Learn to say no sometimes

One quality of the Chinese that I am admire and loathe in equal measure is their laissez-faire relationship with the word "No".

I sometimes think that the only dead ends they truly take as non-negotiable are the laws of physics and death. A "No" based on anything else - rules, morality, serious physical harm to others - is just a momentary obstacle that can be eroded, if not surmounted, by will and creativity.

Observing this mental wiring has been fascinating since my relationship with authority and the word "No" is linear as befits my Singaporean identity.

A few months ago, I was in daily contact with the relatives of Chinese passengers on board the ill-fated and still missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. They set up a Wechat message group with journalists to better communicate with the horde of international media.

Wechat is like the Chinese WhatsApp and it is owned by Internet giant Tencent which also employs news reporters to write for its online portals. There is a limit to how many people can be in one message group. This one rapidly reached it. "It's full and other journalists can't get in," texted one reporter. Then he asked: "Where is the Tencent reporter? Lift the limit for the group."

My reaction to this was the sort of condescension that one feels when kids say they want to be astronauts or ballerinas: "Dare to dream, but life will crush you."

Then the Tencent reporter revealed herself and said, amazingly, "OK, hang on, I'll go ask my boss."

Half an hour later, it was done. The message group was now limitless.

This minor incident left a big mark on me. Things would just never have played out this way almost anywhere else, including and especially Singapore.

We have internalised too many assumptions of the modern state - that exceptions delegitimise the system, that you should work within the OB markers - to have ever made the mental association that linked "the group is full" to "now it's limitless".

There are no written contracts that the Chinese won't try to reinterpret, no rules that can't be followed only in letter but not in spirit.

The Pizza Huts here once had a rule where you could go to the salad bar only once to minimise food wastage. Chinese teenagers responded: "Challenge Accepted". The intricate, multi-level salad towers they created with their one shot - thousand island dressing holding the layers together, ergonomically placed carrot slices - were a mockery, but also kind of a triumph of the human spirit.

Of course, the same system-gaming pathology also produced toxic milk powder and tofu buildings that collapsed on schoolchildren in earthquakes. The greatest gift is the greatest curse.

In my mind, this quality is fuelled by their deep cynicism with the system. The opacity of their institutions, the reality that at the highest levels, the rules are arbitrarily and hierarchically applied.

In contrast, Singaporeans are largely rule-abiding because there is a faith, however grudging, that the system is what it says it is and the law treats everyone more or less equally.

But it also has something to do with a sense of autonomy and agency, which stands in opposition with the powerlessness that Singaporeans sometimes feel and exhibit.

Maybe it is that the Chinese have an innate sense of grandiosity and assurance about their civilisation and their place in the world, century of humiliation or not, while Singapore's narrative emphasises the powerlessness of a tiny island caught in the world's crosshairs. We are price-takers, acted upon - not actors.

This may be true on a national scale. But in our everyday lives, we can emulate some of this reflexive rejection of the word No. If you have a friend or a boss who denies you too much, if you are in a job or relationship that isn't fulfilling your needs, if you are just being bullied in a way that makes you resentful - just say No. The truth is that the worst that could happen - which is "No" - has already happened.

That's the thing that sustains the Chinese in their quest to overcome "No" - when their ridiculous attempts to get around the rules are rejected, they take it casually in stride. They're just always testing the system for loopholes, and if they come up empty-handed, it's just as well - no harm, no foul. It was worth a shot.

And it was. Because the truth is, what looks like a dead end often isn't. One trip to the salad bar doesn't mean one serving of salad. And the message group is limitless.


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