Saturday, January 20, 2007

A melancholic post

Everything disappointments me. Why? The world as I experience it is largely based on a transactional approach to social relationships. This applies to ordinary social relationships as well as relationships with organizations and other entities. But sadly, it can also apply to family relationships. Most things have turned out to be ultimately transactional in spirit. Even kinship is not a safety net in this world permeated by the ideology of money and skilful coping with a heartless society.

There is so much hypocrisy everywhere. People who make nice-sounding proclamations nonetheless don't offer any help when it is needed. Sessions of sociability do not translate into material forms of assistance in times of desperation. Friendships are always easily performed when one is soaring. Convenient excuses from friends and institutions are always ready on hand to deflect sincere requests for a little kindness, making the excuses seem innocent enough. Words of thanks are cheap compared to the actual concessions that could really have been given to make life easier for one. Routines invented are premised upon hyper-fit bodies that can work endlessly like machines. An idealistic focus on ultimately personal goals dressed in rhetorics of lofty ideals make this myopia seem unintentional and not malicious. Ambitious motives are hidden behind a calibrated performance of nonchalance. Contradictions between words and actions cannot be blatantly confronted, in order to maintain a facade of cordiality of social relationships.

Experience of too much nastiness in life makes one tired. What more do they want? Just tell me. And yet in that very questioning one gives him licence to say that the fault lies with the questioner alone. Problems are thus always individualized. Words of frustration appear as expressions of 'whining' to outsiders who think with economic models. Harsh words from one or two thoughtless young minds appear like weeds in a corner. There comes a time when even the truly frustrated refuses to speak, for his anger prevents words from coming out of his mouth: he can't physically speak anymore, even though he has so much anger and jadedness in him. Every night is a night of pondering; a thorough audit of all the things right and wrong which one has done in life. Yet dissonance is intensified every time as one reconfirms that he hasn't in fact done that many things wrong. And yet the rhetorical discourses go on - across diverse sites of utterance and vehemently defended by self-appointed moral guardians - justifying and naturalizing a system deemed as 'fine', and once again condemning the social actor that cannot succeed.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

SDU: steering the dynamics of love

SDU has come to an end, and many critics feel that the main lesson delivered to the government is that it's not omnipotent and cannot control the dynamics of love and related activities (e.g. getting married, etc)... :)

I'm actually a supporter of the SDU :) I think that the idea of matchmaking Singaporeans is cool, and there's no better institutional actor to do this than the State itself. Why, then, did the SDU fail? In this very short post I'll offer my views as an ikan bilis of mighty Singapore, mighty in all ways including the management of male-female relations....

1) First, the name given to the agency was so lousy that I think whoever thought of that name 'Social Development Unit' should bear at least 40% of the responsibility. 'Social development' sounds terrible and it makes the members of SDU seem like problems of society to be solved. It's as if the successful matchmaking of these people will somehow alleviate one of the major 'social problems' in Singapore society, and society will 'develop'... In addition, 'Unit' sounds bad too: it simply doesn't accord a sense of importance and grandeur to the whole mission. This type of name is incapable of generating any sort of pride and excitement in members and non-members alike....

2) The institutional separation of SDU and SDS was also unnecessary and unwise. They should be combined so as to pool resources together, and to expand the membership base. This will then increase the chances of members finding someone they like or love, who may or may not be from the 'same social class' (whatever that phrase means). Is it not common wisdom that 'opposites attract'? A male, highly educated professional may well be more attracted to a woman who is not a graduate, and this lady may also be impressed because the man seems so different from others whom she hangs around with. A man and a woman with different class experiences may in fact have more to talk about because they find each other more intriguing and interesting. So the assumption that people from the same social class can 'click better' does not always hold. Finally, I suspect that women who are not university graduates are more inclined to get married....

3) SDU should be reincarnated, but with a different name and with a 'consolidated membership'. Men and women of all nationalities and citizenship statuses (citizen, PR, non-citizens), educational levels and 'social classes' should have platforms to mingle around with one another. They should be able to view each other's profiles and photos online, and send each other messages.

The State should realize that social engineering has its limits (although it is sometimes necessary). Many things need to be done correctly and when a project fails, it may not be because the idea itself is bad but because the execution was not properly thought through. It must show some sensitivity to the feelings of the members, at least, for example by getting rid of the 'class' dimension of this matchmaking mission, and having a more romantic-sounding name for the organization. I wonder if the people sitting on the steering committee (is there one?) are trained in the humanities and the social sciences. The dynamics of love can be steered, in my opinion, and getting large numbers of people to interact in actual physical social space or cyberspace can indeed allow magical unpredictable sparks and combinations to emerge. So I feel that there is indeed magic in the system, but it's not an omnipotent kind of magic. Anyway, SDU is gone, and I can only hope that its reincarnation won't reflect the rather elitist assumptions of the earlier project.

Related posts
Yaw Shin Leong's essay

Friday, November 10, 2006

On the wrong approaches to learning at HE level

A thoroughly worn-out Heavenly Sword rose from his disturbed sleep, and decided to spend the rest of the sleepless dawn pondering about some 'real issues' surrounding university education in Singapore.

What is 'university education'? I believe there is a reason why university education is called higher education: it's because it is pitched - and definitely meant to be pitched - at a much higher level of difficulty compared to the A-levels. If it wasn't more difficult than the A-levels, then there is no reason why graduates should be paid more than non-graduates, and no reason why people should invest 3-4 years of their short lives attending classes at the university campus, if the things that they are going to learn do not advance their intellectual abilities (e.g. coping with analytical complexity, distilling the essence of complex literatures, etc) in some ways. Let's face it: life is short, and 3-4 years is a significant length of time.

The problem I see in some of my younger friends (who are studying in various local universities) is that they are struggling to make the adjustment from JC to Uni. This adjustment has various components, and I'll briefly talk about the 'expectational' component, and the tactical component.

'Expectational adjustment' (my term) concerns expectations. Recently I communicated briefly with a friend who is an assistant professor at a university in Singapore, and he highlighted a very good point. Many students in Singapore find the first 1 or 2 semesters of university life extremely traumatic, because they have been so used to getting A's at the earlier stages of education that getting B's and C's end up amounting to a personal disaster (when it is in fact really common at university-level), and some of these students cannot deal emotionally with the perceived 'setback'. I feel that the real disaster is not in the receipt of B's and C's grades itself, but instead the loss of many Singaporeans' ability to cope with grades indicating academic imperfection. This problem, which is the problem of a 'straight-A's culture' in Singapore, is a real problem in Singapore which has hardly ever been problematized; in fact the problem has been packaged as something 'good' through frequent glamourization of 'perfect scores' by various institutional actors and the media. Singapore has a culture of perfection which needs to be replaced by a culture of imperfection that will be more in line with the atmosphere of creativity that the country badly needs.

To these institutional actors and individual actors who have always been singing praises of the straight A's culture, I'd like to say this. Let's not be overly proud of this straight A's culture and forget to look at the dysfunctions of it. What are some of these dysfunctions?

1) The pursuit of a blemish-free record becomes the sole purpose of learning. (Some) students are not interested in learning the subject, but simply want the A's. Because of this, the whole spirit of learning is wrong. The obsession is always with things which are so-called 'inside the 'syllabus"; some students treat the 'model answers' as literally 'models' (when these should be treated as 'indications of a general approach that lecturers hope they can display'), and they want lectures and tutorials to package the information in 'exam-usable' format. Anything falling short of the above-stated 'ideals' is then criticized as unfocused teaching, which will lead to condemnation of the university teacher. In some subjects, there is a trend of increasing 'interdisciplinarity', but some students think in narrow ways, along the lines of 'i am majoring in this subject, why do I have to read materials from another subject?' This is very sad. If Singapore really wants to train students as future 'knowledge producers' for a creative economy, then university-level socialization must get them to think more like creative knowledge producers rather than passive knowledge consumers.

2) The overly pragmatic and grade-driven approach to learning a subject will guarantee that the student can never achieve the highest level of understanding of that subject (the 'jui4 gao1 jing4 jie4'), due to the overly powerful socialization at undergraduate level that results in the wrong spirit of learning that is hard to change later on. Too much attention and effort will be spent on the readings that have been officially assigned, and there is usually no motivation to venture into the library to hunt for more interesting and more advanced books on particular concepts, theories, and topics. This in turn creates the problem of unskilful library users. The use of the library is itself an art and a science: it requires some practice and training.

There are two situations that might then result. First, the 'trained incapacity' of students, who will end up lacking the self-confidence to explore unbeaten paths or select their own sources of information due to excessive fear that they will be 'wrong'; and second, top students are satisfied to stop when they have mastered the 'official' readings, thinking that because they have satisfied the lecturer's demands, they know the subject 'oredi'. This results in a kind of complacency that hinders further intellectual advancement as far as that subject is concerned, due to premature extinguishment of the inquisitive spirit.

So, the above two paragraphs dealt with the tactical adjustment aspect of university-level academic life. This is the paradox: tactical adjustment itself will have certain dysfunctional outcomes, precisely because the learning has become too tactical. Then two further problems will result: first, the students who are tactical enough to do well end up acquiring some problematic mindsets; and second, the students who don't do so well 'officially' in this kind of system ends up (a) losing their self-confidence (for they then think that they're 'lousy' simply because they did not get an A from a particular lecturer), or (b) being actually pushed down the hierarchical educational stratification system and have no chance of redeeming themselves (think of students who don't do well in the first years, they may not be able to 'recover' from the damage if the system is too 'unforgiving'). Point (b), it seems to me, is closely related to Singapore's unforgiving culture.

Since I cannot change the system (as I'm only an ikan-bilis, a non-elite in Singapore), I can only offer some words of advice.

1) Don't be too obsessed with grades. If you truly love the subject (or at least try to love it) and see the spirit underpinning a particular subject, you will master it, sooner or later, at your own pace. If you tell yourself, 'I'm going to try my best; if the lecturer gives me a 'C', so be it'. See it as a signal that you may need to read more books, rather than an indicator of your self-worth. Never ever think that you're BAD at a subject simply because of a single C. Singaporeans, it seems to me, are too easily defeated or intercepted by tiny little alphabets. Isn't that very sad, if you think about it? I mean, so what if you get a C in that subject? Do you then say, 'Eeee, I don't want to major in this subject 'oredi' (even though I thought I wanted to earlier)'. Or 'I don't want to be an accountant 'oredi', the lecturer gave me C for accounting, I'm not cut out to be an accountant'. That is not the hallmark of a mature person. View your lecturers/tutors as people of equal standing as far as humanity and intellect are concerned (of course!): they are not that much smarter than you are; they have only read more books than you have, maybe because they visit the library more often :)

2) Make use of the library and its resources (including online resources such as journal databases, etc). At the university level, it is not right to be a passive learner. Be an active learner, and take responsibility for your learning. If the readings and assigned books are hard to understand, there are many other books out there that will explain the same concept, theory, or topic in different ways, and some of these will definitely phrase the points in a way that you prefer and can understand better. You are not held hostage to the assigned readings (if you don't like them, feel confident enough to create your own reading packet). And most of all, university lecturers and tutors are there to help you, so make use of their services such as consultation hours, etc (they are not ferocious animals who will bite you, I firmly believe).

That's all I have to say....In short, Singapore's culture of perfection is not as good as the elites think. I am not a member of the elite, so this is my subjective view as an ikan-bilis in the system. I, too, have been severely punished by an unforgiving system before. But I am still alive....

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Problematic system (Heavenly's recommendation)

One of my favourite bloggers, Trisha, wrote an essay entitled, 'Why I hate teaching'. I highly recommend it (in fact, I highly recommend her blog). The essay is about the many aspects of the education system that need to be changed, so that people who do love teaching can get on with their real mission...

Announcement for friends & loyal readers:

Actually, Heavenly Sword uses this blog to keep in touch with many people. Some of them have told me that they've been checking back every now and then but 'how come there are no new posts?' So, for those who care about my 'life and death' :) (and wondering whether I'm 'sheng1 si3 wei4 bu3'/still alive or not), I'm fine; it's just that I'm still struggling with something very critical in my life (Yes, I know, it has been ages, but I've already tried my best to get it done by July this year, but I still can't achieve my own target). So I told myself, until that thing is done, I shall not blog....

May I wish everyone good health (don't be like me now) and delightful happiness amidst a generally horrible world.

Heavenly Sword
6th October 2006

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Metaphors of the nation: person, place, and club

Today Heavenly Sword wishes to write about 'the nation' using three metaphors: 'person', 'place', and 'club'. My discussion will focus on 'reasonably well-educated Singaporeans' who are potentially mobile, and I shall argue that the first metaphor of the 'person' should be abandoned, while the next two metaphors of 'place' and 'club' should be retained. To forestall any misunderstanding regarding the general spirit of the post, I'd just like to say that it's meant to be positive and not negative or overly critical about Singapore and its futures in general.

In many discussions of the nation, for example in Singapore's cyber-civil society and in mainstream media, there has been a tendency to anthromorphosize Singapore and treat it as though it's a 'parent', an 'elder', or some other person whom you should physically care for and love. But a nation is not a person. It does not 'lose' any love, or any 'care' if you leave the nation. The relationship with a nation is simply different from the relationship with parents. If you leave your ageing parents, they 'lose' the companionship and the care that you could have provided if you were by their side. But if you leave your country, the country does not 'lose' any companionship or care. I'm not saying that the country doesn't lose anything. But what does the country lose? In my view, the country only 'loses' something if one is truly talented enough to make a difference to his professional field. So I argue that the one of the primary duties of a reasonably well-educated citizen for the next fifty years or so is to make himself as professionally skilled and talented as possible, for by doing so he can make more valuable contributions to the country - in the quantitative and the qualitative senses.

Now, there is one obstacle, however, lying within the realm of political culture. One prominent area of emotional warfare in Singapore is the perceived 'divide' between Singaporeans who are 'ungrateful' and those who are 'grateful'. There was a stormy debate earlier surrounding blogger Kway-Teow-Man's claim that the tendency for some to think in terms of government 'listening' to them is flawed. I argue that is not appropriate to use the term 'listening' to characterize the relationship between the government and the people. Talking about 'being grateful' is also not a good way to proceed, because if you have this criteria, there will always be a hierarchy of gratitude. Some people are inherently more capable of feeling gratitude to their parents, teachers, company/organization, nation and so on. Those who feel that they 'possess' more of such emotional 'goods' then believe, misguidedly, that they have more of a 'right' to this place compared to their compatriots, which seems to me like people asking for the conferment of an honourary doctorate where none is deserved. It's like a man thinking that he has more 'rights' to a woman than another man does just because he loves her more. The worst thing, however, is not the mere fact that some Singaporeans think like that; it is the fact that Singaporeans view 'moving overseas' as a sign of ingratitude. This is the wrong way to understand the practice of 'moving overseas' in the contemporary era, as the rest of my essay will make clear.

A nation is a place. Because it's a place, we can do things to it, to make it better. A place that people make it to be, and by their actions, inactions, and interactions shape the aesthetic, political, and societal culture. In a globalized village characterized by efficient communications and transport technologies, these actions and interactions can always take place at a distance. So the view that you must be 'based here' to do anything at all is flawed, and so is the view that 'if you are based there you can't do anything'. The boundaries between 'here' and 'there' have become fuzzy, and while Singaporeans most probably would have heard of this, I think that they have not appreciated the great significance of it. Many Singaporeans have also failed to realize that what makes the place shine is not 'lots and lots of grateful people', but 'lots and lots of talented people'. Because this is the case, all the practices of 'chiding' on the part of those who perceive themselves to be more 'loyal', 'grateful', 'patriotic' and so on to Singapore (as though the nation is a person) does more harm than good. If people perceive themselves to be patriotic, then all the more must they refrain from such practices of chiding, which they know will make people unhappy. In this era, the world is one's oyster, and a person who doesn't venture out really does miss out on some valuable experiences; let's face it, overseas expatriation experiences are actually really good for career development. A person who can show that he can succeed in different 'systems' would have proven his worth, and because he has proven his worth, what he says and does will have more weight than one who has done nothing in his life to prove his worth. And he who has ventured abroad can always come back when he is ready...

But a nation is not a club, critics would argue. One should not just treat it as a club where you come and go, as and when you please, as and when you need to 'use the facilities'. This appears to be a convincing statement, but only superficially. Firstly, there is nothing stopping people from loving a club ('oh I really love that club'), and most entities can be analogized to 'clubs' anyway. What is needed is simply a paradigm shift, to realize that one can love a club; think of it in more emotional ways, for otherwise, even if it's not a club but something else, you will treat that something else in a transactional manner anyway. Secondly, Singaporeans should come and go as they please. Why not? This is their home. These are their lives (and they only have one life each, just like Heavenly Sword), and only the individual concerned should have ultimate control over his own life. I am strongly against the view that an individual should 'jiao1 dai4' (account/report/explain one's decisions and non-decisions) to anyone, other than his parents and immediate family members (yes, not even relatives). Neither is it the 'business' of anybody unrelated to him to judge his actions, using unflattering words and discourses. Having said that, I do not mean that Singaporeans should always 'go'; what I'm saying is that it's really fine to treat this as a place for you to come and go, and then after going, come back anytime - precisely because 'this place always welcomes you back', 'this is your home'. The vision I have is a Singapore where a hug always awaits one when one comes back home, no matter how many years one has been away or for whatever reasons one might have chosen to leave initially. People grow, and they grow with time and with new experiences. The person complaining about things at age twenty may very well be that very person who gives his everything to the country at age fifty; the person complaining about things at age fifty may have contributed a great deal in his youth - he should be allowed to go wherever he likes, for whatever reasons, without being judged. This why I do not agree with any analyses that do not build in this 'developmental' perspective.

The nation is global, not national. Singapore is a small place, but 'Singapore' need not be confined to this place; the home can be expanded. However there is a slightly worrying trend: the world is big and Singapore is but a tiny dot on the map, yet many Singaporeans still think that 'Singapore is the world' or even 'better than the world', which is wrong because 'the world does have much more to offer compared to Singapore'. To argue against this would amount to incredulity, for how can such a vast entity known as the world 'lose' to a compact entity called Singapore? Surely one cannot argue that 'Singapore 'beats' the world because Singapore is so safe', can he? But quite amazingly, many Singaporeans do think like that. In the first place, Singapore isn't safe; it only feels safe, and I believe it's good to be vigilant and recognize this. It is nice to be able to see the world that has much to offer, to get a sense of perspective and balance, and to know that there are alternative ways of being a human, of making a living and of thinking about things. Globalizing oneself also makes one more valuable to the nation, for one would then have become valuable through his travels, as my favourite fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip shows. Conversely, immobilizing oneself only maintains the status quo. Think beyond a tiny 'wiggle" room', as Xenoboy wrote. On their part, those who are more patriotic should take care not to let their patriotism do damage to the sensitive emotional relationship between the rooted and the mobile. Knowing that it's sensitive and then still insisting on provoking others is not right. Zen Buddhism says that small actions that might be 'right' at a micro level may well turn out to be 'wrong' at a more macro level, and vice versa. Therefore I want to argue that even if being dissatisified and uncontented with what one has is not really good, as long as this has the effect of making Singaporeans venture outwards, it is good in its overall effects. Without brain drain, you can never have too much reverse brain gain, and Singapore's 'global network' can never be too spectacular.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The NSSS culture

Heavenly Sword the wandering swordsman takes a break from his kungfu practice, to talk about something 'light'. I'm gonna talk about what I call the NSSS (or Not-So-Siao-Sa) culture in Singapore. This is defined as a culture that is not so siao-sa :), where 'siao-sa' means 'cool about it'. Basically, I want to argue that Singaporeans tend not to be so cool about things.....things in general.... :)

First, Singaporeans tend not to be so cool about fellow Singaporeans wanting to venture abroad. Some get emotional and react strongly when they hear of Singaporeans wondering 'what it's like to live abroad', and start calling their compatriots names such as 'quitters', 'traitors', 'ungrateful brats', 'whiners', 'complainers', and so on. What is so wrong about wanting to experience life overseas, when this is already a globalizing era? This is an era in which diversity of cultural experiences is prized, and it is simply amazing to me how such parochial mindsets can exist in a (wannabe) cosmopolitan society like Singapore in the year 2006!

Second, Singaporeans tend to be stingy with their smiles. A smile is worth a thousand dollars here, so it seems. It's so precious that very few people here like to smile, or bother to return a smile. That's why some bloggers feel that it's rather unnatural when we are asked to smile specially when there's some major event going on. That's why when we smile at strangers or neighbours we get a blank stare in return, which seems to be saying 'what's your problem?'

Third, Singaporeans are very afraid of 'authority'. This great fear of authority has reached the state of paranoia. As a fellow blogger (Sze Meng) over at my group blog Singapore Angle once commented as an example, Singaporeans worry too much about the secrecy of the votes. To him, even if it's not secret, so what? Even if the government knows that you supported parties other than the PAP, so what? Is one's sense of self-importance so great that he believes that the government will deal with him (as Sze Meng puts it)? Personally, my theory is the theory of the ikan-bilis: nobody will care about ikan bilises. The government really has better things to do. The same argument applies to bloggers and others who worry incessantly about writing 'critical' articles. When Heavenly Sword first started his blog, he wrote essays about the 'beauty of complaining', 'Singapore's system of talent production', and criticized the playgrounds in Singapore. Well-meaning friends who saw my blog warned me over lunch to be 'very careful' because 'you'd never know what might happen to you', 'better to be safe than sorry'.....they said in a most ominous voice. They told me, 'Big Brother is watching', again, in a most ominous voice that ended up sounding comical to me. (I thought, 'Yeah, Big Brother is watching, I know ah, so? Should I say hi to him?') After all, I didn't think that there was anything wrong with me writing about my unhappiness with the tendency to slam 'complainers', or with my poor assessment of local playgrounds. If I do get caught by the police for this, I'd gladly suffer that fate, for one very simple reason - cos this is so globally interesting!

Heavenly Sword really thinks people are not-siao-sa enough in Singapore. They worry too much, think too much, fear too much, and are so paranoid that I do not know whether to feel sad for Singapore or not. The New Economy requires risk-taking behaviour, which boils down to courage. And to me, the tendency to 'think/fear/plan/worry/suspect too much' is simply anti-thetical to 'courage'.

I think that this NSSS (Not-So-Siao-Sa) culture manifests not just in the above realms, but also in individuals' personal lives. People usually worry too much about 'what others think' when making important life decisions. For example, they worry about (a) choosing the 'right course or stream' in JC/university, (b) choosing a life partner whose educational qualifications are 'not bad at least' (i.e. not so-called 'high school oni'), (c) choosing branded schools, universities, or organizations to work for. The excessive concern for 'face' is extremely unhealthy for development of a culture in which people would genuinely pursue their passions, for the passions may not be very well 'respected' by 'others' in their lives. Sadly, for Singaporeans, there are always Many such 'others' in their lives. The family and social network here is cohesive, but in that very cohesiveness one always has too many people to 'jiao1 dai4' to (that is, report/account/explain your decisions or non-decisions to). It's too community-based, and not individualistic enough; everything we do we have to 'jiao1 dai4', because we are juniors - juniors in the family, juniors in the organizations we work for, juniors in the nation (compared to our majestic leaders). Who dares to be himself or herself?

When the natural instinct to be one's True self is so strongly suppressed by many external forces, people tend not to pursue unique life paths, unique life goals, and try out different things. 'Trying out things' is considered a sign of frivolity in Singapore; a sign that you are somehow 'not serious enough', 'not committed enough', or 'not focused enough'. These are extremely negative and unwarranted connotations to latch on to people who simply want or need to 'try out more things, more jobs, more countries' to know what they really want in life. Yet here in Singapore, we're expected to 'settle down' ASAP, do whatever everybody else is doing, and play it safe. This is Not a good culture and it Should be changed. So what if people around you do not 'like you'? Why do you need them to 'like you'? Why do you even need their approval, their endorsements? What bad things can their criticisms of you do to you or your loved ones? Seriously, why take things so seriously all the time?

With that, I end my frivolous post on the NSSS (Not-So-Siao-Sa) culture in Singapore. Note that I occasionally write on what some bloggers would call 'useless topics', but who cares? This is my blog, so I call the shots :) To me, one should really never worry too much about what others say or think. Be yourself, you have the right to be different, you have the right to your own thoughts, own life decisions. Use the phrase 'so what' as your amulet against the ghosts of fear, ask 'so what' all the time: so what if you're wrong, so what if you don't make it in this system, so what....? It is much better to have tried and failed, than never to have tried at all; much better to have experienced extreme pleasures, than to live a life without passions and intense memories.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

LEGOs and the 'happiness' debate in Singapore

The topic of 'happiness' seems to be attracting quite a lot of attention in Singapore blogosphere. In this essay I focus on the debate between those who argue that the government's role in cultivating societal happiness is restricted to economic management and those who argue that the government's role is broader than those listed above. The former group argues that people are 'diverse', and because they are diverse and want different things, the government can 'never please everybody'. Since this is the case, the reasoning goes, the next best thing to do is to simply secure the minimal conditions for happiness - that is, focus on economics, law and social order. As a response to HuiChieh's post on this topic, I presented a two-part argument comprising the following points (in his comments section):

I argued that the problem with the view that the government's role should be restricted to economic management is the following one (which I shall elaborate on over the next three paragraphs). Some citizens only wish to have a good Life, in the individualistic sense, while others wish to have a good Society. The happiness of the former group is more easily secured as long as (a) the economy is doing well, (b) infrastructures are good/surroundings are beautiful, and (c) the place is safe. For this group, there are only three 'necessary' conditions. For the latter group, there may be more, or different, 'necessary' conditions, which may or may not include (a)-(c) above. For them, perhaps the necessary condition for happiness is not (just) a good individual life, but a good society. Now, the tricky part lies here: (1) it is not that the former group discussed above does not Want to have a good Society, it's just that for them to be happy, they only need to be in a place - any place in this world - where they can make money, enjoy physical safety, and so on. And (2) they Want a good society but they do not 'will' it (as philosopher Immanuel Kant would've put it). That is, they do not want it badly enough to do what's necessary to achieve it, and instead just go about their daily lives in a rather apathetic manner. This does not mean, however, that they will not be happy if they could see their Society progress in terms of cultural and political development (e.g. 'opening up'), and they may even agree with the latter group regarding the elements of the good Society.

I believe that the latter group performs an important role in society precisely by urging people to shift their focus from the good Life to the good Society, to be less 'utilitarian' and more 'Kantian'. Dansong in his essay has gone even further, talking about the good World characterized by a global ecological sensitivity. So what exactly is good? For the first group discussed above, the good life is secured by good economic management. For the second group, the good life has 'the good Society' as a necessary condition, which means the government cannot say that they've done a good job just because the economy is doing well, for the 'society' is broader than the 'economy'. The fact that there is a coupling between Life-Society for the second group and an absence of coupling for the first group creates a fracturing in society. If the first group still forms the majority, yes, one could say that the 'majority is happy', but this would then amount to a 'tyranny of the majority', for the intensity of the Unhappiness of the minority (perhaps not even a Small minority) could be very high indeed.

My arguments presented in the three paragraphs above have been rebutted, but I shall present a counter-rebuttal here. Essentially, the objections hinge on the claim that there is indeed a vast 'diversity' of views concerning the 'good Life' and the 'good Society'. This objection appears convincing on the surface, but its convincingness is based on a vagueness that translates into an apparent accuracy of description. Both HuiChieh and The Legal Janitor felt that any society, including Singapore, will definitely be diverse enough to make their arguments stand, and that empirical research will definitely not produce evidence to challenge the diversity-argument that has been marshalled in the rebuttal. HuiChieh nonetheless presented some observations concerning the 'multicultural diversity' that characterizes Singapore, and inferred from that very multiculturalism that there is indeed 'sufficient diversity' to make his original argument stand. Thus, we are led all the way back to square one - to the suggestion that the role of the government is really just to do a good job in economic management, law and order maintenance, and minimization of risks of all kinds. Is that really true? I argue that it's not, for the following reasons:

First, the diversity-argument amounts to little more than an assumption or hypothesis, and it conflates various kinds of 'diversity'. For example, just because a country is multicultural does not mean that it cannot at the same time be 'one-dimensional'. This one-dimensionality could be characterized by a pervasive culture of consumerism, political apathy, 'kiasuism', and so on. Ethnic, religious, and nationality-based 'diversities' and other kinds of diversity may or may not be correlated with diversity regarding conceptions of the good Life and Society, and they are not effective defences against the pathological effects of one-dimensionality. But at the same time, thankfully, they are also not necessarily factors that will always make agreement concerning the good Society impossible.

Second, I present my theory of 'Life Still Goes On' in order to help me counter the rebuttals. This theory posits that for a significant number of people, cultural and political development in Society at large simply has no bearing on their happiness in their own lives (as I argued above while discussing the Life-Society coupling). As long as the economy is doing well and they are still Breathing - that is, as long as Life Still Goes On - they are not likely to be unhappy and might even be happy. The problem with HuiChieh and Legal Janitor's dismissal of the need for empirical research in specific societies in that in different societies, the number of such people varies. For the sake of further discussion, I call them 'LEGOs' (Life Endlessly/still Goes On), and they are a type that can be contrasted against 'LAGOs' (Life Actually Goes On). LAGOs are defined as people whose concern about Society (or even the World at large) causes them to be significantly affected emotionally by the state of cultural and political development in their nation. Their existence in this world is accompanied by the passionate desire to see a Good Society. Now, here's where yet another rebuttal needs to be countered. It is argued by critics that what characterises the Good Society can never be agreed on totally.

It is true that there can never be 100 percent agreement on what constitutes the good society. However, this does not mean that the main elements of such a society are equally contentious. The seemingly convincing rebuttal derives its convincingness from a strategic distraction achieved by pointing to an obvious truism, namely, that there can never be 100 percent agreement on what constitutes the good Life and good Society. Yet, the critics then forget that proponents of the original argument (e.g. myself) do wholeheartedly agree on this point. I also agree (and most people would, too) that the good Society and Life is one that is without religious, ethnic, or political conflicts of great intensity, one that is without the 'clash of civilizations' described by International Relations scholar Samuel Huntington. Why can't there be agreement on most elements of the good Life and Society? Once again, the critics (a) point to the existence of a visible diversity (of race, nationality, class, and so on), and (b) argue that this apparent diversity therefore signals an invisible 'diversity' concerning conceptions of the good Life and Society. As I have argued earlier, these are two different types of diversity; they are not the same, and the first type of diversity doesn't necessarily offer any defence against the virus of pervasive one-dimensionality of life.

How, then, do we conclude on this issue? First, I still believe that empirical studies in actual societies must have a place in the discussion, for just as the critics believe that there is 'diversity at large', there is simultaneously a 'diversity of types of societies', some of which are possibly more one-dimensional than others. Second, I believe that HuiChieh's focus on economic management ends up prioritizing only one of the three categories of factors in a proper calculus of happiness, namely, 'hygiene factors', to borrow and adapt the term of management theorist Frederick Herzberg. There is a problematic neglect of two other important factors, namely, what I'd call (a) 'happiness factors', and (b) 'disgust factors'. Hygiene factors merely ensure that people in a nation are not unhappy, but it does not make them happy. Happiness factors are required to make them happy, provided the counter-effects of disgust factors are not overly strong. Two other points need to be made: first, the temporal and developmental elements should be taken into account in trying to understand why people are happy or not. For it is not merely the state of a society that makes people happy or unhappy; it is also the perception about the speed And the direction in which that society is progressing culturally and politically that affects happiness. Second, people in a society have been treated in earlier analyses by others as discrete units of pseudo-robots (which may well be capable of experiencing a narrow range of binary or simple emotions, e.g. either happy or sad/not), but they are not treated as complex human beings who are likely to experience ambivalence (mixed feelings), self-denial, regret-mixed-with-disappointment, dilemmas (e.g. 'I want the cake and eat it too') and other more complex emotions. It is only through a recognition of the complexity of human emotions that one can begin to appreciate the seriousness of the problem of a society made up of seemingly-contented-but-not-really-satisfied people, living alongside seemingly-neutral-people-who-nonetheless-have-hopes, as well as physically-alive-but-soulless-worker-humanoids.

Relevant web-pages
(1) Harvard's Business professor Michael Porter's 'Diamond Model of Competitive Advantage of Nations'
(2) George Mason's Public Policy professor Richard Florida's observations about the 'Rise of the Creative Class'
(3) U-of-Southern California/Berkeley's Communications/Sociology/Urban Planning professor Manuel Castells's book, 'The Power of Identity'
(4) Affective Computing robot-building projects at M.I.T.'s Media Lab
(5) Film Analysis of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)
(6) World Database of Happiness and the U.S. Misery Index (Economics approach)
(7) Psychological research on emotions at U-of-Geneva, Switzerland
(8) Funny/wise/interesting Quotes on 'Boredom' (Literary resources)