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I am Singaporean VII – “Net Happiness” September 24, 2010

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.

SM Goh has been spreading his brand of wisdom once again. In a statement which mrbrown calls “Yoda-like”, he said

“Unhappiness, those who are happier, in total there’s net happiness, there’s no such thing called total happiness, don’t believe in it. It’s whether we create net happiness in all this.” He added it is “very difficult to satisfy everybody” and in politics, trying to make everybody happy is “impossible”. They (sic!) key, said SM Goh is to “make the most number of people happy, the most number of times”. (source)

Prima facie, it sounds great. In fact, if you don’t reflect on what SM Goh says, you would think that it was pretty damned brilliant. But something smells fishy. It smells so fishy that it reeks of food poisoning if you consume it. And here’s why.

Basically, SM Goh has expounded the basics of utilitarian ethics as put forward by Bentham and Mill. To put it shortly, it’s about maximizing happiness, i.e., making as many people as possible happy. But here’s a big problem. Utilitarianism is probably practiced in most companies and perhaps by some countries in the way they run their countries. Like Singapore, obviously. If you look deeper, what SM Goh said are the fundamentals of utilitarian politics. If you make more people happy, then more people will vote for you. Politically, it is very sound.

But something is missing. What’s missing is that happiness can never be quantified in such a way, unless you are a politician standing for election. You are either happy or unhappy, and it normally doesn’t matter if others are happy (unless it concerns a friend, your life partner, or your family). What matters is that YOU are happy. But since here it is all about how many people in a particular population are happy, one must come to the conclusion that your happiness doesn’t matter. In fact, i’m actually quite impressed that SM Goh put it so clearly. What he said was one step short of saying that “your happiness doesn’t matter, as long as everyone else is happy,” which essentially means the same thing.

Which may also help to explain some conspiracy theories flying around in the Net. People say that the Gahmen has such lax immigration policies to ensure that it stays in power for all posterity. Makes sense now, right? Since it’s all about “net happiness”, when you notice that your people are becoming less happy, you just import more people from overseas which will definitely be happy. Net happiness, mah! I mean, if 90% of the population are happy, that’s good. But is 90% enough for you if you happen to be unhappy?

Thanks for making this conspiracy theory plausible, SM Goh.

The fact that it is so politically doesn’t mean that it is so for the individual. That must have become clear from what SM Goh said – my aim was just to make what he said even clearer. What outrages me is not that he meant that our individual happiness doesn’t matter – actually, it’s like that everywhere – but the audacity with which he said it, and the knowledge that people will nod their heads, say “Yessir, Yessir, three bags full” and go back to their everyday lives.


I am Singaporean VI – The Melting Pot September 21, 2010

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.
1 comment so far

As a teacher-to-be, coming across articles like these really makes me wonder about what being an educator is going to be like. If being a teacher is about “Moulding the Future of our Society”, then it is worth reading such articles and thinking about what we can do to make sure that the society we are supposed to be moulding is the one we actually want to mould.

The question is: Does Singaporean education teach students all about the world and nothing about themselves?

On paper, Singaporean education is great. Our universities are in the Top 200 in the Times Higher Education list. We win Olympiads all the time. When it comes to knowing a basic inventory of facts, Singaporean education is just about the best you can get. And that is a fact. And many people swear to the system. A friend of mine thinks I’m crazy when I say that I want my children to be educated overseas, because “Singaporean education is so good.”

So what’s missing?

Well, Singapore is a true melting pot. In the past, as is today, and as will be tomorrow, many cultures came together into one. It has been lauded as one of Singapore’s big selling points – an eclectic fusion of Orient and Occident, a quaint East-meets-West mixture which happens to work. But have we taken this metaphor and looked at it from another perspective? Many cultures came together under the band of meritocracy – may the best rule, and may they rule with wisdom. And since they are the best, they are paid the best money one can get too. This is the fire which managed to melt, or should i say meld East and West into a functioning whole.

And since we are such fans of meritocracy, society has been geared in that direction too. This melting pot which is Singapore has had certain repercussions, which the post I have linked to above shows. It seems that in developing the concept of meritocracy, what “The Best” is was artificially defined. And in artificially defining something, you create an artificial standard to compare everything against. In doing so, everything else becomes irrelevant. It creates a strong tendency towards conformity, which is the negative result of the melting pot. The individual loses his/her uniqueness and becomes part of this stew of uniformity. In school, you are told to study hard, you are told what you have to study, without any care as to what you actually think.

I’m not saying that that is per se wrong – this works naturally for math, the natural sciences, and even for the languages. But for subjects where you have to think, where critical thought and analysis is important – does this method work? The method seems to work because we have an artificial standard of what’s deemed as good. The method definitely works in Singapore. For GP, you just have to memorise these points, write this way, and Nothing Bad Can Happen to You. In fact, when you put your personal style into writing, you sometimes get penalised. Individuality is not really encouraged, because there is a tried-and-tested formula for becoming good. Why would any sane person abandon that?

(And, by the by, an artificial standard of what is Good is also very easy to objectify. Just look at the obsession with grades, and the thought that cramming is the panacea for all your examination woes.)

But in the midst of all that, something has gone missing. I think learning what it is to be a person has gone missing in Singaporean education. People assume that a sense of identity is a coming-of-age thing, that it will come with the times. And for the most part, that really is true. But this article is a case in point. I think that the melting pot has left little room for the individual to develop, since all differences have been swept away, and everyone is chasing after this artificial Good. True, you can decide what you want to do for your CCA. You can also decide your subject combination. You can choose your job. You can choose who to marry. You can decide this, and decide that. But how many choose to walk down the road which everyone else happens to be walking? How many choose to have an opinion? How many choose to believe in something? How many are doing what they are doing out of conviction? How many choose to be just a part of our uniform stew?

That having an individual opinion is sometimes seen as trouble-making is a symptom of this problem. That people know a lot, but don’t have a view on them is also a symptom of this problem. It’s all about working hard in Singapore. But after that, what’s left? Yet, working hard and sticking to that same old success formula is so ingrained into our society that it is hard to see how concrete change can come about. We should be asking questions if “The Good” we are striving to be was misconstrued. We should be asking “What is Good for Me? What Should I Be?” And these are questions which should be asked, not only during the formative years of adolesence, but also constantly throughout one’s adult life. And these are questions which don’t have a textbook answer. And the asking of such questions should be cultivated in our youth, when they are ready for it.

We shouldn’t be doing what we are doing now – filling their lives with so much work, so much obsession with chasing after this artificial good that they don’t have time to stop and reflect. Nor will forcing them to reflect help – because then, it will be more work, and what’s worse, their reflections may be graded. The melting pot comes into play again. As educators, one should ask if we want to produce smart people or if we want  to produce wise people.

8: Auntie…erm, Miss… September 14, 2010

Posted by The Truth in What Were They Thinking?!.

Whoa! Finally, a readworthy article on the State’s Times! I would like to commend the State’s Times on raising people’s awareness on General Idiocy in Singapore. Really, it’s very important…considering that there are enough idiots in the world, it makes sense to train the spotlight on one once in a while, isn’t it?

I would really like to start bashing, but first, let me rebutt each argument point by point:

  • “Proper terms of address for people” has been oversimplified. The proper way to address a particular person depends on context in the broadest sense of the word. Many factors count towards properly addressing someone, e.g., if you are in a familiar context, you wouldn’t address a friend (unless ironically) as “Mr./Mrs./Ms. X”. If you are in an unfamiliar context, there again differences. You would address someone as “Mr./Mrs./Ms. X” if you are in a working, white-collar context and you want to remain professional, i.e., you are either distancing yourself socially from your conversation partner, or you are addressing someone of a different social ranking. Using “Uncle” and “Auntie” has the effect of creating immediate rapport, since the very words uncle and auntie imply a certain close relationship between both conversation partners, while remaining respectful by constantly placing the addressed person in a socially higher rank.
  • Building on that, I can easily refute the 2nd paragraph. There, it is said that: “Very often, at places like wet markets, hawker centres and heartland shops, one can hear the shop or stall owners addressing men and women who appear to be in their 40s as “uncle” and “auntie”. It is ridiculous to see even middle-aged and elderly people address these men and women that way.” Given that the context always determines what the proper way of addressing someone is, I do not see what is ridiculous in this at all. Although it may seem semantically strange, it is actually a very meaningful way of addressing someone. A shopkeeper wants people to buy their wares. So, naturally, the simplest way to approach a customer with respect would be to address him using a term which would naturally place the customer on a higher social ranking. And having rapport also helps you to convince your customer, no?
  • Which brings me to the third paragraph. How it is neither respectful nor right is not clear to me. Maybe i’m dense, but didn’t i just argue that “Uncle” and “Auntie” are a) terms of respectful address and b) very appropriate given the contexts in which they are used?
  • And so I come to your suggestion. Replacing “Uncle” and “Auntie” with “Mr./Miss/Mrs.” etc will destroy your very argument, since you so wilfully neglected to see the context in which such linguistic phenomena are situated. Let’s say you go to Best Denki and a salesperson addressed you with “Sir”/”Madam”. Well and good. Now, let’s say you go to your local mama shop and demand to be addressed as “Sir/Madam.” You’ll either be laughed out of, or kicked out of the shop. The terms “Sir/Madam” and “Mr./Miss/Mrs.” are respectful, but in no way are they markers of attempting to strike up rapport with your conversation partner. In fact, in a Singaporean context (outside the office), such terms serve to distance speaker from recipient, and shows a general ignorance/refusal to accept the conversational context one finds oneself in. At the very least, it is incorrect usage, if you have a bad day, it’s downright disrespectful. (And yes, as special lexical items, they have their places in Singapore Standard English! No person, no matter how polished their English may be, will go to a coffeeshop and order “A coffee sweetened with condensed milk and two hardboiled eggs, if you will, Sir.”)

Your letter, therefore, should have landed directly in the Editor’s shredder. The very fact that he deigned to publish it means that he probably thought it was Nation-Building to Educate the People About Idiocy. Did you pause to ask yourself why these words are used as terms for addressing someone in Singapore? No. Did you probe deeper into the phenomenon? Nope. Do you have a skewed view of reality? Maybe. Did someone address you as “Auntie”, and you happen to be around 40 years of age? I don’t know. Are you an overzealous English teacher? You should have known better – or didn’t you learn this at University? Do you see things in black-and-white? Definitely. Are you, by some freak of nature, from the Victorian Era and don’t know how you got to this sweltering tropical island? Hmm.

Well, Victorian or not, you certainly get my facepalm. Eat this, Auntie…Miss!

I am Singaporean V – Singlish, again September 9, 2010

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.

The Speak Good Singlish movement is back!

Singapore’s Auntie Killer MP, Vivien Balakrishnan, kicked off this year’s movement by “correcting” a “No Outside Food” sign. The correct form of English, so says our Auntie Killer, is “No food from elsewhere, please.” But is it, in the first place, correct?

A sign which has words on it is supposed to deliver the information it is to deliver in the most efficient way, i.e., with the least words. Signage also has a certain linguistic function – pragmatically, signage attempts to effect a certain change of behaviour in the one reading the sign. For example, if you see a “STOP” sign whilst driving, you prepare to stop your car at the next junction. If you are walking along a construction site and see the sign “DANGER!” you are expected to pay attention as you walk aroud, so that a cinder block doesn’t crack open your skull (worst case scenario.) In MRT trains, we see signs saying “NO DURIANS”, “NO EATING AND DRINKING”, etc. It is clear what these signs mean – pragmatically, they are imperatives forbidding a particular action.

Is there a “please?” in any of these signs? No, because “please” is something which affects the meaning of the sign in a very important way – if “please” is left out, the imperative come across in its strong form – no durians in the trains, period. With a “please”, then it comes across as a request – and knowing that people can, and will twist the meanings of certain statements to their own benefit, one can be sure that sooner or later, people will start bringing durians with them on the MRT. (Not that I have anything against that, but my girlfriend probably does.) In the same sense, a sign saying “No Outside Food” means that No Food That Thou Hast Begotten Elsewhere Shalt Be Here Consumed. And what about “No Food from Elsewhere, please”? It probably still has the imperative component of “DO NOT BRING FOOD PURCHASED ELSEWHERE INTO THIS EATERY”, but saying “please”, while making it nice and friendly, tends to weaken this imperative component. People think that it’s impolite (but not forbidden!) to bring food from elsewhere in. Especially if it’s on signage.

So “please” has no place in signage. But “please” has a place in oral communication. Let’s say that someone does bring in food purchased elsewhere into the restaurant, thereby ignoring the sign. Any requests by restaurant staff not to bring in the food/to leave/not to consume it will be marked by “please”. Here, “please” is a marker of politeness which is expected in the service industry, and thus has its place in everyday usage. I daresay that this politeness marker is so important in the service industry that it is used even if there is a threat component in what is being said: “Please leave now, before I call the police.” Vivian has mixed up spoken and written communication, as have many others before and as will many others after him.

What makes the mistake so serious is that Vivian, like many others, has conflated spoken and written communication. It is true that you “write as you speak”. But, and most importantly, let’s not forget that Singlish is spoken but hardly written (and, if written, only under very special circumstances, like literature), whereas Singapore Standard English is mainly written but not so much spoken. (I mean, even the crème de la crème of society uses Singlish.)  Also, it should be noted that Singlish and Singapore Standard English, more than being medially different,  also fulfill very different functions – Singlish is used in different contexts as compared to Singapore Standard English.

For example, speaking Singapore Standard English to your friends (unless they too speak only this form of English) would be considered being aloof, etc. Using Standard English where it isn’t appropraite smacks of elitism. On the other hand, using Singlish during your job interview is the quickest way not to get the job. One must differentiate between the two, formally and functionally. Vivien’s oversight consists in bringing the two together, saying that we should give up our oral patois to follow the written language, in assuming that one language is “pragmatically more significant” than the other. Well, you can’t compare apples with oranges. If you use context to judge pragmatic significance, you will see that Singlish and Standard English serve very different functions in Singapore. The functions are so diffferent that the only way you can declare one form to be “pragmatically more significant” than the other is if you have artificially defined what is “better.” And, i think that this “better” has to do with staying relevant with the world.

But is this “better” also better for the country? In this pop-linguistic analysis, I have tried to show that Singlish and Standard English fulfill two very different sets of functions. In that sense, you can only declare one to be better than the other in the presence of an artificially defined “better.” Singlish probably has the function of creating identity. Standard English has the function of staying globally relevant. You can’t ignore either of them. Perhaps it is time for some introspection. What is important for Singapore is a sense of identity, a sense which is becoming quickly diluted by more and more foreign talent (which may not necessarily be talent), as well as being relevant globally. If language and identity form such a strong link, then why are we encouraged to discard our language and take up another? Why should we discard our identity, only to have our leaders complain that Singaporeans have no sense of national identity? If staying relevant as a country is so important to our Auntie Killer, then perhaps he should start looking at how to stay relevant as a country.

You can, for example, teach students to recognise the functional difference between Singlish and Singaporean Standard English and to use them appropraitely. I think knowing when to use what is much better than trying to eradicate one for the other. And much easier too.