SG50

I’m not sure why I’m so reluctant to write something about this particular event. Perhaps it’s because, for me, August 2015 is chock-full of events, and I can’t spare the hype-energy for the national holiday. I mean, this month alone, I’ve quit my job, enrolled in law school at the age of 30, and am about to wave goodbye to my fiancee, who’s also left her job and will be flying off to do her MA in the US. I’ve had a slew of farewell parties, hello parties, and desperate last-minute leaving-on-a-jetplane parties — it’s all been rather exhausting and bewildering, and I guess SG50 took a back seat to that.

But here I am, banging away at 2 in the morning, trying to express what National Day means to me.

I’m not sure if it would horrify or pleasantly surprise those who know me to hear me express gratitude. I’ve worn the firebrand hat for so long that it feels weird not to be shaking my fist at the establishment on this, the most fist-shakingest of days, but maybe I’ve outgrown it, a little. After all, this month’s theme seems to be “coming to terms with things”, a theme I’ll probably revisit.

So you know what? I can look back on thirty years of being a Singaporean and say that, all in all, I was fortunate. I’m lucky to be born here, and lucky to have been given the opportunities I have. I’ve come to terms with National Service, and this year fought my reservist ATEC with everything I had, and I think finally managed to make my presence felt in caring for the men and keeping the momentum going. I’ve come to terms with the price (onerous? light?) I’ve paid for my education. I’m still reckoning the cost in terms of years misspent and an older body, and wearier mind. I’ll have to come to terms with my years of service as a teacher, to take pride in those students I’ve fostered and ask amends from those whom I’ve failed.

So I’m older, and so is Singapore, and we’re both showing our age. We’re not as spry as we used to be. The metro groans and creaks like my body does some mornings, and they’re both more prone to throwing in the towel. We’ve gone from new kids on the block to objects of curiosity for a younger generation to whom we’re both unimaginably ancient. We’re slowing down, trading agility for heft, and if we want to keep punching above our weight class we’re going to have to learn new ways of moving and fighting.

We’re showing our age, but we’re still here, and we’re lucky to be here. You and I have already read tons of commentary on the secret of Singapore’s success. So here are some thoughts about mine.

Relationships
Hoo boy. I think this has to be one of those areas that’s changed the most for me.

Loneliness has been a way of life for me for some time. My parents taught me to cherish books, knowledge, and accomplishment; not so much other people. I knew a lot of words but I didn’t always know what effect they’d have on people, and what’s worse, most of the time I didn’t care. I had a high-calibre mouth and no trigger discipline; I took pride in telling it like it was, or at least, as I saw it, and anyone who couldn’t deal with it clearly wasn’t worth my time.

Folly.

I haven’t had an easy time of it, exactly, but when I look back on the past five to ten years, what stands out the most is how so many of those troubles could have been much worse if not for the people around me who, inexplicably, decided to help me out. The things I’m most proud of during my adult life — my relationship with my fiancee, whatever minor inroads I’ve made in my career, some excitement in exploring and learning new things — would never have been possible without the assistance (unwarranted, unasked-for, and, most unjustly alas, unrewarded) of others. I’ve relied on colleagues, contacts, friends, and loved ones for support, and I don’t know if this reliance is a new thing in my adulthood, or whether I was merely too blind to see those bonds before.

A younger me reading this would think me weak. I look back and think him callow.

I can’t move forward still believing the myth of having bootstrapped myself to excellence somehow. I have to let it go, and recognise how much I owe to everyone I’ve met. And maybe there’s a lesson here for Singapore, too: we’ve tooted our own horn and trumpeted the miracle of how we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, from Third World to First, succeeding by dint of what the late Mr Lee would call “guts and gumption”, and dogged hard work. And we’ve sought out those most obviously responsible for the miracle, and rewarded them richly. We’ve instituted a system that recognises those who’ve benefited from the efforts of others, and we heap further awards and accolades on them — we call it ‘merit’, but I wonder if we’re secretly terrified that one day, the miracle would end, that these temperamental geniuses, who need to be courted with lucre, might turn the light of their faces from us, leaving us benighted and bereft.

It’s a familiar feeling. When I gave myself all the credit for my achievements, I was also placing the full responsibility for furthering them on my own shoulders. I couldn’t look to others for advice, or guidance, or help, because I was afraid that external influences would dilute whatever miracle formula I had. And likewise, for most of our modern history, our leaders have given themselves all the credit for our accomplishments, and taken on all of the burden, leaving civil society anaemic and fumbling. Up till very recently, interaction with the public has taken the form of explanation rather than conference. We’ve seen some change there, but it’s too early to tell if it’s a sea change or not — I certainly hope it is.

Our leaders need to be less alone, less isolated, more collegial and more connected, and in order to do that, they need to be less insulated. An uphill task, given how the various apparatuses of government tend to self-select for conformity and loyalty above acuity and insight at the upper echelons, but perhaps one that Singapore has never more urgently needed to accomplish.

Renewal
The need for new blood has already been identified, I think, given that the ruling party has already introduced during its last term several new faces intended to receive the torch from the previous generation. But this is new blood already robbed of momentum and vitality from having been forced through old, sclerotic channels.

I was a government scholar, once, one of the chosen few sanctioned and sent overseas, there to receive light and sacred draughts, destined for estimable service and leadership. At least, that’s the myth they sold us. I’ve heard different variations on the tale since, from more candid and highly-placed sources, and to hear them tell it, it’s more like trying to hit the elusive pinata of talent-and-loyalty while blindfolded. There’s a huge amount of breakage, wastage, and ouchies all round, but they assure each other that it’s worth it.

There appears to be an asymmetrical information problem between the government and scholars when the scholarship contracts were entered into. Many scholarship applicants at the age of 18, as well as their parents, do not know the benefits and opportunities available to the scholars after graduation from the top overseas universities, and are often only presented with information on the positive aspects of working in the Singapore government. On the other hand, the government has more information…

However, if the government provides information as to the kinds of alternative opportunities offered to scholars when they graduated, there will be fewer government scholarship applicants, lowering the overall quality of the government scholars. Therefore, the government has no incentive to release this information, as the government desires to have the best talents in the public sector… Without the information on alternative economic and scholastic opportunities made available to potential scholarship applicants… The government and other private scholarship sponsors will benefit at the expense of the scholarship applicants.
– Soon Sze Ming, “Singapore’s Scholarship System: a Study“, 2001

You create a mysterious reward, lambent with reflected glory and resplendent with moral significance. You make public its value but not its cost. The best and brightest apply, and from them you select those who stand out for reasons of individuality and drive. You send them to the most hallowed halls of learning, where questions not answers are celebrated. And upon their return, you flense away everything that made you choose them in the first place and, when they’re wilted and turning brown round the edges, you discard them for greener shoots.

New wine in old skins stretch them to bursting, and both the vessel and the vino are lost.

The new blood that Singapore ought to look out for needs to come from new channels — perhaps even ones they’ve carved out for themselves. What matters isn’t age, but experience: we shouldn’t expect someone to have fresh insights or new perspectives just because he’s young, especially if his background and those of his older counterparts are practically homogeneous. I’ve had to break out of that environment, seeing no potential for growing anything but my bank account; I’m starting again, and trusting that in the post-SG50 Singapore, diversity of experience and mental, if not physical, agility will count for something.

My rule of thumb for careers: look around your office for someone whose position you envy them. Is there someone with a job (in terms of scope, rewards, etc) that you really want? If so, keep at it! You have something to work towards. But if you look around you and realise that you pity your bosses more than you envy them, maybe you ought to ask yourself what exactly you’re working so hard for anyway. That’s the position I found myself in. It’s a bit of an odd situation for a teacher to be in, really: I looked around and while I could see members of staff whose expertise I respected, what stood out most about each of the people I admired was how they fought against rather than for the system, and how much of their talent and energy and time was being wasted railing against red-tape. I certainly didn’t envy them that, nor did I desire to put myself through the grinder to acquire that kind of expertise.

On the other hand, weirdly enough, I really felt inspired by my students. Watching them go on to new and better things, watching them grow and mature and find purpose and direction — all that stuff was amazing! And I realised that no matter how adept I grew at encouraging them to make decisions about their future that I was only speaking from second-hand. I never really had gone through that process. I signed on the dotted line more than ten  years ago and everything since then has been basically automatic. What I had gained in security and savings, I had given up in autonomy and direction, and for all that I was the older figure, some of my students were definitely ahead of me in terms of the experience and maturity gained from making choices about their future.

So I undertook to renew myself away from an environment that offered comfort at the cost of cultivation. I’m not satisfied with the approved way to leadership and influence. You see, we’re like currency, all my ilk: blank and heavy, we’re raw and without value, and only attain that value when we allow someone else’s face to be stamped across us. As long as we bear that mark, we can be clipped and shorn endlessly, our value appreciating over time even as our substance falls away flake by flake, and at the end of our service the measure of our appreciation would be weighed in how many counterfeits we’ve supplied with material: our value comes not from how we’ve grown but rather in how much we’ve sacrificed. Contrary to popular opinion, the civil service welcomes iconoclasts, as long as their first target is their own self-image.

I had to mint myself in my own idiom, to coin a phrase. My tender has way less market value now, but hopefully I’ll make up for it in circulation.

Conclusion
Here’s to a 50-years-young Singapore. Here’s to a Singapore that’s finally old enough to be young again in its own fashion. Here’s to a Singapore mature enough to stop dressing up in its parents’ colonial splendour. Here’s to a Singapore, far enough away from adolescence to apologise, to make amends, and to chart new courses. For we’ve — Singapore and I –come so far carried on the backs of the unsung, the uncelebrated, and the unrewarded. It’s time that changed, for both of us.

Hey, Singapore. I know we haven’t always been close, and we took a break at one time, but even though our relationship is changing, I’m still here, and glad to be. I may be quitting your service, but I’m not quitting you.

I fully intend to stick around for SG100. I haven’t given up on you.

Don’t you give up on me.

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