Sunday With Warren Fernandez
Party like there's no tomorrow?
That's the surest way to a self-fulfilling outcome; better if people will the future
Published on Jul 28, 2014 1:41 PM
With flags going up on buildings, aeroplanes buzzing above our heads and streets being closed for parade rehearsals, it's that time of the year when we bring out the red-and-whites for National Day.
Many have also started to think about how to mark the big 5-0 next year, when the Republic celebrates five decades of independence.
Should Singapore party like there's no tomorrow in 2015, as suggested by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, in a recent column in this newspaper?
He made the case for a year-long national jamboree this way:
"Why be happy for this one year? The reason is simple. We have had, by any standards, an extraordinarily successful first 50 years. The chances of us being equally successful over the next 50 years are practically zero.
"Since we have had a good run and are about to embark on a more difficult run, let us rest and celebrate before the hard slog. A mountaineering metaphor comes to mind. We have reached a good base camp. Before we climb to higher and more difficult altitudes, let us drink teh tarik and celebrate how far we have come."
No doubt, Prof Mahbubani is right not to underestimate the challenges we face, and to remind Singaporeans not to assume that the road ahead will necessarily be anything like what we have traversed so far.
But as I read his thoughtful column, it also made me pause to ponder: What if the pioneer generation of Singaporeans had taken a similar view? What if they too had looked ahead in 1965 and concluded that the chances of a better future were "practically zero"?
Mind you, this would have been an entirely rational conclusion at the time. Singapore faced a bleak future, with no resources, no hinterland, no defence, and no clear idea of how to make its way in the world after independence was thrust on it out of the blue.
Thank goodness they did not choose to sit back and party for a year or more, but hunkered down instead to the task of eking out a living and securing their future, against all odds. If they had done otherwise, we would not be contemplating how best to mark our 50th National Day.
So it seems to me that for Singaporeans today to look ahead with the notion that their best years are past them is the surest way to ensure a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Put another way, unless we believe in a brighter future and will it to happen, it simply will not.
To be fair to Prof Mahbubani, the flip side of this is also true, of course, and no less worrying. That would be for Singaporeans to look ahead and assume, rather complacently, that continued success is assured, almost our birth-right.
To turn an expression on its head, failure is not an option, and Singapore will prosper, simply because it has always done so.
Both scenarios - assuming that the future can't get any better, or can't possibly be worse - are equally flawed, and risky. They point to the critical importance of getting the national narrative right in the minds of people, both here and abroad, as these could shape our future prospects.
This might best be illustrated by way of a football metaphor. Consider the much lamented 2014 Brazilian World Cup football team.
Despite being the favourites to lift the prized golden trophy, they crashed spectacularly out of the tournament at the semi-finals, in one of the biggest shockers in soccer history.
Here was a team with great football pedigree. Their hopes were buoyed by success at the Confederations Cup the previous year. As hosts, they had homeground advantage, with millions cheering and willing them to victory. Having spent billions on some fine stadiums, the people were expecting a few weeks of dazzling football to culminate in the Cup being lifted by the home team for the first time on Brazilian soil. Failure, in other words, was not an option.
With their talismanic player Neymar injured and their respected captain Thiago Silva disqualified after the quarter-finals, the pressure mounted on the team. They knew they had to win, to give their people the prize they craved. Never mind whether the team had the skill, stamina and mental strength to get the job done.
We all know how this sad story ends. The team choked, and suffered a humiliating 7-1 drubbing by the well-oiled German juggernaut, in front of millions of stunned fans at home and abroad.
The same might be said of the star-studded Spanish team, the defending champions who were humbled 5-1 in their opening game, another result no one saw coming.
How does this apply to Singapore? Well, in some ways, the Republic bears a resemblance to those well-regarded teams. It has had a long run of success, with an enviable record of economic progress and good governance that even other governments talk about. People here and abroad have come to expect Singapore to keep going on and on with its lucky winning streak.
So it might be worth asking the awkward question: Is Singapore at risk of facing the political, economic or social equivalent of an unexpected 7-1 drubbing when we least expect it? How would the country react if this were to happen? Would it be shocked and split, thrashing about in defence, and bewildered as to how best to counter-attack?
No doubt, for many these questions will be uncomfortable, even odd. For the idea that Singapore might falter, flounder, and even fail seems fanciful, perhaps the work of overwrought imaginations or those given to political scaremongering.
Yet, if truth be told, this is a dangerous illusion that some experts have labelled "false certainty".
Of course, such false certainty applies equally to the idea that Singapore cannot fail or that the next 50 years are unlikely to be better than the last.
The best antidote to such misguided sureness, or smugness, about the future would be for Singaporeans to look squarely at their past, rather than sugar-coat it in celebratory fashion, assess their present strengths and weaknesses rationally and dispassionately, while also dreaming big about where they might take the country, provided they have the wit and will to make these plans a reality.
Next year's 50th anniversary is a good opportunity to do just that and many interesting events are being planned. But as I see it, simply partying as if there is no tomorrow is not the best way and instead, the focus of any celebrations should be to achieve three things:
- Help people reflect on what it takes for Singapore to succeed, and how it can continue to have the collective courage, commitment and cohesion to keep alive that old dream of forging "one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality''.
- Provide a lasting legacy to show future generations how we got here. I have proposed previously the idea of creating a Jubilee Park, stretching from the steps of City Hall, across the Padang and all the way to the Esplanade by the Singapore River, with streets closed off to allow people to walk through monuments and markers of the scenes of so much of Singapore's shared history.
- Give people a sense of why and how they might keep up the effort to take Singapore even further, by not only showing the possibilities for better lives in the years to come but also inviting ideas from all on how best to do so.
In the end, the big jubilee jamboree would have been worth the bother if, when asked the questions - Zero chance of doing better than we have done? Or zero chance that we can do no worse? - Singaporeans will answer quite simply, but with quiet conviction: "We will the future."
Follow Warren Fernandez on Twitter @theSTeditor