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I Am Singaporean IX – “Making Rational Choices” May 3, 2011

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.
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Of late, there have been many calls to ‘make the rational choice’ while voting. But what is ‘the rational choice’? I think that all these pleas for ‘rational choice-making’ presuppose something which should not be taken for granted, which is why I am writing this article at such short notice. For those who can’t be bothered to read on, the correct plea should be to make an informed choice, not a rational one.

In saying so, I will probably draw flak – how can one not make a rational choice while voting? Are we not rational beings? The answer is yes – in no way are voters irrational, rabid animals which can only be restrained by a stronger irrational fear, as the PAP seems to believe. But, the way we vote is rational in a limited sense – the main drive of my argument is that we decide and act based on what we have experienced and what we know, therefore it makes no sense to assume that there is ‘the rational choice.’ (I will call this position ‘limited rationality’).

There are already many well-argued pieces circulating in the net showing that the PAP’s economic principles are essentially sound (see, for example, here and here.) So, let’s assume that they are. But will this let the populace make a “rational choice” at the ballot box? The answer is no. Firstly, let’s remember that all theories are only true until they are refuted. Secondly (and this is a point which the authors of these pieces and, more importantly, the PAP have missed), the fact that these policies are in force does not mean that the reality corresponds to them. Many replies have been written claiming that “you aren’t working, so you don’t know”, or “you’re just writing from the elite perspective”.

Reality, then, seems to be very different from theory. Which it is most of the time. Why does Singapore have the nickname “Singapore, Inc.”? Has anyone looked behind this name? It is because the PAP has made “the rational choice”, enforcing economic principles which are, in fact, theoretically sound and practically successful (if you use GDP as a marker for development). But what these principles have caused is the widening rift between rich and poor; the rising cost of life, and the polarization of society into haves and have-nots.

A reason why the PAP defends their theories to the end and their ‘deafness to criticism’ (to quote Lim Swee Say) is that their policies are totally “rational”. Which is why Internet criticism has been deemed to be irrational barking (I’m not saying that there is no such thing on the Net). But the PAP has missed the point (which shows to some extent how out-of-touch they are). How many of our MPs have a rags-to-riches story to tell? The current PAP seems to be to be very homogenous – scholars, public servants, what have you. But this homogeneity breeds groupthink (i’m sorry, Minister Ng), and leads to the feeling that as the ruling elite, what is rational for me must be rational for everyone else. Go against me and suffer.

But, if Singapore is a democracy (which it is on paper), then the PAP has missed the point by such a wide margin that they deserve the criticism they have begotten. How governmental policies have affected the voting populace will definitely lead to different views on who to vote, and guess what? All of them are rational. Calling Singaporeans ‘daft’ will not help you, MM, because you seem to have taken what you see as rational and generalized it (by the by, it’s a logical fallacy called secundum quid.) It’s just that people have experienced different things which lead them to act differently. In themselves, both behaviours are rational and consistent.

The Opposition has sensed this and made it a large part of their rhetoric. The PAP doesn’t seem to realize how this is possible, leading them to fear-mongering and gerrymandering, appealing to irrationality to overcome the rational thinking of the voters. The upshot of all this is that the PAP has thereby proven how out-of-touch it has become with the populace. The authors who plead for a ‘rational choice’ seem to have an agenda – the “rational choice” seems to be the one who brings the country forward. But this is a gross oversimplification. What do you understand by ‘bringing the country forward’? More GDP? More equal distribution of wealth? Opportunities for all? Is the stress on ‘forward’ or on ‘country’? The oversimplification consists in all this, and more – it assumes that all Singaporeans have benefited (or suffered) equally under the PAP hegemony, therefore there is only one correct result.

There is one correct result if you remove all personal experience and confine everything to the textbooks. Which probably would apply until your final year in university, or, perhaps, Sec 4. But life is more complex than that, and people have forgotten that it is.

Thus, my plea: you should make the rational choice for yourself, or you should make an informed choice. The PAP has to see this, which is why I am all for a strong(er) Opposition presence in Parliament. Rationality is a phenomenon to be described; not something which has to be controlled.

I am Singaporean VIII – A Response to “Response to ‘A letter to my friends on the General Elections'” April 24, 2011

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

The original letter may be found on Facebook, here. I will not quote at length, so read the letter(s) for the full lowdown.

First things first: I am neither pro- nor anti-PAP; HOWEVER, i am for a much stronger Opposition presence in Parliament. You see, unlike a particular Major-General, I think that the Opposition is insurance worth buying into. Those who tend to think in terms of black and white can call me anti-establishment; but that’s YOUR problem.

A response was posted in response to another letter circulating on Facebook. In this letter, Tan Joo Hymn closed as follows:

Learning from history so as not to repeat it

Maybe I’m more pessimistic, but with politicians with such a non-reflexive mindset, I am not sure we can make it through many more uncertainties and crises. There are more than enough examples of corporates being taken over or wound up, and historical examples of empires and dynasties falling into decay when their leaders stop listening to the public and insist on doing things their way.

Tan’s unapologetic support for the Opposition is similar to mine – namely, that every political system must be renewed, lest it begin to fall into decay:

it’s not a question of if, but when. At the last elections, 66% voted PAP. I do not think it will take that long for the 16% to erode given all that’s happened, even with the influx of new citizens and the constant redrawing of electoral boundaries. At some point, the balance will tip, and the “unimaginable” will happen.

To that end, she cites certain examples which are mostly refuted in the response written by Ben Leong. In the refutation of the first example, namely, “The PAP in the ’50s isn’t the PAP today”, Mr. Leong has so much to say of PM Lee:

I don’t pretend to know too much. The only know about the Minister Mentor from his books. It turns out however that  PM Lee was my Minister-in-charge while i was in the Service. From my limited interactions with him, I have no doubt that he is highly principled and intelligent. On diligence, well, it’s not uncommon to receive emails from him in the middle of the night. Personally, I really don’t begrudge his high pay. What I wonder is where he finds the time to spend it. Seriously, he’s quite a sweet man. Sometimes, I think he’s too nice guy to be politician. He might have done better as a prof.

Perhaps PM Lee really is a nice guy. Who’s to tell? But then again, PM Lee isn’t the PAP. As for the part on the Global Financial Crisis, I think he’s right – Singapore really didn’t suffer as much as other countries. Yet, nowhere in the original letter did I find “financial crisis”, a fact confirmed by Safari’s search engine. It seems that Ms. Tan isn’t arguing from that perspective. Maybe Mr. Leong is right in saying that “that’s the problem with public policy. You do things, you dun get no appreciation; you screw it up, the flak will come.”

Well, yes – that IS public policy. But a counterexample of this sort may be comparing apples with oranges. Ms. Tan seems to be arguing internally in our own country. While that may smack of a limited world-view, it also means that drawing comparisons with other countries need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. It seems that Ms. Tan portrays the problems as systemic, and you can’t show that the system works because one component of it is working – an example is not a proof.

The next part of the refutation deals with the “Usual Way Mistakes are Handled.” Five points are mentioned – Mas Selamat’s Great Escape, the floods in Orchard, YOG, HDB prices, and CPF. I have no argument with HDB prices, and with Mr. Leong’s description of the CPF problem, except for one little thing – yes, the money has to come from somewhere. But here’s a little problem – granted, the reserves will run out. But that’s assuming that the reserves remain static. Everyone knows that a sealed jug with a crack will eventually end up empty. But what if the jug is constantly being filled? Yes, it is true that people are generally living longer. And it is true that people will have to work longer. But work all their lives? Granted – it happens, and we shouldn’t coddle ourselves that it isn’t. But it shouldn’t be happening. That is what governments should be working towards (even if it’s asymptotic), rather than saying ‘it is what it is.’

For the remaining points, I think both Mr. Leong AND Ms. Tan have missed the point (the fact the Mr. Leong’s post answers Ms. Tan’s is a clue, and the fact that people still harp on them is the clincher.) The gripe isn’t about conducting post-mortems, but about politicians accepting responsibility (See Mr. Leong’s Criticism 4, where he argues that for the PAP, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.) Laudably, things are being done. But I have a bone to pick with the part on “principles of accountability.” Mr. Leong seems to assume that we live in what one could broadly call a guilt society, where wrongdoing is punished, and the punishment is exacted on the wrongdoer and only the wrongdoer.

Laws function like that. But does the populace? The population seems to have more of what one would call a shame society (for more, read The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict). The PAP could have saved itself a LOT of votes by taking responsibility, instead of attempting to shift the blame unto freak weather accidents (btw, Mr. Leong, “once every 50 years” means that a flood has a 0.02 probability of happening every year, not that a flood comes only once every 50 years). Maybe the elites see things differently, having been to Western institutions and having Western cultural values inculcated in the elite English-speaking schools. Maybe for them, the guilt society is what they have come to expect, whilst for the majority, the shame society predominates? Without saying that the one is better than the other, there is a discrepancy which needs to be dealt with.

Part 3 deals with U-Turns and the No-U-Turn-Syndrome. Mr. Leong argues from the perspective of limited rationality, i.e. you make decisions based on whatever information you have at the moment. I tend to believe he is right in this issue, and, so, the charge does not stand.

As for “Throwing Money at the Problem Regardless of Effect”, Mr. Leong’s argument boggles me. He only argues from case to case, not really addressing the issue which is common to them all, namely, that the Government seems to believe that money is the panacea to all problems. As for the rest, Ms. Tan doesn’t seem to be answered. Especially the part on the Rich-Poor-Divide.

There follows a long list of criticisms of the PAP which, if you read it carefully, seem to absolve the PAP of any systemic problems, only attacking the PAP’s PR machinery.

My recommendation? Read both letters with a large pinch of salt, and don’t let the argument and verbosity overwhelm you.

Make an informed choice!

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.
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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.

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.

I am Singaporean IV – Never Good Enough July 5, 2010

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

Long time no see! Our Labour Chief’s shenanigans (linguistically and, well, politically) have brought me out from my cave of learning. So what did he say? As quoted by CNA, he said…

“If you’re the best today, strive to be better. If you’re better today, strive to be ‘betterer’ and if you’re ‘betterer’ today, strive to be ‘betterest’ so that over time, Singapore’s service standards can just keep getting better, ‘betterer’ and ‘betterest’.”

So, Singaporeans are never good enough. Of course, no one will ever be good enough. It’s very easy to see it with an analogy. Say you work hard and earn 2 grand a month. Of course it’s not enough, you work harder and try to make 3 grand, etc. Progress functions on not being good enough. Right?

Well, yes. But what is it that makes Lim Swee Say’s comment sound so wrong?

What is wrong is the very reason why he should not be a politician. Lim Swee Say is a straight-talker – he shoots off his mouth without sending his thoughts through Central Processing. What he has said ia something which everyone actually knows, i.e., that one can always be better, but never wants to hear in cleartext, since it reduces happiness.

Especially if it is said by an authority figure like our Labour Chief. Because what he says is probably what our Gahmen wants to tell us.

Why? Let me venture a guess. It’s because this good, better, best thing has no longer anything to do with the development of the individual. All it has to do with is bringing in the moolah (see the analogy above.) That means that this so-called “Heartware” is missing. When everything is about dollars and cents, you can be damn sure that your personal worth is going to be measured in dollars and cents. So those of you who want personal development but not in the sense of growing your (or the country’s) financial portfolio, Fuck Off. You guys are parasites and the scum of the society.

Probably the official stand which should never ever be put in clear text as well.

Now, seeking for personal development in the sense of wisdom, knowledge etc is very good. In that sense, Never Being Good Enough is actually very good for you. That kind of self-knowledge is what keeps science, philosophy and literature alive. Everyone wants to be a better person. But who wants to be a better cash cow? So, once again, here, it’s not about your personal development, you fool. In a Singaporean sense, personal development can be termed “skills upgrading”. Which means, in Singaporetalk, making yourself more useful to society.

It sounds great. But is it good for the person? You see, when society starts to chase Wealth as her only God, the individual becomes devalued. You don’t use society, society uses you. Your happiness never counts, the society’s happiness counts. The only worth you have in society’s eyes is that of how useful you are materially to society.

Are you a businessman? Welcome to Singapore! Are you a table-tennis player from China? Welcome too! Are you an entrepreneur? Welcome! Biomedical scientist? Sure! Are you poorly-educated, unwilling to integrate but are willing to produce babies and work here for a good pay? Yes! In short, Can We Milk You For Cash/Prestige/Survival?

Historian? Uh-uh (you may find out the dark truth, so you are not only useless, but dangerous). Author? Will anyone read your books? Philosopher? No! DANGER! How about filmmaker? Well, depends on what films you intend to make. Linguistic researcher? Singapore’s not a zoo! These jobs are not so materially useful to our little island economy, but they are useful in that they make people think and they contribute to what constitutes Heart Ware, namely, identity.

Fortunately, Singaporean identity is bigger than the identity of The Party, which tends to see itself as being equivalent to Singapore. And, it should be clear that the Party, which seems to be obsessed with numbers, has no place for you, the person wanting to be a simple good human. Because you are reducible to digits and numbers. And here comes the shocker: Digits and numbers have no inherent meaning. The Party thinks that they have a meaning, because “much” is understood as “good”, “more” is easily understood as “better”, etc.

On the other hand, “happiness” is a term overflowing with meaning. If you put your mind to it, you could write books about Happiness. Can you write a 2,000 word essay about digits and numbers and what they mean in the everyday world? Two worlds collide and are perhaps, for now, co-existing in a precarious balance. Want more meaning? Then maybe the digits have to lose some ground.

And oh, by the way, Mr Lim, “best” is a superlative. “Better” is a comparative. I think what you really wanted to say was “better than best.” THAT is grammatical correctness. You get an A for your linguistic creativity, although i strongly suggest you leave that word out in your next GP essay.

I am Singaporean III – The Importance of a Good Memory January 28, 2010

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

Elections are coming!

In spite of what our politicians are telling you, the signs are clear (as is the incongruence in what different politicians from the same party tell us):

But at the same time, since all this talk is a pretty sure sign that the elections are around the corner, it would be appropraite to call to mind everything that has transpired in the past PAP term.  Did we have to Pay And Pay more? Did we Stay Together, and Move Ahead? (You can refer to the PAP’s 2006 manifesto here.) More importantly, dare we give the PAP carte blanche for another 5 years?

One huge thing which went wrong was this “Stay Together, Move Ahead” thing. It certainly doesn’t seem that Singapore has stayed together and moved ahead. The richer are richer, and the poorer are poorer than ever. 36% of our population aren’t Singaporeans, and companies, which are focused on profit and survival, are hiring these foreigners en masse, simply because they ask for less money. Richer foreigners, those who can afford a roof over their heads, are artificially inflating the HDB market, so that Singaporeans feel that they are rapidly becoming 2nd class citizens in their own country. Instead of staying together, we have drifted apart. As for moving ahead – a lot of people are getting ahead in Singapore, but are many Singaporeans getting ahead?

Secondly, we have to consider how responsible our Gahmen has been when times have been tough. Have they been responsible? Have they admitted their mistakes to the people? MM’s admission that the bilingual policy was a mistake only turned out to be a mistake in implementation, not in theory (see my other post on this topic), not the catastrophe MM makes it out to be, and I am pretty sure too that yet another change in implementation (teaching Chinese in English..?!), the way MM sees it anyway, will be a turn for the worse. But leaving that aside, what about the other shenanigans? Did our Dear Leaders show that they were ready to take responsibility, or were they only responsible for progress?

In Singapore, they say that “talk is cheap”, but when it comes to the failings of the system, our Gahmen loves to use talk, instead of action – the status quo, so it is thought, has worked up to now – so why tweak it? Thus, apologies from the Gahmen are hardly forthcoming – bad things are normally accompanied by exhortations to “accept it and move on.” Pragmatically, that is the right way to look at things – i don’t deny that – but for a Gahmen to say that would mean that this particular government is either really inept when it comes to governing or that it has nothing to fear from the population. What the population has to do is to forgive, but not forget. True, we have to work ourselves out of this problem, but we should NEVER EVER forget what has happened, nor should we let ourselves be blinded by handouts and promises of lift upgrading. Having a good memory is the only way you can effect change – it’s like remembering that the last time you ate something bad, you had a really bad tummyache, and so you avoid stuff which smells bad. You don’t continue buying food which smells bad, because it is a lot cheaper, or because the mama shop around the corner stocks it, when you could go to NTUC for non-bad-smelling food.

So yes, were they responsible?

  • Mas Selamat’s Great Escape was swept swiftly under the rug, and Lee Junior said “we should move on.” Lee Senior accused the population of “complacency”, i.e. it’s not our fault, it’s YOURS for being complacent, but we are willing to work with you and solve the problem.
  • The financial crisis was blamed on “global circumstances” (which is partly true), but the massive losses by GIC and Temasek were never explained. Instead, Ho Ching took a sabbatical (maybe to take some heat off her), an ang mor put on the board, only to have him leave due to “strategic differences”. So essentially, the status quo remains.
  • Our Law Minister told us (without proof nor logic) that foreigners don’t make our lives more difficult, or more inaffordable. But then, PM Lee said that “the Government actually has no control over HDB resale prices”, thus absolving the Gahmen of all blame.
  • Remember the old “Stop at Two” policy? Now, the Gahmen is trying to plug the leaks – by importing foreigners. It seems that the Gahmen has no sense of how to deal with its population – it wants a fast and effective solution, but a solution which may not be tenable in the long run (unless the various political conspiracies online are to be believed). The distrust against citizens (“if we give you welfare, you will become lazy”) shows how much the Government is reliant on its citizenry, but also how much the Government believes that they are better than the citizens. The benevolent dictator has forgotten what it means to be benevolent.

The same dubious kinds of “talk” are also present in the above signs that the elections are coming. Not speculating on when the elections are coming means that you can actually forget that the elections are coming, so you will be surprised by a nice Gahmen handout and you will vote for them. Lee Junior’s intellectual theft can be explained as integrating the thoughts of others into their own, thus making the PAP seem more progressive than before. As for Lee Senior’s promises and threats…you have to ask yourself whether they will come to fruition.

So, how do we make sure that we have better leaders who will take care of us? An Opposition is good, because, in the words of PM Lee, in the course of “fixing” each other, the population benefits. A strengthened, more outspoken Opposition can act as a conscience against the ruling party, as a form of checks and balances. The impotence of our current opposition politicians is not based on personal incompetence, but on the fact that no one has their backs. Strengthen the Opposition, and you strengthen the possibility that Gahmen failings and problems are actually discussed (and not mentioned and applauded) in Parliament, and that all parties, PAP and Opposition, will turn a more acute ear to the common man, if only to garner more support. Want to get rid of insensitive elitists? Then you have to change the balance of power.

But to do that, you need a really good memory to dredge up everything that has transpired in the last 5 years. Make an informed decision!

I am Singaporean II: Bilingualism is Bad(?) November 18, 2009

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

So our favourite octagenarian has decided to come and tell us his insistence on bilingualism in the education system was wrong.

What was he thinking, saying such a thing?!

In fact, his insistence on bilingualism was one of the things he actually got right, in my humble opinion.  Just that it was poorly put into practice.  VERY POORLY.  I mean, you can’t have a cultural cleansing first (i.e. shutting down Chinese schools and Nantah, enforcing a common curriculum where language of instruction is fixed) and THEN try to encourage bilingualism!  It’s a good example of what happens when politicians, who aren’t teachers, try to set an education programme to follow certain pragmatic political goals.

In doing so, Chinese was effectively removed as the language of instruction in schools, excepting a select few subjects.  Everything else is in English, save the compulsory 2nd mother tongue, and Higher mother tongue (what is higher anyway?) if one can make it.  If not, everything else is in English.  That managed to ensure conformity in curricular planning, but it effectively destroyed the possibility of true bilingualism for those growing up in a monolingual environment.  I mean, mother tongue lessons are just one out of seven, maybe up to ten subjects which are taught in English.  There is hardly any exposure to the second mother tongue, neither at home nor at school.  So how on Earth do you expect bilingualism to be possible, given the circumstances?

MM speaks like someone who has learn Chinese as a foreign language.  Well, let’s remember that MM is monolingual first, okay?  And he tells us that it’s impossible for one to master two languages at the same level of proficiency, so we should not coddle ourselves?  My Chinese is definitely not reduced to saying 你好! 华语酷! 我要去厕所!, okay?  My friends from China and Taiwan understand me perfectly well, and I certainly don’t have a problem with calling myself multilingual.  His problem is that he started learning Chinese LATE – for him, it is inevitable that he should not be proficient in Chinese.  Bilingualism is something which children can be taught, especially if they are exposed to the languages in question.  But politically and economically at the time, English was seen as much more important.  So many parents decided to teach their children English as their first language, avoiding Chinese and making it a foreign language to them.

And by the way, who made him a neurologist now?  If he would bother to do some research before distributing his brand of wisdom, he would have insisted that parents be bilingual and for both languages to be used parallel to each other at home.  You don’t even have to send your kids to school for them to be effectively bilingual.  Starting late means that the brain’s language center has already developed such that it will be able to process information in the dominant language much better, at the cost of easily acquiring other languages.  MM’s trials and tribulations are the views of one who has been taught Chinese, who didn’t acquire Chinese from exposure to the language.  English and Chinese are two very different languages – so how to do you expect students to be able to learn them effectively, even if Chinese was taught in English?

Speaking of which, English is very dissimilar to Malay as well, and is only slightly hardly related to Indian (Proto-German, the ancestor of English would be more related to Sanskrit, the ancestor of modern Tamil) *I stand corrected – Comment 5*.  So the subtle encouragement of a monolingual environment for kids which was partly caused by the balance of powers then and the perception of Chinese as evilly Communist (now, MM had a hand in this in shutting down the institutions where children could get a lot of exposure to Chinese) has resulted in the situation today, where most people would like to believe they were bilingual, but are not.  And educational policy has not helped in restricting Chinese to Chinese lessons, effectively producing a generation of parents who were mostly English-monolingual, who ridiculed “cheenapoks” because they couldn’t understand them.

But no, the perception is that more learning is the right way ahead.  Parents have to understand that language acquisition is partly their job as well.  You can’t send your kids to school and hope they can come home and speak Chinese fluently, unless you have taken the effort to speak to your toddler in Chinese.  Instead, we have Chinese for pre-schoolers now!  Children from 3 to 6 should learn Chinese!  I wonder how that will work.  Imagine that you only speak English at home.  Then your toddler goes to kindergarten and learns Chinese, but who is he going to speak it with at home?  What’s the point in that?  Already the principle is wrong.  I only managed to become fluent in German (not perfect) when I had German lessons every single day in JC and when German was actually spoken.  Rote learning can’t give you what exposure does.  But in Singapore, everything is kept separate from each other.  NO CHINESE EXCEPT DURING CHINESE LESSONS, right?

The biggest mistake is not putting an educator as the head of MOE, but a politician, or a surgeon, or a Rear-Admiral.

So that there is “positive criticism” (heh i like that term since it sounds so contradictory), I would suggest looking at the system of Luxembourg.  Children who go to school are schooled first in German, then after they are 12, the language of instruction for the entire syllabus changes gradually from German to French.  How’s that sound?  Of course, the second language is taught in school as well.  But what is needed is exposure, and a complete language change should probably do the trick.

By the way, did I miss the word “sorry” in the story?

I am Singaporean Vol. 3, I – On Apathy October 23, 2009

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

There’s an article on TOC about Singaporean youths being apathetic with regards to politics.  I’m not going to argue against the fact that they ARE apathetic (I consider myself apathetic when I happen to be in Singapore, but hey, I don’t really think about staying in Singapore for the long haul), instead, I am going to talk about why apathy is such a big thing in Singapore.

Why am I apathetic?  In fact, why are people apathetic?  The article discusses self-centredness amongst the youth, but I believe that this polemic against self-centredness is just shifting the focus of things.  You find the most self-centredness in countries with lesser political apathy – why are, for example, divorces commonplace in the West?  The self-centredness of the youth in Singapore, in spite of their political apathy, cannot be placed on their “myopic self-centred interests” alone.  You can put it this way too – people who are engaged in politics do so either because they are really altruistic and want to do something for society, OR because they want to make a point, they want to go down in history.  But these are two extremes, and people normally do so because they want to improve the lives of others and at the same time be remembered when they are gone.

It all has to do with finding meaning in life.  So why are Singaporeans self-centred, and at the same time, apathetic?

Perhaps it is because life in Singapore is meaningless?  For example, the meaning of life in Singapore revolves around family, seeing your kids grow up, etc., and for those who don’t have a family, or are unwilling to start one, it revolves around career, being the best in what you do, trumping the competition.  For both these people, materialistic goods are an integral part of their aims and needs – the former to provide for others and for oneself, the latter for ego.  As a by-product, work is done and there is a general development, a general improvement in the state of things.

But is there meaning above that?  Some find it in religion, serving God (or trying to calm their consciences)? But for those who pursue materialism, meaning is just a thing of possessing a quantitative more, by which I mean more money, a better car, a bigger house, etc.  Who reads anymore, who thinks about life?  Why are students of the Arts looked down on?

Because MORE is an aspect of meritocracy, or an aspect of a particular interpretation of meritocracy.  “The best deserve to succeed” – in a meaningless life, ‘good’ is equated with ‘more’, for is not ‘better’ ‘more good’? (*NB: when i give such terms in quotation marks, they are based on the particular interpretation of ‘good’ as given above.) But here comes the sucker-punch way below the belt in the nuts:

In Singapore, many are good.  So the ‘best’ are chosen to succeed, and the rest are doomed to fit their ideals of ‘good’ into this particular view of meritocracy.  Self-centredness is an outlet for the frustrated will to succeed – it is probably how the soul deals with the fact that life is doomed to meaninglessness (i.e., “nothing will ever change.”) So, this explains the apathy somehow – just as you will trust whatever a doctor tells you with regard to your health, you will trust whatever the politician tells you regarding the country.  So, apathy, in the form of blind trust, is good for you, the doctor, and the politician.

But is it?  Another factor (I am coming to the end of this complicated theoretical discussion so bear with me,) is that this materialistic interpretation of meritocracy (remember: ‘good’ = more) means that things are black and white.  Something is either right or wrong, either good or bad.  There is no grey area.  Maybe that explains why the arts have no place in Singapore, and you will find it in political discourse as well.  Defamation is punished harshly, because it is wrong.  What’s more, you have defamed the ‘best’, and the rich and powerful can always hit back, and hit hard.

But politics is hardly a science.  Politics deal with sentiment.  The reason why self-centredness finds its expression in political engagement is that people believe that they can make a difference.  As long as we never have this impression that we can make a difference, then apathy is here to stay.  For a long, long time.  Calling people to stand up and fight for your future is impressive.  BUT as long as reality and education says that you will never make a rat’s ass in terms of difference, it just remains flowery rhetoric.

Or “highfalutin”, as some octogenarian would tell you.