There's this sense of excitement about doing something new, particularly with storytelling... Now I was faced with this completely blank canvas to think about storytelling: how did I want to move away from The Economist style, writing in a different form, thinking about storytelling in different ways...
- Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore and co-author of Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus. He is currently working on a book about China and India.
From 2006-13 Sudhir worked for the Economist Corporate Network and Economist Insights [units of The Economist Group] in Hong Kong and Singapore. He continues to work freelance for the company. He has moderated and spoken on panels across Asia for the firm, most recently at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Oct 2019 in Hong Kong. In his personal capacity as an author, Sudhir has spoken at numerous institutions and events around the world, including Columbia University, Harvard University, The World Bank, Yale-NUS, the Georgetown Literary Festival and the Singapore Writers Festival.
Jeremy Au: [00:02:01] Hey Sudhir, good to have you on board.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:02:04] Yeah, thanks for having me, Jeremy. Nice to be here.
Jeremy Au: [00:02:07] Well, we've actually had some similar journeys, we both came from local schools, then we both went to what was then known as Raffles Junior College, now Raffles Institution. We both went to UC Berkeley and then after we both went to Harvard for our master's. You just happen to have a lot more experience and a lot more leadership in these domains than I do now.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:02:29] I'm not sure about more experience but I certainly literally have more white hair all over my face and my head. But yeah. It's interesting the way we followed a similar path, actually. It was interesting, when I left Singapore after army in 1999, so I went to Berkeley after army and I just had one dream, I wanted to get my business degree in three years and then become an investment banker. That was my sole materialistic sort of money-minded dream. And of course, Berkeley happened to me, as I guess it does to many people.
So I remember a few of my introductory classes, anthropology, geography, which really just kind of opened my mind up to a lot of other issues around the world and that slowly moved me towards where I am today, interest in writing, interest in social justice, interest in political issues, interest in a lot of other things aside from Wall Street.
Jeremy Au: [00:03:23] Yeah, definitely. I share the same sentiment, I remember after NS I went to UC Berkeley and I started growing out my hair to almost shoulder length and I was wearing a lot of tie-dye-
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:03:36] Oh really?
Jeremy Au: [00:03:37] ... on campus. So Berkeley got to me.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:03:41] I'd love to see those photographs one day.
Jeremy Au: [00:03:44] Yeah. Definitely. I was thinking to myself this is the last time I'm going to get long hair and red tie-dye otherwise I'm going to go back into corporate or whatever it is. Especially after so much time in NS, right, where you're wearing like a buzz cut. So it overshoots to the other end a little bit.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:04:02] Yeah. I bleached my hair the first time I went to a Burning Man, that's about as daring as I got with my hair and my fashion. But yeah.
Jeremy Au: [00:04:13] I'm glad, we're going to reminisce about Berkeley days nonstop. So I think before everybody tunes out because we're just talking about all the fun times and People's Park and everything, you know, time on campus. I'm sure we're going to go into that as well later on. I'd love for those who don't know you yet for you to share, in your own words, your own leadership and professional journey.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:04:35] Yeah. So I think what I wanted to do is talk about it in terms of two strands. One is my journey towards being an independent writer and commentator in Singapore. There aren't too many of us around but we're slowly growing in size. The other strand I wanted to talk about is how I've managed to, certainly not there yet, it's still an ongoing experiment, but how I've attempted to combine different mediums in my storytelling craft.
I started off trained in the written word, but over the past 15 years I've kind of incorporated more photography, incorporated more social media storytelling, and recently also I've moved into video. That's the other bit of my journey that I probably want to talk about, how I've managed to combine those different mediums.
I think a good place to start would be 2005, when I moved back from the states to Singapore. So like you said, did four years in Berkeley, then I did two years at Harvard, finished, graduated in 2005, moved back to Singapore, was looking around for a job. And very, very lucky. I think luck is such an important part of any journey but I was very lucky to get a job at The Economist Group at a unit called Economist Corporate Network, which is a sister unit of the magazine.
So I joined them in 2006, I worked for them for seven years. First I did Economist Corporate Network, and then I did Economist Insight. Corporate network does a lot of senior level advisory service for companies and Economist Insight does sponsored research, so white papers for big companies.
So I worked for those two units for seven years in Singapore and in Hong Kong, and I'd say I was lucky because it was just such a rewarding, transformative, fulfilling experience in every way imaginable, as anybody who reads The Economist or follows products from The Economist Intelligence Unit and other bits of the company you might know, it was so rewarding.
There are a few things that I'd like to touch on. So I joined them in '06, and I think one of the big things was that there were two big shifts going on. So one of them was the shift of corporate intellectual interests towards Asia. Every other week we had a new company wanting to invest a whole bunch of money, intellectual interests, there was just so much interest in the China story and shortly after that the India story as well.
It was great to be in a position at The Economist Group where I kind of had a ringside seat to all of that. A lot of my work was at the interface of business and government and society, writing for the company, making presentations on regional economic outlook, things like that. A very interesting time to be there.
The other big shift that I think was very important is that it was a very turbulent time for media in general, it was the whole digital revolution. Business models were being upended, there was a huge shift of advertising revenue from print to digital, there was the rise of native advertising, quantitative research, that whole industry was changing.
There was also a big shift in terms of content. That was the period when people were saying, "Let's forget the 50 page PDF. Nobody wants to read that anymore. People now they have new devices, they have apps, switching to video, switching to social media, more infographics. How can we reframe our content to tell a different story to a new kind of consumer that doesn't necessarily want that long, sometimes dry paper that we used to produce?"
So I think being there again during that shift was great for me in terms of my understanding and knowledge of the media industry and all the changes I lived through but also that allowed me to think about how to adapt myself to changes that I'm still living through today and changes that will probably be with us for the next 10 or 15 years. Attention spans are also getting shorter, I think that's one of the big things that came along with that. That's also affected the way I think about content.
The third thing about The Economist that I want to mention is amazing colleagues and mentors. Some of my best friends I made then, there are still people who I'm in touch with every day and I think that's such an important part of personal growth and development and everything else, they gave me opportunities very early on in life. I still remember the very first time they put me up on stage in 2007, it was this big, big sort of gala, regional economic outlook type event, and there were these three older white guys and me, and it was nice they trusted me enough to put me in front of a lot of very senior people and share The Economist Intelligence Unit's perspective on Asia.
The night before they very nicely invited me out to join them for beers and I was like, "No, no, no, no, I've got to practice my presentation." And they still give me a lot of shit for that, about the nerves that I had the night before. But it was great, I had amazing bosses who were willing to give me all these opportunities very early on in my career, and they were incredibly disciplined about writing, right?
I remember my boss correcting little bits of grammar in my emails, just in my personal emails to him. It's not even content that's going out to anybody else, but I think that really inculcated this kind of writing discipline in me from a very early part of my career.
A couple of last things, I think the other thing that I really appreciated is the opportunity to write across mediums. I wrote for the magazine, most of the world calls a magazine, what we called the newspaper. Probably the most popular product. I freelanced for them but I also wrote mostly for two other units. I think the difference there is that the newspaper or magazine is sort of a free product so you're writing for the layman or layperson, whereas a lot of the other products are B2B products, so you're writing for a business audience.
I think that kind of allowed me to develop talent and flexibility in terms of my writing skills and knowing how to adjust and change the tone and style and things like that, depending on your audience, which is probably the most important skill for any writer or commentator, knowing your audience and tailoring your message for the audience. I got a chance to do that very often, very early in my career.
And finally last point before I stop this long monologue but I was very lucky also because at the end of the day having The Economist group on my CV has just opened so many doors. I've built a great network there, I still get work from people who I met during my seven years at The Economist Group and even today when people see it on my CV it adds a bit of credibility to my name and helps me do whatever I want to do. So I was very fortunate to have that early on in my career.
Jeremy Au: [00:11:20] Yeah, Sudhir. I mean, The Economist is something that everybody in the business world seems to be reading and I would definitely recognize, I mean I was in economics and business in undergrad, and that's when I started really reading The Economist more thoroughly. I think even in JC, junior college, they were giving us The Economist articles to read as part of the general paper practice and stuff like that.
So I've been reading it for a long time and it's interesting because as you keep reading it over and over you kind of get a sense of not just the sophistication obviously of the thinking but also you get a much better sense of the values that it has, for better or for worse, depending on [whether] you agree or disagree.
Then lastly also you get to see how much it percolates into the current way the business world talks about itself. I mean I recently was on a panel with some folks and obviously the guest was just commenting about the state of some stuff in the region and I was just watching a panelist say stuff that was like... And afterwards it clicked and I was like, "Wait, you are paraphrasing The Economist. I know what you're talking about."
But it's also good because I also read The Economist so I already have my own reactions to what you're saying. So now I can sound very sophisticated talking about it and reacting... I disagree to The Economist on some parts but also agreed with other parts. It's so funny where kind of I feel like it's the one publication that the entire business world reads together, it's the weekly book club that the entire business world has.
My mother-in-law reads it, my wife reads it, my father-in-law reads it, my dad reads it, I read it. So it's like one of those things that... Then obviously we talk about it all the time, so it's funny to see how The Economist really kind of is an invisible hand to discourse.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:13:10] Yeah, I mean it's funny, we kind of joke inside the company and outside as well, that it comes out on a Friday so it allows everybody who reads it to look and act and think smart over the weekend during their cocktail sessions with their friends. But I am similar to you in my journey with the publication, I started reading it at A level, so that's pre-university, and that got assigned to us every week.
One of the things that I really appreciated was my econs lecturer telling us, "Just read whatever you want, there's no quick formula to any of this stuff." And there are a lot of people within the company that I know who actually prefer the second half of the magazine. I start reading it from the back, the obituary is my favorite page. I love the science and technology, I love the books and art section. Even though I can't read, like I guess everybody who's listening, I can't read despite the set of all the books I want to read.
I feel a great sense of accomplishment, at least I've read the book review on The Economist, I kind of feel I've read the book. I could go on for an hour, but the other thing that's very interesting is the narrative structure of the argument. So we used to joke in grad school that you know an Economist reader because of the almost formulaic way of addressing a topic, right? It's like this is why you should vote for Biden, this is why you shouldn't vote for Biden, but this is why we really think you should vote for Biden.
Almost every opinion piece or commentary kind of has that little bit of a structure in place and I think there are a lot of lessons as a writer or commentator or analyst that you can draw from that, I think in my experience working with different younger writers, the ability to formulate a counterargument is very, very important. A counterthesis or counterargument, and I think The Economist does that very well in a very succinct way and not everybody does it in their writing. So I think yeah, just one of the many things I think that people could learn from reading the magazine.
Jeremy Au: [00:15:14] Yeah, it's interesting that The Economist has become that touch stone from a literary and publishing perspective, as well as the business perspective. I still remember someone tweeted, in their interview they asked someone what their life goal was, and their life goal was to be on the obituary of The Economist. Everyone was like wow, that's a solid goal. Respect to you. I've got to say it's one of my favorite pieces as well, so I often flip to that page first, if I can't read everything.
I'm still kind of curious, before we talk about the ending of life and the journey, let's talk about the beginning a little bit. So obviously started at The Economist and then since then you've become a strong, independent journalist. So how did the beginning of that journey look like to you?
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:16:04] So in 2012 while I was still at the company, I published my first book, which is called Floating on a Malayan Breeze. So it's a book on Malaysia and Singapore, but part travelog, part social commentary. Published it in 2012, kind of moderate commercial reception but there was pretty good critical feedback from my mentors importantly who read the book and people around me who are interested in the topic, Singapore and Malaysia. So I got a lot of little bits of encouragement from people like that to say hey, you might have a future as a book writer, which is always I guess a bit of nervousness that comes with the first book. Is it just going to be a one-off or is it actually going to be the start of a long journey?
So I was very encouraged by my mentors within the company telling me that they liked the book, and the other thing that they told me and they've been telling me this for a while, was that it's a wonderful place to be, you can spend your entire career here, these are people who had probably been with the company, some of them 20 plus years.
But they were like, "Just be aware of one downside, a couple of downsides, many positives, but be aware of this one downside that over time you will be indoctrinated in a particular form of writing. Now it's a beautiful form of writing, it's The Economist style, or if it's at the EIU, the EIU style, but doing this for 20 or 25 years essentially almost locks you in as an artist because you're just so indoctrinated in that style of writing."
I've always had dreams to push myself artistically in different ways. So far I've been focusing on nonfiction, at some point I'd love to do fiction but even within the nonfiction realm there are so many ways you can approach nonfiction, gonzo journalism, more literary forms of journalism, so on and so forth, which I realized I may not necessarily get a chance to do if I stayed at the same company.
So that's kind of what pushed me to think about doing something else. So in 2013 I decided, so it was a year after I published my book, I decided to just... I'd built up enough of a network, I got enough experience from that part of my career so I decided to leave, try things on my own, and I was very nervous. So what was that journey like, I think extremely nervous and one of the things you don't process enough but you're faced with the stark reality when it happens is that I had gotten so used to having these powerful, big brand names behind me.
And this goes back 13 years, for four years I was at Berkeley, three years I was at Harvard, then seven years I was at The Economist Group. During that time, no matter who I wanted to speak to I could just email them and if they see Sudhir at The Economist or some people would respond to me, at the very least they'd reply to my email or pick up my phone call.
But 2013, suddenly I was out on my own, I was just email@example.com, I didn't have those big brand name crutches anymore and I think I had self-confidence but still when you're faced with that reality and when you're faced with then having to go to a situation where as a writer people stop replying to your emails, people ask you who are you and then I've got to spend five minutes going through my CV with everybody, which I didn't have to do before because The Economist name opens any door.
That was a very slightly nervewracking but interesting part of the journey for me, which thankfully over time I got used to it and also I think I realized that people you talk to are actually a lot more receptive of people even outside of whatever big brand name they might be associated with. So I think that was a bit of my journey that I had to get used to.
The other bit of it, which was also very nervewracking was that there were a lot of naysayers. If you think about it, that was my first job out of university, I had been there for seven years, people were like, "Oh how can you leave this great, hallowed, wonderful company, every writer dreams of being at The Economist Group and you only publish one book, you think you've made it already? what the heck are you doing?"
So there were a lot of naysayers actually. It's funny now looking back at all the aunties and uncles and I think this is all once again, with our strict predetermined career paths that we deal with in Asia, but I think people see that shift or saw that shift, certainly in 2013, saw that shift from stable, secure job with a big company, suddenly moving out.
I think in today's world it's getting easier with the gig economy and freelance or contract worker or independent worker isn't such a bad word anymore for some people but it was certainly difficult, that was the other difficulty I had at that point in time. But I was also so energized. So I think it wasn't just nerves, I think this is the interesting thing about any journey, at the same time there's this sense of excitement about doing something new, particularly with storytelling. So exactly what my mentors had told me, now I was faced with this completely blank canvas to think about storytelling, how did I want to maybe move away from that Economist style that I had developed to writing in a different form, thinking about storytelling in different ways.
I think that was very exciting. It was also very exciting to think I was now going to start working with all sorts of different people, different editors, different teams, video producers, artists, creators, all the different people that have come together in my life over the past seven years. So I spent eight months traveling across India and China for the book that I'm working on now and I had a photographer following me. So just that interaction with the photographer is the kind of interaction I would have never gotten if I just stayed in a regular job. Those sorts of things, really I find very fulfilling and are the kinds of things that you don't get to do if you're just stuck in a particular company.
Since leaving The Economist Group I've written on technology, I've written on science, I've written long form for publications like foreign affairs, I've written short form for newspapers like SCMP, the South China Morning Post. These are all professional experiences that I wouldn't have gotten if I just stayed with one company. So I think that's all part of my learning and development and it's very exciting.
So just to give you an example, right now many different things that I'm thinking about in terms of my content, I just finished a long leadership series on Singapore's prospective next prime minister, I am working on a video about Oxley Road, which is the home of the late Lee Kuan Yew, so there's been a lot of disagreement about what to do with his house and I'm working on a video about that and thinking about ways to marry the video with my long form content.
My editor from one of the science papers that I write for just asked me to look into a paper on agri tech and alternative meat and the modern food industry, and then I've got my book project as well, so my book on China and India, a couple of other book projects. Spitting all that out at you to give you a sense of the diversity of content that actually I kind of juggle these days, which is actually, for me it's very exciting. I think you'll probably find some editors and publishers out there who hate dealing with somebody like me because I can never focus on one thing.
But I think it's interesting because there's so much cross-fertilization of ideas that kind of goes on again, which is very different from being in a more structured environment. You don't have as much cross-fertilization of ideas from different pieces of content.
Jeremy Au: [00:23:47] Oh, that's amazing, and I'm so excited for you because you've really crossed that bridge from just setting off on your own to now being able to fully explore the range of ideas and formats that you want to do, right? So that's amazing. I think you started touching on this a little bit, which was one of the biggest challenges for you was really the naysayers and obviously it was also setting off on your own. Would you say those are the hardest parts and obstacles that you had to overcome, or were there other things that you would like to expound on?
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:24:20] Getting people used to alternative careers, I think that was a big part of it. Showing people that it's possible to be there , showing people that you can enjoy it, make a living out of it, I think that's very important. Obstacles, I'd say money is a never ending obstacle. I think as a freelancer it's not something that is ever far from your mind and especially in the last year, COVID has obviously led to a drop in my freelance income.
A lot of it is just also reframing the way you think about the good life. I've brought down my expenses quite a lot, I drink cheaper beer. But it's also like reframing that struggle, it's part of the journey, right? I think that's the choice you make when you move from having a stable income with health benefits and all the rest of it to being freelance. I think as long as you view that as part of the journey and part of the excitement and struggle, that's important.
I think are there obstacles, I think in Singapore and I think this is true for any country that has had a long either party or establishment in power for a long time, I think not everybody is very supportive of independent commentators. So I think that certainly has been an obstacle that I've had to deal with. But at the same time, despite all the critics that might be out there, every day there are more and more supporters as well. So there's a lot of love and I can't stress enough the importance of fans, supporters, readers, who keep telling me to keep putting out the alternative type of content that I have been putting out. I think they are very important. I mean a lot of them are my friends, but a lot more are also people that I don't know about who write random messages of support.
So I think for any independent commentator in any... I think in any situation, not just Singapore but any situation where you've got an established media and you've got a dominant voice in terms of public discourse, I think you're going to get some pushback from the dominant players. Either in terms of financial leverage or also sometimes in terms of outright criticism and attempts to smear you. So I think, again, that's one thing I've had to deal with, but like I said there are a lot of people behind me so it makes it easier.
Jeremy Au: [00:26:34] Yeah, that's so true. One thing is of course a huge contrast between Berkeley and a hallowed free speech movement, and we've seen that to some extent as well at Harvard as well, which is very much an academic, independent thought, very scholarly dynamics on independence and academic freedoms. And of course there's the world today, right? , I think this argument that you're kind of hinting at is conflict is happening everywhere, right? In the US, in the EU, globally. Which is how do we handle free speech on one hand, and the other hand of course the different permutations or factors that people are trying to accommodate and so on and so forth. So I'm just kind of curious what are your thoughts about that at a higher level?
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:27:18] Well, I don't think any society has gotten speech right. If you look at what's happened over the past 10 years in... If we just take places like Berkeley and Harvard, for example, certainly aspects of shutting down of speech. I wouldn't just call it liberal intolerance of speech, I think that's something people talk about but certainly there's an aspect of liberal intolerance of speech, which is part of it. The shutting down, the shouting down, the canceling of particular speakers who try to come to Berkeley for example.
I think these are all complications right now in the broader sphere, which I don't think anybody has really gotten right. Then you've got the issue of technology, so I think the natural accommodation then is about the impact of the Facebooks and Twitters of the world on speech. We could speak about different countries' approach to it. I think in Singapore, my sense is that we still have a long way to go in terms of incentivizing ordinary people to voice their opinion.
Despite all the pushback against Facebook, for example, and if you look for example at what's happened with Facebook in Myanmar over the past decade, certainly you can point a lot of fingers, very damning fingers at Facebook's conduct in Myanmar and the way they've allowed hate speech to just spiral out of control, and the impact that it's had on the Rohingya, the conflict there.
I often tell people that in the Singapore situation, actually as far as I can see, Facebook has had a very powerful liberalizing, democratizing impact in terms of speech. It's given a platform to many people, including myself, who may not have had an opportunity to speak 20 years ago. It's allowed many different groups to form connections across society, may not have had the platform for that 20 years ago.
Singapore, for those of your listeners who are not too familiar, we've always had a very strong mainstream media setup, government-controlled channels have usually... I'd say up till about mid-2000s have been the dominant voices in society. Now social media and the internet have changed that over the past 15, 20 years. So I think Facebook and other social media channels, I would say have been a force for good in Singapore, but very aware, hyper aware of the dangers of speech as we've seen play out in places like Myanmar.
Yeah, I think it's such a complicated conversation which I don't see ending any time soon. If I could just leave with one high level thought, I think from what I've seen it's not so much freedom of speech that we have to prioritize in a modern thinking society but it's the freedom to hear from diverse viewpoints, which they don't always equate because freedom of speech, complete freedom of speech can lead to the complete shutting down of particular vulnerable communities. If freedom of speech means I'm going to tell the persecuted Rohingya to shut up, I'm going to tell the persecuted Rohingya to get the hell out of here. That essentially means that I'm not going to hear from the persecuted Rohingya. So I think at a higher level, the more important philosophy for a society is that they have to find a way to ensure freedom for all voices to be heard. Those two are not always aligned with each other.
Jeremy Au: [00:30:34] Wow, that was actually a really deep thought. I'd never heard of that, that's a really orthogonal take, which is we always talk about growing up it's like my parents are telling me, "Hey, it's important to speak but it's also important to listen, right, and hear, right?" I think there's something very truthful here, which I think a lot of it is being framed as freedom of speech but whether there's freedom to hear and listen, that's a very orthogonal, very different take.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:31:02] Especially in societies where you have such unequal access to information, unequal access to the means to speak, why the two of us here are having a conversation, right, and why are people listening to me when I speak. I've obviously had many forms of privilege throughout my life. I spoke at length about The Economist Group but I've had so many other forms of privilege throughout my life. I think the best way forward is for us to ensure that all the different constituent groups have access for their voices to be heard. Most societies around the world are a long, long way from that. It's kind of a pipe dream, but as with a lot of these things that's the target we have to aim for, that's what we have to try to achieve. It's a long way off but that's what we have to strive to achieve.
Jeremy Au: [00:31:44] It definitely resonates with me and what I definitely agree with you is about, there's an articulation of the consequences and how we manage it versus its longer or more invisible effects, right? That really reminds me actually of like, I did some research back in the day for undergrad and one of the things I came across and was really struck by was through the arc of history you've seen communication technology, as like you say, create ability of speech but also create ability to hear and listen, right? And so obviously the printing press fueled revolutions, right? Printing pamphlets were instrumental, the creation of the newspaper or the pamphlet created tremendous social change and economic change across Europe and America.
Yet today none of us would say let's delete newspapers, right? The radio also changed and created humongous amount of change at the societal and cultural and economic and governance level. So did TV as well, so did cable. So I think, it feels like to me like society is still grappling and going through that conversation. I wonder to myself a little bit are the conversations we're having about the internet today are the ones that people had around the printing press, right? Should we regulate the printing press? Do we let everybody have it? I think obviously today it's somewhere in between to some extent, so it's interesting to think about that from a historical arc as well.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:33:10] Yeah, I think that certainly there's an argument to be made that it's just the generational medium of our time, but there also is an argument to be made that there is something fundamentally different. When you look at the concentration of financial and commercial and marketplace power that some of these companies have, I think there is something a little bit unprecedented with that, potentially their ability to potentially shape conversation.
So I haven't really fully formed my thoughts on this but I do think there's an element of both. I think like you said it's somewhere in the middle. I do feel we're living through a long transitory period right now where we're getting used to just conversing. At its most elemental form, humans are just getting used to a new way of conversing with each other, that's what it is. How long it's going to take and how governments, technology firms, society relationships are going to be changed... There's so many interesting...
For me as an analyst, it's fascinating, right, to think about the Great Firewall of China, to think about the separate evolution of technology in China versus outside, to think about whether Biden or Elizabeth Warren type intervention is going to come in to break up tech companies. I think these are all fascinating questions of our generation.
For me, taking a step back from all the carnage about that, it's actually, it's so fascinating, I'm just following it with so much interest and very conscious of the fact that I'm very much a user as well, a beneficiary as well. Every time I post something on Facebook. So yeah, it's an interesting time.
Jeremy Au: [00:34:56] Yeah. I mean I think it's also interesting to see so many independent journalists like you take advantage of these trends to create their own personal brand, their own personal writing channel. I mean I really love what you've done with sudhirtv.com, I'd love for you to share a little bit more about what you write there, what you share there, and it's definitely been very interesting for many of my peers as well to read about what you're saying and to agree or to disagree, right, with what you're saying.
So it's interesting to see that dynamic happen and the truth is, 20 years ago I don't think anybody would have even discovered you to agree or disagree with you, right? There would have been no sudhirtv.com to go and have that point of view or react to it, right? So I'm so curious about it, how do you feel about that for yourself and other independent journalists like yourself?
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:35:48] Yeah, I mean you chose an interesting question. I think if we didn't have the internet a lot of us would either just have been doing something else or we would have been just traditional journalists with the mainstream media, which would have necessarily meant that the diversity of views in Singapore would have been less, because we would have been operating under particular constraints.
Yeah, so I started my blog, sudhirtv.com, it's actually my initials, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, but since I moved into video it's actually formed a very convenient acronym, right, sudhirtv. So thank you to my Indian parents for giving me this very long, archaic Indian name which finally has some purpose.
But I started the blog I think 15 years ago and at that time it was mostly the written word, it was very casual, I think I had just finished at Berkeley. It's since just sort of grown and evolved over the years and more and more subscribers, more people supporting it. I now have a section where I post all my videos. I started doing videos more seriously about 15 months ago.
I think the interesting thing is I've started experimenting more with combining the different mediums. So having a long form piece but also interspersing it with video and images and other bits of content, infographics sometimes, and yeah. It's kind of become a bit of a digital magazine, started off as a blog and I think the best way to describe it now is a digital magazine, sort of links to my books as well over there, to my Instagram page. It's kind of a fun thing which also has a lot of serious content for people who want that kind of thing.
It's allowed me to push myself, if I think about myself as a writer purely, it's allowed me to push myself in different ways. I recently wrote an obituary on Maradona, somebody who I grew up with who for about one month in 1996 I thought I might one day be like him, but then the realities of growing up in Singapore versus Argentina hit home very hard.
So I wrote a piece on him recently, I wrote a piece, long obituary on my experience of meeting Anthony Bourdain after Bourdain died. I do a lot of writing on food as well. So yeah, it's just been this vehicle that's allowed me to push myself in different ways, and again I just have much more time for this kind of creative pursuit ever since I left my job. So yeah, it's been fun, it's been a lot of fun doing the blog.
Jeremy Au: [00:38:15] I think a lot of people in the tech industry are both very proud about their ability to indirectly or directly support journalists like yourself as well as content creators like so many of us, right, but they're also very ambivalent about their own role in the worst things that are being described, right? So we talked about violence, they were amplified, we're talking about protests, we're talking about echo chambers, we're talking about a great filter, and all these different dynamics of technology and algorithms and so on and so forth.
So I'm kind of curious, do you have any thoughts on people who want advice on how to think about their moral obligations or their ethical dynamics they need to be thinking through as they work day-to-day as a junior member of a tech company or as a middle manager or as a senior executive, and how would you think about that?
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:39:13] I guess I'll answer that with a focus on media, media and technology. I think the biggest danger, and I've seen it, I don't want to name any... put any companies in the spotlight but I've seen it several times over the past 15 years in Singapore, and in other countries, but in Singapore particularly just because that's where I have the most experience.
I think the biggest danger is with people who place too much of a premium on eyeballs and short-term exits. I think once you have that as your guiding mantras, and sometimes it's not even a guiding mantra, it's something that the founder has at the back of his mind and he doesn't want to talk about it or she doesn't want to talk about it and they kind of cover it up with all kinds of wonderful flowery messages about having a new media channel or creating content for this area of society that doesn't have content that addresses their needs.
But actually one of their core impulses is how can I drive up eyeballs, how can I drive up engagement, how can I position this company for an exit within three, five, seven, nine years, whatever it is, depending on the founder. That really is, in today's media landscape, for me is such a dangerous way to think about it because if you go back to some of the things I talked about with the changes happening in The Economist Group and other traditional media companies, a lot of traditional media companies which have built up processes to deal with a lot of editorial issues, they are having so many financial pressures put on them.
The New York Times has done an amazing job of making that transition through the digital era. I'm not so sure about a lot of other companies out there. So we basically have almost a bit of a gap between these traditional stalwarts who have the right processes in place but aren't yet fit for purpose for the digital age.
Into this vacuum, into this gap you're getting all these new players coming in and a lot of them don't have the right processes, don't have the right editorial checks, don't have the right way of building up trust with the reader or viewer, don't have the right ways of fact checking, basic fact checking is not there, and they are incentivized so much.
We can have a longer discussion about the trail of incentives going all the way to venture capitalists as well who are themselves fueling the entire industry. That's probably the biggest danger now, I think, I hope that people entering the new media space or anywhere in that media technology space actually think about some of the core journalism values, right. These are values that have been with us for over a century now that The Economist started in the mid-19th century, mid-1800s, so a lot of the big traditional companies have very strong values and you don't even have to look very much further.
Even if you look at traditional values that newspaper, like we have in Singapore have, papers like the Straits Times , I might disagree with them in terms of their political bias sometimes but at the end of the day they do have those proper core processes in places for most of their content, and I think it's important for anybody starting out to remember what those core values are. Even though that might mean that you can't exit in five years or you can't exit in seven years, I think media is a little bit different.
Jeremy Au: [00:42:42] Amazing. Kind of wrapping things up here, are there any common myths or misconceptions to being a content creator in this new digital age?
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:42:53] Well, I think one thing that I've had to deal with, and this is kind of a challenge as well for me, is being in front of the camera for the first time was extremely nerveracking and it's still extremely nerveracking for me. That was probably one of the biggest challenges and transitions that I had to make from being a writer who's very comfortable sitting by myself behind the safety and sanctuary of my screen in front of the lights and the camera and everything.
I think the misconception there is that... So I've gotten used to it to some degree, right, but it still makes me nervous, my inner shirt is completely wet with sweat every time I do a short segment. But the misconception that people who watch me sometimes think that I'm actually enjoying myself and having a good time. It's actually quite painful, I kind of keep doing it for the bigger purpose.
I think what are some of the other misconceptions, I guess that also has to do with that element of maybe celebrity or fame or whatever that comes along with it. So ever since I started doing video, and I'm still just kind of small deal compared to all the big YouTubers around the world. But within the Singapore political scene I guess I have a bit of a following and people know me. So within that confine and that space, I think sometimes people have started calling me out on the street and things like that, when I walk around Singapore.
The joke that I tell my good friend is that I've been quite fortunate that with COVID I've had to have my mask on most of the time, so people can't really spot me. And it's a difficult thing to talk about as well because at the same time nothing gives me as much joy as meeting somebody who's been following my work or has been supporting me, and I know they're the reason I still have the energy to do these things.
But I think then again there's that myth and misconception, which I think is true for some quote unquote "influencers" and I'd never call myself that, that they actually enjoy the limelight and spotlight and everything else, but I think the reality for a lot of us, and I'm sure it's true for writers and it'll be true for any writer who's moving to video, is that that element of it is not something that really attracts me. It's not the reason we do things to be recognized on the street or to have a little bit of fame or whatever. So I think that's another myth or misconception. I think those are the two that kind of come off the top of my head.
Jeremy Au: [00:45:21] Last question here is for those who are considering a journey similar to yours, either in terms of journalism or becoming a content creator online, what advice or resources would you recommend to them?
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:45:38] I think I've got to answer this again in a slightly philosophical way, which would be to say that I think the most important thing is to expose yourself to every medium. I think in today's world to be a content creator you absolutely have to consume every possible medium.
So unpack that a little bit, I know people who don't watch much TV and this is just not like older people like my dad, but I know younger people also who they don't watch much TV. They think that TV's a waste of time and all the knowledge in the world is going to be gotten from books and academic papers or journals or whatever.
But actually, in my opinion, some of the best commentary, some of the best language, some of the best ideas I have seen and heard in recent times have been from shows on Netflix and HBO. So I'll just give you two examples, like The Crown, I love The Crown on Netflix. Use of language, thinking about empire, thinking about family relationship, thinking about monarchies and republicanism.
I think there's so many things that I've gotten from The Crown, and if I could just quote another one The Watchmen, The Watchmen, a series on HBO. It's almost like the best thing that I've seen on race relations in the US. If you really think about some of the messages that are coming out of The Watchmen. That's on the one side, people who don't watch TV.
Then I also know people on the other side, this is I guess a bit of a symptom of our short attention span but I also know people who have stopped reading books because they're just spending all their time on YouTube or Netflix or whatever it might be and I think that's a big mistake as well because a book is one of the few mediums that allows you this kind of deep, cerebral type thought into a subject. I don't think any other medium really allows you that.
This totally applies as well to people who see themselves only as YouTubers. Even if you see yourself only as a YouTuber, don't stop reading books please because I think it just allows you to improve the quality of your language, the quality of your thought. And you don't realize this initially but it kind of really came home to me during my transition to video that it's so important to be able to take these... And this, of course, is something that The Economist trains you in as well. It's so important to be able to take these long, deep thoughts and ideas and really condense them to a very succinct message.
I was doing that for a long time in my writing but video is a whole different ballgame in that respect, and thinking about expressions and everything like that. I think when you actually... So for people who like to do video, the reason I'll say to still read books is because you need to have that really strong body of knowledge in a particular subject in order to be able to break it down. I don't think you can just read a couple of articles, which is what a lot of the content creators today do. They read a couple of articles, they watch a couple of videos and then they spit out something new. It's almost always like a victory of style over substance, it's flashy and it's nice but if you listen to the words that they're saying, it's actually not the best way of presenting that bit of information on a topic.
So that would be my singular piece of advice to a content creator, to a commentator, to a writer, whatever, is don't block yourself off from any particular medium. It's actually one of the hardest things for us to do today. How do you design your media diet today, right, between TV, podcast, book. It's terrible because it's this paradox of choice but I think it's a very important thing for anybody to do, absolutely.
Jeremy Au: [00:49:21] Amazing. Sudhir, thank you so much for sharing your journey and so much deep thinking for this episode and I'm sure a lot of people are going to really appreciate you sharing all of it.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh: [00:49:32] Yeah, thanks for having me, Jeremy. It's been fun and I still want to see those tie-dyed T-shirt photographs that you have.