S’poreans need to tackle the difficult differences that matter, not the easy ones that distract

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | March 30, 01:26 pm


Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2018 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 53 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the complexity of the future roads we must take, as individuals, and as a nation.

“The road to thoughtful pragmatism” is an essay contributed by Kenneth Paul Tan, an Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He also volunteers on civil society, academic, and government boards. 

Tan’s essay is reproduced in full here:

By Kenneth Paul Tan

We live in a time of thoughtless pragmatism, suffused with impatience, anxiety, and intolerance.

Open-mindedness, adaptability, transformational thinking, and the deep philosophical and practical capacity to navigate plural perspectives and value systems – all parts of a more thoughtful pragmatism – have given way to a dogmatic adherence to crudely managerial, economistic, and immediately gratifying approaches to life.

Success continues mostly to be defined in narrowly materialistic terms, or by pithy items of achievement on a one-page CV.

And tethered ever more tightly to this notion of success is our dignity.

When healthy differences in society turn into divisions & condescension

Many who succeed according to these terms congratulate themselves and others like them, gazing upon those who fail with a mixture of pity and scorn, one disguising the other, or else with condescension or fake respect to affect an air of progressiveness, even self-soothing compassion.

And many who fail according to these terms either learn helplessly to accept full responsibility for their failure as they sheepishly disengage from the competitive society, or they treat the world with envy, resentment, and despair.

The problem is compounded when people perceive that the cleavage between winners and losers appears to coincide with and exacerbate racial, religious, language, gender, sexual, generational, and income differences.

Healthy differences in society calcify and turn into divisions.

Can not-super-rich S’poreans really enjoy the fruit of our long hours of labour?

If Singapore were merely a small and multicultural nation-state, top-down efforts to achieve national identity and a basic level of social cohesion would be challenging enough.

But Singapore is also a cosmopolitan global city, one of the world’s most open to flows not only of goods, services, and capital, but also of people, cultures, values, perspectives, ideas, and brands.

If insufficient attention is paid to mitigating rising inequalities, cost of living, and a profound sense of ontological insecurity, all augmented by the visible presence of the super-rich and an impending sense of being left behind in a world of automation and artificial intelligence, then unmitigated globalisation can turn social divisions in prosperous Singapore’s society — for now, thankfully, still mainly harmonious — into conditions of social unrest.

The Singapore Story, the national narrative designed to recruit individuals into a sense of belonging and collective identity, becomes less believable and inspiring, as more and more Singaporeans feel excluded from its premise.

Studies have ranked Singaporeans among the most sleep-deprived in the world, working the longest hours each day and suffering from high rates of depression.

In these conditions, it would hardly be surprising if more Singaporeans start to ask whether they themselves can ever enjoy the fruit of their labour in successful Singapore, one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Authoritarianism can be imposed upon by majority groups

Critics of authoritarianism often focus too much on what governments say and do to control individuals and the society to which they belong.

But authoritarianism is just as much about the people’s propensity to impose upon others their values, desires, and frustrations, often by enlisting the powers of the government for such purposes.

The more repressed we are, the more we want to oppress others. We look for easy scapegoats, usually minorities whom we collectively blame for what we perceive and construct as our social ills.

Trivial and easy irritations end up commanding a disproportionate amount of our attention, time, and energies.

That is how we distract ourselves from the real sources of our anxiety, frustration, and anger, all buried deep under our conscience, because we have learnt to feel helpless to deal with them.

How the media stoke tensions by amplifying bigoted views

In mainstream media and social media, there is constant temptation (and, of course, a commercial incentive) to stoke these trivial irritations and fire up scapegoating tendencies in the interest of expanding readership.

When the media publishes readers’ letters that reflect their petty concerns and obviously bigoted views, they generate outrage.

When the media publishes outraged replies to simulate a distracting, never resolvable public debate, readers are recruited and further distracted.

This is much less about freedom of expression or a deliberative democracy than it is a means of infantilising reader-citizens, cultivating intolerance that can soon polarise society, manipulating and then driving people into tightly conservative or liberal corners.

Such conditions welcome the demagogue, seeing the opportunity to divide and rule.

The demagogue demonises excellence, stirs up mass support by appealing to an anti-establishment mood, mobilises a collective sense of victimhood, and directs collective anger at minority scapegoats.

This is the road that Singapore must avoid.

But the way to do this, in the contradictory dynamics of a nation-state and global city, cannot be simply to work harder at forging a national identity or social cohesion, which is little more than a quixotic top-down project that produces at best a brittle product.

What we should aim for is resilience.

Taking a leaf from Bruce Lee

I know it might seem tacky to quote from martial arts pop philosophy.

But as a diehard fan of Bruce Lee, writing this essay in a hotel room in Hong Kong, I feel moved to admit that my favourite analogy for thinking about national and social resilience is best captured by some of Lee’s lines for a movie script, which he recited in a famous television interview:

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Building the nation and social cohesion can sound very much like trying to make a cup, a bottle, or a teapot. But these things are fragile.

They break when they fall, when they are subjected to hard knocks, constant pressure from outside or inside, or a sudden change in climate.

Instead, we need to be water, flowing together, even as we split into streams from time to time. We need to fill up any space of opportunity and be able to flow around obstacles. We need to be able to reform quickly after we are hit.

Water is scarce in Singapore. Our supply from overseas has always been a political matter that leaves us vulnerable.

The Singapore water story, which tells of how we successfully built capacity for water catchment, reclaimed water, and desalinated water, is an example of Singapore’s creativity and efforts to be resilient.

How can we apply ourselves to make our whole society and nation similarly resilient?

Can we all pay attention to the difficult differences that matter, not the easy ones that distract?

We must first apply ourselves wholeheartedly to reduce material inequalities in our society through substantive redistributive measures.

But just as important is the need to become thoughtfully pragmatic.

We need to really accept and include diversity and difference in the ‘we’ that we talk about.

We need to build capacity for engaging with one another empathetically, imaginatively, and critically, not superficially or patronisingly, but in a way that demands our collective attention to the difficult differences that matter, not the easy ones that distract.

Education can be designed to do this, but not if it is only obsessed with training people to fit into an economy.

The arts can do this, but not if they are expected to be propagandistic, commercially viable, and inoffensive to those whose first impulse is to censor what they do not like.

Most important, we must want to do this together, and take the first steps on a road that will be inevitably difficult, but also fundamental for our long-term future.

If you happen to be in the education space and think this essay may be suitable as a resource (e.g. for English Language, General Paper or Social Studies lessons), The Birthday Collective has an initiative, “The Birthday Workbook”, that includes discussion questions and learning activities based on The Birthday Book essays. You can sign up for its newsletter at bit.ly/TBBeduresource.

Top photo via MOM Facebook page.

About Mothership

Morning Commute

Interesting stories to discuss with your colleagues in office later