Sunday, July 23, 2006

Living in Singapore

Blogger Ringisei once left a comment in Xenoboy’s blog which sparked off my thoughts that constitute this essay; Ringisei said, ‘Iain M. Banks wrote that the universal human desire is not to feel useless. Laying that out in parallel with JFK's line that ends with what can one do for one's country, perhaps then fulfillment lies outside the borders of our republic because of the sense that I, as an individual, have nothing to offer my country. Especially when its rulers seem to want nothing more from me than to be an anonymous statistic.’ It is indeed quite ironic that the desire to do something significant for the country could sometimes translate into a strange feeling of disillusionment, which might in turn trigger the urge to leave this place. In Xenoboy's own essay, he considered the tensions that one might feel if (a) one moves or migrates but doesn’t actually feel like moving and (b) if one stays but actually does feel like moving. I actually think that the former case is quite rare; it is the latter case that is more common…. Here, I talk about related issues of 'contemplations of leaving' and 'happy living in Singapore' and focus on the situation faced by married couples with or without kids.

I think that the ‘cost of leaving’ (a phrase coined by Xenoboy) is always determined by the perceived cost of leaving felt by 'the family member who is most reluctant or somehow unable to leave’. A man may really dislike living in Singapore, perhaps because he doesn’t like certain things here, but may stay on because his partner/wife thinks that life in Singapore is still tolerable, or because a next-of-kin (e.g. ageing mother) needs or prefers to stay here. To the one who would rather stay here, this ‘First World paradise’ is the only place in this world where one can find the things that he/she cherishes - tasty food (although it's getting costlier), comfortable trains (although they're getting more crowded), and functioning and beautiful lifts (on every floor soon!) Clean shopping malls and safe streets, conservative and wholesome culture without porn. A place where sexuality is tightly regulated in a global era of decreasing conservativeness and a place of morally perfect beings. There is no other paradise better than this place.

Thus, a man with the inclination to move may end up choosing to stay, not because he really loves it here, but because of loved ones who think that everything is ‘okay wat’. Note that the Singlish term 'wat', conveys a great deal about the nuances of the emotions felt in Singapore. In this place, family ties reign supreme, and therefore in order to leave, you need everybody in the family to feel the same way. But why might one even want to leave a place that’s seen by others to be like ‘Heaven’, Xenoboy asked in his blog. It's indeed puzzling, given that in this world there are many places that are not so livable due to natural or political forces. In some ways Singapore does feel a bit like Heaven, but for this ‘heavenly’ characteristic to surface, I think the following conditions would have to apply:

(a) indifference to what goes on in society at large (e.g. happy to indulge solely in pop culture and/or in a work-till-you-drop culture);
(b) no deep liking for variety in terms of leisure options (e.g. happy to go to Orchard Road or the zoo to see orang utans, week after week, month after month);
(c) no inclination to be close to nature (e.g. happy to be surrounded by concrete buildings and fake and non-artistic artefacts) and no liking for the four seasons;
(d) no financial worries (e.g. people who find HDB flats ‘affordable’);
(e) no worries about the future (e.g. people who tend not to think long-term and worry about high medical costs especially when one gets old);
(f) happy to take the public transport and not own cars (do not mind waiting for 25 mins for a bus to come; do not mind paying $4 to book at 'peak-hours' for taxis that crawl through crowded highways; the 'peak hours' are really long, mind you, and there are more ERP gantries now);
(g) the tendency to compare ‘downwards’ with economically worse-off countries, instead of ‘sideways’ or ‘upwards’ with economically comparable or better-off countries, especially those that are slightly or significantly more 'open', culturally and politically.

This is not meant to a criticism of the fine job that the government has done. I would acknowledge that no government can overcome the inherent limitations of a place that is lacking in natural scenic places and natural resources, and has such a small land area and tiny population. In this volatile era, no government can really feel confident of maintaining economic relevance as a hub for high-end knowledge-based activities or control escalating costs of imported products. So economically, I would say that the government is doing a good job. But in this globalizing era, when ideas flow across borders, discontentment regarding the ‘unique political system’ will invariably arise among a significant proportion of the population and the resulting tensions will always be there. This emotional tension is something that citizens must choose to live with or ‘grow to like’, as I see it, because the failure to do so will result in an angst-ridden dissonance that is not spiritually healthy. And those who are capable of leaving or capable enough to leave may really just decide to 'exit', rather than 'voice' their displeasure or 'stay' on (And it would be problematic if some of the most talented locals leave; let's face it, it is a loss to Singapore.)

I think there are two groups of mobile citizens: the first group leaves because they are pragmatic and leave for the sake of a better lifestyle or other instrumental reasons (esp $$), the second group leaves because they are idealistic and feel that Singapore is not the kind of ‘open society’ that they want. Apart from those who stay because of family reasons, there are three other groups who stay: (a) people with no views (they just don’t think about the kind of life they prefer, and so they just hang around wherever they are, due to inertia), (b) people with views but can compromise, perhaps because their views are not so strongly held anyway, and (c) people who fit in very well ideologically because they find Singapore’s ‘unique political system’ not merely acceptable but actually ‘quite good’! (Having said that, there's also nothing wrong with being group (c) - it's up to individual preference.) The 'extreme' people in group (c) would be those ‘patriots’ who occasionally write in to the Straits Times Forum section with their mushy letters that alienate people, insofar as they come across as ingratiating and sarcastic reprimanding letters more than anything else.

My guess is that many Singaporeans fall under group (b) above. Here's the reason: Singaporeans aren’t exactly the type of human beings who are inclined to hold strong views for anything. I don't think they'll hate something very much, or love something very much. For example, if you ask them how's their work, they'll say 'Okay lah'; if you ask them how's their studies, they'll say 'Okay lah' (see Xenoboy's essay). Where's the passion for the work and the subject! Heavenly Sword really wants to see people with passion, and feels upset when he can't see many of them. Also, many are so well-trained in ‘super-balanced reasoning’ during their school days, that they have become reasonably competent when it comes to seeing both sides of an issue but have somehow lost the ability or inclination (a) to firmly decide which side is better (and stand by their views), (b) to formulate a more unusual position (and present it publicly) or (c) to analyze things more creatively (and risk being wrong). I add that they are (analytically-speaking) also not quite able to piece together many parts of the jigsaw so that the whole picture becomes clearer and the contradictions of society become clearer. The latter type of inaptitude is perhaps due to the constant stress by all kinds of figures of authority that you ‘must always have facts to back up what you say’. The ghostly voice urges one to be a mental slave and subject oneself to the ‘constraint of the empirical’ - for facts may sometimes limit one’s imagination. So being a slave to a set of facts means that one’s capacity for unusual thinking is delimited by what that set of facts says, because anything not said out loud by the facts fall under the realm of the subjective (re the saying that 'facts speak for themselves'), and Singaporeans do not dare to be subjective, and hence they do not dare to interpret – at least not in a radically creative way. Being a slave to facts destroy one’s confidence in his or her intuition which can be a most powerful thing. I have some ideas for Singapore, but I do not present them to the Minister, even if I have the conviction that I'm right. Why? Because I don't have enough 'facts', I don't have enough statistics; it's all sixth-sense...Sadly, a facts-focused orientation and an intuition-driven one are fundamentally different, and what Singapore badly needs now is greater confidence in the latter, in things which are intuitive...

Will Singapore change significantly in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time? I don’t think so, unfortunately, because this system as I see it is built for century-long equilibrium, and the stabilizing forces are too deeply entrenched. These forces have been presented above, and I summarize them briefly: First, most families here tend to think that life is generally fine because they use the material rather than the spiritual yardstick. And Singaporeans, being always glued to the family network, will always compromise obediently. So even the disgruntled talented Singaporean isn't so mobile after all, because of the stickiness of family ties and the immobility of entire family networks. Second, Singaporeans tend to be well-socialized in what I call 'super-balanced reasoning', and this affects their tendency to hold unusual views or hold any particular view very strongly, let alone articulate them. Finally, an obsession with a harrowing work culture and consumer culture is de-politicizing in its effects. Nobody has the time and inclination for heavy discussions of social issues and politics; they would rather 'chill out' in the pubs. Work culture supports consumer culture, while consumer culture legitimizes the oppression imposed by the work culture. When both cultures are well-accepted as part of the way life is Meant to be, that's still alright, but when both cultures are well-accepted as the whole way of life in Singapore, together they make Singaporeans think that that is all there is to life in general. Sad it is, indeed, but not if one doesn’t realize it, since ignorance is always bliss, and I have tried (and have given up on) changing the views of those who think differently from me. I do not want to disrupt the happy equilibrium in this nation, even if the foundations of this equilibrium don't feel quite right to me.

Related essays and webpages
(1) Xenoboy's 'Cost of leaving in Singapore', 'What makes me, me?', and 'Lost leaves, lahs and lors'
(2) Ringisei's review of Albert Hirschman's classic, 'Exit, voice, and loyalty'
(3) Prime Minister's Office, Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU) and Ministry of Home Affairs's press release on Overseas Singaporean Community (March 13th, 2006)
(4) Parable of the Prodigal Son
(5) Fairy tale Three Princes of Serendip and The Meanings of 'Serendip'


Blogger Elia Diodati said...

Much as I agree with your general sentiments, I don't believe that the equilibrium that has been set up is going to last a century, or even the next 15 years. The world is going to move forward, even if our leaders decide not go along with the esprits du temps.

Sun Jul 23, 11:30:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Cappella said...

Hi, your article really strikes a chord in my heart. I am the one that belongs to the group "one stays but actually does feel like moving" because I do agree that the country is heading for a decline soon, and that the software (people) in the country does not match up with the hardware (infrastucture).

Why do I want to leave this country? I have live my 30 years here seeing a "small part" of the world. It is time to see the big world, good or bad, to complete one's life experience.

Eventually, as more people becomes more aware of the world around themselves, Singapore may end up just as a country they stay in instead of their home, and that is why the government is so worried about this, and they are doing everything they can to reverse this trend.

Well, with more foreigners becoming Singaporeans, I think the country itself is also losing its identity. As such, it really makes no differnce if I stay on or go.

Sun Jul 23, 12:15:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too thought that everything was "okay wat"...until I had a child...then, I really looked at having a full life and future here. Sad to say, I couldn't envision one. I wish I'd made the decision to leave earlier...but better late than never...sayonara singapore.

Sun Jul 23, 12:36:00 PM 2006  
Blogger BL said...

Hi Heavenly-Sword,

Your essay is very timely, because I have been contemplating about my future, on where I should be heading after serving out my bond. I wonder whether I should leave to go to US and make a mark before coming back to Singapore.

Even being here, my inclination is that if I don't make a name out in the international arena, I will never be a serious player to make changes in the country.

That will be my five cents.

Good luck with your thesis.

yours sincerely,

Sun Jul 23, 02:59:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous gecko said...

It's noteworthy that you pointed out the dichotomy between work culture and consumer culture because the government is trying to pull off a paradigm shift from 'work culture' to a more 'creative and innovative culture'.

An entire generation of Singaporeans has been depoliticised successfully by the government. Unfortunately, a 'creative and innovative culture' requires the citizenship to be questioning and constantly pushing the envelope in all socio/political/economic aspects of life.

The government is trying to have its cake and eat it. What's more troubling is the impression they give - that they believeit is possible to do so.

Sun Jul 23, 08:48:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Xin said...

well...ya...ok, lah...ok, lor.

steppin out of the little red dot, for now.

Sun Jul 23, 10:27:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous A simpler life said...

My family must be the "D" types - we left behind parents, siblings and in-laws! Some gave their blessings; some didn't.

But you simply can't please a whole clan of 30 or more.

Our final dicision was very simple. We are parents, foremost. We see our duty to provide for our child (providing a future as much as we can see for him)over and above others, including our parents.

Why? We have lived according to our parents' wishes for the last 30 odd years, it's time we do something for ourselves before our own lives vanish before our very own eyes.

Actually, with all the modern technologies and conveniences, the separation is not really a issue. I speak to my mother more frequently over skype now. That's because I don't have to worry about my kid's schoolwork or exams. Hey, I even had time to do some gardening, fantastic!

I hope more Singaporeans will have the courage to explore their options and live their lives out of choice.

Mon Jul 24, 08:35:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Beng Hong said...

I beg to disagree with your perception of "heavenly" characteristics that justify staying on in Singapore, as opposed to packing up and go:

(a) indifference to what goes on in society at large -
Having worked in more than 5 different multi-nationals, and 1 GLC, I never had to "work till I drop"; even though I did go back to the office once on Chinese New Year's day to prepare for a tender bid;

(b) no deep liking for variety in terms of leisure options -
Been there, done that, went round the world 3 times (literally). Seen the Niagara Falls from the Canadian side, and enjoyed the Louvre and Madame Tussauds before Da Vinci made them more touristy;

(c) no inclination to be close to nature -
Knee deep in snow at Hajiochi, Japan, white rafting in Taman Negara and wine tasting at Wild Flower Show in Perth;

(d) no financial worries -
Always spent within my means, Japanese car instead of European made;

(e) no worries about the future -
Worrying makes the hair go white, live for the day;

(f) happy to take the public transport and not own cars -
The car is the family taxi, these days I send my three kids to school instead of them having to take the bus, as I don't have to fly that often. Besides, the Tokyo subway and HongKong MTR are just as crowded at peak hours;

(g) the tendency to compare ‘downwards’ -
This I never do, as I have travelled and stayed in "downwards" Jakarta and "upwards" New York. At my first trip to New York, I saw a bag lady going through the garbage bin in First Ave and 42nd Street. She was wearing plastic bags for footwear.

I am in Singapore because I was born here, and would like to be buried here. I am flying the flag this National Day simply because this is my Singapore, warts and all, including reciting the Singapore Pledge at the Worker's Party Rally.

Mon Jul 24, 05:17:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Andrew said...

"..don't have to worry about my kid's schoolwork or exams" - that's not what my friends in Canada tell me (they went over 5 years ago). Maybe they are more kiasu, because they, like all parents, wish their kids to perform well enough to qualify for the prestige of the scholarship. Their first landing was quite bumpy, as the mother was horrified to find condom dispensing machines on the campus grounds. And the neighbors were having their 15 year old daughters fitted with IUDs, "just to be on the safe side". The grass, like they always say, is always greener on the other side. BTW, they still fly in once a year to visit, and each time we get together I never fail to ask: "If you are in heaven, why do you bother to come down to earth?"

Mon Jul 24, 05:26:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous A simpler life said...

Why do I feel that Singaporeans have such disdain for those who left Singapore?

Because they are quitters?! Are they really so brainwashed by the Government to think ex-Singaporeans are traitors by and large. This is such a juvenile and parochial view of life.

Andrew, I pity your friends who have to suffer your kind of hospitality.

Even China welcomes its returning folks from afar with open arms. We should look at these global ex-singaporeans as a viable and valuable network instead. Singapore can't fight the world alone. Having links far and wide is very useful for Singapore and Singaporeans.

Look at it this way, I will not hesitate to help a Singaporean if he needs my help in Australia. This applies to singapore companies finding a foothold in foreign lands as well.

Of course, if Singaporeans think they are world-class and need no assistance ....

Mon Jul 24, 06:35:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hs, the first paragraph captures _exactly_ how i feel, i thought i was the only one who thought that way, thanks for posting this...

Mon Jul 24, 08:34:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Sleepless in Singapore said...

If I have to choose, I will probably be in your category (c). I am very happy in this country, Grew up here, served my NS until 50, and will probably die here. I think we have a good govt., no, very good govt (with many faults too of course).

In fact, I can relate to the words of one of those ND songs which will probably make your readers cringe (Truly by Kit Chan)

And I have many friends who are (c). We don't write letters to ST or join PAP or PA. We just enjoy this wonderful country. And most of us don't blog (I'm exception).

Mon Jul 24, 09:41:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Ringisei said...

Master Heavenly Sword, I am most honoured that my little comment sparked off this very thoughtful post of yours.

It seems to me that most of the discussion about staying/leaving centres on instrumental concerns in a nation-state to individual orientation i.e. what can Singapore offer me?

However if we turn the question on its head to "What can I offer Singapore?" it might raise some interesting existential questions about authenticity, autonomy, rights and duties of citizenship, the role of the individual Singaporean in the larger scheme of things etc.

A final (far-fetched?) speculation - in letting going of those who leave because they feel they have nothing to offer to our country (within its current parameters), perhaps Singapore is not just losing labour and talent but also the idealists and dreamers, the glint in the eye and the fire in the heart?

Tue Jul 25, 05:01:00 AM 2006  
Blogger jllt said...

I was just chatting with a friend who had spent 2 years studying in Perth. She recently completed her degree, and discovered anew (shock, shock, horror, horror) how rude Singaporeans can be compared to Australians .

While there are things I love about Australia, home is still Singapore. I get a sense of being complete, of being home when I see Changi Airport. I feel good breathing the humid, city air. I love being able to walk around in the middle of the night on the brightly lit streets. Most of all, Singapore is home because my friends and family are there.

I don't see anything wrong about staying in Singapore for the sake of these people I love, no matter how much I may prefer other countries. Is it a compromise? Yes, but I'm loving it. :)

Tue Jul 25, 10:54:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Greetings, everyone, thanks for your cool comments!

Elia Diodati: I hope you're right...! But there are really a lot of 'stabilizers' in the system. Very sustainable model, I find...

Cappella: Thanks. It's good to see the world. I recommend the reading 'Three Princes of Serendip' (accessible from this blog). You'd never know what you'll find during your travels. Regarding the 'national identity' issue, I think i'll write a post on it one day...

Hi Anonymous: I wish you and your family all the best, wherever you are.

Master BL: You'll make it big. Go for the Gold.

Hi Gecko: You're right. Creative pple do tend to be more inclined to question/challenge authority...nonetheless I still find the SG model v sustainable (and blogger KTM and I just debated about this at Singapore Angle) - because of the stabilizers in the system.

Wed Jul 26, 08:51:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...


Xin: You're stepping out? And where are you going?

A Simpler Life: Thanks for sharing your story. Perhaps we really shouldn't be too worried about 'pleasing so many pple', eh? I tend to do that a lot (i.e. worry about pleasing A,B,C,D,E...). In the end, nobody's happy with me or my decision either. It's really a thankless job.

Hi Beng Hong: Being able to travel globally, take taxis, own a car, and so on, means that you are doing v well (and I'm happy for you and your family). I wish I could reach your stage one day. However, majority of Singaporeans are not really that well-off. Also, would you not agree with my arguments that:

(1) Being too contented isn't that good (because there'll be no motivation for progress). It's better to have higher expectations. No?

(2) One should move beyond material/consumption-oriented stuff (e.g. touring places, cars, etc) and have a more 'spiritual' dimension in life? This could be an ambition, a religion, a passion, a desire to set up a business, and so on. It's better to aim to make a difference in life/society than to simply cruise along. Is it not?

A Simpler Life: You've made a very important point. This is something that needs to be changed, esp as the world becomes more globalized...This us/them dichotomy really isn't v healthy.

Sleepless-in-SG: I'm glad that you're happy in SG. Suppose there are Singaporeans who are not happy in SG (for whatever reasons - e.g. weather always makes them sick, they love snow, they want to work in Hong Kong becos job opps there are better), what would you say to them? Personally, I would be v happy for them. Singapore wants to be a cosmopolitan society. And a cosmopolitan society is one that can embrace diversity/difference. So this is the First difference that we need to embrace (my personal view)...

Master Ringisei: What can I offer SG? I have a dream, which I shall tell you about one day. (Nothing related to politics; I'm not keen on politics) :] It's bad to lose the idealists, esp if the idealists are talented. Perhaps another thing SG shd recognize is that some pple BECOME idealists through their foreign journeys - so because of this, foreign travels (e.g. staying a few years ovs etc) shd be encouraged.

Wed Jul 26, 09:16:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Ah, dear Jllt, you've just proven my theory in my essay correct! ;)

Wed Jul 26, 09:17:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Yiren said...

I tend to agree with your post. I am overseas right now, but am waiting to gain a couple of years of experience before heading back. Reason: Family ties.

But one other reason I want to add, something that lingers in my heart... the need to feel belonged. I somehow do not feel belonged in this "western world". I may be singaporeanised by the government.

Anyway, I do feel alittle strongly about our political scene, and hope I can do something for our country. Sound idealistic? Maybe... but I hope it may come true...

Hope on to your hopes my fellow Singaporean.

Wed Jul 26, 12:11:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Andrew: I think for every family that leaves and is happy, there's another family that goes and is not so happy. Life's like that lah, isn't it? :]

Hi Yiren: Thanks, you too :] It's good to gain some overseas experience before you come back. You're in the accounting line in USA? When you're successful in your career, you can do something significant for SG.

Wed Jul 26, 07:55:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

[A blog reader, Anonymous (#2), left a comment on an earlier post, which is relevant]

[Anonymous said] "Interestingly, those I know who wants to leave Singapore are not 'young'.

Probably the youth in Singapore does not and has not experienced enough to make comparisons.

Just for last year, I knew of at 2 families, couple in the mid 30s, educated and executive types with 1/2 young children, having left Singapore.

A few couples (NUS grads) left before having kids.

Would be interesting to have some statistics on the real situation."

And my reply was:

"Statistics would be good; but the interpretation of the stats is also not easy, if the numbers are 'neither hi nor low'. E.g. let's say the stats show 4000 Singaporeans leaving a year, is that considered ok/normal/acceptable/etc?"

Fri Jul 28, 09:12:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Marcus said...

i agree with much you have said. Very chim but good discussion.

To go aboard to gain experience and exposure is fine but to actually migrate in masses, i think Singapore has not reached the stage yet, despite whatever grouses most of us have.

Fri Jul 28, 12:24:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Thanks, Marcus :)

Wed Aug 02, 08:40:00 PM 2006  
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