Stories > Cultural Shape-Shifter
Multi-hyphenate civil servant Aaron Maniam is a habitual connector of ideas, people and communities.
BY LOW SHI PING
PHOTO DARREN CHANG
Aaron Maniam has trade experience in a wide range of sectors, and sees himself as a connector who helps individuals build bridges with others.
aron Maniam is a highly accomplished individual. At only 38, his resume is impressive, with degrees from Oxford and Yale, and an Overseas Merit Scholarship – one of the most prestigious scholarships bestowed by the Singapore Public Service – to his name.
Maniam has spent time in the civil service: in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Centre for Strategic Futures, and the Institute of Public Sector Leadership. From 2015 to 2016, he led an inter-agency team exploring future scenarios for Singapore in the areas of politics and governance. Most recently, he was a senior director in the Industry Division at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, looking after the manufacturing, services, and tourism sectors.
He is also an accomplished poet whose second book will be launched in January 2018. Several of his pieces have been publicised internationally, including on Australia’s ABC Radio, at the Austin International Poetry Festival, and at the 35th Festival Franco-Anglais de Poesie in June 2011, on invitation from the French government.
In his spare time, Maniam volunteers with the South East Community Development Council’s Explorations Into Faiths (EIF) programme, which brings together people of different faiths to share how their beliefs are lived every day. He was named the Orchid Jayceettes of Singapore’s “Outstanding Young Singaporean” in 2011, clinched the Singapore Youth Award in 2012, and was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2013.
“What unifies all the different aspects of me and influences what I do is the fact that I am a connector – I like to connect ideas, people and communities. ”
He describes himself as a futurist, planner, youth activism enthusiast, poet, leadership trainer, general meddler and INFJ. The acronym stands for Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, Judgment – a personality type according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
1. How does being a Singaporean of mixed heritage affect your ethics, perspectives, and the way you work?
I have Tamil, Eurasian, Malay, Pakistani, and Chinese blood. Christmas and Hari Raya are equally important in my family. All my life, I’ve been looking for ways to navigate the fact that I am all those things, yet different from someone steeped solely in each of those communities. I feel the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, though the parts are all important. What unifies all the different aspects of me and influences what I do is the fact that I am a connector – I like to connect ideas, people and communities. At work, I am a Singaporean first, but I am also a planner and policymaker who is interested in governance. At heart, we all have multiple identities. This makes me focus on the uniqueness of the individuals I meet, rather than the categories they seem to come from, which are nearly always inadequate in capturing the nuances of their identities.
2. You’ve written that you are keen to explore how the world can be made better. What drives this?
In university, I was part of a weekly programme home-tutoring ethnic minority children in and around Oxford in English. They were underperforming in school due to inadequate language skills. I taught a 14-year-old Pakistani student, Wahid. He started out really shy, but after a few weeks of reading together and going on long walks where I insisted he speak only English, he was gabbing away freely. It was great to watch him grow in confidence and energy. I got to know his parents and older brother really well too. Eventually, Saturday afternoons with him were one of my weekly highlights. It showed me that doing some kind of service with our skills can be very powerful.
There is also my innate optimism and belief that things are “perfectable”. I adopt a growth mindset that cultivates a love for learning. Third is my adaptive and activist approach to life. We need both. The former is about adapting to the world; the latter is about shaping the world to become what you want it to be.
3. You have been volunteering for more than 20 years. Why?
Volunteering helps me battle cognitive bias and makes me a better policymaker. It is the antidote to a purely governmental mindset; I don’t assume the Government has all the answers, and the ones that it has may not always be superior.
Volunteering has also helped me build enduring global friendships. As a student, I attended the World Schools Debating Championships (WSDC), which involves national teams from over 50 countries. I’ve volunteered as a judge and coach, and many of my closest friends are fellow volunteers from territories as diverse as Australia, the Czech Republic, Israel, the Philippines, Pakistan, South Africa and the British Isles. We meet at least once a year if we attend the annual tournament. We visit one another too, keep track of family developments, and stay connected in one another’s lives.
4. How have your friends’ impressions of Singapore changed over the years?
Apart from my friends from the WSDC, I have other friends who are equally global, like those I met in Oxford or from my time as a young diplomat in Washington D.C. In all these cases, I think their impressions of Singapore have changed, and acquired more texture with time. It is easy to read stereotypes about Singapore in the media – both the positive ones, like its safety, security and order, but also less positive ones like its clinical nature, and lack of spontaneity and creativity. I’ve found that these can be attenuated once people get to know individual Singaporeans in a deep way – it’s much more difficult to generalise about a place once we have seen the richness and range of its people.
5. Why and how should Singaporeans develop a deeper care for and a greater understanding of societal issues, not just locally but also overseas?
As Singapore continues to grow and mature, societal issues will become increasingly salient, since they define aspects of our identity that cannot be captured in the tangible, hard-and-fast metrics of security and economics. Having a sense of how our evolution compares to other countries’ will help us to learn from the experiences of others where suitable, and be grateful for those areas where Singapore is fortunate enough to outstrip global averages.
Perhaps the key thing is to find a cause you are deeply passionate about, and where there is a great need to be filled. Combining these will give us the energy and drive not only to start getting involved, but to sustain that involvement beyond the initial spark – often very critical when dealing with social causes. Erase stereotypes of community service as being only about visiting old folks’ homes. I’ve seen debaters do volunteer work in prisons in other parts of the world; the inmates’ competitive energy is channelled into a debate structure, which is good for their intellectual development.
6. What has been your biggest takeaway as a volunteer facilitator with the EIF programme?
The EIF’s dialogue sessions are designed to bring out individual stories. You don’t always have to represent your community. People have told us they don’t know what community they identify with anymore. We need to focus on individuals, and flesh out their personal experiences with religion. The point is to give people a space for that articulation – and catharsis – to happen. Participants get a chance to mingle with others from different religious backgrounds and share their thoughts and ideas. One of my favourite stories is of someone who felt disillusioned with his faith community, and found comfort and inspiration in the stories of another participant, a Buddhist, who shared how meditation and practices around detachment changed his life.
7. What does global citizenship mean to you, and what kind of global citizenry role do you see Singaporeans playing?
At heart, global citizenship means understanding that some challenges transcend the jurisdictions of nation states, and hence require common global action (as opposed to action that is inter-national, which still may not be fully global). Climate change is a great example of a global challenge that shows no regard for borders; managing border disputes is more obviously inter-national. This global nature doesn’t have to come at the expense of national citizenship of course, since the two can work in tandem. I hope Singaporeans find ways to toggle both their global and their national citizenship, finding ways for each to inform and enrich the other.
8. What defines the Singapore brand with respect to the heart and soul of Singapore?
An unstinting belief in the value of meritocracy, the importance of diversity and multiculturalism, and Singapore’s ability to defy expectations and set rules and benchmarks for ourselves, not just based on international precedent. Belief in the last point is really what allowed us to even become a nation in the first place, when many doubted our long-term future.
9. How do we share this with the international community so that they understand us better?
The focus has to be on telling strong, resonant personal stories of Singaporeans in action. People are narrative creatures after all. Identities and brands are empty if they only deal with abstract labels and concepts; they need to live and breathe, and the best way to do this is to tell stories of Singaporeans (or groups of Singaporeans) that bring out this living vibrance.
10. What role can communities have in shaping Singapore’s future?
The challenges we face are extremely complex, variegated and multi-faceted. We need to have all hands on deck to navigate and shape our future. We need the Government to provide infrastructure and public goods, businesses to offer innovation and agility, and communities to provide the idealism and on-the-ground knowledge that the Government might not have.