Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Redefining the Singaporean that we know

By Mike Hou

 TODAY file photo

Are Singaporeans being defined only by our achievements, asks the author.

22 May 2018

In a parliamentary speech this month, Second Minister for Law, Education and Finance Indranee Rajah spoke at length about what it means to be Singaporean, saying that the issue is particularly pertinent as Singapore heads into its next phase of development.

She noted that Singaporeans are known to be pragmatic, logical and rational but this also prompts the question: “Are we all head and no heart?”

[Well, no. Because this was also in her speech:
But Ms Indranee stressed that being Singaporean is “not just about achievements”, and that the triumphs are the "manifestations of something much deeper and more fundamental". 
"Above all, to be Singaporean is to care ... about family, about others, about country,” she said...
"That is the essence of being Singaporean. We care enough to want to do something. If we see something wrong, our first instinct is to help, to fix it, to improve the situation,”
So besides poor reading and comprehension, this writer also likes to set up straw men so he can knock them down?]

I wonder too, and while Ms Indranee did add that values such as meritocracy, kindness, honesty, integrity and aspiration towards equality are the core of the Singaporean identity, I am not as optimistic about the current state of our national identity.

[And what IS the "current state of our national identity? We have one? Do tell?]

I recall during my conversations with foreigners overseas, many of them would sing praises about Singapore upon finding out my nationality.

[Nitpicky of me, but I really don't think highly of this person or his writing. "Foreigners overseas" had to be specified? What? Foreigners in Singapore don't do the same? Are a different kettle of fish? Are less likely to sing praises of Singapore to you?]

Often they would commend our clean and safe streets, our highly developed and modern city, and our almost-perfectly run country.

Other times they would say with a pinch of envy about how strong the Singapore dollar is, or how powerful our passport is.

Being Singaporean, there is no reason why I should not be happy or proud to hear these positive remarks.

After all, these are indeed commendable achievements for our Little Red Dot – they speak of us as competent and driven people. But something was amiss, I felt.

Are Singaporeans being defined only by our achievements? What about us as a people? How are Singaporeans perceived in the eyes of others?

[Oh wow. How shallow. You only know who you are by what other people know of you. Yes, if all you are is the sum of what people think of you, then yeah, something is amiss.]

In a recent study by the National University of Singapore on immigrants’ acculturation experiences in Singapore, researchers asked permanent residents and new citizens what they felt about Singaporeans, through a series of focus group discussions.

The predominant view was that Singaporeans are competitive and results-oriented. This does not seem too far from some of the stereotypes that we would generally perceive ourselves – including being ‘kiasu’, ‘kiasi’, and stressed.

How have such a self-perception and perception by others of Singaporeans come about? One clue lies in our focus on economic development that has always been a national priority since independence, and how our leaders have always emphasized on economic development as key to a successful Singapore.

[I have already used the word "shallow". I shall restrained myself from using the same word again. Maybe you should start from first principles. What is a national identity? If I say "The Japanese are such polite people" is that part of their national identity? If I say, the "Japanese are such hardworking people" is that part of their national identity? Of if I say, "The Japanese are such honourable people, they will commit seppuku if they have failed in their duty or obligation", is that part of their identity? Similarly, if I say Singaporeans are kiasu, kiasi, and kiaboh are those our identity?

You may well say "yes!", and that tells me you have given this as much thought as one would give to a kopitiam chat session.

From this blogpiece about "Being Singaporean":
Kiasuness and Singlish are at most Singaporean IDENTIFIERS but it is not our Identity. Just as Jamaican English is an identifier. ]
Understandably so, some would argue, as Singapore as a small nation needs to constantly remain economically competitive and at the forefront of global developments, in order to survive.

Indeed, our successes today are visible to all – Changi Airport is consistently rated as the world’s best airport, we emerged top in the Global Smart City Performance Index, we are able to host the Youth Olympic Games, and serve as a global financial, biomedical sciences, and maritime hub despite our very limited resources.

However, as social psychology research has pointed out, when it comes to what is truly important for one’s evaluation of the group to which he belongs (e.g. our nation), such competence-related traits (e.g. achievements, capabilities) significantly pale in comparison with warmth-related traits (e.g. compassion, kindness).

In other words, being in a group that achieves a lot does not bring about as much pride and belonging than being in a group that cares a lot.

[THAT is your thesis. What evidence have you marshalled to support it?]

Indeed, in a 2016 YouGov poll where participants were asked the extent to which they believed their country was the best in the world, Singapore was ranked behind Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines, among Southeast Asian countries.

When it comes to national identity, economic development is not everything.

Against such a backdrop, redefining the Singaporean identity is an urgent task.

[Why? See the FB comment below. What's so urgent about it? The use of the word "backdrop" suggests that the preceding are your arguments for the urgency. What was it? Oh, Singaporeans are NOT as patriotic as Malaysians, Indonesians, Thais, and Filipinos? Wow. I already used "shallow", so just "wow" (which I have also used). See the FB comment below for a rebuttal on "patriotism".]

Such a redefinition needs to focus on shifting self-stereotypes from the competence domain to the warmth domain. We need to know that as a society, we are more than just our standards of living.

[Lemme guess. Your PhD dissertation is about the Warmth Domain. Give a man a hammer, and everything looks like a nail.]

There have already been much debate about how we treat the vulnerable, or the ‘voiceless’ in our society, and these point clearly towards the considerable room for improvement we have in becoming a more gracious and kind society – this is something money cannot measure.

[Yep. Money cannot measure graciousness. Only an ungracious and unthinking person would suggest that. This is like saying, "yeah, the girl is beautiful, but it doesn't mean she is intelligent!" Which is true. And also stupid. There are other ways of measuring or estimating intelligence. 

Or like saying, "all this exercise will only make you physically strong and fit, but it does nothing for your intelligence."

Furthermore, the redefinition of the Singaporean identity must come earlier rather than later.

[Still more assertion than defending a dissertation.]

Safeguarding a positive sense of national identity is arguably the most important foundation in ensuring social resilience.

[And suddenly, without fanfare, or groundwork - "social resilience"! Whatever that means.]

This is not something that should only be done in a reactive fashion, or only in the midst of a crisis, for that would be too late; the ground for social fragmentation would have been laid by then.

In this light, the Youth Conversations is one commendable example of a purposeful effort to engage our young Singaporeans at an early stage, to sit down and think about what it means to be Singaporean.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has also recently announced the government’s intention to engage in a Whole-of-Singapore conversation about the way ahead for Singapore, and this is a very good start.

Coupled with recent attention on class divides in society, the conversations are an opportune time to ensure that the foundations of our future social fabric are set correctly.

Moving forward, redefining the modern Singaporean will entail deliberate effort at the national level in a timely manner.

An influx of foreigners and its impact on infrastructure have been cited as the reason why the People’s Action Party fared poorly in the 2011 General Elections.

[And since then there has been ANOTHER GE - you may have heard of it, GE 2015? Where the votes swung BACK in favour of the PAP? Oh so your letter is to solve the 2011 problem. Hey, great news! The PAP had solved it! Or at least done enough to bounce back.

The more ominous suggestion from this writer is that the Singapore Identity should be defined by the ruling political party. That is machiavellian. And so so so Singapore social engineering. Or maybe this is his essay for applying for PAP membership? I look forward to his machinations for PAP.]

The precipitating series of Our SG Conversations sought to address the fundamental concerns that Singaporeans had, and these invariably included our underlying sense of identity as Singaporeans.

With the impending political leadership renewal, the time is again ripe for a national conversation about what it means to be a Singaporean.

About the author:

Mike Hou is a PhD candidate in Psychology at the National University of Singapore. 

[And this comment is from FaceBook:
You have to wonder about the calibre of our PhD candidates these days.

From the letter: "Indeed, in a 2016 YouGov poll where participants were asked the extent to which they believed their country was the best in the world, Singapore was ranked behind Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines, among Southeast Asian countries."

And the point of regurgitating this opinion survey?

Opinions are simply opinions. They are not objective. Singaporeans are also of the opinion that Singapore is 31st of 32 countries in terms of being "exciting". The most exciting city scored by their denizens?


Is Chicago really more exciting than Singapore? Have those Chicagoans lived in BOTH Chicago and Singapore?

Maybe they scored Chicago higher because they were more easily impressed?

Maybe Malaysian, Indonesia, and Philippines think their countries are the best and they want to share their countries' "bestness" with Singapore, which is why they send their citizens to Singapore to work?

Maybe Singapore is a terrible place because all we do is work and work, until we have too much work, and we get stressed, and to help relieve our stress we have to get workers from other "bestest" countries to help us with our work?

Of course I could be reading him wrong.

Perhaps what he means to say is that despite our "achievements", Singaporeans are NOT patriotic.

Not like Malaysians.
Not like Filipinos.
Not like Indonesians.
Not like Trump and his supporters.

Yes. I think it was Samuel Johnson who said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." I think what he means is that scoundrels who are mismanaging the country and face the wrath of the citizens, take refuge by appealing to the patriotism of their citizens.

And if you look at all those "patriots" and their countries, you can decide if Samuel Johnson may be right.

Then the writer suggests that "redefining the Singaporean identity is an urgent task."

Two questions:

1) Redefine from what? "Redefine" implies that there is already a definition. I seriously doubt it. I think it was Kishore Mahbubani who said, "I know I am a Singaporean. But I do not know what a Singaporean is." Good to know the PhD Candidate already knows. He should tell Mahbubani.

2) Why urgent task?

I could not pin down his reason(s) amidst the word salad of his argument. It was all rather wooly.

I have only this to say. The Singapore Identity is emerging. It is still emerging. And it will emerge organically. Not because a PhD Candidate decrees that it is urgent. Or that it will serve the govt. Or that it will bind the people to our shores. I bloody well hope not!
If the writer simply wants to say, "we should be a more compassionate society", no argument from me. (OK. I lied. I would argue. If the terms are ill-defined. If there are assumptions and presumptions. If there are illogical leaps in reasoning.) If he wanted to say we need to shift focus from being achievement-oriented to people-oriented, and relationship-oriented, again, not a problem.

But when you want to seem more erudite or more current affairs and peg your opinion to a wooly idea like "Singaporean Identity" because it was mentioned in parliament, and your characterisation of the parliamentary speech is factually incorrect, when you set up straw men arguments, when you ramble on incoherently, and irrelevantly, when you bring up problems that have been solved (GE2011), and toss in fas words (social resilience) all in support of a questionable undefined or ill-defined thesis... AND YOU ARE A PHD CANDIDATE. I seriously question your intelligence.

Of course, on more than one occasion, I have been informed that the letter as printed had been savagely edited beyond comprehensibility and coherence. 

Maybe this was what happened here. 

That will teach people to submit their doctoral dissertation to the letters page.

Anyway, here's a lighter look at what it means to be Singaporean.]

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