I Cannot Tahan Any More Resilience

or, “One of These Days I Will Write About Something Other Than Education”

First, consider this:

Students need to learn from their mistakes and be self-reliant, Ng Chee Meng tells educators

aka, The Elderly Need to Perfect Their Egg-Sucking Techniques

I mentioned elsewhere, in response to my somewhat tepid reception of this clearly very inspired statement, which is so forward-looking that it has, in true Terry Pratchett fashion, come out the other side and become retrospective, that the honourable Minister doesn’t have to be wrong for this to be a poor showing. This doesn’t have to be wrong. It just has to be inadequate, and that’s what I think it is. It lacks something as a mission statement in terms of actual perspicacity and galvanising potential, and worse than that, perhaps, it is hackeneyed, outdated, and potentially dangerous.

What follows is my usual rant, in response to being asked, very politely and in good faith, what’s so outdated and dangerous about this.

It’s outdated because the resilience slogan first caught fire (as far as I can tell) and has been with us ever since the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. I dislike how the education system always seems eager to batten on new faddish keywords, but at the same time always manages to pick up on keywords that have already started showing signs of age.

When I was a student, the killer keyword was creativity. There was a brief biotech buzz, during which the word “hub” became trendy, and suddenly Singapore had to become an everything hub. Arts Hub. Sports Hub. Biotech Hub. Shipping Hub. Scandal Hub. Charity Scam In Order to Send Wife Overseas to Live Delusional Lifestyle Lavishly Hub. Gambling Hub. Then when I was in late JC/about to enter uni, it was entrepreneurism. Then, in the middle of my uni days, 2008 happened, and then after that the world turned to resilience. In the context of the 2008 disaster, resilience was good. It was what was needed. As the world ground to a halt, it became very clear which systems were too fragile (like the banking sector), and the watchword resilience became applied to them. Well and good.

Then suddenly everything became about resilience. Got terrorism? Resilience. Got cybersecurity problem? Resilience. OK. Still fine. A little bit overused, but the situation really very unstable. Resilience.

Now, you’ve got imminent slowdown looming. Technical recession. Job market bad. Retraining and productivity initiatives not looking good. People looking to supersede us as a shipping hub: New Silk Road, Kra Isthmus canal, losing shipping business to Tanjong Pelapas. The future of Singapore and Singaporeans looks bleak — or at least, not as bright as it used to.

The context is different. Demands are different. You’re singing yesterday’s song today. If the best you can do to meet the pressing demands of the future is to cling to the watchwords of the past… that’s not very encouraging or inspiring, and I think I would expect a person in charge of people in charge of inspiring people to also be inspiring. Please, a little brain work can? Look at what other places are doing: Finland is abolishing the entire concept of school subjects for crying out loud. That may honestly be a bridge too far, but while people are eyeing a rising tide and discussing bridges and boats, we’re being told about the merits of swimming. It’s silly. It’s not what we need! Or at least, not all we need.

I’m not saying resilience isn’t needed, by the way. I’m just saying it’s not ENOUGH. And if someone in charge of setting goals is not aiming high but instead is aiming low… Er, jialat lor. This is why it’s outdated.

As to why it’s potentially dangerous, I invite you to consider two possibilities: one, that resilience is used too BROADLY, and the other, that resilience is relied upon too HEAVILY. The two things are distinct, in that one is a fault of scope and the other is a fault of intensity.

“Resilience” as a term has become muddied. It’s a great word, but it can mean a number of things. As I understand it, the ‘resilience’ that’s so hot these days is about recovery, not resistance.  But why do I get the nagging feeling that, in ‘resilience’ becoming a policy objective, it will be excitedly misinterpreted by poor managers and bad leaders to mean “tahan”? Oh, Singaporean workers sleeping too little and working too hard is it? What’s the problem? Resilience not enough ah? This is a fault of scope.

Mr Ng’s own definition unhelp in resolving the elastic scope of the word. Learning from mistakes? Resilience. Being self-reliant? Are you serious? Being self-directed/motivated and being self-reliant are totally different things. The world NOW is about leveraging interconnectivity and making interdependence work for you. Self-reliance is a dinosaur problem, and especially hypocritical considering that Singapore is super reliant on the external world (see also: foreign country can anyhow impound our military equipment and there’s nothing we can do about it). So is he telling us that young people need to bounce back (which, in this day and age, necessarily means smartly leveraging on available resources, communities, etc.?) or to suck it up and tahan? I can’t tell, and I bet he couldn’t tell you either.

We need our kids to be resourceful.

The self-reliance narrative seems more political than pedagogical to me. It’s all part of the meritocratic bootstrappism that makes Singapore so very, very tough on the very people whom Mr Ng is saying need to be more resilient. It’s code for “I’m not going to help you so suck it up”. Resilience! It’s magical!

Say this becomes policy. Good and bad. Good: it means something’s happening. Bad: Singapore has a tendency to do nothing and then wait for policy change and then suddenly overcompensate. See also: public transport. For so many years nothing doing, then everything starts falling apart and the government goes rail crazy.

Build high-speed railway with Malaysia! Let’s close one eye to the fact that Malaysia is also building a separate high-speed rail with China that is totally not going to make Singapore even more redundant and give China something else to poke us with! BUILD BUILD BUILD

This is a problem of intensity. Suddenly every policy is going to be about resilience.

2020’s Pre-U Seminar Theme: Resiliently Building a More Resilient Citizenry for a More Resiliently Singapore Resilient Future

Then, liddat other things no need care ah? How about opportunity? Innovation? Courage? Boldness?

Resilience is the government’s favourite toy at the moment because unlike creativity etc, resilience is a fundamentally conservative attitude. It is reactionary. Resilience is something that succours you in response to adverse pressure from outside. Well, okay, that’s all well and good, and I would even say necessary, but is it sufficient? Rocky says that it’s not about how hard you can hit, but it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep on getting up.Well… yeah, kinda, but relying on my iron chin to gas my opponent out is not my idea of an ideal strategy.

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I know everybody can change, but I’d like to change before I get a face that even Deadpool’s girlfriend will struggle to love… and sit on.

Looking at the world today, more conservative attitudes are the last thing we need. This is what I mean by dangerous.

So basically the Minister is telling us today what we needed ten years ago and now we’re going to overcompensate and reward a lot of obedient reactionaries, and now we also have a convenient keyword to yell at people who complain when things go haywire in future. For someone whose Ministry is paradigmatically about future-readiness, it is inadequate, and this is what I mean by he’s unqualified. I simply don’t think that this statement, or anything else I’ve heard (and more importantly, not heard) suggests that he’s got the qualities we need.

A friend of mine suggests that all this ranting is just me expressing my disgruntlement at the next-gen Singaporean Cabinet having much in the way of visionary leadership. Well… maybe, I guess. I’m sure it’s competent. I’m not sure it’s inspiring. And, as always, in Singapore “good enough” isn’t good enough.

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