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.