Rovik Robert on Crafting Narratives, Cancel Culture & Systems of Belonging - E78

· Podcast Episodes,Clubhouse,Singapore

"... Systems are mechanical, or linguistic or legal at best, right? But they don't move, people move. And people move only when they are mobilized emotionally. But in order for that to happen, you need to have awareness, and you need to have conversations." - Rovik Robert

Rovik Robert is a public servant, content creator and community advocate. He has founded a social enterprise, The Hidden Good, as well as The Singapore Club on Clubhouse. He also hosts the SGExplained podcast which explores institutions, histories and events in Singapore such as secret societies, hawker culture and SARS in Singapore.

He currently leads the content team at better.sg, a tech for good collective, and is currently building a facilitation platform that codifies conversation principles and encourages diversity.

Rovik obtained his BS Computer Science from Northwestern University and his MSc in Management of Information Systems and Digital Innovation from the London School of Economics and Political Science. In his free time, Rovik blogs at magicinthespacebetween.wordpress.com

You can find the community discussion for this episode at https://www.club.jeremyau.com/c/podcasts/rovik-robert

This episode was produced by Adriel Yong.

Jeremy Au: [00:00:00] Welcome to BRAVE. Be inspired by the best leaders of Southeast Asia tech. Build the future, learn from our past and stay human in between. I'm Jeremy Au, a VC, founder, and father. Join us for transcripts, analysis and community at www.jeremyau.com. 

Hey Rovik.

Rovik Robert: [00:00:31] Hello. Hi, Jeremy.

Jeremy Au: [00:00:33] Well, I'm excited to have you on the show, especially because we are both podcasters and we're both interested in podcasting as a subject. So I'm sure there's going to be a lot of fun conversation.

Rovik Robert: [00:00:45] I'm looking forward to it. Glad you brought me on. And when you asked me between Zoom and Clubhouse, of course I had to say Clubhouse, just to take advantage of the fact that we basically live on this app. We live on this platform.

Jeremy Au: [00:00:57] I swear I have a life outside Clubhouse.

Rovik Robert: [00:01:01] I'll pretend I believe you.

Jeremy Au: [00:01:03] You'll pretend? Okay, I'll pretend that you believe... I pretend that you do believe in me pretending. I did take a staycation for a week and it was explicitly no Clubhouse it was an interesting dynamic. We're going to go into Clubhouse and all things juicy about what I've discovered about podcasting in Clubhouse along the way. But for those who don't know yet, tell us a little bit about yourself Rovik.

Rovik Robert: [00:01:29] So I guess, as an identity, I like to think of myself as a seeker, tinkerer, and dreamer. What that means is that I like to play around innovate, try different things I am passionate about a couple of key areas. I'm passionate about media and content creation. I think the ability to tell stories is a powerful way to connect people and to build communities. Which brings me into my second key focus, which is communities. I think communities are a strong unit of society, they really mobilize people. And I am passionate about creating spaces where communities can thrive and really build for one another. And the last thing, I'm passionate about is technology. I think technology as a tool can lower so many barriers and can really make things accessible for more people.

Jeremy Au: [00:02:15] And so can you tell us a little bit more about your recent podcasting journey?

Rovik Robert: [00:02:21] So I guess the question of what I do, I do a couple of things. So I have a day job with the Singapore Economic Development Board, that's focused on bringing investments into Singapore and creating good jobs for Singaporeans. Which I truly believe in. I think it shapes our future, it shapes the livelihood of a lot of people and it gives people the baseline necessities in order to be able to live life well, right? But beyond that, I think I'm also interested in what it means to live in Singapore, what it means to be a Singaporean, that identity. And again, going back to the substance of community about media, about storytelling, I decided that rather than just be a passive consumer, of all these things that are happening online, actually how can I be a creator?

And so I've been listening to podcast like Stuff You Should Know, How I Built This, which are very Western American podcasts, and I love what they do. And I was thinking, actually, what would that look like in a Singaporean context or an Asian context? So when I came back, I realized that there's all these acronyms and all these, black box concepts in Singapore, right? So how does Housing Development Board (HDB) work or the Central Provident Fund (CPF) work? What is racism? What is the gig economy? When I was very curious, as someone who was passionate about these topics, I was already doing a lot of research and trying to understand that. And as I was doing that, I realized, "Hey, actually applying this principle of not being a passive consumer, what would it look like for me to create content for other people as well?"

So I decided to work with my good friend Willie back then. So Willie is a business partner for an existing social enterprise, The Hidden Good. And I just told him, I want to do a podcast. He being the good friend that he is said, "Sure, I'll co-host with you." And so every episode, we basically take a Singaporean topic, we do the research, we unpack it, and we put a narrative lens to it.  Our first episode was public housing, right? So we told the story of how public housing came to be what are some of the principles? And then we also use that as an opportunity to maybe challenge that assumption.

So we say this was basically a principle that someone back then had, or this was some person's vision. But actually, if you could create a new vision, if you could challenge that principle, what then would public housing look like? Or what then would Singapore without racism look like? What would a fair economy that treats freelancers well look like? And so that's the kind of angle that SG Explained, the podcast, takes. The SG Explained really, is what I call an explainer podcast. Every episode, we take an aspect of Singapore identity, and we unpack it.

Jeremy Au: [00:04:52] So when you think about explaining stuff, why do you want to explain stuff? A lot of people want to describe stuff, a lot want someone to talk about themselves, but it's interesting because you're trying to like... You had to do the research, you have to get deep, you have that come up for point of view. So why do you want to dig into stuff?

Rovik Robert: [00:05:11] So this is a very Singaporean angle, but I'm sure it can be applied to different contexts as well. I think in Singapore, we take a lot of things for granted, right? So we take the public housing infrastructure as a given, we take the way our society functions in terms of race and religion as a given. And a lot of that is intentional, right? And you'll realize that when you listen to the podcast. Some of these infrastructures that are in place, they are meant to be hard infrastructure. And the reason for that is when you create hard infrastructure people operate within that infrastructure, rather than try to change that infrastructure, right?

So if I was to basically say, this is public housing there is no other options beyond the private housing sector. People just have to play within that, right? They have to BTO, they have to think about how to get their loans, etc. But the moment you start to challenge the principle, actually, what are alternative types of housing? What are the principles underlying the fact that public housing is a basic route that a lot of people take. Then you start to create space for people to ask, or to ideate alternative propositions, right? And I think when you think about the future of Singapore, that is what I'm excited about.

Can we be critical thinkers? Can we ask ourselves, what would a future Singapore look like? In a way that really embodies the principles of now.  in order to do that we have to be critical about the stuff directed. So rather than describing stuff, the reason why we call it an explainer podcast is, when we take the narrative element when we put the story behind the facts and when we connect the dots, we're hoping to really illuminate a lot of these things and challenge a lot of the preconceived notions behind things.

Jeremy Au: [00:06:50] just kind of curious, who's the kind of people that like that stuff, right? Is it people who want to be critical? Is it people who are kind of curious? Is it people who like history? Who is the type of people that enjoy that explanation, the legwork that you're doing?

Rovik Robert: [00:07:08] So when we look at our audience demographics, it's quite interesting. So our core audience is between 25 and 35. And actually, quite interestingly, 60% of our audiences is from Singapore, which means that 40% of our audience is not from Singapore. So there's a good amount of people out there in the world, who are curious about how Singapore works, either as a point of reference, probably, right? Maybe because they want to understand how their countries or how their systems compare to Singapore. Or maybe they are part of the Singapore diaspora, right? So now they are somewhere else and just wanting to keep in touch with what's going on here. In terms of the characteristics and personalities, based on the community that we've managed to interact with?

Yeah, I think it's really within that category of people who are critical, curious, fundamentally trying to understand our identity as well. And so we also try to keep it broad. So we've done episodes on eSports, we've done episodes like tattoos. We've done episodes on Prata. And the reason for that is because we wanted to be as accessible for everyone. It's not meant to be a highbrow intellectual podcast. In fact, with Elliot, my new co-host, or rather my co-host, since like two years. Elliot and I, we have a very good dynamic where when he gets too deep into stuff, I'm really the ignorant one. And I'll be like, "I really don't understand what eSports is." On the other hand when we talk about certain topics, and I'm maybe a bit more exposed to economic principles than... He actually plays the role of the audience who may not understand it. And so that gives us a good dynamic as well.

Jeremy Au: [00:08:46] So what was interesting was that, when you mentioned Elliot, he actually turns out to be someone, a YouTuber I had watched for a while under the Tree Potatoes, Wah Banana brand, where he acted as a relatively unsophisticated person, I would say. And it's surprising, and it was surprising to hear him being so sophisticated as a podcast. So that was an interesting gap between my public eye persona of him versus the reality of who he is.

Rovik Robert: [00:09:16] That's basically the range that he gets to play. Which it just speaks to his caliber as a performer, as a content creator. So I knew earlier also from the YouTube base, The Hidden Good was a YouTube channel I started back in 2013. It was a social, so we did social experiment back then. And it was also meant to be slightly subversive, right? So we were watching Stomp. Stomp is this online news media portal, where basically they were... Citizens could post all kinds of stuff. They were posting quite negative stuff. So basically you're naming and shaming other Singaporeans. I felt that that wasn't a very fair representation of who we are as a society, who we were as a culture.

And so The Hidden Good was really meant to be a counterpoint or rather a counter movement. We wanted to show the good in Singapore. And so when we started doing YouTube, just like how we did podcast in the early days, we were early movers in YouTube. And so when we reached out to Wa Banana, Aaron, Elliot and Janet, they were very receptive. They said, "Yeah, let's talk. Let's hang out." And that's the beginning of our friendship. So since then we've been on the same journey. Elliot now has his own company. He's doing digital marketing and digital content creation. And so we've been keeping in touch. And when he heard about the podcast that we were doing, he's also super passionate about these topics. And so he decided to join us.

Jeremy Au: [00:10:40] Wow, thanks for sharing that. That's how it happened. So it wasn't like a serendipitous thing, but actually a relationship, actually.

Rovik Robert: [00:10:47] Yeah, I would hope that that people can also hear that in the conversations that we have, right? Where it's like, Elliot and I are really good friends. And one of the key reasons why we do it, because as you would know, Jeremy, the podcast scene is not very monetizable right now in Singapore. There are some bright spots, but for the most part, it's still growing. And Elliot and I really do this as a passion hobby, as something that we really believe in. So our friendship is what sustains us more than anything else.

Jeremy Au: [00:11:16] It's interesting. Well, there's a couple of threads to going through it, right? So one obviously is the Elliot route. I guess maybe I'll just finish the Elliot route, then obviously, we'll talk a little bit about Hidden Good and Stomp and I guess cancel culture, right? So does Elliot get recognized on the street? I'm just kind of curious though in the back of my brain.

Rovik Robert: [00:11:36] Yes. So he does get recognized, back in the day. In fact, it would be quite annoying because we'd be going out to restaurants, or even back then we'd going to clubs, right? Pre-COVID, people would always stop and take photos with him. And it's always the young kids. But now less so, I think because he's a bit more off screen. It's once in a while. And it will always be one of the older folks who remember him. So probably you Jeremy, probably you would be his target audience, not target audience, but the kind of people that would come and take photos with him.

Jeremy Au: [00:12:08] Now you made me feel like an old fart, right? So when you talk about time, as Hidden Good, let's talk about those early days, right? So I know Jiezhen. And she was also part of the journey for Hidden Good as well. I think it was interesting because he shared, it was like a counterpart to Stomp, right? And one thing that was interesting, and I was reflecting on this recently, was in Singapore there used to be this thing which was remember, I don't even remember, it was like, "Oh, we're going to stomp you. If you do this, you get stomped when I was in national service.

Then if I was like... I wouldn't sit on the chair because I was worried I'll get stomped. Because I do remember there was this time when some poor guy was sitting in a chair. And the person was like, "Stomp the guy." And I was like, "Hey, this guy didn't give a seat." But actually, the whole train was pretty much empty.  So anyway, it was a very much a lot of shame online mob behavior, right? With the Stomp thing. Which is not necessarily, I'm not saying it's a good or bad thing, but it just existed, right? As a verb.

Rovik Robert: [00:13:12] It was the early days of online cancel culture. Yeah, you're right. And it was very frustrating, because I started The Hidden Good when I was in the army, right? And this was when I was one of those people who was asking myself why is it such a big deal that someone in an empty train, right? In a completely empty train, that people have such anger when someone sits in a reserved seat, right? Or when someone sits anywhere, right? Basically, there's this set of boundaries that we're starting to draw. And I was very curious about it. And rather than trying to focus too much on the negative, I was thinking actually, maybe we need to subvert that narrative, right?

So now in retrospect, after going through some training around ontology and systems thinking, I can explain it better. But back then, I think what we were really trying to do was to say, what if we were to tell a different story, right? And whatif we were to allow people to live that story in such a way that they can realize that there's good in that? So here's a comparison, right? The reason why The Hidden Good started. The reason why we started doing this was because, I was in a train with Leon, my co-founder and we had just finished drinks, we were on our way back home. And we were in a packed MRT train. Right? There was literally, we were shoulder to shoulder.

And what we saw was that the reserved seat was empty, right? It was completely empty. No one was willing to sit on the reserved seat. And we recognized that there was such a culture of fear that people did not want to be called out. People do not want to be in that identity where they can potentially be called selfish or irresponsible or whatever. And so we realized that that topic, in itself said something about Singapore. And we wanted to subvert that narrative. So we did a lot of experiments in between, but a year after we started, we felt ready to do the experiment that actually we had originally planned for. Which was, we went into the MRT, we took a chair, and we printed out a sign that says NSFs only, right?

Because that was a big conversation, right? That actually, the people who least deserve to sit on the seats are our armed forces or our service personnel. Because they're meant to, quote unquote, serve our country, therefore, they should endure pain. Which is a completely illogical idea. And so we said, "Okay, if that's what society believes. Let's subvert that narrative, and let's create a chair just for them." Right? Because if you say, the core infrastructure, public infrastructure is not for them, we will create infrastructure for them instead. And so we put that sit there. It was a fascinating experiment. Because even when we put that seat, NSF still did not want to sit, right?

And so it went to show it wasn't just about physical infrastructure. It wasn't just about physical seating. It was a social infrastructure, it was a normative infrastructure that was preventing people from actually participating, right? And when that happened, actually, what was interesting was that even before we released our video, some people had stomped it. So it was super ironic. Some people had stomped it and basically it went viral by itself. For good reason, people were basically saying, "Oh, it's good that someone is trying to do this." But then when we put out our video, I think we wrote on that wave a lot more. So that's a version of narrative, that ability for people to really potentially play a new role in this story is really at the core of what The Hidden Good was doing.

Jeremy Au: [00:16:41] It's interesting, right? So do you think you succeeded?

Rovik Robert: [00:16:45] Yeah, I think I did.

Jeremy Au: [00:16:46] Tell us more. How do you think you succeeded?

Rovik Robert: [00:16:49] So the conversation online changed. So back then when we had started, the conversation was, if I was to give a simple assessment, it would be 80, 20, 80 negative, 20 positive, right? So if something happened 80% will be just online vitriol. And 20% would be like, "Actually, can we see the good in this? Or can we see the opportunity in this? Or can we have hope beyond this?" Right? Now, I feel like the conversation is more balanced. I feel like more people are speaking truth, more people are sharing perspectives. And then in terms of the infrastructure and ecosystem, you have more people who are out there trying to spread positivity, and more people trying to hold space for others, right?

And so as from an ecosystem perspective, I think The Hidden Good played a huge role. And to this day, when I tell people I'm from The Hidden Good, there have been people who have come to me, and I'm very privileged to hear this. And I'm very thankful for it. There are people that have come to me and said, actually, a lot of the stuff that we did, whether it's in our uni projects, whether it's some of the stuff I'm doing in my organization, or whether it's even their own social enterprise, was inspired from The Hidden Good amongst many others, but The Hidden Good was called out. And so I think that means success. Because if you remember, we started this as a project, we started this as an initiative.

And so for that amount of just, an effort to cascade down so widely, I think, to me, I'm very proud of that. And I'm very proud of the people that we work with, the communities that we brought together, they were a huge part of this. Because Leon and I, what we realized very quickly was that we just want to build a platform, right? And actually, the young people that come on the platform, they're the ones that are championing a lot of these messages.

Jeremy Au: [00:18:30] No, I totally get it. I think you guys have done an excellent job between Jiezhen and yourself. And I know, you all have innovated in building, I think a bottom-up initiative, right? To do something different about this. I feel so much like it's a drop in the ocean, right? Compared to the Facebook algorithm, right? The Instagram algorithm, to the echo chambers. Because ? And stomping hasn't left us. Of course, it still exists in some form. But now it's, I guess Reddit to some extent and cancel culture, right? Those are all... And doxing, and things like that. So maybe it just feels like it didn't go away, it just changed into a different name, right? In different forms of it. At least people who stomped it, never really doxed that much. Because they didn't know how to dox at that time.

Rovik Robert: [00:19:14] I think that's a fair evaluation of things. I also think in a similar hidden good style, we need to recognize that alongside some of these evolutions there's also been evolutions in a positive space, right? So a very good example is in Clubhouse, you can see that as much as there are spaces where maybe someone says a racist comment, or maybe when someone starts pushing out, quote unquote fake news around COVID vaccines. There are also amazing spaces where people are holding space for people to talk about mental health. There are also amazing spaces that people are talking about the Tudung issue, right?

And that goes to show that there's a counterweight, right? And so, while we can recognize that doxing and cancel culture is pervasive, we can also recognize that actually there are spaces being created. That were never there before. Literally, with the rise of the Internet, with the rise of Social Media, there's also been immense potential for good to be done, right? And so the question is how do we minimize the harm, while maximizing the good, right? Or maybe more holistically, how do we create systems that are able to do allow people to have differing opinions, but for the system itself to call out and basically say, "Okay, this is not going in the right way? How do we bring people back into default? Because what we don't want is polarization."

what we don't want is for all the people who maybe are pushing out fake news, or maybe being racist, to feel like, "Okay, actually, now that people are having this new value system, I don't belong anymore." And then they start to form a faction, right? Actually, what we want to do is healing and reintegration. How do we educate them, bring them back into full and make them contributing members of society again. So I think there's a lot of opportunity happening. And it's very easy to fall into that trap of basically saying, "Oh, the world's doomed." And to just give up. But I think we have to recognize our opportunities and see how we can  we can hold systems better.

Jeremy Au: [00:21:12] So there's two conversations we're having, right? One is the conversation of what we discuss, and the second conversation is how we discuss it, right? That makes sense, right? So I think, you and I both agree, I think there's a wide spectrum of opinions that anybody can have on a given day, right? Is this char kway teow good, is this char kway teow bad, right? And then when you scale it up a little bit more, we get people who super love, super hate it, right? And then so there's one dimension of what we're discussing.

And then I think the second axis is how we discuss it, right? And I think that's a really interesting dynamic, because you and I are both content creators. And we also get to see how other people are discussing, aligning, rallying people around content issues. So I'm just kind of curious. From your perspective obviously, we're all good with the gentlemanly stuff, or whatever you want to call it, right? We were wearing boxing gloves, and be like, "Good morning, Rovik. Today shall we have a duel, over X topic?" and everyone's going to be like, "Oh, that's totally fine, right?" But I feel like there's a quadrant, right? Where it's more like, "Oh." It's not going to be about a topic, but it's how we fight, right?

And to some extent that is also a cultural relative, right? What's how we fight or how we debate is, in Singapore, I think there's a normal in a very British parliamentary over tea, it's a logic, rational perspective, right? For example. And then, of course, we see in the American components, dramatics and so forth, I'm generalizing massively here. And of course, there's what we consider the internet crowd, right? Up votes and deeds, right? So I'm just kind of curious, how you think about that?

Rovik Robert: [00:22:51] So I think we're talking here about holding spaces and how we have conversation. So at any point in time, there are multiple conversations happening. So for example, right now between you and I Jeremy, I can name three conversations, right? The first is the conversation we're having between one another, that's the most salient. The second is a bit less obvious, but still obvious. It's the conversation we're having as a performance, right? And sometimes everything is performative towards the audience, right? And that's not just the Clubhouse audience, but including for your eventual podcast listeners, right?

But the third conversation we're having is actually internal conversation, conversations we're having with ourselves. And a lot of times what's happening in conversations is that we need to recognize what's happening. So for example, in a conversation between two people, I can set up the container to say, "Okay, I want to talk about our relationship." You and me, Jeremy, about how we see race, for example. And we talk about it, but the idea is about connection, the idea is about understanding one another. Now, on the other hand, what can happen very easily, and this happens in a lot of conversations, is that the conversation shifts to an internal conversation.

So for example, let's say we're talking about race and suddenly some person gets very flared up. Actually, the conversation that you're having is not with you, it's with themselves. Because basically what's happened, is that a boundary has been crossed, right? For example, something that maybe happened in your past, you've triggered it or something that, where the conversation went, basically opened that up. And so they are basically trying to deal with the fact that that boundary has been touched and they're working on that boundary, right? So a lot of times when you hear someone say a racist comment, there's something in their past or something in the person's history that's basically opened that up for them.

And so if you try to make it a conversation around big picture topics, like someone's racist and stuff. You start to say like, "Oh you're a racist, you're a pig, whatever." That person doesn't connect. Because what that person is dealing with, it's his own shit, right? He's dealing with something that's happened in his past. And that doesn't validate what he thinks, but it explains why he's saying that, right? And so actually, the powerful thing to do is to shift the conversation, right? Rather than focus on like, "Okay, what you said is racist and horrible." We can go back to, "Okay, I want to understand where that's coming from. Why are you saying that? And let's talk about that." Right?

Now, of course, there are certain situations where everyone's listening. Then we need to recognize that there's a third conversation, which is a conversation that's happening for everyone else. And so whatever that person said, could hurt someone else. And so you also need to deal with that conversation, right? How do we make sure that the system knows that the audience knows that that's not right. And so you need to close that, while at the same time dealing with this person's conversation with himself. So there's so many things happening at once. And as a facilitator, or as a person who understands human systems, are masterful... And you'll see this, right?

When you see major, major people like Gary Vee, or Simon Sinek, or even Brene Brown. What they're doing is to really manage all those different conversations that are happening, manage all those containers that are happening, but focus on where the pain is. So I think when we look at what's happening at society, right? It's a lot of conflation, a lot of people trying to speak past one another, when actually we need to recognize actually, what are we trying to target? And how do we manage the different conversations that are happening?

Jeremy Au: [00:26:17] Sounds like a lot of work Rovik.

Rovik Robert: [00:26:22] It is a lot of work.

Jeremy Au: [00:26:23] It is a lot of work, right? Because you and I both are saying like, "Okay, we can do this. We having the self-awareness, we're having the conversation, we're aware about other person's self-conversation, and we work hard as facilitators." Heck, we're even in this club, because and I think, Clubhouse rewards good moderation, and good facilitators, and facilitators unite, I guess, on this app. So that's how we know each other. It's just that isn't easier just to be top down on this whole thing?

And just not discuss this stuff? You might have heard about the Singapore system on these topics, versus China, right? And I remember I was in Singapore, my friends and I were discussing we said, "I think the markers are, they call it the OB markers, right? Are you can say your religion is the best, but you can't name which one is better, right? So you can say X is the best for A, B, C, you just can't compare it to somebody else, right? Otherwise, that's a chair across into the OB marker, out of bounds, right?

Rovik Robert: [00:27:22] Well, within the Singapore context, religion is seen as a private issue. Meaning that you're allowed to say, this is the religion that I believe is right for me. But you're not allowed to say this is the religion that I believe everyone in Singapore should follow, right? And it's the delineation of private public. So we did an episode on Islam in Singapore. And that was where I had to navigate this a bit more. So I was a bit... I had to figure out what does it mean for something to be a private issue versus a public issue, right?

And that's the distinction. So for example, Muslim marriages are private issues. But then stuff like criminal law, for example. Those are considered public issues. And so you focus on civil law for that, or criminal law for that, or public established ecosystem. But for Muslim marriages, because it's a private issue, you're allowed to use a Sharia court, right? So in a similar way, there can be such delineations, depending on the context.

Jeremy Au: [00:28:20] Yeah, I totally get it. And growing up in it, I don't blink it at all right. And then, of course, we have the American centers, which really we all know about. I think what's interesting. On the other end of the scale, I was in China on exchange. And I remember one of the briefings that we had up front was by a police officer, he was kind of educating us on local law and so forth. And the thing that stuck up for me, was in this paraphrasing, where he was saying and just leading as well. But what he said was basically like, "It's okay for you to believe, but it's not okay for you to spread that belief." And I thought that was such an interesting formulation of what was possible in the bounds of personal belief and practice, right? And I went home and thought about it wrote it down. And it just an interesting formulation, right? What do you think about that Rovik?

Rovik Robert: [00:29:11] So within Europe, for example, and I think possibly US, there is this, I don't know if it's a law regulation, or some sort of a boundary where you are allowed to be available for someone to come to you. So on the streets in Europe, you'll see people who stand on street corners and they'll have brochures, right? They'll say, Jesus is the way, for example. And they are not allowed to go up to someone and say, "Hey, I want to talk to you about God." But they are allowed to be on the street corner, in case someone wants to come up to them, right? So that's all they can do. They can be available for someone to come up. Because then it's that person's choice in order to cross that boundary and come there to you, right? In Singapore, I think there is a bit of a gray area here.

And gray areas exist in all societies where you are allowed to evangelize and proselytize. But it's to the extent that you do not force, or you're not allowed to. I think it's normed in some ways, I'm not sure what is the legislation. So this is the, "I don't know." But it's normed that you don't tell someone you are wrong I am right. Right? And you basically say, "This is what I believe in. And I want to invite you to understand what I'm believing in. And hopefully you believe in that too." And it's slightly different from the European conduct, which is basically it has to be someone else coming to you, before you can start working with them. So it goes back to this aspect of boundaries, right? How porous do we see boundaries? And how do we want to keep these boundaries in place?

Jeremy Au: [00:30:39] And so I think the reason why we're discussing this is because we're discussing online speech, and then obviously the cancel culture to some extent. And then we talked about one approach has been in Singapore, for example and many places of the world, kind of religious speech, being very tightly bound, to make sense, right? In terms of what's acceptable way to discuss stuff, right? In that sense, right? What you just described was how to discuss. But I think it's this gray bucket caught everything else on the internet, right? Which is interesting range, right? And I think what's also interesting is that all these compositions used to happen at the national level, if that makes sense.

But now there's so much, using your word here, porousness, across the world, right? Culture issues that are to some extent, in the States or in Europe, coming to Singapore, right? Or at least, the other way around is like we're picking up a lot of concepts from all across the world, right? China and the States in terms of consumption and discussion and debate, right? So it's interesting to see a lot less modularity, more heterogeneous spread? I don't know if that's a fair assessment. What do you think of it? You remember, in the middle of COVID, and then there was this one lady who got arrested because she refused to wear a mask. And her key defense was, she was a sovereign citizen. And I think that made me sit up right. Because I was like, "Whoa, this concept does not exist. Did not emerge from Singapore, right?

This is a very specific phrase, right?" It comes from the States, which is not necessarily a problem in itself, right? Lots of concepts come in the States. But it's a very American centric perspective, philosophy, movement. And as someone has made their consumption and has applied it into Singapore context. And the government applied its own context on this person. And then she was prosecuted. was more... It was something that's interesting to see that spread, right? Because we obviously, before that I listened to Britney Spears from the States, right? So it's interesting, right? But maybe it's just I was just younger, and I was just consuming stuff at a different level, right? So I was just kind of curious about that.

Rovik Robert: [00:32:46] So I think there are two things to unpack there, right? The first is about what you said is the porousness to different cultures in Singapore and how that shapes our identity here. And the second then, is about the concept of diversity, right? So I'll take the first one first. I personally think that when we look at some of the things that are happening globally, we can copy paste it here, right? And to an extent, that goes both ways, right? So for example, when they were talking about, if we think about the transgender student that recently wrote a letter to MOE. And there's this whole online saga around this, right?

People were talking about identity politics. And people were using terms like safe spaces, and all this kind of stuff. So there's a language that comes from the west. Now, at the same time, terms like cultural wars, terms like identity politics, those also come from the west. They come from the right side of the political spectrum of the West. So when we think about these things, we need to recognize that actually both sides are importing from everywhere. There's also importation, mind you, coming from China, right? Coming from different parts of the world, that are affecting different parts of society.

So if you look at one of the most overlooked pieces of Singapore culture right now is what's happening on the WhatsApp chats, of a lot of people who are more sinophilic, right? Meaning they are focused on Chinese culture. And that is also shaping their language, right? About topics of unity, topics of Social Security, topics of military might, right? And so we also need to be conscious of cultural importation. Now of course, in general what would be ideal, is if as a society in ourselves, because we have a strong unique identity of our own, we are able to keep boundaries, right? Meaning that in this case, porousness is actually not always good, right?

Porousness is good to the extent that you can take what's good. You can critically analyze actually what aspects of these are valuable to our society and to adapt it, right? But to be too porous, and to just take everything in wholesale, without understanding the context in which it first originated, right? It's a bit dangerous. So when we were talking about cancel culture, recently, right? Or cancel culture, recently with the Today article that came out. What was interesting was that, they were talking about, "Oh, cancel culture needs to be canceled." But actually, if you go to the original origins of cancel culture, it was a way for the black community to hold people accountable, without necessarily bringing in the police, right?

Without necessarily bringing in law enforcement. So they will be able to say, "You are breaking this community's values and norms, and we want to hold you accountable. So we're going to call you out. But we're going to call you in, right? And bring you back into the fold." Now, if you take that without understanding the context, and you read it here. What's happening is that cancel culture is just propagating without bringing people back into the form. Call them out, but then you spit them out of the system, right? But then what happens when they're out of the system, they find groups, they find people that they can associate with, and then you have in groups, out groups polarization.

So I think, to that extent my whole view of porousness is that we need to be very critical about what we're bringing in. But the key way to do that is to be very sure of who we are. Once we are sure of who we are, we can make sure our boundaries are clearer, right? What do we want to bring in? And what do we not want to bring in? And I think the reason for that is, self admittedly, because Singapore is still very young, right? We are sitting between East and West, our cultures have been shaped by East and West for the past 50 years. And actually, to be honest, since much before, right? Because we've always been a trade node. And so this will always be an issue. The topic of diversity, I think we've talked about a bit before. So I won't hop on too much about it but I think this topic about porousness is useful to explore.

Jeremy Au: [00:36:46] I think what's interesting is that there's almost a... sharing a little bit about a chronology of it, right? The Singaporean citizen who absorbed the sovereign citizen ideology from the States, may have stood out as maybe one of the few people, and the truth is I don't think you would have emerged anyway, wherever she believed. If it wasn't for the fact that she wasn't wearing a mask, right? So I don't think anybody brought a scale. It didn't matter to the justice system until he broke the law, right? In that sense. But I think that's a chronology working backwards. So you're talking about, where we're seeing not just the geographic component from the east and the west in that sense, but I think you said something over the past 50 years, right? I might even make a claim, I think, if you go to Singapore museums it's probably been going on for a 1000 years, right?

Rovik Robert: [00:37:31] Yeah. When I did the podcast, what was fascinating is, when you look at pre-colonial Singapore, we've always been influenced by other cultures, right? And here's a suggestion Jeremy, right? We take on identities that other people force on to us, or we take on identities that are easily available online only when we are not sure of our own identity, right? Or our own identity doesn't work in the system. So in this case, that lady was taking on that Americanized identity, because she couldn't deal with how she was being treated in the system. And so it goes back to the stuff that she has to deal with, right? So a lot of people rightly pointed out that maybe there are certain mental health issues, maybe there are certain core identity issues that she's working through. But even at a national level at Singapore, we take on American identities, we take on Chinese identities, we take on all kinds of identities, because we're not sure of who are yet.

Jeremy Au: [00:38:23] Is it maybe who we are, is to always be confused? And the melting pot of all these various things for 1000 years. And they will keep going like this. And was this kind of put some stickers and kind of roughly draw using pencil and dotted lines to be this is Southeast Asia-ish. And this is Singapore-ish.

Rovik Robert: [00:38:45] Yeah, it could be right. But of course, I think we can move towards an identity that maybe it's more helpful for us as well.

Jeremy Au: [00:38:53] I think it's interesting, right? Because when we talk about this, it reminds me as a melting pot. Obviously, I think we use as a loaded phrase these days. Multiculturalism is another phrase. But I also think about it from a centrifugal versus centripetal system, kind of perspective, right? As we see all this getting added and as we increase the velocity of discussion, I think there are things that are making us spin closer together are the things are making us spin further apart, right? I don't know if you have that sense, Rovik?

Rovik Robert: [00:39:26] Yeah, I think there are things that bring us together. And I think it's that color differences. But I go back to this concept of a healthy system, right? So a healthy system embraces diversity, a healthy system believes that if you have a different point of view, I can still hold you in my system, right? And what happens is that when systems, they don't regularly practice healing and belonging. Or I mean to say like, "If you were to have a different point of view, how do I still hold you in my system?" Then people will start to separate and move apart.

And there are certain key boundaries at which this happens, right? So when you're talking about centripetal and centrifugal, basically we're talking about some of these boundaries at which people move apart. And some of these boundaries at which people move together, right? So what we see at a national level here in Singapore is that a lot of the conversations that are happening, are trying to focus on the boundaries that keep us together, right? So for example, food or our national day, symbols and cultures, and all this kind of stuff. But actually, here's a powerful phrase I learned. I learned it from a course I went to, but I'm pretty sure there's an original attribution that I'm not remembering.

Which is, in a system for someone to truly belong, one must first differentiate, right? If I only let you belong in the system, because of the parts of yourself that are common between you and I, you will never feel like you actually belong. Because there's a part that you're not showing to me, right? And what happens is that, rather than work within this system, you will move apart from me, and you'll try to find other people who allow you to show that part of yourself, right? So that's why we see communities forming in Singapore and in different parts of the world, right?

But a healthy system says, "I see the whole of you, and you can still belong in the system." And they will practice the act of belonging, whether it's giving you legal recognition for certain things, whether it's creating spaces for you to exist, right? And that's a powerful idea. So I think the centripetal, centrifugal ideas, it's helpful to the extent that it explains the dynamics, but it's not a place that we want to be, we want to be in a system where there's healing, belonging, and systems can be a job. So that when someone shows their full self, the system adapts and brings them back into the fold.

Jeremy Au: [00:41:49] Interesting. I think what I like about what you're sharing here is that it's okay to have that dissonance, right? And tension, right? Which is, for yourself, you're kind of saying differentiation versus being part of the whole. And I think it makes me just think every society has a healthy balance between the centrifugal and centripetal force, right? Which is, you have to have both forces going around, right? Otherwise, there's no dynamic nature to it, right? Society has to live and breathe otherwise it's sterile, right?

Rovik Robert: [00:42:21] A society that tries to be too hard on its boundaries, will always find it difficult to manage diversity. And we can see this in certain countries, right? So countries that are highly, highly, highly diverse, if they don't move their boundaries, they struggle a lot. Now, there are some countries where diversity has worked out a bit better. So I use the example of New Zealand. One of the things that New Zealand's had to struggle with is its history, with the native Aboriginals, right? So the Maori's. And what they've managed to do, is rather than to keep the boundaries to half, they've said, "Actually, can we find a way to recognize the New Zealand has both. New Zealand has both the settlers as well as original Maoris. And what does it mean for inclusion to happen."

Now, there is still journeys to go, but they've found ways to manage that boundary and to open it up, so that the identity in New Zealand is more pluralistic. But at the same time, there is a very unique New Zealand identity. It's a really unique Kiwi identity, that's still there. Now, if you look at places like the US, what's happened is that they've struggled to move their boundary. But at the same time, there's so much diversity happening. So what people do is that they focus on communities, right? Communities are where people are able to show parts of themselves that they're not able to show in the main system.

And you are starting to see them in Singapore. You are starting to see that because people are showing up, but they're not allowed to... The system's saying, I cannot accept you as who you are. I cannot accept your pay. And so part of the work I'm doing at Clubhouse, part of the work I'm doing in my podcast and quite honestly, part of the work I'm doing in even my day job, is to find ways to recognize how the system can be more agile, and open up or   basically redraw boundaries so that actually the diversity of Singapore can be fully embraced. Because once you do that, that's a powerful force. Diversity is immensely powerful when tapped of to.

Jeremy Au: [00:44:12] Yeah, it's a real one, right? Reminded me of this story, I always love. Which is The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. I feel like you would this. Is by one of my favorite Sci Fi authors, Ursula K. Le Guin. And I think she's talking about, it's a short story. So it's very short, I really recommend everyone reads it. And I'm going to give a very big paraphrase about it. . But basically, it's about how there is people, enjoy life in this perfect city, perfect society, perfect weather, perfect infrastructure. But there is a dark secret to it, which is all of it hinges upon the fact that a child is basically scape goated and kept in a jail cell. And is just miserable, almost in imprisonment.

So basically there's this perfect city, but everybody says that the wealth of the city and everything is dependent on this dark secret, right? And everybody has to look at a secret at a certain age. And then they either accept it, and they stay in the city, or they are given a choice, and they can leave with no consequences and walk to another city. And I thought that was an interesting thing, right? We're talking about how we discuss, how we debate, how we communicate. But it's also on the other axis, there's also darkness and pain and grief, right? In that sense, as well.  Anyway, that's what came up to me when you mentioned that.

Rovik Robert: [00:45:44] Yeah, I would be interested to read that book, part of the story. But it goes back to what we're talking about, right? About how we hold spaces and how we try to have conversations. In Singapore and actually at any level, right? And if I was to think about the stuff I want to do, and to really be able to have better conversations and hold better spaces because I think there are so many things that are happening right now that actually, a lot of it, is just holding spaces. Now, here's a distinction I want to draw as well. Because I think when people think of dialogues and conversations, we think of it as a very stationary process.

They say why are we just talking? Why can't we do stuff, right? Why can't we move the system? But actually the system doesn't move. Systems are social constructs, right? Systems are mechanical, or linguistic or legal at best, right? But they don't move, people move. And people move only when they are mobilized emotionally. And they can feel conviction to do stuff. And when a group of people do stuff together, then it's even more powerful. But in order for that to happen, you need to have awareness, and you need to have conversations. So I think we need to recognize that there's so much that can happen on such things and at the heart of it just helping to connect it back to The Hidden Good, to have it explained, to even the stuff I do at better.sg, or on Clubhouse. It's really with that spirit, how do we hold spaces, create awareness, improve emotional mobilization, and then get people to move, right? Systems don't move, people do.

Jeremy Au: [00:47:20] I think that's beautiful. I think it's so true, right? Fixing things, is fixing things. But how we discuss things and who we are is embedded within that trajectory. Well, Rovik we're getting really out of wrapping things up here. Obviously, we had a long discussion and deep one into obviously, your personal journey, as well as podcasting and going deeper into explainer podcasts. Digging deep and obviously a deep route on cancel culture and our discussion on how to meetings better. Now, just last to wrap things up here. I'm just kind of curious, where were you 10 years ago? And that's a two parter question. So where were you 10 years ago Rovik?

Rovik Robert: [00:48:04] 10 years ago, I was 18. So I was just graduating from junior college. I think I was a very different person. I was part of, I think because I wasn't sure of my identity, I took on the identity of what people were telling me to be right? Which was focus on grades, focus on credentials, and academic qualifications. I think I was starting to discover my values and principles. But I was really part of a traditional system. But of course, I think it's very different from who I am now.

Jeremy Au: [00:48:36] Second part, is what advice would you give yourself back then, if you would travel back in time?

Rovik Robert: [00:48:41] I think the advice I give myself is to play around with the identity more, right? I think there's so much to discover about ourselves and we're all as individual beautiful beings, right? When we understand who we are, when we understand what matters to us, we can do so much more with ourselves. And I just wish that rather than play the game, play the system. I was able to discover who I was a lot better and just be proud of who I am, right? Because now that I look back, I feel like I could have gone... I would have been much happier back then if I was just comfortable with who I was.

Jeremy Au: [00:49:18] Awesome. Thank you so much for Rovik for sharing some very beautiful thoughts.

Rovik Robert: [00:49:22] Thanks, Jeremy. I enjoyed being here.

Jeremy Au: [00:49:24] Awesome, Rovik. Thanks so much. Appreciate it.

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