the subtle pressures within each semester at Yale-NUS, I started to think that the purpose of my education was to fast-track my career. I began to confuse “transforming my life” with getting a prestigious job. The lines began to blur, and I found myself taking classes I didn’t particularly care for but which would look good on my resume; I found myself choosing a major based on what was most relevant to the job I expected to get after graduating.

I now find myself with one year left to “transform my life”. In my junior year I realized that it is for a very good reason that the liberal arts and residential colleges go together. A college is a microcosm of life, where you are exposed to people and to life, where everything and everyone is closer. The beauty of a liberal arts college is that you are given an environment in which to make sense of all those conversations, emotions, and relationships, where books shed light on your life in dining halls, suites, and behind closed doors.  At what other point in our lives will we have the space, the time and resources to figure out what we like and dislike, what we want and do not want?

As I wrote in an article last semester, “The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college. They are about having freedom—four years of freedom—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations.” And the thing I’d repeat to myself, if I was to do-over my first two years at Yale-NUS, is that nothing is more important than building those foundations. A career can rest on them, but the foundations of who you are as a person cannot rest on a career.

The essays and assignments, events and pressures won’t disappear during these four years. But what can change is our understanding of what all this time is for, and how we choose to respond to unavoidable pressures. That is something we all can grasp, and is the starting point for taking control of the books we read, the conversations we have, the time we spend, and, most importantly, the ways we learn to live our lives.

A Vision or a Plan?

The National Party of New Zealand presents on its website a “plan” for the country’s future. “We have a clear plan to make New Zealand a stronger, more prosperous country and it’s a plan that’s working”, they say.

National Party has a plan

The Labour Party, by contrast, presents on their homepage a “vision” for the country: “New Zealanders don’t ask a lot, but there are some things that make us who we are and define our place in the world. We call it the Kiwi dream.”

Labour Party has a VisionThese approaches, at least in the political realm, are often mutually exclusive. The Nats makes no mention of a vision for where their plan will take them, and Labour does not describe a plan for achieving their vision.

In politics that might simply be a function of where each party expects to gain support. For the governing party, a plan is really all that matters; they’ve been elected on a vision, and now all people are about is whether they have a plan to govern effectively. Results are now what count. By contrast, the opposition requires a sweeping vision for an alternative future for those who believe the incumbent’s plan is not working. They need not worry about a plan until elected, when the narratives might be expected to switch between the parties.

In the non-zero-sum worlds that are our lives, a vision is only worth describing if backed by a plan; and a plan is only relevant if one has a vision for where that plan might take them. Visions and plans are not mutually exclusive, but too often—whether in a hangover of the political world, where we encounter them most often, or in some failure of nature—people seem still to swing one way or the other. Too often it is vision without a plan or a plan without a vision.

This can explain the failure of many startups. Some have brilliant execution, but no one cares because they don’t inspire. Others have a grand vision to mobilise people, but then can’t back that up with a plan to achieve anything.

And it can explain the failure of many people to achieve aims and goals they’ve set for themselves, even those that deal with lives as a whole. We often oscillate between the extremes of visions and plans without finding the middle ground where they meet, which is the only place that truly matters.

Political narratives can box our minds in, encouraging us subconsciously to mimic in our lives the approaches taken on the campaign trail. But when it comes to visions and plans, the difference between the zero-sum world of politics and the positive nature of our lives means we need to be aware of those narratives and take pains to grasp at both sides of the picture.

There’s only point having a vision if backed by a plan, and a plan is only worthwhile if it serves some vision. Perhaps, ultimately, what politics really needs is a party willing to risk putting the two together—at the same time.

“What’s It To Me?”: Connecting The Dots Between Brexit And Jobs

Note: This post originally appeared on the Asian Trade Centre’s Talking Trade blog

Brexit has been described as an “act of self-harm” by commentators from the President of the European Commission to the Financial Times. The adverbs sometimes differ—grievous, in some instances, unnecessary or gratuitous in others—but economists and trade experts are nearly unanimous that British citizens will be worse off following a withdrawal from the European Union.

But ask those who voted for it, and Brexit seems nothing close to that. Indeed, the very people who would seem most at risk from Brexit are those who, even following the referendum result, are most insistent that their lives will be much improved. Why is it that those probably most insulated from Brexit’s risks are most concerned about it, while those on the “front lines” maintain a wholly positive view?

Sunderland, in north-east England, is one of those cities where residents might not have buffers that could protect workers from the effects of Brexit. With the second lowest GDP per capita of any city in the UK, and having only recently recovered from the 1988 shutdown of the last shipyard, Sunderland is in many ways a testament to economic decline and change.

The 61% pro-Brexit vote in Sunderland is what happens when cities fail to recognise the ways in which the global economy has changed, and when they fail to connect the dots between the global economy and individual livelihoods at home. Though proud residents might like to spin a narrative of independence, the reality is that workers here are literally standing on the front lines of an interconnected global economy.

Ask those in Sunderland, however, and you would think Brexit was far less important than Britain losing to Iceland in the Euro Cup. The New York Times carried an article featuring a variety of perspectives from Sunderland, summarised best, perhaps, by Ken Walker, a retired construction worker.

“I don’t have any money in the stock market,” Mr. Walker, 59, said as he drank a pint of beer in a pub. “So what’s it to me?”

It came as a blessing when in 1986—two years before Sunderland’s last shipyard was closed—a Japanese car maker came to the city to set up a production plant. Nissan, a giant of the car making world, has operated a successful plant ever since, employing just shy of 7000 in Sunderland alone, and up to a thousand more in two other offices in the UK. The Nissan plant in Sunderland also supports 27,000 jobs across the UK in its supply chain.

The plant regularly produces in excess of 500,000 vehicles per year. And given that many other vehicle manufacturers operate in Britain, it should be obvious that those 500,000 cars are not purchased by Britons alone. Depending on the year, between 80 and 85 percent of cars produced by Nissan in Sunderland are sent abroad.

Those vehicles are not all being exported to booming countries in Asia. Instead, almost 60% of these exports are sent to the European Union.  It is precisely because the UK receives preferential access to the EU markets that Nissan originally set up production in Sunderland.

It is figures like this that translate trade—a broad, often loaded term that invites misinformation and scaremongering—into effects on people’s lives. For when the UK does leave the EU, Nissan will face tariffs on all those exports to Europe, and will lose access to any EU-negotiated trade deals with the rest of the world.

One possible scenario is that in the event of Brexit, the UK will (at least in the short term) have to fall back on WTO trading rules and Most Favoured Nation (MFN) tariff rates into EU markets. For cars, these rates currently stand at 10%, and for trucks at 22%. Taxes and VAT rates in other countries can also be restrictive, dampening demand further even if Nissan is to gain from a reduced Pound.

Brexit is therefore not an abstract effect on businesses. For Nissan, it means under one likely optimistic scenario, an additional 10% cost to production of cars. In an industry already on the knife’s edge between profitability and loss, many firms operating in the UK will move in order to stay competitive.

And all that is if Nissan decides to put up with the uncertainty—on its own incredibly damaging to business—that will ensue perhaps for many years until the UK does formally leave. Why shouldn’t the company be proactive to protect its interests and begin shifting production to the continent—or to Asia?

Therein lies the irony. The surest way to “send jobs to China,” as the phrase goes, is not to open one’s borders, but to close them.

Nissan has already warned about the possible ramifications for its business post-Brexit. Carlos Ghosn, Nissan Chief Executive and Chairman, was quoted as saying “Our preference as a business is, of course, that the UK stays within Europe – it makes the most sense for jobs, trade and costs. For us, a position of stability is more positive than a collection of unknowns.”  The company has declined to comment since the election, but rumors are swirling on the production lines.

This follows similar warnings from other car manufacturers in the UK, including Toyota and Ford, which in 2012 closed two UK plants causing the loss of thousands of jobs. The industry was already reeling, facing slowing exports to China and Russia. In fact, it was a surge in demand from EU countries that allowed Nissan to weather recent economic storms. Whether it will continue to be able to manage slowing demand in Asia without free access to the EU is very much an open question.

For other pro-Brexiters in Sunderland, “The E.U. is a mystery…” “We’ve never heard about it up here”, the Times again quotes a resident as saying. Even those who seem aware of potential job losses were confident: “No, I can’t see them cutting off ties”, one resident was quoted as saying of Nissan. For yet another, “Give Brexit a chance. It can’t get worse than what’s been going on already.”

But it can. And of all places, Sunderland should know that it can. Its economic fortunes were in many ways saved in 1986 by a Japanese company that only exists in Sunderland to produce products to deliver offshore. By failing, once again, to connect the dots between the global economy and individual lives, Sunderland risks repeating the past. One hopes for those who commented to the Times that Mr. Cameron’s successor will not need to make a fated journey to the Nissan plant to announce its closure, as Mrs. Thatcher did at Sunderland shipyards three decades ago.

***This Talking Trade blog post was written by Michael Moore-Jones and Dr. Deborah Elms, Asian Trade Centre, Singapore***