February 25, 2005

Success is a journey

It's been a really bad week. There's only so much stress a body can take before it starts to break down.

But I will not falter, I will not fail. I stop and rest my weary bones; but when morning comes anew I buckle my armour back on, bestride my horse and ride on once more.

The clouds are broken in the sky,
   And thro' the mountain-walls
A rolling organ-harmony
   Swells up, and shakes and falls.
Then move the trees, the copses nod,
   Wings flutter, voices hover clear:
"O just and faithful knight of God!
   Ride on! the prize is near."
So pass I hostel, hall, and grange;
   By bridge and ford, by park and pale,
All-arm'd I ride, whate'er betide,
   Until I find the holy Grail.
Posted by pj at 09:14 PM | Comments (2)

February 20, 2005

Focusing on what's important

One of the greatest American poets, Walt Whitman, once wrote these lines:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

He was referring to the chaos of his own soul. Inevitably, it seems that when you have aims and goals which extend beyond yourself, you come into conflict with different ideas. Often, both ideas come from within yourself. How does one reconcile them?

Firstly, I wish to clarify my goals and aims in doing this swim. I am not against foreign-born Singaporeans, nor against the Foreign Talent scheme; I am not xenophobic or afraid of competition from others. On the contrary, I wish to remind Singaporeans that we need not fear anyone: we can compete with anyone and all the scaremongering in the newspapers about people from other countries, such as China, taking away our livelihoods and outdoing our children in schools is rubbish. Anyone, anywhere can excel, no matter who you are, or where you are from. Competition is a good and healthy thing and we should not assume that because we are Singaporean we are inferior, just as we should not assume that because others are not Singaporean they are superior.

Equally, my call is not a nationalistic one. I willingly admit to an affinity with my homeland, and to be susceptible to patriotic and partisan appeal, but my message is universal. The world today is rife with recrimination, suspicion and hatred, and I'm not about to add to that by drawing yet more boundaries of division.

It's an interesting conundrum, though. I was reminded recently about the dangers of nationalism, and, ever the optimist, I responded by pointing out its positive benefits as well. At some point, people need to identify with something greater than themselves. It's inevitable, because we naturally tend to draw lines and make distinctions between groups of people. Perhaps it has something to do with how our brains are pattern-seeking, or perhaps we just feel a need to group together.

Yet it is also true that nationalism is dangerous. We don't need to be reminded of how nationalism has been the basis for genocide, war, murder and hatred. My girlfriend, bless her, is writing a PhD thesis on Japanese prisoners of war, and she never fails to remind me of the pain and suffering caused by a single nationalistic cause. On the other hand, my own proposed PhD thesis is on the positive aspects of nationalism- how we can successfully create a national identity to supercede older divisions such as race, religion and class. There's no right and wrong here, but a deeply complex issue which needs to be handled carefully.

It seems to me that if nationalism is indeed inevitable, then we need to channel it and use for positive purposes. I can't avoid the nationalistic overtones of this campaign, since I would be the first Singaporean to make it across the English Channel, and I'm not going to deny it would indeed be nice to be first- but I must reiterate, it is not the most important thing- the people I inspire and the money I'm raising for charity are.

Thus, while it would be nice to capitalize on nationalism, I'm also worried about the overtones and repercussions. I don't want to emphasise any more divisions in a world which is rife with them. I'm not going to play up the obvious nationalistic aspects of this campaign and instead focus on what's really important: setting a positive example and trying to help kids get a good education. Let's keep our minds on doing some constructive good instead of worrying about lines that are drawn on a map.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Crack-Up.

Posted by pj at 03:25 PM

February 19, 2005

My Philosophy of the Idealisation of the Self

I was asked some time ago why it was specifically the English Channel which I wanted to swim. It was a very interesting and thought-provoking question, and I began my reply with what I suspect is a common reason- the established nature of a challenge. It's a well known and respected physical endeavour, with an established industry surrounding it which appeals to someone who wishes to do a one-off event but not make a career out of outrageous physical stunts. It allows the amateur to pursue his quest without too much distraction of logistics, infrastructure, co-ordination and without having to break any new ground, only follow in the footsteps of giants.

On a rather more personal level, however, the historical nature of the English Channel appeals to me as a student of history. Since 1066, no invading army has ever successfully crossed the channel to conquer the British Isles. For almost a thousand years, this narrow 21.8 mile (34 km) strip of water has been all that has stood between Britain and often far superior armies.* The unique geography of Britain allowed Britain to rule the world on the back of the Royal Navy, such was the effectiveness of water as a boundary and deterrence.** So to swim from one country to another is to feel the weight of history and commune not only with the spirits of those who swam before, but to experience a major factor in a thousand years of European- and even world- history.

Another question I was asked was, why do I wish to challenge myself in this way? I'm not a religious person, but I do hold deeply certain personal philosophies which govern the way I approach the world. I am proud to consider myself a Confucian, and the ultimate goal of the Confucian is the rectification of the mind, the improvement of the self with the goal of becoming a Gentleman. Relentless self-improvement is an aspect of the Way. Thus, the need to challenge oneself constantly to pursue improvement.

However, crazy physical and mental challenges are not the usual way. It is more important to devote oneself to learning, cultivate civility, lead a good and harmonious life and seek to positively influence one's family and friends. In my case, the crazy physical and mental challenge is a reflection equally of a second philosophy which I'm not sure where I picked up from, but which may be termed the 'idealisation of the self'. If Heaven, or an afterlife, is eternal bliss, and Hell, or oblivion, is eternal damnation or the complete absence of existence, then we can only know if we are alive if we can feel both pleasure and pain in the same moment. It follows then that to approach the ideal of life is to challenge ourselves as much as we can to achieve the greatest satisfaction of achievement. My guess is that if we really do have a Creator of some sort, then the greatest way to serve Him or Her would be to seek to challenge ourselves physically and mentally, by overcoming both our physical and mental limitations and seek to stretch the boundaries of the human experience.


*- One might quibble about William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but you must remember they were invited by a Parliament which had decided to strip James II of the British crown.

**- For a tremendously fascinating look at the Royal Navy, I highly recommend N.A.M. Rodger's "The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815". A fascinating and brilliantly written book, highly readable and very enjoyable.

Posted by pj at 07:15 PM | Comments (1)

February 16, 2005


Hello and welcome to my new training blog. I'll try and keep this updated as often as I can, but I hope that everyone understands that with my job and my training, I don't have much free time. Still, I have had many requests to share the experience, and for posterity's sake I will attempt to record my journey. I have a feeling that many years down the road I will probably want to revisit this myself.

I will also attempt to answer questions which I did not cover in my FAQ, so if you have something you'd be interested in hearing about, leave a comment and I'll try to get to it. It will probably take me a while, so don't hold your breath.

I'd like to thank one of my students, Rae Lim, who came up with the URL for this website (www.TheSwimForSingapore.com). My own choice was www.WhyIsTheSwimSoLong.com, but I've used that for this blog's title instead.

Posted by pj at 07:02 PM