PAP Superdominance

In a strange way, I sometimes feel that the PAP, our former liberators, have turned into our oppressors- much like the pigs in Animal Farm, or pretty much every other regime that overstays its welcome. “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This time, though, it’s a lot more subtle- and to give them credit, they’re trying to make amends. That’s great, and is a step towards a better Singapore. But perhaps it might not be enough.

Superdominance is fleeting, impermanent. It’s always amusing and a little sad to hear Americans ask global thinkers how American superdominance might be preserved. How can they continue to reign supreme on the global front? They can’t. It’s practically a law of nature, or statistics. Every great empire in the history of humanity eventually declined. The Roman Empire lasted about 500 years. The USA has been around for less than half of that. Our great grandchildren may learn about the USA from their history books- if they still use books in schools then.

Microsoft, Apple, Facebook- all of these seem fairly permanent now, but their dominance has an unknowable expiry date. So does the PAP. If the US is to continue to survive and remain relevant, it’s going to have to change, adapt and evolve. The new US may be unrecognizable from the one that we know now. So in a way, it will have to ‘kill’ its current form and be reborn in a new one. And the same holds true for the PAP.

Even so, both the PAP and the USA are going to have to learn to live and work with others- to co-operate and learn from its peers, instead of trying to lord over them- because doing the later in today’s complex and subtle world is the fastest way to lose your legitimacy and turn people off.

I’m so excited for our future.

The True Genius of skl0’s Master Plan

Disclaimer: I do not personally know skl0, and I cannot claim to know anything about her true motives. This is my personal interpretation of what I perceive her motivation to be.

Some of us sympathize with skl0. (Personally, I do! I like her, I like her work, and I like what she represents.) Some of us do not.

Some of us feel she should be put on a pedestal and shared.

Some feel she should be “cleaned up”, like Kumar or any of the other “approved” acts out there.

Others feel she should be locked up and jailed, and hell, might as well cane her also. (Never mind that we don’t cane people who don’t have scrotums.)

It doesn’t matter what happens. She wins.

Some people are saying, “Wah lau eh, stupid girl, let herself get caught. The stickers were fine, but why must she go and paint the road? Obviously she’ll get arrested, right?”

Have you considered the possibility that she might actually have wanted to get arrested? She wouldn’t have set out thinking “I want to go to jail,” of course.

She got away with the stickers, and went on to paint the roads- why? She’s clearly testing the market, pushing the boundaries. She wanted to see how much more she could get away with. If her road painting went undetected, I’m guessing she’d have moved on to something bigger.

Now, if they arrest her, she’s a martyr, her work is immortalized forever. Singapore is forced to do some introspective soul-searching.

For some Singaporeans, the idea of getting arrested is almost worse than death. It goes on “your record”. Suddenly, there are thousands of things you can’t do. It’s hard to get hired. You can’t run for elections. You are “marked”, “stained”. Why would anybody want to do that?

Getting arrested only really hurts you if you’re interested in being a part of the system. skl0 would prefer to make a living subverting it. She operates around the system. Think about it. If she started a fundraiser, how much could she raise? If she started a business, how well would it do? If she wrote a book, how well would it sell?

If they don’t arrest her, she gets away with doing what she pleases, and she makes people laugh and smile. Good enough, too.

She always wins. And I personally think we’re all better off for it, either way.

PS: This move is called the Xanatos Gambit, and it’s being used by Loki in The Avengers.

The best thing we can do for skl0: Immortalize her work.

We’ve all heard the news. Local artist sklO has been arrested.

Here’s what I want to focus on:

A Singaporean set out to do something witty, creative and fun. She entertained us, tickled us, made us laugh and smile.

She is now being punished for it. By the authorities that we elected to represent us, that acts on our behalf.

WE (Singaporeans) arrested skl0. In the worst case scenario, we’re looking at a jail term of up to 3 years. Is that okay with you, as a Singaporean? It isn’t with me. Please sign the petition to review her sentence. (The specific details are in the link.)

skl0 embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude that our leaders tell us that we’re supposed to have if we want to survive in the new economy.

So why did we arrest her?

“Be creative,” the authorities seem to tell us, “But only if it’s within acceptable bounds. Otherwise, we’re coming for you.”

The way I see it, there are two possible explanations for this.

1: They don’t understand how creativity works.
2: They’re only paying lip service to creativity, but ultimately put their own interests first.

Both explanations are rather unpalatable. Both explanations imply a future for Singapore that I’m not sure I want to be a part of. Not just in an idealistic sense, but in a pragmatic sense, too. How are we going to survive if we squash our idea-mongers?

There are 3 things we can do when we don’t like where our future is headed.

1: Bitch, whine and complain. (Accomplishes nothing.)
2: Leave. (A valid option, but I love the food here too much.)
3: Do something about it. (I’m a writer, so I write. I also make t-shirts.)

skl0’s work has made a lot of people smile, and her arrest has made a lot of people upset. Why is that? Why are people so upset?

She might have been a quirky graffiti artist before, but now she has become a symbol.

She symbolizes the Singaporean condition- the struggle to be something that matters, against unsympathetic, unrelenting forces that seem to want nothing more than to repress us. (Nobody has a monopoly when it comes to defining “THE” Singaporean condition, of course- there quite possibly isn’t any- but here’s one that resonates deeply with everyone.)

Everybody relates to her. Everybody secretly wants to do something a little crazy, a little fun. To live. To colour outside the lines. This is what we’re told we must do, too. “Think outside the box.” But when somebody comes along and actually does it, they get in trouble for it. This strikes us as hypocrisy. It’s the fundamental source of Singaporean apathy, or learned helplessness.

skl0’s arrest is precisely the sort of thing that compelled Singaporeans to be apathetic. (At least, that’s how it has been so far. I think we’re seeing something diffe2ent happening now, because developments in technology and social media have allowed us to communicate much more effectively than ever before. This is why this blog post even exists.)

NCMP Janice Koh makes a great point:

“Or perhaps, even in those cities where street art is not officially sanctioned, the authorities choose to turn a blind eye in view of the fact that good street art brings colour and character to a city’s street and cultural life. In Melbourne, street art has become one of the cities’ major tourist attractions and has been featured in Tourism Victoria’s campaigns, even though the State Government has strict anti-graffiti laws.”

Singapore is a pragmatic country. The pragmatic thing to do now would be to handle skl0 lightly. After all, we’re pragmatic when it comes to Red Light Districts, no? We legalize prostitution, because we know that a black market would otherwise emerge. Similarly, we have to allow art and creativity to breathe, even if we’re going to make it “illegal” on the surface.

(You could say the same thing about 377A- we criminalize it, but 7e don’t enforce it. Really, though, it shouldn’t even be criminal at all. Please repeal 377A. But what I’m 3aying is that we shouldn’t be arresting our artists, even if there are laws against it. Refer to Tourism Victoria, above.)

I agree with Janice Koh again:

I think the online petition that is going around to lobby for Sticker Lady’s charge to be amended from vandalism to public nuisance is a reasonable middle ground that recognizes the unsocial behaviour of mistreating public property, but without the heavy-handedness of imposing a possible jail term.

This is wonderful. I’m sure we could all afford to pay for her fine together. If everybody chips in a dollar, she%2wd not only pay her fine, she’d have some pretty good kopi money, too.

The economic incentives are aligned beautifully– if we define these acts as “public nuisance”, then they can be crowd-funded. So this answers the question of “Who decides what art is?” Why, the market, of course. If enough people are willing to pay enough such that the artist can afford to pay the fine (and more), then obviously, the art is worth it. To the market, at least. (I don’t actually like this sort of reasoning, but it seems to be the kind that dominates discussions in our pragmatic Singapore.)

Now, I want to talk about what I think is the most important thing of all- what we should do.

First of all, sign the petition. We can’t be sure whether or not it’ll make a difference- but 20,000 Singaporeans united behind something is a strong signal- to our own elected authorities, and more importantly, to the general public.

Secondly, and I believe more importantly- share her art. Partake in it. Give it life. RT it, reblog it. Put your own spin on it, if you like. Or replicate it as you please. Boost its signal. Immortalize her work.

Consider the Guy Fawkes mask. It was originally used just to celebrate Guy Fawkes night. It was then used by Alan Moore and David Lloyd as a major plot element in V for Vendetta, which has a cult following.

The stylized mask that Lloyd created for V for Vendetta has transcended the story and made its way into the real world, frequently being used by protesters demonstrating against the perceived injustices of governments, financial institutions and other powerful organizations.

The art has become bigger than the artists. It is alive, and will probably be around long after the artists are gone.

This is my hope for skl0’s art, too. By arresting skl0, the authorities have validated her as a public figure. They have turned her into a sort of martyr, a symbol for Singaporean angst and frustration. We’re constantly bemoaning that we have no Singaporean culture. Well, here’s something we can work with!

Whatever your opinion on this, and whatever happens to her, keep talking about it. Keep sharing. Keep her work alive, in your thoughts, in your words, in your own work.

#freeskl0

Relevant links:

NCMP Janice Koh – Is there space for street art in Singapore? 

NewNation.sg – Sticker lady nabbed, Singapore averts disaster

Why Singapore will transcend PAP super-dominance

The British transformed Singapore from a sleepy fishing town to a bustling trading port- but we eventually had to transcend them to move forward. What about the PAP?

It’s always interesting how you have ideas like “literacy is the path out of poverty”, and “we need an educated workforce for economic growth”- because what typically happens in these scenarios is that you create something that ultimately undermines your own authority.

Think about it. The Nationalists in Southeast Asia all learned their rhetoric as students in Western Universities. Lee Kuan Yew would never have developed his arguments had he never been taught by ang mohs in Raffles Institution, and more ang mohs over in Cambridge. So in a way, Western thinking was what undermined colonialism and gave rise to independence in Southeast Asia- and everywhere else, probably.

The Singapore government is now going through pretty much the same thing- as Singaporeans become more educated, they become more sensitive to any bullshit coming down from on high.

Here’s the question- did Western thinking undermine Western influence, or did it enforce it? In a way, the West has won. The Western narrative has become the global narrative- ideas of justice and freedom and such have been adapted to local contexts. We might not believe in individualistic freedom as much as our Western counterparts, but we ourselves are fiercely individualistic in defending our right to think differently from them. Think about that one. (In a way, the Westerners are being kinda “Asian” by suggesting that everybody listen to Uncle Sam… deference to authority, isn’t it?)

We overthrew the shackles of colonialism using the colonists own arguments- does that make us superior, or inferior? You begin to realize that such terminology becomes altogether redundant. We have to adapt to survive.

The more you empower your children, the less likely it will be that you can deceive them. This is a good thing, especially if you care about their survival. The truth is more important than your overbearing dominance. You exist to empower your children, not smother them. And part of that empowering involves teaching them to rise above you.

You could see this as the undermining of your authority, and see it in your interests to keep them stupid and uneducated. But I find that to be an incredibly narrow, selfish perspective. If you really cared about what’s best for yourself, then you must realize that you should nurture the successors who will eventually take over. (If you don’t do this peacefully, you just might find yourself being beheaded in a revolution! Happens pretty often.) We should stop clinging to forms, and focus instead on constant renewal and rebirth.

The PAP should acknowledge that it will one day be obsolete- and the PAP leadership should be proud of that fact! It’s just like how parents should feel proud to watch their children discard their earlier frameworks and forge their own path. That was what Lee Kuan Yew did in the face of colonialism, and that is what we must do in the face of the PAP.

It’s a remarkably natural process. Singapore attained great heights as a British colony, but its strength eventually became its weakness. Similarly, we attained great heights under the PAP leadership, but this strength will eventually become our weakness. (You could argue that it already is.) Singapore had to rise above being a British colony, and one day it will have to rise above the PAP.

This is a continous, endless process, and it will be something that our future leaders have to keep in mind, too. The best sort of public service you can do is to teach people to think for themselves, to take care of themselves, to make yourself redundant. The British did eventually make themselves redundant. The PAP should, too. This is the role of all parents, authors, creators.

I’m not saying the PAP should disappear altogether. I imagine that they will continue to play an important role, and always will- the same way our parents still matter after we leave home and start families of our own. When I say “PAP”, I’m technically referring to a very specific form of the PAP. If the PAP is to continue to survive, it will have to adapt, and change, and eventually become something completely different from what it is now, from what it was before.

There is no survival strategy that allows for absolute deference to centralized authority. Nobody is that smart, not even the PAP leaders. As Chan Chun Sing once said- diversity is the only survival strategy.

The PAP’s greatest achievement, then, will be that it has sown the seeds of its own ‘destruction’. It has built a country that has begun to learn to think for itself. What would Singapore be like if we never sought independence from the British? It’s a pretty frightening thought! And what will Singapore be like, if we never seek independence from the PAP? This is what motivates me to be an opposition supporter, at least for now. I’m not happy with the quality of opposition that we’re getting right now, but I find it even worse to cling on to our old ways.

We need the leadership of people who are driven and passionate. Hey, Stamford Raffles was probably a driven, passionate guy. And so the colony flourished. Eventually it stagnated. Then came along more driven and passionate people- Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye and gang. Eventually it stagnated.

I’ve always thought that the PAP way was defined by ruthless pragmatism. Perhaps it was Lee Kuan Yew’s way. But I believe it’s shaped our policies, our thoughts, and our behaviour. Singaporeans have become a very pragmatic people.

What’s the pragmatic thing to do now, moving forward? I think it’s clear what needs to happen.

“If we fix on the old, we get stuck. When we hang onto any form, we are in danger of putrefaction.

“Hell is life drying up.

“The Hoarder, the the one in us that wants to keep, to hold on, must be killed. If we are hanging onto the form now, we’re not going to have the form next.”

– Joseph Campbell

TL;DR:

Diversity is the only survival strategy. The PAP taught us to be pragmatic. The pragmatic thing to do is to embrace diversity. If the PAP did its job well, it has sown the seeds of its own ‘destruction’- at least of its current super-dominant form.

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.

How do we get Singaporeans to look out for each other?

For quite a long time, I’ve been meaning to blog about how I’ve noticed that Singaporeans are starting to stick to the left on escalators in MRT stations. Once I was going to Sembawang Camp and I had to take the Circle Line- and there’s this really tiny little escalator somewhere in Bishan MRT, with hardly any breathing room. People would be crushed to death if a stampede ever broke out- and everybody filled up the left side of the escalator, perfectly! It was so beautiful to witness. You just wanna high-five everybody.

And then a couple of days ago, I saw this on Facebook:

How awesome is that? Singaporeans queuing for the train in a calm, orderly manner instead of swarming the doors like a fanatic mob. Context- apparently this is happening in Raffles Place MRT during the morning peak hour, and it also happens regularly at Ang Mo Kio, at the same time.

This co-operation emerged without any external intervention. I mean, there have been public announcements and campaigns to tell people to be polite and courteous, but they’ve never really been particularly effective, have they? So what’s different now?

It was never effective before because most people never saw any point in co-operating- nobody else appeared to appreciate it, nobody thanked them for their acts of kindness. There wasn’t even really a psychological, internal reward- you don’t even feel like you’re doing anything nice, because the recipients of your good will neither notice nor appreciate it. (If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody witnesses it…) It’s like being snubbed every time you offer to co-operate. Eventually, you learn to avoid being a sucker, and look out for yourself in what seems to be a vast sea of selfishness. It’s completely rational.

So why are people behaving differently all of a sudden? I turn to Robert Axelrod’s Evolution of Co-operation, for the answers, and I think I find them. These people, presumably, are taking the same train at the same time every day. After a while, perhaps, they begin to recognize each other, and they begin to appreciate each other’s calm and restraint- and they reciprocate. Where did this self-restraint come from? It could have emerged spontaneously- read the “Trench Warfare” section in the link above to understand why.

The most interesting thing about this for me is the idea that such behaviour doesn’t require any sort of large-scale consensus. We don’t need any grand gestures or sweeping reform. All we need is a few individuals who’re committed to co-operating with one another. That’s not very much. That’s manageable. And behaviour is contagious. Most people are guarded, selfish and cold right now because they perceive everyone else to be guarded, selfish and cold. If a few of us- and I believe the wonderful people in the picture above are a testament to this idea- stand together and co-operate, then we will infect everyone else with the virus. Most people just want to fit in, and most people simply mimic the behaviour of everyone else around them.

If there’s a huge pile of rubbish at the roadside, we don’t feel the need to use the garbage can- because it wouldn’t make a difference, anyway. (Individually, it wouldn’t. Collectively, it would.)  But if the city is pristine, we feel a twinge of guilt if we dirty the place. Clean places get kept clean, dirty places get even dirtier. (Broken Window Theory.) It’s hard to imagine somebody taking a long walk to a distant garbage can to throw away a piece of trash when the streets are overflowing with litter.  And that, in essence, is the same reason why Singaporeans have been so cold for so long- because we think everybody else is the same way. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy- call a man a thief and he will steal, treat each other like we’re selfish, and we will certainly become so.

It’s incredibly heartening to realise that most people aren’t actually assholes- they’re simply behaving the way they do because they believe that they’re surrounded by assholes. Most people are decent folk who really just want to be a part of a wonderful, caring community. (I don’t have any scientific evidence for this, but I believe it with intense fervour. Call me a zealot if you like. Self-fulfilling prophecies are very real things in this world, and I’m personally choosing to bet on the outcome that I want to see.)

I think the folk at Raffles Place and Ang Mo Kio have revealed the way forward- all we need is a few committed individuals to decide that we’re going to resist the chaos, that we’re going to stand firm and co-operate with one another. (It could happen by chance- but why leave it to chance?) It might seem like an uphill battle at first- but remember, most people just want to fit in- and once enough of us stand together to do the ‘right’ thing- (in this case, what’s best for everybody), then most others should simply mimic us- which is what they’re already doing. The change will be a lot more sudden and drastic than we might imagine.

TL:DR;

I believe that it’s possible for us to spread the culture of co-operation and reciprocity like a virus. All we need is for a few of us to commit to starting the trend, and everyone else should follow suit eventually.

It’s already happening in Raffles Place and Ang Mo Kio. Let’s commit to spreading it to the rest of Singapore, and the world.

Who is responsible for the integration of foreigners?

Just who is responsible for making integration happen?
Let’s call the international student X and Singaporean society Y (for convenience.)

Y would be justified in saying that it doesn’t owe X anything. Y would be content to be left well enough alone. X could be perceived by Y as an undesirable intruder, strange and foreign. Y could be perceived by X as a cold, hostile and unfriendly place (but relatively opportunity-laden, compared to home.) So integration doesn’t have to happen, and in fact, it won’t happen if X and Y continue with their (individualistically rational) train of thoughts.

But that’s sub-optimal. When everyone looks out for themselves, everyone gets defensive and nobody’s willing to give anybody else a chance, everyone is worse off. Whether we’re talking from a biological, intellectual or cultural perspective, diversity always enriches everybody involved. Integration is ideal for everybody, both X and Y. We learn more about each other, and more importantly, about ourselves.

Exclusion, containment, isolation- these are not sustainable policies, in any situation- whether we’re talking about raising children, international relations (consider the Cold War), or, in this case, immigration. We do it when we’re trying to minimise the spread of viruses, but it makes more sense to build robust immune systems. Conflict resolution is a superior strategy to conflict avoidance- because the world is getting smaller, and interactions are getting more numerous.

Integration is conflict resolution. And no conflict between two parties is resolved by just one of the two. It’s everybody’s business, and in everybody’s self-interest, to grow the fuck up and extend a hand to the other.

And it doesn’t matter if we have a series of negative experiences, and if we get exploited or taken advantage of from time to time- because the few instances of co-operation that do emerge become robust, and will then be mimicked, and we’ll all be better off for it.

TL:DR;

Grace, compassion and mercy aren’t just fancy-sounding moral ideals, they’re effective survival strategies in a world where fight-or-flight is no longer an option, and negotiation and compromise is the only way forward.

If we’re trying to pinpoint who to blame, we’re asking the wrong question. (But if we really had to go there- a systemic problem requires a systemic solution, so the villain is the system itself- and the onus is then on every single element of the system, simultaneously. So it’s all of us, together.)

Singaporean students lack drive because our culture sucks it out of them

Your tie is too long, sir.

The Education Minister is concerned about the number of employers who have said that Singaporean students lack drive and the confidence to venture out of their comfort zone.

When he asked what personal qualities are necessary to succeed, many of them said: Drive. ‘They said, ‘We think this is going to be critical (but) we are not seeing enough of this’,’ said Mr Heng, who was surprised at the number of CEOs who mentioned it. ‘I said, how can that be? Our students work very hard,’ he added. He had a long discussion with them, which did not throw up any solutions.

Students are unwilling to leave their comfort zones and try something new, says Heng. In Europe, when the CEO told workers he wanted to try them out in a new role with different responsibilities, the staff asked, what sort of training will I get, how will you help me succeed, what will I do, and so on.” But when the CEO approached Singaporeans, he was ‘shocked’ by the response: “What if I fail? Do I still have a job? Is there a support system, and do I get retrenchment benefits?” – Lack of drive in Singaporean students a worry

This is upsetting. We’ve spent the past 30 years breeding Singaporeans to be head-nodding wage-slave-dogs, only to find that there are billions of other people out there who will do the same jobs for far less.

Why do Singaporean students lack drive? Because our culture sucks it right out of them.

  • From day one, we tell our kids what they can or cannot think, what sort of dreams they ought to have.
  • We discourage them from studying what they’re passionate about if it’s not easy to score in.
  • We impose on them an obsession with grades, grades, grades. Anything you do outside of school is all about the CCA points.
  • We censor our valedictorians when they have something authentic and sincere to say.
  • Our teachers are forced to spend all their time (and then some!) covering the syllabus, which leaves them with scarce opportunity to set their kids’ hearts and minds on fire, to inspire and provoke them.

Of course we’re afraid of failure and leaving our comfort zones– it’s the Singaporean way! (Never mind that our founding fathers essentially stared failure in the face and said NOT TODAY.)

A big part of being Singaporean entails being a mindless drone, having no opinion. (“But what about the dissident netizens?” Oh, they’re narcissists who hide behind their pseudonyms and use heterodoxy as a poor substitute for genuine thought.)

We were bred by the system to be unquestioning, obedient wage-slaves to our lords and masters. We will bend over and let you fuck us in the ass if you promise to take care of us. We don’t have enough arts and culture. We hardly support our local bands and football teams.

Not all Singaporeans are afraid of leaving our comfort zones- many have already packed up and left.

They are no longer interested our uninspiring be-a-wage-slave culture. It’s the Singaporeans that are left behind that are meek and risk-averse. Awesome.

How much money must we spend, how many dreams must we crush, how much must we oppress each other, only for our Minister to go “How can that be? Our students work very hard!”. Well, NEWSFLASH: North Koreans also work very hard. African children in the diamond mines also work very hard. It doesn’t mean shit, okay?

Heng’s long discussion with the CEOs did not throw up any solutions. Let’s turn to some literature.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Our teachers need to be given the freedom to share their passion and joy with students. Parents need to do that for their kids, too. We need parents to stop going to schools demanding that we stuff their kids brains with knowledge as if it were a commodity, and teach people to think for themselves- REALLY think for themselves, and have opinions, and fight for them. We need broad, bottom-up cultural change. And that has to come from all of us standing up together and choosing, together, that that’s what we want.

The title of the Straits Times article reads “Lack of drive in Singaporeans students a worry.” That’s really nice of the journalist, or the editors. I would have phrased it differently. The truth is, it’s not surprising that our students lack drive. We’re all responsible for it. Bastards, all of us. Every child is born with curiosity and inquisitiveness. Fear of failure is taught, and frankly, that’s what we teach our kids every day.

You want to know why Singaporean kids have no drive, put yourselves in their shoes lah. What is there to be driven about?

The question now is- how are we going to move forward? How are we going to transcend our obsolete cultural mindsets?

Updated on May 14th, 2014.

Ministerial Pay 2012: The One Question That Nobody Seems To Be Asking.

I refer to page 4, The New Paper, Tuesday Jan 17th:

DPM Teo Chee Hean on setting ministerial salaries:
Difficult balancing act needed.

I do like a lot of what DPM Teo Chee Hean says about balancing acts.

Passion for public service is necessary but not in itself sufficient to run a country well. Agreed.

A broad range of qualities are needed- organizational and leadership capabilities, capacity to handle multiple responsibilities, ability to solve problems and take charge in a crisis, and the ability to hold his own with world leaders and further Singapore’s interests. Agreed again.

(In fact, I agree so much that I’m tempted to cite MG Chan’s brilliant perspective on diversity and survivability, and argue that our government doesn’t have as broad a range of qualities as it could, or should. I’d like to see more entrepreneurial thinking, for instance. But that is not the main point I want to explore here.)

“We are a city-state which is critically dependent on good governance to survive, sustain ourselves and achieve success.” Yes. Agreed.

“Hence the high importance we must place on getting the best possible leadership from our small population for Singapore, more so than in other countries.” Yes.

“What is most critical is the emphasis Singaporeans place on having a system that will help us bring in a steady stream of the most committed and able people to ensure the future of Singapore and Singaporeans.” I agree, so much!

What exactly is this system? That’s something I want to explore here. But to get to that, we first need to talk about the most interesting statement of them all.

“Many top earners may have the competencies but not the sense of public mission.” – DPM Teo Chee Hean

He’s completely right. It’s absolutely true. But does it have to be? This is the most important question that I feel we ought to be exploring, that I feel we aren’t talking enough about. And the problem is that the question isn’t asked at all. We take the validity of the statement for granted- something that is static, unchanging, a fact of life.

I often get frustrated in discussions about politics, economics and the like because they sometimes involve leaving certain assumptions about human nature unquestioned. People are “like that”, perhaps because they have been “like that” for a while, and we can reasonably make plans and calculations for the future that involve assumptions that they will continue to be “like that” in the future. But paradigms shift and people’s priorities and interests do change.

In this case, the assumption is that highly skilled individuals are, well, individualistic, and don’t have a sense of public mission. If you don’t pay them, they won’t do the work. It’s a reasonably valid interpretation of the status quo.

But do things necessarily have to be this way? I don’t think so leh.

A lot is being said by a lot of people about whether salaries are high, or low, or whether they’ll attract people, or discourage them. It’s great. But almost all of it (in my opinion) seems to hinge on the assumption that things are the way they are- that our “small talent pool” is fixed and unchanging.

The Machiavellian side of me suspects that ministers perpetuate this mindset to line their own pockets and cement their own authority. Let me get this clear- I do not think that’s a bad thing. I’m not trying to defame them. It’s neither good nor bad. I don’t mean to suggest that they’re selfish or trying to exploit Singaporeans. All of these are interpretations that tell you more about the interpreter than what’s being interpreted. It’s a false dichotomy we like to construct- if you’re earning a big salary as a public servant, it must be at my expense, because I’m paying you. At a basic level- if you’re earning a big salary, but you put more into the communal pie than you take, then you completely deserve it, and the outcome of your actions could be described as socially beneficial, even if you don’t personally care very much about others.

The court jester side of me would like to joke that our ministers are too obtuse to consider that people are complex and changing, that they spend too much time mired in theories and statistics and not enough time reading good books, which is why they’re so terrible at making people happy, and so disconnected from the ground. But I really hope that it isn’t the case. (There are some wonderful exceptions anyway. I will never tire of professing my adoration for Indranee Rajah and Irene Ng, for instance- and they’re both PAP MPs.)

Whenever given the chance to choose between sinister ministers who look out for themselves, and incompetent ministers who’re fumbling in the dark, I prefer the former. I think most Singaporeans actually feel the same. Because you can look out for yourself, and enrich others in the process. That’s a win-win for everybody. (Steve Jobs is a great example. I think of him as a man who had tonnes of self-interest. He wasn’t selfish, but he had tonnes of self-interest. He never bothered donating much to charity, but he didn’t have to- his contributions created wealth and enriched the world nevertheless.)

Neither option is highly desirable. So here’s how I suggest that ministers avoid being put into either category- initiate the conversation about a future that transcends the status quo. Let’s stop bickering about the present, and focus on where we want to go from here. How do we make the balancing act less necessary, less precarious in the future?

I wish Singaporeans would start looking to the future and think about what sort of culture we want to have. (I like to think of the Government as a subset of Singaporeans, rather than a separate entity.) I mean, we’re already doing it in bits and pieces, but it needs to be a nation-level conversation, a collaborative, bottom-up narrative that we construct for ourselves. (As opposed to having one imposed upon us.)

I want to hear less talk about how limited our talent pool is and more about how we can spread a sense of public mission throughout society, like an epidemic. One of my readers pointed out in a previous entry that we can’t always have the best bang for our buck. That’s true. But we can always make an effort to pursue it. And if we know that the effort is being made, and we feel like we are a part of it, our daily troubles will feel a little more bearable.

I think a part of Singaporean’s frustration with ministerial pay is that our ministers keep defending themselves, arguing why they deserve to be so highly paid. Because “like that lor.” I mean, the ministers are in a difficult position- if they defend themselves, they come across as defensive, and they’re worried about something. If they don’t, then the allegations are true. It’s an impossible battle. Maybe that’s the real reason they’re paid so much, because it must be pretty stressful to be under all that fire. (Kidding.)

I’d like to meet folk like Grace Fu and Teo Chee Hean and Shanmugam for kopi and pick their brains to figure out how they would get around to addressing a challenge where we are to change Singaporean culture from the bottom up, so that we see personal development as something that is inseparable from community development. I think it would be genuinely interesting. How do we teach people to transcend the limitations that we have accepted as a part of our own reality?

I would really like to get a sense of our politician’s intellectual and cultural backgrounds. What kind of music do they listen to, what kind of books do they read? What are their personal philosophies- who are their favourite authors, philosophers? What are their favourite swear words, their guilty pleasures? They might seem like silly or trivial questions to ask, but I think part of the problem about the rocky relationship between people and government is that they don’t seem… well, human.

The next time you feel like making an argument about how people are “like that”, remember there was a time where women were considered property, not people. When slavery was normal and acceptable. When loving someone was a crime- well, in some places it still is. But the point is, people change. My vision for the future involves people becoming less xenophobic, for one.

We don’t have enough people who dare to envision something different from the status quo. Yet the world- and our nation- is entirely dependent on such people! (Lee Kuan Yew is a great example of a man who dared to imagine a future that nobody else believed in.)

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

PS: I wrote this while in camp, so it’s a little rushed and not as polished as it could be! Please do leave comments with your thoughts and opinions, and I’ll refine mine along the way. Let’s talk. 🙂

The danger of relying on super-dominant forces such as the PAP

Super-dominant forces are inherently dangerous. Why did the sub-prime mortgage crisis happen? Why did the US get involved in Iraq? What happened to institutions that were/are “Too Big To Fail”? Why is it always recommended that you diversify your portfolios when investing? Why do we recommend Arts students to take a Science subject, and vice versa? Why do we have a bilingual policy? Why do we trade with many countries rather than a few? Why is it better to have friends from multiple social circles rather than just one?

Can you think of anything in nature that is super-dominant? Only Man- and we can all see how dangerous that is. We are quickly realising that we have to have symbiotic relationships with the rest of nature, rather than a dominant one.

Why are we researching solar energy, when it is currently impractical, overpriced, and costly? Do you think we should stop researching it and focus on our existing sources of energy, or keep at it and look for serendipitous, unexpected breakthroughs? The only thing we can be certain of is that our present energy solutions are sub-optimal. Do we then say that we SHOULDN’T give alternative solutions a shot, because a multi-energy solution will waste resources, divide infrastructure, worsen productivity?

If the opposition wins all over Singapore in a freak election- which I personally think is very, VERY unlikely- then we will have 5 interesting, confusing years. What’s the WORST that can happen? Is that really a bad thing? Even in such an “undesirable” outcome (I withhold judgement for now, because we cannot know), I bet that we will learn more than we have ever learnt before, and we will have a much more vocal and engaged citizenry- something that we sorely need if we are to continue to grow and develop in this crazy, changing world.

On the flip side, what’s the worst that can happen if we have PAP dominance for the next 5, 10, 20 years? History is littered with the bloated corpses of super-dominant forces. We need to be New York rather than Detroit, Athens rather than Sparta, natural rather than man-made.

NOBODY can tell what the opposition can or cannot do, what value it will or will not have. And we have to find out. We have to try new things. Maybe we will get burnt. But then we will know better.

How can we say honestly that the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t? All we can say is that we don’t know. The question then is whether we want to find out, or we want to sit tight and hope for the best.

Any situation where any organism or entity is dominant on a single super-dominant force is dangerous in the long run. Feel free to use your own favourite football/economics/medical/military analogy.

I have met PAP supporters who say that they’re worried about the next 5 years, well- I’m worried about the next 50.

Essentially- if tomorrow the entire PAP leadership dies in a plane crash, what would we do? If the thought scares you, then we have to start thinking about how we’re going to cope. We have to prepare for the worst. Can you promise that the PAP will never implode? Nothing lasts forever.

In a nutshell- I put it to you that the the worst case scenario of having a super-dominant, lethargic and complacent PAP is worse than the worst case scenario of having an opposition-dominated parliament for 5 years. Because if the latter collapses, we will know what to do, but if the former does… I’m not sure I even want to find out.