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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Er, the government does care if you write certain things. Acidflask was forced to dump his siao-sa opinions about a certain govt agency. That same agency, by the way, has forced at least one of their scholars to shut up after discovering some very siao-sa opinions on his blog. You have the right to be different within Singapore... "within limits". Some battles you can't fight, unless you have unlimited money to hire lawyers with...

Sun Aug 06, 08:18:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Ellie said...

Pardon me to say this, but I think to a certain extent you are NSSS also, I mean why heavenly-sword? *I am not challenging u to 'come out of the closet tho'* I think we've been told over and over again not to take things for granted and there is a lot at stake, so we need to always look and look and look before we leap. I'm not sure if this is an Asian thing or just a Singapore thing, but we tend to grow up spending 1/2 our time worrying about the consequenses of our actions, because there is too much at stake. I think we own so much that we can't afford to err and lose anything. Or maybe we were taught that it is not good to lose anything. Sometimes, I think the most desperate people fight the hardest cos' they do not have much to lose. Many people worked too hard to forsake everything they have for their dreams. And we have our families, or should I say our obligations? With so many things on our shoulders, how to smile and be nice?

ANyway, what an 'enlightening post' this is...

Sun Aug 06, 10:07:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous ringisei said...

A most interesting post, Master Heavenly Sword. Whimsical can be good esp when one enjoys writing it, dun care serious or not. Love the NSSS acronym - personally I'd use the much ruder hokkien phrase "beh k*n". (apologies for sullying your cyber-mansion with profanity)

ellie raises a good point. I see myself as having been very very NSSS and am still struggling to reform. I think my shift from hiding behind "anonymous" coward comments to having a handle be counted as progress?? :P

Also wonder if we should disaggregate the Singaporean population to identify the most NSSS group. Perhaps the high level NSSS types tend to be the wannabe-high achiever types we knew from JC onwards.

I've always admired most of my NIE / poly NS mates and colleagues for being very siao sa and having much more common sense and balanced approach to life than me...

Tue Aug 08, 07:34:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Anonymous, siao-sa-ness always gotta be tempered with an awareness of legal choice...

Hi Ellie, aha, it's partly for the fun of blogging mah. :) See also my essay, 'Against non-anonymity in cyberspace'. Methinks non-anonymity is not a necessary condition for siaosa-ness, otherwise it would simply be too easy to 'increase' one's siaosa-ness by revealing your real name. There are pple who reveal real name, but are not siao-sa, and pple who dun reveal real name, but are v siao-sa in real life.

Heavenly Sword calls himself Heavenly Sword for marketing purposes - it sounds more siao-sa than my real name mah ;)

Regarding your point about family obligations/Asian culture etc, I do agree. My NSSS theory actually does acknowledge that this culture is not easy to change (hence it's NSSS 'Culture'). I am also not sure if I, personally, have transcended this culture; I don't think so (after all, I'm a Singaporean, embedded in this culture!) :) Nonetheless, I think it's possible for one (including myself) to:

(a) at least Want to transcend this culture (i.e. be siao-sa as far as my constraints allow me to; and

(b)to Realize that this is not a very 'good' culture which, ideally, should be changed...Does anyone actually think that it's good to be 'not siao-sa'?

Tue Aug 08, 07:39:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Master Ringisei,

Thanks! I'm really glad that you've enjoyed this post. I was just speaking to Huichieh today and I said my NSSS essay is too whimsical to be posted on Singapore Angle group blog, but he said it's actually ok, since it does concern some 'real issues' in Singapore society :)

Methinks you're already very siao-sa compared to me, who left fewer clues on my blog regarding who I really am. Actually, Heavenly Sword (to let Ms. Ellie know) is very siao-sa in real life one... ;)

I think you've made a good observation there: the JC-then-uni grads tend to be less siao-sa than the others (e.g. polytechnic graduates, or poly-to-uni grads). Just my general impression...

Tue Aug 08, 07:50:00 PM 2006  
Blogger trisha said...

Interesting post.

Can I say I find many teachers NSSS? At the risk of offending my colleagues -- let me qualify this statement. I find many teachers who have never done anything else in their lives except teach very NSSS. They worry about voting for opposition, they worry about what other people will say, they don't dare try anything new or hip or unconventional.

My conclusion is this: if you stay in the same job too long, you will be buried in NSSSness. And you won't even know it.

Sat Aug 12, 11:28:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Rowen said...

Your statement is true about Singaporeans being stingy with smiles. Most singaporeans think that if someone smile to you, they are trying to do one of the following
1) sell something
2) borrow money
3) trying to get fresh with you.

Being bogged down by responsibilities and the stress of work, wife, kids and loans and liabilities, a Singaporean in Singapore cannot afford to be very siao sa.

A friend of mine was very siao sa, he wanted to see the world, travel, experience a different sort of life. at the age of 28 he took his lifesavings, quit his job and saw the world. He had been to the entire of europe, middle east and north america. living his dream as he sees fit. At 48, he is unmarried, does not own any car or property and is not employed. (does contract work or freelance work photography and such)

He is happy as he follows his dream.

Sorry if i rant a bit. But your article is good.

Thank you.

Sat Aug 12, 02:39:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...


Trisha: I didn't know that - interesting insight... :)

Rowen: Thanks! I like your examples :] It's sad, though, that the price of being siao-sa has to be so heavy....sigh....

Sun Aug 13, 11:02:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous ROWEN said...

Dear Heavenly Sword,

Actually he is quite happy if you see it, the ownership of a property would tend to tie you down in one place.
His dream is to see the world which requires him to travel from place to place and not staying at a particular place for long periods and by having no physical asset which is heavier than you can carry he is not burdened.

In a certain sense he went and discovered his dream and not sit around talking about it.
Well he is pursuing his dream siao-sa-ly by doing something which most singaporeans do not see or do not dare whereas i have chosen a more common not so siao sa path which most person does which is to get married and responsibility on my shoulders. (typical singaporean.)

Keep writing,
Your words are thought wrenching.
i will keep reading

Sun Aug 13, 04:47:00 PM 2006  
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