Animal Farm and National Education

Have you ever read Animal Farm? It’s a book by George Orwell, reflecting events leading up to and during the Stalin era before World War II.

The novel addresses not only the corruption of the revolution by its leaders but also how wickedness, indifference, ignorance, greed and myopia corrupt the revolution. While this novel portrays corrupt leadership as the flaw in revolution (and not the act of revolution itself), it also shows how potential ignorance and indifference to problems within a revolution could allow horrors to happen if a smooth transition to a people’s government is not achieved.

If you haven’t read it, you really should. It describes how the few who rise to power with good intentions, to free their people from oppression, can end up becoming the oppressors themselves.

Now consider the following National Education messages:

  1. No one owes Singapore a living.
    We find our own way to survive and prosper, turning challenge into opportunity.
  2. We must ourselves defend Singapore.
    We are proud to defend Singapore ourselves, no one else is responsible for our security and well-being.

These were originally written in response to colonial rule and to the Japanese Occupation. Those were the oppressors that we were fighting off- that was the rhetoric that the PAP government used to motivate and encourage us to work hard, to accept that sacrifices had to be made. (National Service, for instance.)

In this frame of reference, the PAP-dominated government is elected by the Singaporean people. The PAP, in a way, represents Singapore. (We must ourselves defend the PAP.)

But consider the more ‘universal’ case presented by George Orwell. Eventually, the oppressed become the oppressors. A nation is more than its government.

Our National Education messages are principles. And the principles here, as I see them, are independence and personal responsibility.

As such, I argue that these principles are violated when we become overly dependent on the PAP, and when we relinquish personal responsibility for the state of our Nation to the Government.

If we’re violating the principles of nation-building, then we are diminishing the health of our Nation. Being unthinkingly supportive (or critical!) of the PAP is bad for Singapore. 

We should not be depending on any single agent for Singapore’s survival. It should be a collective effort. Nobody should be bigger than the collective. The PAP’s rhetoric used to be somewhat dominated by threats and fear-mongering. If not for the PAP, Singapore would fall into chaos- there would be riots, our women would be maids in other countries, so on and so forth.

If you use a parenting analogy again, the incumbent Government is like an overbearing parent who refuses to let his children out of his sight- because the kids don’t know how to make decisions, don’t know how to handle their lives. If the parent were not around, the kids would surely fall to ruin.

Again, what does that say about the quality of parenting? What kind of parent are you, if you strive to keep your children so dependent on you that they cannot fend for themselves? What kind of government are you, if you strive to keep your people dependent on your political party for survival?

From what I understand, the Singapore Government is full of hardworking Singaporeans who keep the country running, regardless of the people at the top. The people who really run the show are the people who show up to work everyday, doing all the mundane nitty-gritty work. I salute you all.

I don’t mean to portray the PAP as a villain, or to black out all the good things that they have done for us. Similarly, I’m not asking you to rush out and vote for the Opposition at the next General Election. The “villain” here is not a person, entity or an institution. If we have to frame this as some sort of war, we are fighting ignorance, intolerance, fear and the like.

TL;DR:

Our leaders told us that no one owes a living, and that we must ourselves defend Singapore.

This is true. No one owes us a living, not even our leaders. We find our own way to survive and prosper, turning challenge into opportunity.

No one owes us a living. We must ourselves defend Singapore.

Depoliticize Singapore for Economic Gain: Economy Suffers

I’ve been toying with the idea that Singaporeans’ general apathy and lack of drive is a form of “learned helplessness“, just as Seligman’s dogs lay down and took the electric shocks, meekly accepting their fate.

For the most part, we don’t really feel like we have any real control over our destiny. So why bother? That’s the part that our leaders don’t seem to consider. (When I was a student councillor in Junior College, I  hoped to playing a role in decisions that actually mattered. Unfortunately, the more important a decision was, the less likely it would be that we would be consulted about it.  I found this terribly frustrating. It essentially communicated to us that we didn’t matter. I hated JC.)

“Why are Singaporeans so apathetic?” Maybe it’s because you systematically teach them that their opinions don’t matter, their views don’t count, shut up and do as you’re told. (This isn’t just political, it’s cultural- ask any primary school teacher. Not just about their classroom- but about their staff room, too.)

Politically cauterizing people has long-term consequences on their collective psyche- and that, subsequently, has economic consequences. What was initially done in the interests of the economy has now begun to damage the economy. We’re killing the golden geese.

Encouraging idealism becomes the pragmatic solution. If we REALLY care about economic growth, we’re going to have to empower people to think for themselves- and part of that package includes a sense of greater purpose, and with that, political awareness. That means actively threatening the status quo.

What this means is that leaders have to acknowledge in advance that they will one day be obsolete.

I find it strange that a lot of people who cherish their own autonomy, freedom of thought and the like would seek to quell it in others. (I’m reminded of that scene in Dead Poet’s Society, where one teacher tells another that we shouldn’t teach kids to think for themselves- that it’s too much for them to bear- when he clearly prides himself on being an intellectual in himself, and must have gotten exactly what he believes others can’t handle.)

Consider this interesting paradox: 

While our leaders built a system that was exceptional at filling buckets, they themselves must have been internally driven. They were passionate about what they were doing.

After all, they were educated and accomplished- they could have just left Singapore for greener pastures elsewhere.  But they chose to stay and make something of this place. Why? The only explanation I can think of is passion. Vision, too.

Both of which our education system systematically weeds out.

As a leader, if you are truly committed to the absolute best for your country, you will have to acknowledge that you cannot possibly know everything that it needs, and you cannot possibly provide all of it.

For the PAP leadership, this means acknowledging that WP and others may have contributions to make to Singapore. We are all a part of the collective fabric, and diversity is the best survival strategy. We can’t just have diversity in the things that you want, but not in the things that you don’t want. That defeats the purpose.

There are parallels to parenting- what kind of parent are you if you never allow your child to think for herself? If you can’t let your children out of your sight, for fear that they will screw up their lives the moment you’re not around- where have you succeeded as a parent?

Some parents are amazing with little kids, but terrible with young adults- because they can’t let go of certain ideas, certain schemas about what it means to be a parent. I suspect that Lee Kuan Yew falls into this category- he was a fantastic leader for the circumstances Singapore was in during the pinnacle of his leadership, but he is no longer the best man for the job. Which is why I’m incredibly proud of him for stepping down.

I think that’s the sort of spirit we need to have. Singapore comes first. If we have that in mind, and we see that we’re all on the same team in that regard, then I think we’ll see that both the economy and politics will sort themselves out.

TL:DR:

Singapore was depoliticized because of economic considerations.

This cauterization has long term effects on the people’s psyche, which subsequently has negative consequences on the economy.

Singaporeans are pragmatic. The pragmatic thing to do, in this case, is to encourage idealism. To teach people to think for themselves, and to show them that they can shape their own destiny.

Until we do that, most of us will remain apathetic. Our leaders and our systems have been teaching us that it doesn’t pay to care.

PS: The title is intentionally simplistic. I couldn’t figure out how to express it succinctly without oversimplifying it. Apologies to the economists and rigorous thinkers. I’d greatly appreciate better title suggestions.

PPS: I understand the worry that many Singaporeans tend to be noisy, irresponsible and small-minded when it comes to politics. But that is not a good argument for depoliticizing. I think, in fact, that it compels us to learn how to handle our views better, how to interact with others, how to have civil discourse.

My MBTI Journey

MBTI:

I remember when I first encountered MBTI. It was introduced to me over beer, by a friend of a friend. He was a self-professed INTJ, and he was convinced that I was an ENTP. I thought it was fascinating. I can’t remember the specific details, but I went home to check it out. I did the tests.

I initially got ESTP a few times- which was what I had convinced myself I was- but after a while I started getting ENTP. I believe that this boiled down to the fact that I was interpreting ideas such as “intuition” and “abstraction” as something touchy-feely and emotional-like, and I felt like I was more of an analyst than a go-with-what-your-soul-tells-you person.

Anyway, I was hooked. I thought it was the most interesting thing I had ever encountered in my life. I did. It explained, in one fell swoop, almost all of the difficulties and troubles I’d been having in dealing with other people. It forced me to acknowledge the reality that not everybody is like me- in fact, that most people aren’t like me- and that what I perceive to be normal and acceptable isn’t always so to everybody else.

It was a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, instead of thinking that other people are either stupid or flawed, I learned to see that they were simply different. We didn’t have to be at loggerheads with one another- I simply needed to learn to see things from their perspectives. I became somewhat obsessed with understanding and mastering the MBTI system. I’d read up about all the archetypes, and after a while I even got into the technical details underlying the functions that determine the archetypes.

(Most MBTI tests you do online aren’t very accurate, because they try to get you to pick a side between the four variables. In reality, the best way to figure out a person’s MBTI type, in my humble opinion, is to make sense of their functional preferences.)

As I got better at making sense of the MBTI, I started becoming more prescriptive than descriptive. I started to pigeonhole people. When I was younger, I assumed that people were either one thing or the other. You either got me or you don’t. After I picked up MBTI, I became enamoured with the idea that there were many kinds of people, more than I had ever imagined. 16 different types! That’s even more than in the zodiac!

I started paying attention to people and noticing the differences- yes, this person was more of an introvert, and this fella is more of a “feeler” than a “thinker”. Slowly but surely, I noticed that I was making better social decisions- I was less likely to piss people off by doing or saying things that they weren’t comfortable with. (Of course, “less likely” doesn’t change the fact that I was still doing it really often…)

But after a while, a new way of seeing turns into a new set of blinders. I started to obsess about MBTI, and I started viewing everybodythrough these lenses. What had expanded my mind and my vision of the world was now beginning to limit it. MBTI is ambiguous enough that it allows you to cherry-pick, and this is dangerous because it isn’t real knowledge. It’s simply confirmation bias- you start to see what you want to see.

I started to impose my views on other people. I had friends who weren’t certain of what their type was, and I “figured them out” and then told them what type they were- arguing in a persuasive manner. (One can be a “creative accountant” when it comes to MBTI- If you’ve already decided what type a person is, and the person is reasonably ambiguous, as most people are, then you can squeeze them into the type that you want to.)

Another problem with MBTI is that it allows you to justify your weaknesses. I am an ENTP, and ENTPs have inferior Introverted Sensing- so I suck at routines. I am an INTP, and INTPs have inferior Extroverted Feeling, so I don’t have to care about social norms or other people’s feelings. It becomes like a sort of handicap. It’s like saying, “This is the way I am, so it’s okay for me to be this way.”

MBTI is really just about preferences. It’s about what you like to do, not what you’re necessarily good at doing. Just because you’re an INTJ doesn’t mean you’re “smart”. You could meet an ESFP who happens to be a better logical thinker than you are. There is “some” co-relation between preferences and competence, but you can’t use one to consistently predict the other. The few times when you get it wrong will screw you up terribly. Don’t do it if you can help it.

If you’re interested in getting into MBTI, I think it’s something to be encouraged. It broadens your perspectives and makes you look at people in a new light. But I think it’s a provisional system. It doesn’t explain everything. (Nothing does.) It’s much akin to Wittgenstein’s Ladder. You climb up and over it, and then you discard it.

I like to think that the “objective” of MBTI, if there is one, is to render itself obsolete. How can that happen? It happens when it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to type anybody. It’s often difficult to type highly competent individuals such as Barack Obama, because they seem to be so good at everything. I think a good understanding of MBTI allows us to figure out what to work on.

As an ENTP, I learnt to understand my strengths better- I’m good at divergent perspectives and rigorous, consistent thinking. I learnt to see my weaknesses better, too. I have trouble sticking to a single thing for a long time.

Some people argue that we should ignore our weaknesses and focus entirely on our strengths. I think we should 80/20 it. A strength is like a motor, and a weakness is like a hull breach. If we had to choose between one of the two, yes- more strength over less weakness, a powerful motor over a smaller hole. But in reality, we don’t have to choose just one or the other. A little time patching up the hole can allow the ship to move a lot quicker with the same motor. Make sure to 80/20 it so you don’t waste too much time on one element of the broader system.

I used to define myself as someone who couldn’t be bothered with routines or sticking to any single pursuit for a long time. I’ve since decided to challenge that definition. I’m never going to be as good at focusing on one thing as I am going to be at divergent perspectives, but there’s no reason why I need to be terribly bad at it. MBTI has revealed to me my strengths and weaknesses- I focus on developing my strengths, but I also think it’s necessary to diminish one’s weaknesses- at least to the point where it doesn’t become a burden that holds you back from accomplishment and fulfillment.

MBTI simplifies our endlessly complex reality into 8 cognitive functions at 16 personality types. Of course, there are really an infinite number of cognitive functions and personality types. But these 8 and 16 respectively allow you to broaden your perspectives- at least, it did for me.

We teach children that electrons of an atom orbit the nucleus the way the planets orbit the sun. That isn’t actually true, but it expands the children’s minds and sets them up to understand other things better. Similarly, MBTI isn’t actually an accurate depiction of reality. (Nothing can be.) But it expands your mind. Just remember that it is not a substitute for truth.

I no longer really think of people in terms of MBTI. I don’t really care what your type is. I have reached a stage where I’m comfortable with not having “answers”. I think character is more important than personality. I still subconsciously evaluate people, of course- but I no longer wonder “what’s this person’s MBTI type?”. My thinking is a bit more subtle and nuanced now- it’s mostly intuitive, and a little difficult to express. But it definitely works better than sticking to a rigid system.

Still, again, I would not have gotten to this stage without having gone through that one. You need to learn the system before you can disregard it. Climb the ladder before you discard it. Know the ‘rules’ so that you can break them.

TL;DR:

MBTI opened my eyes and broadened my perspectives, but then subsequently limited it. I found it necessary to climb up and over it, and then discard it.

I still think it’s a valuable system worth studying- just be careful of falling into the various traps associated with falling in love with a way of seeing things.