Singapore: Butterfly or frog?
Singaporeans seem to have grown unhappier over the years, but as individuals and as a society, we can count our blessings and decide which path to take.
SINGAPORE is undergoing a metamorphosis. Indeed, it is likely to be a mighty metamorphosis. Having lived in Singapore for 64 years, I find it hard to recall a period of greater transformation.
Unlike previous transformations, this one is not taking place in the material or mental spheres. Nor is it taking place in the economic or political spheres.
Instead, it is taking place in the spiritual sphere. The soul of Singapore is being redefined.
No one can predict the final outcome of this metamorphosis. There is a range of possibilities. Let me suggest two extreme possibilities using analogies from natural results of metamorphoses.
Singaporean society could either emerge as a happy butterfly, flitting around in a garden city, or it could emerge as a lonely frog, croaking away unhappily in a little well.
Objectively, the odds should favour a happy outcome. Subjectively, we seem to be headed for an unhappy outcome.
Half full or half empty?
SEVERAL recent studies have emerged to suggest that Singapore is an unhappy society. Gallup polls taken last year found Singapore to be both the least positive nation out of 148 countries surveyed, and the least emotional country out of more than 140 countries surveyed.
A book titled Happiness And Wellbeing: A Singaporean Experience, written by two National University of Singapore Business School professors, found that Singaporeans have grown unhappier over the last 10 years.
Fortunately, unlike the metamorphoses in nature, the outcome is not preordained. It will not be a result of unchangeable DNA.
Instead it will be a result of decisions that we make. Yes, we can decide to be happy.
And I can speak from personal experience.
When we are born, we inherit tendencies to be optimistic or pessimistic souls.
I was born with a pessimistic streak. But I have learnt to control or balance it with conscious thought processes. When I slide into pessimism, I carry out a thorough analytical process of counting my blessings and my challenges.
Singapore as a society can do the same. And it can also decide to define itself as a happy or unhappy society, just as many individuals often choose to live their lives believing that the glass is always half empty.
To help along this natural process of deciding whether we want to be happy or unhappy, I plan to write several columns in 2013. Some will count our blessings and some will spell out our challenges.
The final two columns will spell out what the butterfly and frog scenarios will look like. My goal is to be helpful to my fellow Singaporeans and help them decide where to go.
Tension over immigrants
LET me illustrate this process with one clear contemporary challenge.
One of the biggest sources of unhappiness among Singaporeans is the surge of foreign migrants in recent years.
This unhappiness surfaced clearly in the General Election of 2011 and continues to reverberate in the blogosphere. Some of the reactions are rational. Many of them are emotional. And we have to try to understand both the rational and emotional dimensions.
I have had first-hand experience of the emotional dimensions.
A little more than two years ago, on Christmas Eve 2010, an Australian driver tried to physically nudge me twice with his sports utility vehicle after I complained about his unnecessary honking off Siglap Road. Fortunately, I was not hurt.
I am glad that I had this experience. It made me understand the resentment that Singaporeans feel towards insensitive foreigners.
What made this experience unusual is that Australian drivers are generally more courteous than Singaporean drivers. The wide open spaces in Australia don’t create the psychological pressures that a crowded Singapore does.
A month ago, a fellow professor (an American citizen) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy experienced road rage from a Singaporean. After watching the erratic driving of a small truck, the professor rolled down his window at a red light to advise the Singaporean driver to be careful.
The Singaporean driver rewarded his courtesy by running into the professor’s car. And he would have physically assaulted the professor if his father had not restrained him.
This incident made me aware that I had failed to alert this American colleague of mine to the dangers of road rage in Singapore.
After driving for over 40 years in Singapore, I know that the capacity for road rage exists in many Singaporean drivers (including, as my wife can confirm, sometimes in me).
We can try to resolve this rising tension over immigrants in Singapore with rational arguments. And rational analysis does help.
However, we also have the emotional dimension.
A long-time permanent resident of Singapore, who has contributed a lot to Singaporean society, told me recently that for the first time in decades he was beginning to feel unwelcome in Singapore.
When I asked him whether any particular incident had affected him, he could not think of any. Yet he said that he could distinctly feel less welcome than before.
The Singapore story
IN SHORT, we have to go beyond the material and mental spheres and beyond the economic and political spheres to understand the spiritual direction of Singaporean society. What forces have generated this new-found unhappiness with the previous status quo?
Normally it is the poets and novelists, the playwrights and artists who explain a society’s soul to its people. Yet we all know that the great Singaporean novel has not been written. Nor have we had an in-depth discussion among Singapore’s artistic community on the forces generating this unhappiness.
The simple goal of my columns for 2013 is to try to unearth these happy and unhappy strains of Singaporean society. Yes, like any other society, we have both.
What we don’t have is a good understanding of these different strains.
It will be impossible for me to unearth these strains on my own, even though I have been a Singaporean for 64 years and carry the Singaporean soul in my blood. I will need some help.
I therefore welcome readers’ views to the e-mail address below.
Civilised comments will be shared: Yes, I did use the word “civilised”. I know that it is old-fashioned and not chic to specify “civilised discourse”. Rants are often the order of the day.
However, I believe it is possible to express sharp and fundamental disagreements in a civilised manner. And, indeed, one of the best ways to ensure that we emerge as a happy butterfly rather than as an unhappy frog is to have a civilised discourse in Singaporean society on how to manage the sharp disagreements that have emerged.
And, if as a society we cannot have a civilised discourse, we are choosing an unhappy destination for ourselves.
In short, we can choose to be happy or unhappy.
As Karl Marx wisely said: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
The writer is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. This is the first of a monthly column.
Added on April 13, 2013:
Professor Mahbubani invited readers to share their views on the happy and unhappy strains of Singaporean society. More than 50 Straits Times readers wrote in. Some of their responses are here.
Your contemplation on the spiritual challenges now in Singaporean experience, I suppose, stems from that unexplained stirring, internally, without a clear grasp of what caused that stirring.
I suggest our values are being violated at several levels, causing Singaporeans to cry out louder and louder. Initially, it was just disgust, that old men should get their CPF swindled by young Chinese women. Married and divorced and departed with half of the proceed of HDB sold, in a blink of an eye. Then the spitting and littering and loud conversation in the public.
Filipino ladies now openly coveting with Indian men in MRT station. Now they being foreigners (and stupid old men), this is none of our business (on one hand) and yet an affront to our Confucian and Muslim or Hindu values.
Then it came more in your face. Foreign dormitories built next to landed estates. Hawker centers offering food, looking familiar while the food tasted foreign.
Of course, Sir, you are aware of the structural problems, starting with how Government priced land, HDB flats, upgrading hawker centers and upped rentals to gain more taxes, and policies designed to favor the rich like COEs and ERP. Policies so general in application, not recognizing the needs of different people. The Government is violating the simple value of fairness (or maybe fairness for those who cannot afford it), a value carried by every Singaporean.
When I worked as General Manager, I found it difficult to decide how much to pay the shareholder/directors. When the ministers voted to pay themselves what they think they deserve in public sector, it goes against the value of contribution. A civil servant is different from a politician. Is the general public able to explain that difference verbally? Not likely, but people cannot stomach the idea of every year a minister collecting a million dollars, regardless of the fact that many policies are written by the scholars, and that many policies are full of holes (felt by entrepreneurs and lay workers alike).
Such displeasure is insidious, and dangerous. A you know, people are furious, voting the wrong way just to spite the establishment.
We do not cut off our head when we experience a headache, but people do jump off the balcony when the shame or desperation overwhelms.
Don’t you agree?
My best wishes to you and you intention to illuminate.
-- Ong Eng Chuan
I am responding to your invite to engage you on the well written article “Butterfly or frog”.
Having been raised in a Hindu household, the notion that we are undergoing transformation in the spiritual sphere resonates with me. It seems like the natural progression or evolution that both my mother and uncle often refer to when we speak about matters spiritual.
It’s also not too remote from another step up in the hierarchy of needs Maslow devised. So your piece did have a framework that I could relate to. I wish to offer some additional thoughts for your consideration.
For all our planning excellence in Singapore we lack something that might have helped us progress even better in the pursuit of happiness - an emphasis on Values. To borrow a template from a friend well versed in planning processes for family businesses, Randy Carlock, we seem to have had the other four bits well mastered namely, Vision, Strategy, Investments and Governance.
In essence we seem to have succeeded in the ‘harder’ measures that would lend itself to well accepted measurement indices (KPI’s, Transparency International or any other global measures used to define successes). The same cannot however be yet said about our ‘softer’ skills set. We are still some way from being a Bhutan, but this metamorphosis is perhaps the beginning of a new phase of our journey. The type the disenchanted usually embark upon when they begin wondering if this is all there is to life!
In that sense I am positive that this is a good thing for Singapore. We might now begin to search deep to try and arrive at some consensus on what values we want to subscribe to. Do we want to be whiners and xenophobic? Or are we going to accept gratitude, graciousness and giving as part of our value system? (I recall that one notable survey had us pretty low in terms of philanthropy)?
Someday I think we will begin to understand that our happiness is something we are completely in control of, and that somehow it is related to our willingness to be more giving and grateful. Or some other value that has yet to be exhorted by our leaders who have been too focused on the other bits I referred to above, with superb and tangible results.
The leadership now needs to morph too, and be bold enough to change the emphasis so that we can all enthusiastically enter the inevitable new phase of our nation’s journey with the kind of optimism you often harness from within when visited by the blues.
Thank you for inviting our inputs and hopefully the wisdom of the ensuing crowd will prevail.
-- Sajen Aswani
I read your article “Singapore: Butterfly or Frog” with great interest. I would like to thank you for your initiative to analyse Singapore transformation taking place in spiritual sphere.
I find in general, material objects remain top priority for people of Singapore. For example, people queue up for several hours for new condo launch, to get the latest smart phone etc. Spirituality teaches us to think about this very present moment, be grateful for the blessings, and move forward into future with positivity.
As you have rightly said, to be happy we have to go beyond the economic and political dimensions of Singapore society. As the government is including ‘character building’ as a subject at primary level education, such an initiative could not come at a better time. Character building values can be imparted during formative years of a child. In joint family culture, such values are passed on to future generations by grandparents.
Measures should be taken here as well to promote joint family culture so that while parents work on discipline and the academic side of their children’s development, grandparents have opportunity to add character defining moral values.
These are so very important to build a society that can not only boast of material success but also thrive on social harmony.
Why should foreign immigrants be source of unhappiness among Singaporeans? Singapore enjoys unemployment ratio under 2 per cent, which is one of the lowest in the world. Singaporeans are complaining about jobs taken up by large numbers of immigrants in the low wage bracket.
But because they work for low wages, it helps to keep project costs relatively low, thus benefiting government and households alike. We should rather be grateful for the contributions made by these low wage earning foreign immigrants towards economic growth of Singapore. This is what spirituality teaches us. Immigrants sacrifice so much, give so much to Singapore’s economic growth and take so little in return.
You touched a very relevant point about ‘count your blessings’. People who have received all the amenities of a comfortable life easily without much hardship, may not be able to appreciate the effort put in by previous generations.
I believe school camps arranged by schools at primary and secondary level education could be helpful here. These camps are usually held in poor villages in neighbouring country. Teams bring books, snacks, clothes etc to distribute to local students. When our children visit these camps and witness local students lacking proper course books, dilapidated condition of school building, and empty shelves in the library, they should appreciate the things readily available to them back home.
Even if the present generation of Singaporeans have not experienced hardship that their ancestors have endured, listed below are some of the items that will qualify for ‘count your blessings’ here. The list is not exhaustive:
1. Government aided schooling and an education system that provides opportunity for all. Financial help is available to needy students so that no one is left behind. If a student is not willing to pursue further studies after completing 'O' level, he can opt for career oriented education in polytechnics. Should he decide to return to his studies in later years, he has ample opportunity to do so.
2. A superior law & order situation that allows one can stay out late night without fear.
3. Irrespective of social status or income group, everyone and anyone can spend a relaxing weekend at many locations.
4. A government that listens and is attentive to the need of population.
5. Clean drinking water in all household taps.
6. Affordable housing (HDB) for all
7. Well lit & Pothole free roads where one can even drive in the night with the car headlights switched off.
8. Efficient bus and train network for daily commuting.
9. Being a 'red dot' means one can reach to the farthest point in relatively shorter time.
10. Close proximity to friendly neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. This means one can opt for a weekend outing in one of these countries and be back to office on Monday morning relaxed and rejuvenated.
Ask for forgiveness. Be grateful for what you have. Forgive all, respect all. Help each other and live within your means are the heart and soul of spiritual way of life.
-- Alok Misra
Thank you for that article. And the articles following. I think it’s great. It will be a major contribution to the national conversation that is taking place in Singapore as we, as a country, grapple with who we are and who we want to be.
Personally, I think the reason for the angst and discontentm we feel as a society and as a country is no different from that which an individual feels as he hits mid-life.
When he was younger, the future looked bright and nothing seemed unattainable. The world was his oyster.
Now, doubts are beginning to set in. Both for the individual and for Singapore as a whole. All that hard work and promise of success seems illusionary.
But like the individual who was passed up for the CEO job and isn’t yet ready for mental defeat and resigned to being Senior VP for life, Singapore is similarly fighting for another day in the sun. He’s still struggling to get ahead.
Contentment eludes him.
Working hard to get ahead in life, he turns out to be running on the spot. Or worse, slip sliding backwards as smarter, wealthier and more mobile foreigners take the jobs, the seats in the nice restaurants and the condo he aspires to own.
You are right that the Singapore soul is being redefined.
In my opinion, there are several factors that have contributed to this state of mind:
Stratification of society/social mobility
We are no longer a cowboy town. Opportunities to succeed are harder to come by. Although we are meritocratic by nature, there is only one at the head of the class. Meritocracy had a much broader definition back then, and many who were street smart or had special talent in non-academic areas were able to shine.
Most of us are average and we feel stuck. The world has no place for average people. The winner succeeds with flourish and the rest... well, and then there is the rest. Forgotten, nondescript and faceless.
Meritocracy is a great way to organize ourselves to succeed, but it is not pretty for those in the system that don’t make it to the top. It crushes the soul. There is a harsh edgy side to it that we don’t address.
In case you think rebates and handouts are the answers to leveling up the cuts that meritocracy dictates, I would beg to differ. Rebates and handouts just eat away at self pride, confidence, independence and self belief. These are the qualities we want to foster to arrive at a society and culture that doesn’t look to the government for a solution or to apportion blame.
Missing the boat
Many young people in Singapore begrudge the fact that they were not born a generation ago. Or at least 10 years earlier.
Some things are beyond our control and it is indeed true that the generation hitting the job market in the mid-80s were blessed when compared to the cohort joining the ranks in the late 90s.
The tail end of the baby boomers would, with some luck, have gotten his first car on a year’s wages, ridden the property boom that doubled his asset base in five years and sold his Japanese car for a profit after driving it for a couple of years because of the currency exchange rates. All in all, it was a pleasant uplifting existence.
Given the increasing competition in school and at work, it becomes a no brainer that life is not the same anymore. Throw in the Asian crisis and have the late entrant in the job market knock around for a few years while he finds his feet, and we have a recipe for a generation of disenfranchised, disillusioned and disengaged young Singaporeans. They feel that the Singapore dream has passed them by. It doesn’t help that the good life, as defined by the generation before, that included a house and a car, seem increasingly unattainable.
They yearn for a reset button that will reshuffle the cards and level the field. They feel that they have been dealt a lousy hand of cards.
Yet, they are not ready to settle. If it takes a political change for them to achieve their aim or have a decent shot at having their dreams realized, they will grab it. It feels as if they have very little to lose.
I think part of the unhappiness and angst comes from the feeling of impotency - the inability to influence things that have a major impact on one’s life.
Disempowerment is a perception. But the perception has become real for a lot of Singaporeans. Policies and decisions taken with the logical mind did not connect with the emotions festering on the ground. They were just executed, not sold to the people. Endured, not embraced. The chasm between the ruler and the ruled is accentuated.
The disempowered took to the alternative media to influence public opinion and rally support. The establishment took notice and tried to address the outpouring by correcting virulent half truths circulating online. But that is just symptomatic of a deeper disconnect that is not addressed.
Cog in the wheel
The average joe feels that he’s just a cog in the wheel and has little or no significance. He does not feel valued. Nor does he think he is in a position to influence public policies that have a direct impact on his life.
The population white paper protest at Hong Lim changed that. He saw a glimmer of hope and it felt intoxicating. He felt he could identify with a special interest group or movement that gives voice to the angst he feels inside.
And nobody got arrested or spent time in ISD for the protest. That’s huge.
More alternative views will be forthcoming. Public discourse will get messy and building consensus will take enormous skill on the part of opinion leaders appealing to emotions as well as logic.
Definition of success
Much as we tried to broaden our definition of success by celebrating our sporting heroes and other non-traditional avenues of success, the truth is that that mindset has not percolated into a core value we hold as a people and as a society.
Simple anecdotal evidence we see everywhere on the value society places on the best retail assistants, manicurist, drivers, mechanics, brick layers, locksmiths, tailors and hawkers bear evidence that we are a middle class society in income rather than by values.
These are professions for the lesser amongst us who don’t study hard enough or by some measure, were defective - so our parents counsel us.
How then do we learn to respect fellow Singaporeans for their unique and diverse contribution to our society and honor him for what he brings with pride?
The mid-lifer learns through much pain and reflection that not sitting in the CEO’s chair is not the end of the world. He finds significance and meaning in his life through channeling his passion and energy in other pursuits. Singapore as a society must go through the same mindset change.
It will be some time yet before we come to terms with Singapore being a playground for the rich and famous while indigenous Singaporeans who make up the core are not always rich or famous. We would have to reshape our values to disassociate being rich and famous from significance or value.
The current push for a more varied definition of success or contribution to civil society and work life balance is a necessary and vital step for Singapore to make this transition.
Diversity of lifestyle and outcomes
The challenge of being a city state is that it forces everyone to live by the choices made by our leaders.
If one is born in New York but doesn’t like the culture, pace or way of life, one can opt to move to anywhere from Seattle to Montana.
In Singapore, it makes little difference if one moves to Hougang or Ponggol. If Singapore is committed to productivity led growth, one has little choice but to dance to that tune - short of migrating.
But life is hardly a case of one size fits all.
Therein lies the conundrum when our leaders decide a course of action that puts the country on track for a secure future.
Sometimes, the majority is carried along with the decision and we just see grumbling on the edges. Other times, when the majority is impacted by a decision or course of action, we face the upheavals where the disconnect between the leader and the led comes to the fore and we grapple with our sense of identity and soul.
I do not presume to be a deep thinker like yourself. This is just my perspective as an average Joe trying to make ends meet in Singapore and to make sense of the changes around me. Feel free to throw it out if you think it does not add to the discussion.
-- Daniel Kong-wing Lum
I am very pleased to see that you’ve started this regular much-needed column. It should provided a valuable sounding board for opinions on what may be the biggest challenge yet faced by the state of Singapore. I feel qualified to make some comments, albeit subjective, being a sixty four year old English-born permanent resident, who has enjoyed spending half his life, living and working in Singapore.
I have a strong interest in Southeast Asia and after retiring from the oil industry I returned to university and graduated with two master’s degrees from the NUS Department of Southeast Asian Studies.
Looking back over my time in Singapore I feel that the quality of life improved up until about the early 1990s, but since then it has gradually declined. It is now clear to me that the main causes of this are the stress and unhappiness resulting from too-rapid change, together with the inexorable reduction of physical living space. Specifically, the main issues are: cultural change brought by hurried large-scale immigration; a noticeable rise in inequality; and overcrowding reaching a psychological tipping point.
I would also like to emphasise that for twenty four years I was married into a well established Hokkien Chinese family, and as such did not live most of my life in an ‘ex-pat cocoon’. Instead I would like to think that I became reasonably well versed in the culture and thinking of the majority of Chinese Singaporeans.
Any reasonable person who reads the recent White Paper would have to agree that in pure economic terms, it makes perfect sense. In the long run Singapore’s negative demographics will in one way or another cause the eventual collapse of the state as we know it today. The problem is that most Singaporeans have existential day-to-day needs that do not resonate with such a long time frame. They and their families have to live their lives now, today, at the present moment.
When I came to Singapore in 1981 it had a strong Southeast Asian culture, where most people could speak basic Malay along with their mother tongue, and there was a sense of the region’s history and its interconnectedness. Now the culture has changed to one that seems much more mainland Chinese oriented, where you need to speak mandarin to communicate with most service industry people.
The resentment of Singapore citizens to such a rapid influx of culturally different people is entirely understandable. It is no wonder that so many now feel alienated in their own country. However, one can also appreciate the government’s dilemma, when realising that they urgently needed immigrants, while maintaining a Chinese majority, they were forced to turn to mainland China. While Overseas Chinese, particularly from Malaysia or Indonesia, would have been much more suitable, there were obviously insufficient numbers willing to settle in Singapore and make up the shortfall.
Caucasians could have also been enticed to come in sufficient numbers. But once they had built up a critical mass, they would have become problematic politically, and begun agitating for greater freedoms. Similarly if Indians or Malays had been brought in large numbers, they would have begun to lobby hard for their own communities and challenged the present Chinese ruling establishment.
In this respect one could also point to Singapore’s limited political space in causing resentment. But providing Singapore’s economy continues to grow steadily and the rewards are better spread, this should not become a critical issue for years to come. A severe economic downturn would of course test the present structure of government to the limit.
The problem of rising inequality is something the government has recognised and rightly decided to prioritise before the mood in the heartlands gets really ugly. Judging by the present number of expensive shops and restaurants, Singapore would seem to have an abundance of rich people. This creates much peer pressure and envy.
With its mega-casinos and F1 motor racing, Singapore is now a ‘World City’. The startling rise in conspicuous consumption by the wealthy flies very much in the face of ordinary citizens. And while most people are now resigned to never owning a car in Singapore, for them to never own their own homes would be too much to take.
It is well within the government’s capability to redress the problem of inequality and make everyone feel they will share in Singapore’s prosperity.
A much more intractable problem is the psychological effect of overcrowding, which has resulted in a feeling of living in a concrete jungle, despite the government’s valiant attempts at greening wherever it can. We now have MRT trains arriving every few minutes, packed to the gills with people, even in the middle of the day. Singapore now feels like there are simply far too many people living here. There seems to be nowhere to get away from them all, even for just a few hours.
Yes, one could tackle the causeway traffic or take a flight or ferry to a nearby country, but not on a regular enough basis to make a lasting day-to-day difference. There is now the feeling of being trapped in an urban nightmare and the knowledge that the population is set to rise even further is obviously going to trigger more anxiety.
I freely admit to being nostalgic for the lifestyle of the 1980s, before so much of Singapore changed and when the population was half of what it is today. In those days you could easily drive around the island and visit many different and distinct neighbourhoods. It was still possible to roam through large areas of jungle and coastline to find traditional kampongs, and visit offshore islands such as Pulau Seking. One could even sail into Malaysian waters without having to check in and out of immigration.
I was reminded of this during a recent visit to the village of Kong Kong in Johor, where we used to boat to regularly. There was water skiing at Pulau Ubin, and afterwards delicious seafood to be enjoyed at the Punggol waterside restaurants. It was nice to feel contented eating good Asian food in local eating places and not be pressured into spending a fortune in the hundreds of international high-end bars and restaurants one finds nowadays. There is obviously no going back to those days, but it is sad that most Singaporeans will never get to do any of these things in their new ultra modern country.
So much of the former sense of space and unique character has been lost. Now everything feels too controlled and that vital psychological perception of at least having a little autonomy has gone. Cultivated parklands are fine, but do not satisfy a deeper longing for freedom. The fact that there is almost nowhere on the island that you don’t have to pay for parking is just one aspect of this sense of constraint.
It is now clear that the majority of Singaporeans have satisfied most of their basic material needs, and have now moved on to seeking fulfilment and self-actualisation, as was predicted by Maslow’s well known model of human aspiration. But unfortunately for the government, this poses a problem that has no quick and ready solutions. These higher human needs require space and freedom, both physical and mental.
And this is very difficult to satisfy in the pressure cooker, hot-house that Singapore has become, where the treadmill feels as if it is turning ever faster. Unable to satisfy these emerging desires, citizens are going to feel unhappier as the years go by, even though they live in the safest, best organised and most efficient city in Southeast Asia.
It is going to be very difficult, but the government must find a way of improving the quality of life with acceptable population densities, in the way countries like Switzerland and Scandinavia have successfully done. This, as the government has recognised, will require massive improvements in levels of education and productivity for virtually the entire working population, and needs tackling on an unprecedented scale. Because they must now realise that bringing in more and more immigrants is creating very serious problems.
Anyway, I am greatly looking forward to your future articles and the feedback they will surely generate.
-- Derek John Potter
Your article has articulated so brilliantly the kind of feeling I have had over the past year or so as a Singaporean. I wrote a note on Facebook last month, questioning this very feeling of unhappiness and suggesting possible causes, while trying to rouse a more positive spirit from my friends. Reading your article made my perspectives even clearer. So I have decided to share my article with you.
-------------------------- ****************** ----------------------------
I love Singapore. I feel like this has to be said out loud at this point in time simply because well, I love Singapore. Increasingly, there is an atmosphere of unhappiness and anomie among Singaporeans and so I asked myself, is this how we all feel as a people?
While I cannot give an answer to that question as I would simply be generalising, I can give an answer for myself – that is, no, I love that I am Singaporean. If I actually feel happy about being a Singaporean, then why is it that I get the sense that Singaporeans are really unhappy these days?
I believe the issue lies with social media. Constantly, my newsfeed is filled with well-articulated articles and comments with topics ranging from critiques of our governance, critiques of our policies, to linking any issue under the sun with politics. These are actual, well-founded arguments and criticisms that need to be taken note of in order for us to improve as a nation.
The problem is, as a people, we will always be able to find areas to criticise about any aspect of our nation. It is perhaps human nature that propels us to be more expressive in our unhappiness rather than happiness. In my everyday life, I feel happy and satisfied but I hardly feel the need to voice this satisfaction. However, the moment I have a grievance, I feel the need to articulate it.
The same phenomenon appears on social media. Many of us who feel happy with the current status quo will not feel the need to express our satisfaction. So what we end up reading everyday are voices of unhappiness – hence creating such an anomalous atmosphere.
When I say that I am happy about being a Singaporean, I do not mean that our nation is flawless. I am not saying that 6.9 million is a perfect number that we can all be happy about. I am not saying that train faults are natural and should be accepted like sun and rain. I am not saying that I love every part of National Service so much, just like every other policy in Singapore.
What I am saying is that amidst the flaws and problems which we need to deal with as a nation, I am happy with Singapore and I love every moment of being Singaporean.
I love that I do not have to be overly conscious about security when I walk on the streets. I love that when I walk on the streets, they are generally clean. Wait, this is a point I have to emphasise because I have been told by my girlfriend how brilliant our waste management system is in the form of Pulau Semakau – the fact that our streets can be this clean is a bigger achievement than we can appreciate on a day to day basis.
I love how I can sit down for a cup of kopi before an important interview, each cup tasting almost the same regardless of the coffee shop, even though it isn’t a franchise and doesn’t cost as much as Starbucks. I love how I can take a bus to walk along the streets of Ang Mo Kio where I grew up and visit the shops that I am familiar with. I can write all day and the list will go on.
The main point of me writing all this is that I believe deep down, we love this nation and all want the best for it. We may criticise and criticise but as much as there are things flawed in this nation, there are twice as much that is right. I worry that if we do not spend time articulating our love for this little nation, we may truly submerge ourselves in this growing atmosphere of unhappiness.
So rather than sit back and continue thinking about what is wrong and what can potentially be wrong, I ask all of you my friends, to take a moment and think about what is right and what can be right. Reflect on what you love about this country that you grew up in and take the effort to articulate it. For just one day, for a change, I would so much rather see my newsfeed flooded with updates of why we love Singapore. I have taken the first step. I love Singapore.
-------------------------- ****************** ----------------------------
I look forward to reading your column in the coming months! As a Singaporean who loves this nation, I hope we can walk out of this period like the butterfly in your analogy as I want my own family in the future to be able to experience a positive and happy life here in the place that I love.
-- Woo Wee Meng
After reading your article, “Singapore: Butterfly or frog?" I too believe that Singapore is undergoing a metamorphosis and that its spiritual change is a worthy topic of conversation. One of the key elements of this metamorphosis arises from our reception of foreigners and the manner in which we integrate them into Singaporean society.
As a newly naturalised Singaporean citizen, I believe that my story would present a different perspective in your quest to gauge our nation’s emotional direction. I understand that Singapore has been accepting new citizens for a while, but given the rising distaste with foreigners, the present day conditions in which naturalized citizens are woven into the Singapore fabric need to be closely considered. Since Singapore will witness a growth in the number of immigrants over the coming years, I trust that the relevance of my story will continue to grow.
I was born in Mumbai and moved to Malaysia in 1995. I later immigrated to Singapore in 1999 when I was six years old when I joined Swiss Cottage Primary School. In 2003, my family considered moving back to India and my parents shifted me to Global Indian International School (GIIS). However, we continued to stay in Singapore and I later shifted to Singapore American School (SAS) in 2006 and I obtained a Singapore citizenship in 2009.
Due to my education in international schools, my experience in Singapore has not been entirely ‘Singaporean’. Indeed, I wore one hat as an expat and another as a Singaporean. Nevertheless, I bore it as my duty and pleasure to assimilate into my local culture and environment as much as possible.
Upon at Manchester for university studies, my first port of call was to connect with other Singaporeans. It was with them that I was able to feel most comfortable. We celebrated Chinese New Year together, discussed Singaporean politics and shared our limited stock of home goodies, whether that was Milo or packets of rice crackers together. Every summer, when I returned home, I interned in local companies and law firms and worked amicably alongside other Singaporeans.
Over the past 15 years, I have received a number of positive and negative reactions regarding my connection with Singapore. Some Singaporeans have been proud of my choice to regard Singapore as my home. They found it humbling that I decided to become a citizen of Singapore. In return, I was grateful for their acceptance and company.
Nevertheless, on many occasions I have also encountered rather negative reactions.
Despite having grown up in Singapore for bulk of my life, many Singaporeans have perceived me as being first and foremost an Indian, or even American, and only after a Singaporean. I often have to validate that I am Singaporean by displaying a level of local knowledge, something they would not have asked off from other Singaporeans.
My most shocking experience of this mentality came during an interview for a position at a Singaporean government agency.
Upon noting my educational history, the interviewer asked, “so do you consider Singapore home?” I unequivocally stated that I do.
She continued to ask how I would be able to connect with other Singaporeans, to which I remarked that I had a number of Singaporean friends whom I got along with extremely well.
She wasn’t convinced that I was truly Singaporean and pressed further.
“So where all do you go around in Singapore, other than Little India of course?”
I was absolutely taken aback by her question. I went wherever other Singaporeans went. I went to the same food courts, coffee shops and shopping malls, just like any other Singaporean would.
You may argue that if I did properly assimilate, I would have no difficultly in proving how Singaporean I am, but I do not believe that there is only one correct or right way for a person to connect or display their Singaporean identity. We all have certain common traits that make us Singaporean, but even so approach our Singaporean identity differently.
I have noticed that Singaporeans who come from different education backgrounds, whether it may be JCs of Polytechnics, associate themselves with Singapore differently. Many Singaporeans have different levels or degrees of connection to their race and this influences their Singaporean identity.
Some base their connection with Singapore with regards to food, their experience in national service, their family and a plethora of other factors. Simply said, if every Singaporean citizen has a different approach to his or her Singaporean identity, then why should my background set me apart as being any different?
I remember once that a Singaporean has asked me how I could humiliate myself by schooling at an American school whilst being Singaporean. To him, the concept of my identity had to be a lot more black or white. I either had to be a Singaporean studying in a Singaporean school, or an American studying in an American school. The fact that I fit into neither of these categories seemed problematic. Essentially, I had to be a citizen of Singapore or an immigrant of Singapore - not be a blended product of both environments.
I believe that the dynamic of the Singaporean identity is rapidly changing. With more people born in one country and brought up in Singapore, Singaporeans will interact with people who do not fit into stereotypically Singaporean characteristics.
As you have rightly pointed out in your article, clearly there are a number of people who are displeased with foreigners. But I think a thought needs to be spared for newly naturalized citizens too. People like me create a new category within the Singaporean society. We are not foreigners anymore. The problem then arises when Singaporeans continue to associate us primarily with our native countries, rather than spot the efforts some take to assimilate into Singaporean society.
At this rate, I fear that Singaporeans will split into two camps: native citizens and naturalized citizens. This is going to create a disunited society that will only destroy our contentment with Singapore’s social fabric.
Considering that Singapore has been welcoming new citizens for a number of years, my tale may seem familiar, but I think the context has changed. While in the past naturalized citizens may have received a more receptive welcome, the rising apprehension towards foreigners also influences the reception of naturalized citizens. This not only creates clashes between foreigners and Singaporeans, but between Singaporeans themselves.
Going forward, I believe that there will be more Singaporeans who associate themselves to Singapore in the way I do - with global characteristics but a recognition that Singapore is now home and it always will be. It is yet to be seen whether native Singaporeans would be able to accept this new brand of a Singaporean identity.
During my interview, I was asked about for values that are particularly Singaporean. I stated that hard work and meritocracy were two values that I felt shaped Singapore. If I do asked that question again, I personally hope that I can add unity and inclusivity to that list.
-- Aarti Sreenivas
When I first saw this article appear in my Google News Reader, I was thinking like "WTF", Happiness isn’t something we bother to pursue as Singaporeans, our god is S11 isn't it? It did surprise me that it's a really nice and good read! And the anecdotes you mentioned brought memories of my own encounters of similar nature :)
I agree that being positive or negative is a personal choice. You claim that you're a pessimist, it is natural of all academics to be of this character. And while it is true that we were born as optimists/extroverts or pessmists/introverts, it is never a black or white sort of thing, we are all gray (ie a mix of both).
I too have my fair share of road rage, and I admit that I am an aggressive driver as well. My choice and character and behavior is no one’s fault except my own. If I get into an accident because of my attitude behind the wheel, it is my own fault. If I get into a quarrel or argument rather than a peaceful logical discussion based on facts.
But it is easy to discuss such matters on paper rather than in the heat of the moment, when emotions (read adrenaline) are pumped to the max. But after a short cooldown (I have a smart phone app to help relax via breath exercises), we should constantly reflect on our own behavior, somethingI believe many of us don’t do. We don’t because we have too many things going on. Our in tray is perpetually filled with things to do, appointments to go to, money to be made.
Meditating and reflecting doesn’t earn money. But wise people always say that we should rest so that we may go the longer distance.
I commented recently that some people more naturally happier and able to be relaxed and happy. Do they know some secret many others don’t? I'm not being racist or anything, but I find many Malays are like this. I often see them just sitting down at the void decks of HDB chit chatting, relaxing in the cool night (maybe having a smoke), or on the back of a pickup and singing songs. These are things I rarely see people of other races doing this. It must be the way I was brought up.
The Malay children tend to while their afternoons away playing soccer in the corridors and void decks (yes it irritates me), but I guess they are just enjoying their childhood, and I always recall my own childhood, mostly rushing to enrichment classes or music or dance class or tuition.
Our values and philosophy are not wrong to demand our next generation to be overachievers (yes I am an overachiever), we are taught to Cheong. My sales mentor just whatsapp me to set my goals, check my KPI on what has been achieved since Q1 2013 coming to an end. While I am writing this, we are always CHEONGING to no end. Is this the urban metropolitan Singapore lifestyle? Is this what all Urban Metropolitan cities are like? I am a professed City Girl and will never contemplate living in the “countryside”. Can we still learn to have a “Countryside (read Kampung which some MPs like to say)” in our this fast paced urban metropolis?
But I digress.
I agree with the 6.9 million figure in the Whitepaper. Many dislike it, but it is the direction that I think we will have to grow. Singapore will become more popular since we became more prominent, with the YOG, GrandPrix, we have truly been in the Global Spotlight.
I was last night reminded by my Sales Mentor of the Genius of the "AND", highlighted in the book "Built to Last" by Jim Collins.
So in Singapore, we can be a Fast Paced, Urban Metropolis, with huge Skyscrapers, Fantastic Infrastructure, 6.9 million people (Or more), and ALL OF US ARE HAPPY!
I look forward to reading your column in future, and will continually write back to you if I have time and I am not CHEONGING somewhere.
-- Yian Tay
I like your allegory comparing our change to frogs or butterflies.
I would like to ask you how do you change the current situation to ensure Singapore evolves into a butterfly.
-- Wong Ting Fatt