The Great Paper Chase [1974]

I’ve been reading OB Markers by Cheong Yip Seng. It’s a very compelling book with lots of anecdotes that hit me pretty hard. I find it odd that so few of them make it into common or popular discussion. Here’s one:

“One Sunday, we published Mary’s column headlined, “The Great Paper Chase.” In it, she decried the relentless pursuit of good grades. All the certificates she worked hard for, from primary school through university, were “not things I want to treasure”. Lee Kuan Yew was stung by this sharp critique of the education policy. He saw it as an attack on hard work and the heavy emphasis on examinations. The next day, he demanded her head. He wanted her sacked. But how could we? As editor, I was responsible. My bosses and I decided that the best course was to move Mary out of harm’s way. She would give up writing and work as a subeditor. If she continued to write the column, we would have endless problems with the PM. He would see her as an unfriendly critic of government whatever she wrote. Mary was not happy with her new duties though she was also a good subeditor. Writing was her forte and what she most enjoyed. It was not long before she left. She went to London, where she worked on Fleet Street.” – Cheong Yip Seng, OB Markers, Chapter 5: The Knuckledusters Era

I tried my best to find the column online, but I couldn’t. I showed Sharan what I was up to, and she was determined to succeed where I had failed. We stayed up till 4am trawling through the digitized archives on NLB’s website, but found nothing. We went to the National Library the next day, and we found Mary’s column on microfilm. It was in the very first issue of Sunday Nation.

Here is Mary’s column. (Emphasis mine.)

The Great Paper Chase…

… Training ground for the adult rat race

The Great Paper Chase is on. It is that time of the year to test the memory power of our 16 and 18 year olds, whose plans for a shining career may be made or broken at these “O” and “A” academic hurdles.

It is that time of the year when all of those enlightened statements by educationists and politicians about “Let’s not be a certificate-oriented society” disintegrate as parent and child, teacher and student stampede — or rather, cram — down the path of learning towards “making the grade”. 

It is all right for those grown-ups to talk about not rubbing the teenager’s nose into the books. They’ve already found good, solid jobs. Anyway, when it comes to injecting new blood into their money-making empires or bureaucratic establishments, they still sift out the distinctions and credits.

I have had my share of the pre-examination cramps. For 15 years, I was given to understand that passing examinations was the only purpose of my life.

My father bore down on me to get a Grade One School Certificate because he never even got close to sitting for one. And because my brothers had theirs Dad didn’t want the family record broken.

And when all the sleepless nights and days of struggling (with revision, guilt and obligation, and coping with sinking confidence and rising panic) were all over… nothing.

I was then told: “Even a Grade One means nothing these days. On to Pre-U you!” So the bind of books, the wars of independence — to be allowed to “twist” the worries out of my system at some mindless party — started all over again…

And all for what? To get a piece of paper that might just give me a little head start on the trite but true “rat-race”. And with the rat-race getting fiercer these days, you need more than just “A” levels or even an Honours degree for that head start.

How hard it is to be student these days, to have to suffer through all those years before grown-ups deem you fit to enter their plastic world.

When I was in school, I couldn’t see beyond not making the grade. The question didn’t even arise, so set was Dad on my achieving it. All that he did to help was to refuse me permission to go out with schoolmates, to participate in ECA, to watch TV beyond 8 p.m., to read anything other than school texts.

My mind, he must have thought, was a machine. Any fool could pass an exam (and in our household, passing and passing par excellence were one and the same). All you needed to do was to keep the machine in good running order with constant — and I mean constant — programming.

I lied to my father about the date of my Pre-U finals. Just so I could take on the wardrobe mistress job with Raffles Players for As You Like It. But he found out on opening night.

The show must go on for all he cared — it had to go on without me, he said. After much useless pleading and too many tears, I stomped out of the house with my paper-bag of props. The show went on — for five nights — and after that, I returned to the flurry of preparing for the finals. Fortunately for me and for the teacher in charged of Raffles Players, I passed.

It is a wonder I never suffered a nervous breakdown before or during examinations. I used to secretly admire classmates who studied so hard, they fell sick just before or during the examinations. If I could only study as hard as they, I used to kid myself. And besides, think of the sympathy those “wrecks” must be getting at home.

I know better now and am thankful for my built-in timer which would tell me when I had had enough of all that cramming.

I know now that it is a tragic waste of precious time and energy to not be put to the actual test. And what kind of tests were these anyway?

We used to “cheat” by studying from booklets of questions going back seven years for the same exams — on Elementary Maths (the Achilles spot in my brain), Grammar and “Precise”. At some point during my secondary school days, I found out that the test questions had a tendency to repeat themselves.

I now have an abhorrence for prepared answers to literature, geography or history questions. Instead of using them as food for thought, we were expected to regurgitate — and we did — these block answers to satisfy the faceless marker of our papers.

Which explains why by the time we made it to university, we were thought to be cloistered in an ivory tower. Those things that were beaten into our brains in school had little relevance to any part of our grown-up lives.

We were never taught to analyse, to question questions. Training ground for useful roles as citizens? It is a miracle we are doing as well as we’re doing, considering the kind of schooling most of us had.

I realise that revolutions almost never begin in secondary school classrooms. So what’s there to talk about? It is somewhat pathetic that boys and girls have to go back to school at nights, just so they can have some peace and quiet to do their homework and study (if they’re lucky).

That their parents and brothers and sisters at home know only to demand that they excel in exams, never showing the much-needed consideration and understanding which would help smooth the furrowed brows of young pressured minds.

My mother was a great help during my exams. She never asked me when I came home, How Was It? if I didn’t feel like telling her. Just a comforting squeeze round the shoulders and a “It’s time you had a break”. And she used to slip me comics to relieve my over-programmed mind.

My father on the other hand, would never fail to demand “Did you answer ALL the questions, CORRECTLY?” as soon as he got home from work. For a time, he would even go over the question papers with me — the one way to undermine an already shaky confidence.

But I soon learned to lie. I’d say yes to all his questions and avoid a post-mortem by saying I had a lot more revision to do. My mother realised that I needed, not more pressure, but understanding and support during those awful weeks before and during.

I really appreciated her not going off for her usual mahjong sessions then — my exams provided the only break in her habit. I sometimes suspect that she was more relieved than I was when I passed out, the mortar board on my head, sweating under a rented gown and clutching an empty cardboard scroll (the real paper came a month later.)

The certificates I got on completion of my paper chase are now probably lost. No matter. They are not things I want to treasure…

UPDATE: Mary Lee wrote a follow-up after this post went viral: How LKY changed my life

So what’s PM Lee Hsien Loong like in person?

 lee-hsien-loong-visakan

2014 UPDATE: This post is getting lots of shares again, for some reason or another. It’s a little embarrassing– I was so excited at the time, and my writing was so clunky! But I’m leaving it as it is.

Before anything else, I want to start by clearly stating that I am not a PAP supporter. I am not an “Opposition supporter” either. I don’t believe in picking sides. I’m against PAP super-dominance, but I would be against Opposition super-dominance too. (Of course, then they wouldn’t be called Opposition anymore.) If you have to pin me down on something, consider me pro-Singapore, regardless of political affiliation.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about how I wanted to interview Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The article was posted on Daily SG with the caption “Mission Impossible?” It seemed like a crazy idea that was unlikely to bear fruit. Yet, on the 30th of August 2012, I did meet the Prime Minister, at the Istana, and we chatted for quite a bit. Sure, I didn’t quite get a full interview opportunity, but you know what they say about shooting for the moon.

For me, simply being presented with such an opportunity was empowering, and liberating. Receiving the email from the Prime Minister’s Office- with “@pmo.gov.sg” in the address- set my heart in a flutter. It felt like validation from the world, telling me that I’m on the right track, and that it makes sense to do what I’m doing with this blog and everything else. The last time I remember feeling that way was when I received a message from Patrick Chng on Facebook, asking me if Armchair Critic was willing to play at the Esplanade Powerhouse Stage.  (Boy, were we!)

I think there’s something to the idea that if you want something, and you take steps towards achieving it, then it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. You start becoming the sort of person who would be a fit for the sort of role you’re creating for yourself. You do influence your destiny.

19 people were selected out of thousands- there are 75,000 people on PM Lee’s Facebook- and I was one of them. Was I just lucky? I was eagerly posting on his wall repeatedly whenever he was online, and I tried to ask questions that I felt were interesting, poignant and thought-provoking. There’s always an element of luck involved, and I am thankful that I was lucky, but I’m sure the conscientious effort helps, too.

Back on topic:

Again, for those ‘special’ kind of people: I don’t have any sort of “family connections” whatsoever, and I’m not even any sort of poster-child for anything- I was a GEP dropout, I repeated a year in Junior College, I was a storeman for most of my National Service, I smoke, and I have criticized the PAP and the Government on multiple occasions. Just to be clear.

I chatted with others who were present- there was a guy who worked in shipping, another guy who runs distance events, a mother who homeschools one of her children, a primary school teacher… I’m thoroughly, completely convinced that we were not “carefully handpicked” for “wayang” purposes. I honestly don’t think they have the time to do that sort of thing. Exploring such perspectives seriously, to me, feels like a phenomenal waste of time. and practically an insult to everyone participating.

I find that this bears repeating, because it’s absolutely sickening and disgusting how how vile online comments can be. I mean, I’m probably guilty of it too, which makes it even worse- we are so quick to label and demonize others that we don’t even know.  This isn’t the Singapore (or world, or internet) that I want to be a part of, and I’m sure that if you take the time to think about it, you’ll feel the same way.

What’s it like to actually go to the Istana?

It’s interesting, fun, exciting and overwhelming all at once. Others have written about this: I suggest reading the blog posts by Andrew Loh or mrbrown and maybe watching the video by Dr. Jia Jia.

The attendees were mingling among ourselves- MPs Zaqy Mohamad and Low Yen Ling were there too, and Acting Minister in the Ministry of Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin (though I didn’t notice him until later)- and we were having some light conversation, introducing ourselves to one another.

I felt a little bit intimidated by the setting- it was really posh and atas. I used to work at Shangri-La Hotel, so I was familiar with some degree of finery, but somehow the Istana just has that sort of oomph and gravitas, you know? You can’t help but feel a little awed by the magnitude of the place, both physical and metaphorical. That said, the MPs were wonderfully gracious and did everything they could to make us feel at home.

[2017: On retrospect this is quite obviously intended by design.]

What’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong like in person?

lee-hsien-loong-istana

He entered the room without much fanfare, but his presence was notable – all eyes turned on him immediately as he shook everybody’s hands, welcomed us and thanked us for coming. He was eager, enthusiastic and kind, with a firm handshake (and rougher hands than I expected, if I remember correctly.) No airs. He’s bigger than he looks on TV, and he has a commanding presence. (Probably not as much as his father would have had in his heyday, but still noticeable.) He has a deep, powerfully resonant voice- we would later split into two groups, and I’d constantly catch myself listening to what he was saying, all the way at the other end of the room.

I remember mrbrown telling the PM about his autistic daughter Faith, and his worries and concerns for her- and PM was sympathetic, listening carefully to every word. None of it seemed fake or put-on- he struck me as a remarkably genuine guy. As mrbrown says, he laughs heartily.

I remember PM warming up immediately to the children in the room- he happily bent over to listen to them, and interacted with them spiritedly, with the vigor of someone who genuinely loves children.

None of it seemed in any way farcical. He seemed genuinely happy to be spending time with us throughout, and I got the very real sense that we could have spent the whole night talking away if he didn’t have other things on his schedule. He seemed genuinely apologetic at having to leave, after over an hour of animated conversation, and I was thoroughly convinced.

A few random fun facts- he walks for 40 minutes every morning and swims now and then when he gets the chance. He uses a white iPhone. He hasn’t started using Whatsapp yet. (I asked if him and the other  world leaders were all on the same Whatsapp group.) He sleeps 6 or 7 hours a night, and naps for 30 minutes after lunch.

I know these things don’t really affect the governance of the country, but it’s nice to remind yourself that the PM and MPs are all human beings. I think that’s important. I think that influences the way we talk to one another, and that the state of discourse will ultimately affect policy, and subsequently, our lives.

When we were moving from one area to the next, and we were getting seated- PM actually stood in front of me and passed me a fork and a plate to get food! That’s quite an epic, surreal moment that I’ll probably remember for life- the Prime Minister standing in front of me, while I was absent-mindedly sitting down, eagerly presenting me with a fork and plate, that I might get some food to eat. He didn’t make a big show of it or anything- just a friendly gesture from one person to another, never mind that I’m an unemployed bum and he’s the Prime Minister. (I know, a cynic might say that he’s ultimately a civil servant, and we pay him to serve us- but not literally, right?!) I was thoroughly humbled. It doesn’t matter how much we’re paying this man- you know human decency when you see it, and this guy had it in spades.

lee-hsien-loong-tea

Time and time again I noticed his social graces. There was no moderator, no emcee or anybody to mediate- it was just him and us, sitting around a table, as you see above here. And he gently took charge in the best possible way, the way a speaker owns the stage.

I quote Francis Bacon’s “On Discourse”: “The honorablest part of talk, is to give the occasion; and again to moderate, and pass to somewhat else; for then a man leads the dance.” 

Let me say right now that PM’s damn good at this, and manages to be the life of the party without imposing himself on anybody else,  putting in the right amounts of effort in the right places without trying too hard. He’d gently guide the conversation towards the quieter folk, asking people what they thought about this, or that. He was far more interested in listening to our opinions and perspectives than anything else– and it was refreshing.

After a while, PM went over to the other group, and Acting Minister Tan Chuan-Jin swapped places with him. You may already know that I’ve said many nice things about BG Tan on Facebook and Twitter- I love his perspectives, his thought processes, his insight. Meeting him in person reinforced all these positive intuitions I’ve held so far. He was a real man’s man- down to earth, practical, real- he felt even more real than PM, and PM’s pretty real. (I could totally imagine meeting him at the kopitiam afterwards for a kopi or a beer, for instance.)

I especially remember him telling us about his children (in response to one mother’s query about homeschooling)- his son’s in Primary 4, and his daughter’s in Secondary 2 in St. Nicks, and how him and his wife decided not to have her go for tuition, because they felt it was important that she have a life and childhood. I was impressed by that. Clearly, the obsessive achievement-oriented culture that used to define Singapore is past its peak. (Thankfully.)

Above all I can’t express how much PM Lee and BG Tan both struck me as incredibly intelligent, perceptive and fundamentally honourable men. I was able to talk to them and engage with them with the greatest of ease, but I attribute this to their manners and grace, rather than any talent or skill on my part. (And anybody who knows me personally or reads this blog will surely realize that I have an unhealthily large ego and think way too highly of myself.)

It’s easy to throw stones at them from a distance, but up close, you see them for who they are: very, very remarkable people. Articulate, clear, respectful… I am willing to go on record to say that I’m incredibly proud to be represented by men of this caliber.

This post would get a lot more hits if I had something nasty to say about PM, or any of the MPs. But honestly, I don’t. Trust me, I believe in constructive criticism, and entertainingly scathing criticism, too. If you read my blog, you’ll know this. But I honestly have nothing bad to say.

In fact, if I must criticise, and I must tread carefully here- I would criticize those of us who were present. We didn’t prepare enough, we didn’t have as much insight to share as we should’ve. We didn’t really get to ask any tough questions, but this wasn’t because anybody was stopping us. I had meant to ask PM about what he thought about SKL0 (Sticker Lady), but the conversation simply led us elsewhere, and I felt it would have been rude to impose my agenda upon him.

But I think I got something more valuable from it all- I think (I’m presuming, really) I can even intuit what he might say. He might say something along the lines of- her work is entertaining and really good, but we can’t condone it- and as a graffiti artist, she knew what she was doing. She knew that she was pushing the boundaries, and that she’d eventually get into trouble for it. Maybe in time we may , as a society, change our perspectives on these things. What sort of sentence does she deserve? I can’t say, that’s up to the judge to decide.

I mean, okay fine, I’m putting my own words into his mouth here. But I really got the sense that he- and BG Tan, and the others (and I got this with Indranee Rajah too, when I met her) knows what’s going on. I think we tend to imagine that PM must be some blur guy in an ivory tower who doesn’t know how we feel. But I’m starting to suspect we’ve got it the wrong way around. PM does know what’s happening on the ground. He’s very observant and perceptive for one, and he listens carefully to people, and he has a fantastic team that surely updates him. He has a natural curiosity about him that I think is in the best interests of the country- and I’d say the same for BG Tan.

So I think the disconnect is that we don’t know what’s going on up there. We don’t know what are the trade-offs that need to be made, we don’t know what are the problems and considerations that those in government have to deal with. That’s something I think we ought to correct a little better. I think people need to understand the trade-offs that are being made.

No politician is going to say this, because that’s political suicide. You’d be openly insulting the people by saying “You people don’t understand what it’s like to have all this power!” But it’s true, we don’t. We don’t understand! Let’s be realistic here. It’s far more likely that our politicians know what it’s like to be normal folk than normal folk know what it’s like to be in charge. And let’s not point fingers- if we want a better Singapore, we need better communication, better understanding, both ways. So I’m going to say it- Singapore will be a better place if the average citizen had a better understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the government, and the decisions being made.

No, I’m not saying that the government is always right and that they know what they’re doing. Please! Far from it. I do believe we can do better, and I do believe we have a lot of work ahead of us.I haven’t turned into a mouthpiece or lapdog of the government, or the PAP. Governance is complex business- nobody is going to get it right all of the time. I think we’ve got a good team at the helm, with people with good heads on their shoulders. I left the Istana ultimately breathing a little easier, knowing that Singapore is in good hands.

One thing I remember discussing with BG Tan was the vitriolic nature of online comments and people’s perspectives- and we juxtaposed that against one of the ladies who met him at a Meet-The-People session. I can’t remember the details, but I found myself sympathizing with him- wherever you stand on your political views, you have to admit that some Singaporeans are really unreasonable, and just a pain to be around, and that the people in our Government do have to deal with them. (No politician would admit that, but come on.) I found myself wondering what I could possibly do to help, to make our country a better place for all of us.

I think we need to create (by ourselves) a sense of purpose for ourselves. We’re mean and annoying to each other online because we don’t feel like it matters. We act out, seeking personal validation and fulfillment, and we don’t think about the bigger picture- perhaps because we don’t see it. We don’t see how everything adds up and ultimately defines our nation. I like to think of World of Warcraft- millions of crazy internet users doing stupid things on their own here and there, but also coming together to complete incredibly difficult and complex tasks that none of them could possibly achieve on their own. How does it happen? I think it begins with a sense of purpose and mission.

I didn’t get a chance to talk much with Low Yen Ling or Zaqy Mohamad, but I was won over by their sincerity and their personalities. They all genuinely seem eager to make a difference. I think that’s the most important thing that I learnt- that these people do care. They do. No, they really do. (No, they didn’t pay or threaten me to say this.) I think we need to remember that above all else before we move forward together, grappling and debating issues where we have different perspectives. It’s easy to forget that we all want what’s best for all of us.

TL;DR:

It was an honour to meet PM Lee. He’s a really intelligent, perceptive guy, and very fun to be around. If he didn’t have a schedule to follow, I get the sense that he would have gladly spent hours in conversation with us.

I will still be making fun of the PAP, don’t worry. And I will still speak up if I see, read or hear anything that doesn’t stand with me.

And yes, the chocolate éclairs were bloody delicious.

(I realize this is a really long blogpost- I’m not sure what people want to know or hear, so do ask me anything in the comments.)

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.

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.

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.

Ministerial Pay 2012: The Neglected Truth About Incentives

There is powerful evidence that we have been completely wrong about the effectiveness of financial incentives and extrinsic motivation.

Financial incentives often improve performance. But they can also lead to unethical behavior, fuel turnover and foster envy and discontent. Wharton management professors argue that it is time to cut back on money as a chief motivational force in business. Instead, they say, employers should pay greater attention to intrinsic motivation. That means designing jobs that provide opportunities to make choices, develop skills, do work that matters and build meaningful interpersonal connections.

Knowledge@Wharton: The Problem with Financial Incentives and What to Do About It

Incentives are dangerous, and not just because people game them. They often yield collateral damage. Remember the tale of the Darwin Award winner who strapped a jet engine to his car, dreaming of a joyride for the ages, and then met his sorry end as a human flapjack on the side of a mountain? Incentives are like that jet engine. There’s no question the engine will take you somewhere, fast, but it’s not always clear where. Or what you’re going to mow down on the way. Yet incentives are still the first resort of most managers, perhaps because they all think they’re smart enough to create the perfect carrot.

– Fast Company: Why Incentives are Effective, Irresistible and Almost Certain to Backfire

Extrinsic motivation and financial incentives are culturally dominant in Singapore.

Salary.sg: Salary benchmark for ministers

The income benchmark for ministers and top civil servants is pegged at 2/3 the median income of all the top 8 earners in these 6 professions: lawyer, accountant, banker, MNC executive, local manufacturer and engineer. These means that we take the 48 top earners (top 8 from 6 groups), sort them according to their income, take the middle guy’s income, and multiply it by 2/3.

Ministers and MPs argue that they deserve to be paid as much as top earners in the private sector, but the point is that everybody in the private sector is also overpaid. This isn’t a matter of preference , philosophy or emotion- this is a scientifically established fact. Increasing pay diminishes performance. And if there’s anything we can all agree on, it’s that we all want the best for Singapore, yes?

“As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance.

But once the tasked called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward let to poorer performance.

– A study by economists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Chicago, funded by the US Federal Reserve Bank

“We find that financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”

-Economists from the London School of Economics

The highest performing people in the world are not the most paid.

I have a simple hypothesis- the founding fathers of Singapore, who everybody can agree were the most awesome team of badasses that our country has ever seen- were not motivated by money. (The Pirate Ship analogy works beautifully here.) We need a star team, not a team of stars! Lee Kuan Yew and his team of heroes were intrinsically motivated. They had autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Lee Kuan Yew, whose title is minister mentor, said naysayers like this need a reality check.

“I say you have no sense of proportion; you don’t know what life is about,” he said last month.

“The cure to all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government,” Lee said. “You get that alternative, and you’ll never put Singapore together again.”

He presented himself as an example: “A top lawyer, which I could easily have become, today earns 4 million Singapore dollars. And he doesn’t have to carry this responsibility. All he’s got to do is advise his client. Win or lose, that’s the client’s loss or gain.”

The Straits Times newspaper quoted him as saying his current salary as minister mentor was 2.7 million Singapore dollars.

Money may buy happiness for a government minister, but some Singaporeans suggested that other motivations should also come into play for government service.

“What about other redeeming intangibles such as honor and sense of duty, dedication, passion and commitment, loyalty and service?” asked Hussin Mutalib in the Straits Times’ online forum recently.

Carolyn Lim, a prominent writer, suggested in an essay in The Straits Times that Singapore needed a little more heart to go along with its hard head. “Indeed, a brilliant achiever without the high purpose of service to others would be the worst possible ministerial material,” she wrote.

“To see a potential prime minister as no different from a potential top lawyer, and likely to be enticed by the same stupendous salary, would be to blur the lines between two very different domains.”

The minister mentor brushed aside concerns like that.

“Those are admirable sentiments,” he said. “But we live in a real world.”

The New York Times: Singapore announces 60% pay rise for ministers.

I agree completely with MM Lee Kuan Yew.

We do live in a real world. A real world where it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that financial incentives decrease productivity for any task that isn’t purely mechanical.

We have to stop trying to entice people with sweeter carrots, and similarly we have to stop threatening them with sharper sticks. This turns off the our best and our brightest Singaporeans.

What they really want is autonomy, mastery, and purpose- all of which our Government, culture and systems generally fail to provide!

What Singapore needs in the 21st century is less compliance and more engagement. Before we all get obsolete.

We live in a real world. So let’s get real, take our fingers out of our ears and start paying attention to the evidence.