It sure took me long enough to put fingers to keyboard over the local election. Maybe it’s a sign I’m slowing down. I’d like to think it’s a sign of me wisening up: certainly, I’ve been told before I could afford to think a bit more about what I said before I said it. I know I only have it in me to do the one pre-General Election post, so I want as much as possible to make it a good one. I’m also timing it thus because I’m not really writing to try to change anyone’s point of view or to influence their choices: what I’m trying to do is to tap on the issues everyone’s already thought about to lead into a different discussion.
When I first started contemplating this post, at first I was wondering which candidate I should endorse or which party to excoriate, etc etc. But given the tenor of discourse that has been flying thick and fast the last week, I hardly think my contribution on that score would be necessary or even noticeable.
Unlike my friend Casimir Kang, who has a way of transmuting even the most unpalatable of things into something graceful, like some kind of rhetorical Sammo Hung, I’m instead capable of the opposite, apparently, and am currently competing for the world record for the number of feet fitted into mouths in a fixed time award. So I won’t even try to sugar-glaze some of this. Well then, here we go.
- Tricky Metrics
By which I refer to how we measure our status. You see, some days I wonder if there aren’t two completely different Singapores, because I find it difficult to reconcile the conflicting and contradictory claims with which the average person is being bombarded.On the one hand, we’re the most expensive city in the world, and the least happy. Our CPF is the best retirement scheme in Asia, except it’s inadequate (which is, I suppose, understandable; just sad). We’ve got really low taxes, except we don’t. We’ve got record levels of home ownership, except we don’t, because the vast majority of home owners have just paid for 99 years worth of rental. Our leaders are compassionate, except they aren’t. We want to be a vibrant home for the arts, except we really super don’t. We want our young children to be creative, except we don’t because creativity is risky and risk is scary.
It’s a little hard to swallow since the information keeps coming at you from both ends. It’s less like choking down a difficult meal and more like getting spitroasted.
Yeah, you know what I mean.
The only way to really reconcile all these things is to realise that ‘one Singapore’ doesn’t actually exist. There are at least two, if not two million. There’s a Singapore for the wealthy, for the successful, for the affluent, for the meritocrats; and then there’s a Singapore for everyone else, who’re told to look around at the region and feel grateful they’re not in Malaysia or Indonesia. There’s a Singapore in which we’re told to be glad that families earning less than $1000 can have a roof over their heads and in which we should ship our senior citizens off to die in a foreign country because the land there is cheap, and another one in which our most exclusive and swankiest properties are mostly occupied by foreigners (and unscrupulous clerics).
And this is a problem, because it seems we’re becoming acclimatised to accepting this new normal of gross inequality. During his Party Political Broadcast, PM Lee talked about all the handouts that they’ve given out, and how plans for the future include the transformation of the Tanjong Pagar area into a seafront city three times the size of Marina Bay. Like the latter is something we ought to be proud of.
Except how many of us can afford to live in/near Marina Bay? Or even eat or drink there regularly? It’s a pretty place for walks, I suppose, but then again, it was plenty pretty even before the Supertrees reared their heads over the area.
We’re building more and more monuments, things the world tells us we ought to be proud of, except fewer and fewer of us are actually going to be able to do anything with or in those monuments, except gawk from a distance. Want to go to an award-winning zoo? $30! Museum? $30! Want to go see those Supertrees up close? $30! Hey, why not check out our pride and joy, the sky-dominating surfboard of our casino? $100!
Singapore’s getting prettier and prettier, but also further and further away, somehow. One day we’ll be a shining city all of crystal and gold, hovering amidst the clouds themselves in glory, packed to the brim with science and progress and all that good stuff.
All the plebs of the Earth, including all our senior citizens and poor people and minorities who can’t afford to live amidst theclouds, will look up at us in wonder, and we’ll fling them scraps and shower them in our excrement, should they be so lucky.
Laputa was never more aptly named.
- Singapore’s Future Isn’t Local
Of course, given that future I’ve described, we’re all justifiably terrified. We have millions of fingers of blame to point, and millions of easy targets to point them at. Let’s hate on foreigners, everyone! Some parties have managed to do this with more tact than others, although ironically the party that has made the foreigners issue their main platform has also done absolutely the worst job of discussing it in a non-hate-provoking manner.
Now, I’m not a fan of anyone who can’t assimilate culturally, or worse, thinks they shouldn’t be obliged to. That being said, Singaporeans can be surprisingly close-minded about ‘the outside world’. It’s very easy, I think, with how convenient Singapore is, to forget that the rest of the world exists at all, and that’s a dangerous thing.
I’m not sure how to put this, so I’ll just come right out and say it: if you’re worried about some foreigner coming to Singapore and stealing your job, you need to up your game, go overseas, and steal some foreigner’s job instead. We need to prepare our kids, not to lure the world here, but to get out there and do some hunting, to come back red-tongued and bloody-mouthed with their latest kill. Heck, I’m not even sure we have time to prepare our kids — we really ought to be preparing ourselves for that.
Singapore is too small for Singaporeans. This is a truth that all of us have grown up with. But we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that the wild and wonderful world beyond our shores is only for the rich, because only the rich can afford to go anywhere in comfort and safety. It’s too bad we’re not willing to put comfort and safety aside, because that’s exactly what other people are doing in order to come to Singapore, and really, if you’re not willing to go the distance the way they are, I don’t see why you ought to be entitled to anything purely on the basis of birthright.
I’ve heard all kinds of lame excuses as to why people aren’t willing to venture further afield. This is about as much sympathy as I can manage:
- “I can’t speak English/Chinese/Portuguese/Dutch very well.”
Well, tough titties, ain’t it? The foreigners who’re coming in don’t speak English or Mandarin or whatever very well either, but the ones who really succeed seem to be willing to learn. There are angmohs in Singapore who’ve lived in China and speak better Mandarin than our locals do. They send their kids to our local schools or to ones which prioritise Chinese language education. They adapt. They change. They’re willing to bite the bullet because the sweet just desserts are worth it. They don’t whinge and wring their hands about how learning languages is difficult.I blame the mother tongue policy, really. Not because bilingualism is bad per se, but because by tagging our choice (or rather, non-choice) of language to our ethnicity, we’ve attached some kind of sacred significance to the link between language and ethnicity. “You can’t be Chinese if you don’t speak Mandarin,” I’ve been told by everyone from my Chinese teacher to my Chinese students.
Well. Shit. I guess those 400 million people in China who don’t speak an artificially-imposed hegemonic tongue aren’t real Chinamen after all, right? I guess all those Englishmen who don’t speak Danish/German/Norman French aren’t real Englishmen either.
There’s a word for feeling like you deserve something that you haven’t earned.
While I’m a firm believer that a decent living is a right that everyone ought to enjoy, being able to do so without stirring foot from your doorstep is a huge, huge privilege. One I think Singaporeans, for the sake of the future, need to wean themselves off of.
- “I don’t want to leave my parents behind.”
Well, who’s asking you to? Go somewhere your parents will enjoy free healthcare, or an old-age pension; alternatively, go somewhere you can afford to put your deserving parents up like lords and ladies at a fraction of the cost of a decent lifestyle in Singapore.
- “No, I mean, my parents won’t leave. And I can’t leave them here.”
I’m sorry, dear reader, but I think you can and you should. If my grandfather had thought that way, if most of our forefathers had thought that way, none of us would be here.Singapore is a migrant nation. Even the indigenous Malays are only sorta-indigenous, for the most part, since ‘Malay’ is a catch-all kind of classification that embraces groups like the Bugis and the Boyanese/Baweanese. They’re certainly indigenous to the region, but to Singapore? Even our earliest settlements from the 13th century accepted refugees from the Srivijayan and Majapahit empires. How many of our Malays wouldn’t be here today if Parameswara/Sang Nila Utama/whoever had gotten cold feet about setting sail? Even the late Mr Lee traced his descent to China, and his success to an enterprising ancestor.
Abandoning the familiar for the foreign is an essential part of the enterprising spirit that made us great, and, it could be argued, an essential part of the spirit of the region. Southeast Asia grew great on trade, commerce, and cultural exchange. The Malaccan Sultanate flourished under Imperial Chinese patronage, and indeed, if their ancestors hadn’t been receptive to the Islamising influence of Arab traders, today’s Malays would have a very different character to their culture. Before the Dutch came, the Bugis were unrivalled in their mastery of the seas and famed for their wide-ranging expeditions. Even in the early days of our independence, in a tradition that carries on till today, we send our best and brightest overseas in the hope that they’ll amass treasures of wisdom and knowledge to bring back.
Singapore will always be home to many of us, but home’s a place to which one returns, not a place from which one cannot stir.
That’s not a home.
That’s a cell.
- “I can’t speak English/Chinese/Portuguese/Dutch very well.”
- Unity is Overrated
Unity has long been the rallying-cry of just about everything to do with Singaporean government and administration. I’ve lost track of the gallons of bile I’ve vomited after being told to do something “… as one!” Seriously, it’s like the catch-all conversation-ender for your run-of-the-mill middle-manager who’s run out of ideas. Can’t think of a way to get someone to do what you want? Tell him that if he doesn’t he’s not showing ‘team spirit’ or ‘working as one’.This has affected (for the worse, I’d argue) our attitude towards just about everything. The only things that are fit to inhabit the ‘shared space’ of public life are things that are universally inoffensive. No drums for Thaipusam (but lion dance is OK)! Gay male buttsex makes you a criminal, but every other kind of buttsex is OK!
The Arts are dangerous! The Internet is dangerous!
The fact is, PM Lee admitted in his broadcast that Singapore is getting more diverse, but I’m not sure he knows what to do about it. What sort of concessions are we likely to see towards that diversity? The Sedition Act, the ISA, the use of defamation suits, the Broadcasting Act, the heavy-handed use of the Party Whip in the name of ‘party discipline’… these things are all still on the table, and none of the parties have tabled anything that might take them off the table. Instead, they’ve all argued, to a man, that more representation yields more debate.
Yeah, OK, suppose it does? There’s a difference between more debate and effective debate. Even if I parachute the world’s most persuasive man (ie. myself) into Parliament, what does it matter if I can persuade even an opposing party to see things my way, if any break in party discipline is grounds for dismissal not only from the party but from Parliament itself?
Singapore needs its diversity now more than ever. As the world gets weirder and the future more fearsome, we need to cover all our bases. We can’t afford to have blind spots caused by the planks that all our national bigots have got in their eyes. We need to be more inclusive and accepting. We need to start thinking of foreigners as people. We need to start thinking of children, even the inconveniently-illegitimate ones, as children. We need to stop institutionalised racialism, but we can’t unless we dismantle the apparatus that prevents us from speaking openly about race. We need to extend support to single mothers, unwed mothers, fathers who want to be more involved in bringing up their kids. Singapore needs you and it needs me, and it can’t afford to keep pretending that if we don’t help the undesirables that those groups will die natural deaths.
Also, anyone who uses ‘family values’ as part of an exclusionary argument has no idea what family is, or means. Saying that you can pick and choose and discard undesirables, that only people who fit your norms deserve love, and that conformity is more important than well-being and happiness… That’s not family, that’s NS.
I don’t want one Singapore. I want a multifarious, multifaceted Singapore. I have mine, you have yours, and we’re both strong and resilient enough to survive the collision of the two.
Using unity as doublespeak for conformity just isn’t going to cut it.
In the past, Singapore was like a galley, primitive and oar-powered. In that sort of situation, everyone has to be shackled to the oars and pulling in time with the drum. Consistency, conformity, and grit were the primary virtues.
Today, Singapore’s like a sloop, trim and fast, sailing into a strong headwind. We’ve got a hundred and one moving parts and a gajillion sails. More than one person pulling on one rope at a time is a waste of bloody time. We need to give people the space to do their own thing. ‘Chase rainbows’, PM Lee says.
- Value, Not Wealth
Oooh, but at the same time, Singapore can’t afford to be unexceptional! We have to keep our noses to the grindstone! We need to be exceptional! Well, not necessarily exceptionally creative (see above: creativity is scary and dangerous), but exceptionally hard-working! We’ve already got the longest working hours in the world. We coincidentally have pretty low productivity levels, which is totally unrelated to the other thing I said. Surely the solution to the problem is more work! Harder better faster stronger! Working hours go up and the retirement age gets pushed back and so on with no end in sight.Literally no end in sight. There’s no change in paradigm, no alteration of tone or message, nothing to suggest that any party has any idea what to do when we run out of people to employ or hours in a day. No shift in the endless rhetoric of more more more.
So, basically only chase rainbows if there’s a pot of gold at the end. That’s not a real improvement, sir.
The thing is, we’re going to hit the limits of wealth sooner or later. At some point, we’re going to run out of men and hours and man-hours to grease the wheels of the Mammon-machine. What will we do then?
I guess I shouldn’t fault any party for focusing on bread-and-butter issues when so much of the population still has trouble with that, but I can’t shake the feeling that the reason there’s so much inequality is precisely because we’ve never gotten out of a bread-and-butter mindset.
Even rich people feel threatened, feel insecure, feel that they need to safeguard their golden ricebowls. The scare-mongering and the rhetoric of fear that’s lashed across our backs whenever we show signs of slackening also makes it difficult, if not entirely impossible, for Singapore to move away from considerations of survival.
“Work hard, because all of this can go away in the blink of an eye,” we hear on a regular basis, with the actual outcome of everyone hoarding like a possible catastrophe has now become imminent.
If only we could see work, labour, wages, and welfare as more than just work-to-live/live-to-work arrangements. We need to start looking at value, not just wealth. The up-and-coming generation has gotten bored with wealth. They know everything has its price but have yet to discover their real value. The calculus is beginning to swing in the other direction: people are now willing to pass up promotions, even steady work, in order to spend more time with family or to pursue unconventional interests. There’s a new market in social enterprise, in making a sustainable living helping others get by.
Sadly, I haven’t heard anything from any party about this. Perhaps the electorate doesn’t want to hear about this sort of thing. Still, it’s ironic and alarming to hear especially from the PAP that they have long-term plans, but that their long-term plans are just more of the same. None of the parties has yet proposed what we can or should do to promote not just wealthiness but well-being.
This sort of imbalance is especially prevalent in all the anti-minimum-wage, anti-national-income rhetoric that’s been going around. Unemployment will go up! goes the cry. People won’t want to work because their lives will be too easy! Taxes will have to go up!
A few months ago I was sitting in on a panel moderated by Donald Low involving the ambassadors of the various Nordic countries to Singapore. A question was raised about whether these countries, with their comprehensive welfare systems and free healthcare, had a problem with welfare queens.
The memorable reply came in two parts.
“People go to work even if they’d make almost the same money just collecting benefits, because their work is meaningful to them.”
“The population is committed to paying the price of higher taxation to support the national welfare and healthcare initiatives, because we take great pride in how we care for everyone in our society.”
I wonder when, if ever, we can expect to hear such sentiments expressed here.