Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Away for a week

I won't be posting new entries for about a week.....

To my regular customers, many thanks for visiting and please do proceed into the Manor and help yourselves with a cup of cyber-tea.... :)

To new visitors, thanks for dropping by and hope you'll find the articles interesting...I'll be in resting mode; please click around and have fun comments (but not those that will get the police knocking on my door, please)

Four reasons for not blogging this week:

1) My Japanese lady friend is coming to Singapore, so I have to tidy up my apartment.... :)

2) I've been spending too much time online - when I've got tons of work to clear! I'm feeling guilty.

3) I've just had an intellectual exchange with the great blogger at From a Singapore Angle - and he is just too good for me! (I've exhausted most of my internal strength after the exchange; I shouldn't have engaged in the debate - he's a philosopher) :)

4) I looked into the mirror today and noticed that I look increasingly like Master Yoda - which is terrible! (I mean, it's good to be able to wield the lightsaber like him but I don't think any guy will want to look like him) Conclusion: I've aged, and I need some time to get over this.

See you in a week's time!

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Singlish and the process of a society becoming more boring...

Do not underestimate the power of Singlish. Even though we are now told not to use it so much, I think it is a language that is cool in its own quirky way. This post is about how Singlish allows one to truly capture the nuances of certain aspects of Singapore's culture, using a new Singlish term, 'sianization' as a case study.

'Sianization' is a term first invented by a fellow Singaporean blogger, jllt. This term, as far as I can see, has immense potential in helping us to formulate a sophisticated analysis of contemporary society and culture, especially in Singapore. So here, I present an elaboration of the Singlish Sianization Theory, which might be slightly different from what jllt had in mind when she first coined the term*.

Sianization refers to a process of a country or society becoming more and more 'sian' (or literally, 'boring'). But the term is more complex than that. 'Sian' is a Singlish term (with Hokkien origins) that is used to denote a complex feeling of boredom, apathy, tiredness, 'jadedness', and resignation. Is there such a process going on in Singapore? If so, what are the causes, the diverse aspects, and the implications of sianization? In my opinion, there is no smoke without fire: sianization is indeed going on as many people have felt it, but thankfully, it also involves a range of countervailing forces as we shall see later. The causes of sianization can be summarized as the Three P's - place, product, and people (not to be confused with the 4 P's of Marketing, which is easy stuff). These should be read in conjunction with my earlier entries (e.g. 'playgrounds', 'tried and tested routes', etc). Let us explore each of these below.

As a Place, Singapore does not have many sites which are enchanting. Sure, we have several tourist sites such as the bird park, the zoo, and so on. However, we simply cannot expect a few birds or orang utans to deliver the magic, can we? The existing tourist sites do not look extremely attractive, or feel extremely exciting; they cater adequately only to those who are already quite 'sian' and have no other places to go. And Sentosa is plainly disappointing as a tourist site: the journey round the island is harrowing - has anyone been there recently? In addition, the cable car system is far from 'world class': my Taiwanese friend visited Singapore, and we waited in the very hot and stuffy 'cable car tower' for 45 minutes before finally boarding a cable car, which took just 5 mins to reach the other end, and she said, "I'll never take the cable car again". I feel so sorry about the whole incident.

The second P refers to products - products of Singapore. I have in mind cultural products such as Singapore-produced television programmes and movies. There should be more of these, and the quality can be further improved. More local stars should be cultivated, especially if they look tremendously attractive (e.g. Pierre Png, Constance Song). Let's face it, looks are important in the media industries. I wonder why poor Pierre Png is always assigned roles that do not show him at his best - what a waste of talent! And I believe that any television programme or movie featuring Constance Song (perhaps together with Pierre Png) will be an instant hit globally! Why hasn't MediaCorp thought of this??

The third P refers to people. While there are actually a lot of interesting people in Singapore, the interesting sides of them are often suppressed when they enter the workforce. The work culture is too tough here - it should be changed so that people can knock off at 6pm instead of 9pm. Be like London, as Minister George Yeo says! Work-life balance should be cultivated, so that we do not have to book appointments with friends 3 weeks in advance just to see them once a year. People should also pursue their dreams. In Singapore, ask around and most people will tell you that they would like to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, IT specialists, accountants, or part of some other major profession. How many will actually tell you he wants to be a writer, an artist, a pianist, a sportsman, or a chef (as is the case in USA)? Not many, because there are pressures towards conformity in this country. The aspirations to pursue a different life from the rest of your countrymen may well reside in people's hearts, but the environment does not allow such aspirations to manifest as actual career decisions. As a result, many find themselves working in unsatisfying jobs for which they have no passion. Although the above major professions are good professions, the problem of homogeneity arises when most people aim for those few professions and nothing else...

Thus, the Singlish term 'sianization' has its roots in the 3 P's of Singapore - places, products, and people (not to be confused with the 4 P's of Marketing, remember). What we have done so far is to identify the causes of this societal process. One does not need to be pessimistic, however, for this process may trigger countervailing forces such as (a) new measures by the government to make the Place less 'sian' (e.g. the casino decision), (b) new products from the cultural industry (such as the Phua Chu Kang musical), and (c) new emphases to reorientate People's lives in Singapore (e.g. five-day work week to encourage work-life balance). It is therefore a dialectical process that can be shaped by citizens and public agencies rather than a unidirectional one that is destined to overwhelm us.

As far as I know, Singlish is the only language in this world that can capture the nuances of this process in just one word. Don't you think it's a cool language? :) I am not advocating the widespread use of Singlish within the education system here, just as one who loves Hokkien does not necessarily promote the use of Hokkien in the schools. My point is that we should be proud of Singlish not just because of its local flavour, but also because of its richness and its ability to capture elusive and ambivalent aspects of life in Singapore, thus resulting in the economy of words which contributes to efficiency. However, in order to 'earn the right' to use Singlish on informal occasions, I feel that one should first master standard English to an advanced level, for only by doing so can one firstly, defend himself against critics who associate Singlish with 'those who cannot master English', and secondly, prove with one's ability that Singlish users are highly competent English users, thus earning the necessary respect for this local language of ours.

*jllt's version is more focused on the countervailing forces of 'sianization' :)

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Being elite

The Youthink section in the Straits Times on 20th June presented an article on the theme of "being elite". This is a very hot topic now, and I want to blog about it not because I like fashionable things (e.g. I don't read certain high-profile blogs), but because having read the ST article once, twice, and thrice, I was left with a nagging feeling of uneasiness.....

The disturbing thing is not that what the contributors wrote was total rubbish. If that was the case, then it would have been easy for me to dismiss it completely. The problem is that what they wrote consisted of many familiar arguments on this issue, but with a few slightly inappropriate sentences inserted here and there....(by three of the five contributors). Here they are:

(1) "To the non-elites, accept yourself for who you are and don't wallow in self-pity. Rise above your personal limitations and prove those who look down on you wrong."

After I read this, I did not become unhappy with the writer mainly because I know that she meant well. And that's actually part of the problem! She actually meant well! Yet it came across badly in the end. The writer was arguing that we should "celebrate those who work hard too" and I certainly agree with this and with most of the things she said. But the way the section ended was not as graceful as it could have been, for three reasons:

Firstly, the term "non-elites" inherently defines the majority of the people against the minority (elite) group. Tell me, do you prefer to be known as a Singaporean, or a "non-Westerner"? Why should anyone define himself in relation to another group of people?

Secondly, the sentence "accept yourself for who you are, and don't wallow in self-pity" is patronising. Just as we should never walk up to a stranger and say, "Hey pal, don't be sad lah, accept yourself for who you are", we should also never declare that people are in fact wallowing in self-pity for certain assumed reasons.

Thirdly, the last sentence "Rise above your personal limitations and prove those who look down on you wrong" presupposes that (a) if one cannot be part of the elite, it must certainly be due to personal limitations rather than external, societal, or systemic factors, and (b) there are indeed some people out there looking down on non-elites. But if there are indeed many such people who are narrow-minded enough to do so, shouldn't the writer be urging these people to change their views instead, rather than telling the non-elites to fight for the self-respect that they deserve all along?

(2) "Going to a JC is regarded as the main route to university, and people who don't make the cut either go to a polytechnic or the ITE....I'm not trying to promote polytechnic studies....My point is that young people should not blindly follow the 'elite' route".

This section (written by a different contributor) also gave me the perplexing feeling that I can agree with the general thrust of his/her argument and yet find certain aspects of the article problematic. The striking thing is how the writer states the observations as though they are undisputable matters of fact without pointing out that those views are in fact wrong even though they are widespread (for example, wouldn't it be good if s/he indicated his/her normative stance by saying that "going to a JC is often wrongly regarded as the main route to university"). The part that says so unambiguously that "people who don't make the cut...go to polytechnics" is also problematic, for it simply reinforces the misleading beliefs held by some that (a) only people who cannot make it to JCs go to the polytechnics, (b) there is one and only one 'elite route' rather than multiple pathways, and (c) that people opting for the polytechnic route are in fact permanently cutting themselves off from the opportunity of being an elite. Are they?

(3) "I was part of the elite again".

The third article by another commentator is the most problematic of all. I believe that this writer is a nice, normal guy with good grades who just wants to get a scholarship to enter a good university. I think his two main arguments are firstly, that "you can be an elite in any field", and secondly, "there's nothing wrong with (the presence of) a governing elite" - both of which I do agree. But the style of the article can be improved.

Essentially the article follows a structure of (a) "at first I can't join the prestigious elite club so I was very upset" line of argument, (b) "later I could join the club and became delighted again", and (c) only "complainers" "curse" elitism (note the use of the unflattering term, "complainers", to refer to people who do not embrace elitism) (my own interpretation and paraphrasing for (a) to (c)).

There is no indication in the article of how (a) and (b) are in fact very wrong attitudes to hold, when the writer (being a scholar himself) could have taken this opportunity to criticize such attitudes - and he would then have gained my respect. The silence on this could leave readers (especially aspiring scholarship applicants reading the article) thinking that it is 'not wrong' for people to feel this way. But I argue that it is wrong for aspiring scholarship applicants to feel this way, because the scholarship system that I hold in high esteem is about public service and nothing else. One should never yearn to be part of something which draws its legitimacy from public ethos mainly, or even partly, because of practical reasons such as "prestige", or for fulfilling personal 'dreams of overseas study', just as one should never indicate to a potential father-in-law that he wants to marry the daughter by saying "I sincerely hope to be part of your upper-class family", or to a lady he loves by saying "I'll be very upset if you don't accept me, as you're widely regarded as the most desirable girl on campus." (Where is the pristine love, may I ask?)

The way his emotions swing like a pendulum from extreme sadness to a blissful state of happiness also disturbs me, and results in the writer coming across as being (a) overly concerned with status differentials or (b) slightly myopic for being unable to see how one can still serve society by studying in one of our three reputable local universities using his own finances. And he mentioned that the years coinciding with his National Service "was an awkward and uncomfortable time" for him, leaving me to wonder why he has to feel this way. The use of the word "club" should also be avoided, for "clubs" are exclusive groups in which "membership has its privileges"; I feel that any suggestions of exclusivity should be avoided. And lastly, I do not think that it is modest to declare publicly that one is 'part of the elite'. Respect needs to be earned slowly over time, not conferred overnight by virtue of membership; and modesty is a virtue, even among the elites.

These, then, are my reasons for feeling slightly disturbed after reading the ST article.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Blindspots of the critics of NS-complainers

This short entry presents a defence of the 'NS-complainers' (that is, Singaporean guys who complain about various aspects of National Service): they have been too frequently caricatured as unmanly weaklings. Recall how this lady was quoted in the Straits Times saying that Singaporean guys complain about the 'most trivial things' when they go for National Service.

My defence is simple: The national servicemen may complain but at least they do what they have to do - by trying their best to cope even if their hearts are elsewhere and by doing their jobs properly instead of malingering or going on AWOL (absence without official leave). It may be that those who do not complain simply have no need to complain, since they do not (by virtue of gender, medical/PES status, or nationality) have to put up with much suffering at all! Surely being in air-conditioned offices would be much more comfortable than being in the fields, under the scorching sun?

Yet, many people who criticize the NS-complainers fail to criticize the wider societal trend of increasing number of Singaporeans attempting to try their luck at getting medically 'downgraded'. Instead, they target the national servicemen who dutifully perform the combat operations, during NS as well as during the long reservist period which extends over 13 years into a man's middle age! I have seen many soldiers who complain during their resting time but perform excellently and to their fullest abilities when it comes to actual military operations. Should they not be commended and applauded, notwithstanding the fact that they may complain a little as an emotional release mechanism while doing NS or 'reservist'?

And my final point for the critics of NS-complainers is that if nobody complains, then perhaps the Ministry of Defence should really worry, because this may mean that the training isn't really fulfilling its function of stretching the physical and mental limits of the soldiers at all! The training is so relaxing that everybody breezes through it with a laugh - just like a holiday camp!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Connotations of the term 'real world' & reflections on the 'work-education' linkage

It is not unusual to hear people say this (especially to people doing National Service, high school/JC students, and undergraduate students), "Wait till you enter the real world, then you'll know.....that all the education you have had don't count...It doesn't matter how many degrees you have."

The purpose of this post is to deliver a critique of this saying, because I think that it is far too misleading, and chauvinistic. This saying is misleading for several reasons.

Firstly, people who say such things are usually those working in the corporate world. I stress the corporate world because you tend not to hear these from people working in other equally established professions - the medical world, academia, education, real estate, the arts sector and the military. These people have failed to realize something very fundamental - which is that they (or at least most other people in the corporate world) got far precisely because of the education they have had. What they are doing amounts to 'guo4 he2 chai1 qiao2' (dismantling the bridge after one has crossed the river), ungratefully disregarding all the efforts that have been channelled into them by their former teachers spread across perhaps 16 levels of education, thinking that they could have achieved their cognitive skills on the basis of self-study alone. I would think that what they might have been trying to say is this instead: that "when you enter the corporate world, your scoreboard starts from zero once again and you will be regarded as on par with all those who have been hired, and 'work performance' shall be the most salient criterion for promotion decisions". I am not arguing against this interpretation, then, because even in academia, getting a PhD is no guarantee that one will be a great professor. What I am pointing out is mainly (a) the failure of the 'real-world' theorists to consider how 'work performance' may be affected by the earlier education and training the student has had, in terms of attitudes towards official tasks, competency, ability to convey ideas clearly, etc; and (b) the fact that without the certificates, the good companies may not even consider their applications. (Try applying for Citibank's jobs with an O-level certificate.) Most importantly, even if a poorly qualified candidate succeeds in getting the job, s/he may not be able to pull it off. If the 'real world' theorists truly stand by what they say, then if they have children, they should tell their children, "Don't study - go straight into the 'real world' at age 16. After all, all the education don't count". Would they dare to do that?

Secondly, the use of the term 'real world' by default places the corporate world in the centre of the universe, in the centre of society. This is a reflection of how corporate capitalism extends its tentacles to all corners of society. In fact, when people say that, it shows that even their brains have been taken over by the corporate world, and they are now ideologically under control, without even realizing it. The real world now, for such people, is real only in so far as it concerns profits, money, and the so-called 'bottom-line'.

Now, let me say that the corporate world (which exists for profits primarily) is not and should not be treated as the centre of the universe. In the first place, education is not a servant of the corporate world - so whether or not the education allows the person to 'hit the ground running' from Day One at work is not an issue. In the UK, it is much more difficult to get a place on a degree programme in English Literature or History than Accounting and Finance or Engineering. It would be sad if one day education exists solely for the purpose of churning out workers for companies. Also, other fields of work are equally legitimate. Is one a lesser person just because s/he does not physically sit in an office to work, and instead fries char kway teow for a living? Is one a more immature person just because s/he has never had to deal with a lot of office politics? I have encountered people who blatantly told me that working in the office, having to deal with unreasonable customers, back-stabbing colleagues, etc is the only way to learn about society. May I suggest that this is plainly bullshit, because I have never been able to detect any correlation between maturity and work environment. In fact, many people who have been in the so-called 'real world' (which is really the corporate world, according to their definition), exhibit narrow-minded thinking that is not the hallmark of mature persons.

To assign the superior-sounding 'real world' title to the corporate world is chauvinistic, and does great injustice to the millions of people toiling in various other professions - the nurses and doctors working in the hospitals, the teachers, lecturers and researchers in education, the officers and 'regulars' in the military, the independent real estate agents helping to sell houses, the chefs, the taxi drivers, the actors and other professionals in the cultural industries (e.g. artists, designers, writers, etc). Are the 'real world' theorists suggesting that these people are somehow living in a world of 'virtual reality'? If so, then even when an army officer/teacher/artist has retired, a corporate person can still slam him or her in the most nasty fashion, "You have not been in the Real world! Your life is a waste of time and resources!" People are earning money with their own labour - their own hands, brainpower, life time, and energy - they didn't go out and rob the banks or earn money through illegal means. They should be respected for that.

This, then, is the real 'real world' - a world in which you have to earn your own money, through whatever legitimate means, making use of your own talent and skills. Whichever profession you choose, excel in it. And when you are successful, all the critics will plainly shut up and swallow their words, for you have made your contribution to this society in your own unique way.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

'Creative' advertisements on TV

Some ads are so 'creative' (or 'uncreative'?) that I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I see them....

First, we have the M1 advertisement, in which the human beings all started to lay eggs on the floor for no good reason! What exactly is this whole 'egg-laying' business all about?? It looks so distasteful and the music sounds horrible too, even though I can tell that it was intended to sound 'cute'....Because of the stupidity of this advertisement, I will never sign up for M1. Never. I don't want to end up laying eggs one day for no good reason....

Second, we have the most irritating FedEx advertisement. What exactly inside that stupid parcel?? Because of this ad, I will never use FedEx - ever.

Third, we have the SKII advertisement, where Lin Yi Lian goes "toin, toin...."....What exactly is "toin toin"? What a silly sound!

Seeing all these advertisements on TV makes my blood boil. The above are three of the most poorly conceptualized advertisements in this world, hardly reflecting any sense of aesthetics. These ad designers ought to be reprimanded - or sent (back) to art schools!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Various life worlds, various life forms

I have finally understood something important - that although the word LIFE is just one word, it can refer to totally different experiences!

There are various life worlds and various life forms. If one accepts this, then one will be freed from the impulse to compare.

Some people work horrendously long hours, with little time to rest, and maybe no time at all for social life or personal life (e.g. hobbies, contemplation, watching TV, etc). Of course, the compensation for such sacrifices is the money that they earn, or the increasingly impressive namecards that they hold (and can proudly present to their friends during 'gatherings').....This group of people, for the sake of my subsequent analysis, shall be called the workaholics. :-)

For me, I do not think that it's worth sacrificing your weekends (i.e. Sundays and Saturdays, not just Sundays) for work. It's okay to go back occasionally to office to work during weekends, but 'be a regular activity it should not'. Social life (especially those aimed at finding lifelong happiness) is important. A friend of mine sometimes laments, "Sigh, I've no girlfriend!", but from what I can see, he hasn't put in the hours and the 'work' required to get one! I wish to tell him (out of concern for a good friend) that ladies would not stroll into his office just like that and ask him, "Hey, Mr. Busy, I see that you are overwhelmed with work and are too stressed and busy, but would you like to be my boyfriend?" That simply won't happen. (As for those who really feel that they would like to let work take over their lives, I have nothing more to say...I wish you good luck.) :)

There's another group of people called the family men/women. They are contented to have a wholesome family, and the meaning of life revolves around the family. Work, for them, should not be too harrowing, and certainly should not 'eat into' the family time. So, no unpaid overtime, no 'bringing-of-work-back-home' for this group. In fact, I think this group is the happiest lot, based on my observation of people around me. If they have children, life should be even happier, provided they are also happy with the person they married. (See my 'Conceptions of Children' entry). There are those who feel that having a pet dog or cat can be a suitable surrogate experience for having a child, since according to them, the reasoning is perfectly logical:

1. "A child provides companionship"
2. "A pet dog/cat/mouse/(insert animal) also provides companionship"
3. "Therefore, a pet dog/other animal can replace a child"

This is simply flawed reasoning. It's true that both a pet and a child provide companionship, but the companionship provided by a child is so different from companionship provided by a pet. It does not take much of a leap of imagination to visualize this, does it? :) Of course, a person who is truly radical in his/her views can insist on the constant play of words and say that "a pet can also be your friend", "you can also talk to your pet", "a pet can also be part of your family", etc along with all the advantages of having a pet (e.g. you can give it away anytime, it's cheaper, you can ignore it, etc). But this only makes the discourse look like it makes sense without changing the fact that a child is different from a pet - as any empirical research work done on Singaporean parents can show. Just ask them, ask them, if there's any difference.

So, my conclusion is that there are various life worlds coexisting in this world. Everybody's life is so different. As the Chinese saying goes, "Tong2 ren2 bu4 tong2 ming4" (and this saying should be used in a non-lamenting way). Some are plainly rich, but do not feel happy for various reasons. Some are immensely successful in their careers for their age. Some are immensely happy with a wholesome family. Career success and wealth accumulation are not the only yardsticks to measure the 'goodness of a person's life'. So why compare? In another 50 years, we will all be nearing 80 years old. I do not want to spend my time at 'gatherings' chatting about other friends "VP position" at some top MNC (saying 'wow' endlessly), or over how much money and bonuses (in terms of "how-many-K's") so-and-so earns, or over the speed at which one manages to pay off one's housing loan, etc. The impressiveness of other people's achievements still leaves space for me to be happy with my own life, in my own way (that perhaps only I myself can understand), unless I let the mental demons trick me into an endless exercise of social comparison. That others may not be able to understand why I should be happy with my life does not matter at all, since I do not have to find reasons to justify my happiness. In the prevalent discourses of social comparison, the important things in life - friends, kinship, love, passion for what life has to offer, dreams and ambitions, interest in aspects of society - all but disappear into thin air. And the main reason for the increasing impoverishment of the discourses is the failure to understand that there are various life worlds, various life forms.

In short, a fish can be as happy as a leopard.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The 'outsourcing' of cooking

The way to a man's heart is through the stomach...If that is so, then I know why women are unable to capture the hearts of men nowadays. It is nearly impossible to come across a lady who can cook in this modern era! Out of 100 ladies I know, only about 3 can cook. That is a bit sad, really.... :-)

Why is it that women of this era are losing their culinary skills that the earlier generations of women have? I suspect that the main reason is the 'outsourcing of cooking' to the commercial providers - namely, the food courts, the kopitiams (coffeeshops), and the restaurants...This takes away the incentive for the ladies to learn cooking, since couples (or even entire families) can just go to places nearby for decent meals at very affordable prices.

The second reason is that people are just too tired to cook. With the 'work-till-you-drop' culture in Singapore, who still has the energy to go to the supermarkets, wash the vegetables, cut the meat, and fry the dishes? Even if one has the energy to cook, one may not have the energy to do the washing after the meal.

The third reason is that the guys are not doing their job - they should be protesting against this steady loss of culinary skills! Because guys do not exert the necessary pressure, and passively accept such a situation, there is even less incentive to master the difficult art of cooking! It's possible that this has something to do with the beauty industry. With ladies becoming better at beautifying themselves - often very successfully - the guys have become weak and unassertive, and fail to stand up for their rights....hehe :-)

So, we can't really blame today's women for not cooking. The incentive and 'mood' simply aren't there...This means that we may all have to live with this fundamental transformation of Singapore society from now - no more home-cooked soups, no more cosy family dinners in the comfort of one's home....Today's culture is a culture of 'eating out', so guys out there - if you come across a lady who can cook, go for her, cherish her, for there aren't many such ladies in this 'food paradise' of ours now.