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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

The Interplay between Form and Flair



Editorial in PENANG MONTHLY, August 2014

Watching the recent World Cup matches brought to my mind the snug relationship between Form and Flair. Football seen on the TV screen shows clearly how different formations—of 4-3-3 or 4-4-2—function differently, and how each of these hold different possibilities and different limitations.

Now, if that were all there is to Form, then any construct by one team would be neutralised by a parrying construct from the opposing team. But in fact, Form is simply a springing board from which Flair can leap forth. Flair makes the difference, but it is in turn made possible by functionally constructed Form. Form is the necessary foundation for creativity—for brilliance. Form gives birth to Flair and Flair is the endgame of Form. Each decides the other.

In fact, the strategic use of this dichotomy is found everywhere in daily life. Making the two work together brings results, not only in football, but also in most inter-human interactions—and in the individual mind in fact.

I believe one can divide people and institutions into three types: Those who seek Form; those who seek Flair; and those who seek an effective balance between the two. I assume most of us are in category three. We also realise that knowing which to use—and when—requires wisdom.

Gaining form is like a child learning to walk. Training comes first; Form comes first. Once walking has become a spontaneous ability, once that is habituated, the child can go on to run, jump—and even dance.

All this reminds me of the ancient discussion held among Chinese army generals about “Zheng” (The Orthodox) and “Qi” (The Unorthodox). Basically, the idea is that any Form that one creates contains possibilities for variations in the uses one can put it to.

Once there is Form, expectations are created all round. Once expectations are created, surprise becomes possible, and not before. In that sense, making oneself predictable is often for the purpose of springing a surprise.

That is where strategy—effectuality—comes into play. Strategy is not the monopoly of soldiers and sportsmen. It is something we all do, every day. Going for Flair without first mastering Form is childish, while having Form for its own sake is pointless. What the top teams at the World Cup recently exhibited was how Form facilitates Flair. At the individual level, we see also that the Flair of the individual player lies in his also being a team player, being part of a Form.

This interplay is central to social beings such as us, in all the things we do.

Interestingly, when we say that someone is in Good Form, we actually mean that the person is achieving Flair. His present condition is such that Form and Flair are mutually supportive—and therefore he is performing well.

The two cannot be separated. We see that also in how we use a word like “exercise”. It can mean “to train” or it can mean “to apply”. Keeping a skill going and applying a skill become the same thing.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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