Monday 25 June 2012

Comparing apples, oranges and Singapore

By John Lui, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2012

Whether the issue is the culling of wild boars, or the falling birth rate, or whether Sticker Lady is an artist or a vandal, or if the capping of mobile data usage is fair to users, there is a type of statement that is becoming much too familiar.

'This is why Singapore will never breed true creativity/a Steve Jobs/an artist like Banksy/ an affinity for nature. Our nation will never be a centre for excellence in high tech/the arts/making babies,' says the Angry Bunch.

And inevitably one or both sides use a uniquely Singaporean rhetorical tool: Comparing Singapore with another country.

Whenever I read that, I weep manly tears.

In a battle of wits, throwing out a national comparison is like flicking peanut shells at someone charging at you with a billiard cue, because there is a chance he may drop dead from a fatal allergic reaction. It is not an effective weapon.

For example, one side may say: 'Save the wild boars. In other countries, these animals are respected. Nay, loved!'

When I read that, I think of various unkind responses, among them, 'Why not you move there?' to 'In one country, they thought Kim Jong Il was a great leader and a snappy dresser' to 'Give those wild boars passports and get them to the airport, pronto!'

And that is just the least of it. At worst, you could end up scoring an own goal.

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) wrote to The Straits Times Forum page recently to explain that it does not interfere in commercial decisions, such as the one made by SingTel (and later, StarHub) to limit the amount of free data on mobile price plans. The IDA said that what SingTel was doing was part of a 'growing trend... by operators worldwide'.

Yes, it really makes me feel good to know that I will be soon enjoying the same amount of pain as users in the United States. Here I was, feeling really left out of the party!

Another reason why comparing Singapore with another country hardly ever works as a tool of persuasion is that it causes a lively debate to degenerate into the dullest social anthropology lecture ever.

One side will sell the virtues of another country's public transport or economic system. The other side will reply with the thing that kills a great, entertaining argument stone dead: statistics. A dull parade of numbers will be trotted out to show how that country's system could never work here.

Because countries tend to be large objects with long histories, containing many people doing different things, both sides will be able to find and fling statistics and facts at each other ad nauseam.

If that kind of debate were held in a hall, the audience members would have by then taken out their phones for a quick round of Draw Something.

But it can get much, much worse.

Someone will make a connection between a country doing Y, which resulted in X. According to my own meticulous statistical research (i.e. I Googled it), people who see cause-and-effect links between two national-scale events tend to be wrong 96.8 per cent of the time.

Saying that Singapore will never produce a Banksy because of harsh punishments for vandalism, or that we will never cure the problem of the low birth rate because of a lack of workplace benefits is a bit like saying that unless we make a ritualistic sacrifice of a cow now, the sun will not rise tomorrow.

Just because X follows Y, it does not mean that Y caused X to happen. Before we can say whether the Singapore environment can produce a Banksy or a Steve Jobs, do we even know what it is that gave Jobs his 'Jobsness', or gave Banksy his 'Banksiness'? Unless we can define their X factor, how can we hope to nurture it in people?

It is the same with encouraging a higher birth rate. Some think we will be awash in babies if we hand out days off like chicken wings at a barbecue. Two hundred years ago, my female ancestor in China probably gave birth to another ancestor, her 24th child, then awarded herself a sinfully extravagant two-hour vacation before picking up her shovel and going back to the rice fields.

Let's accept that Singapore is unique. We are not one race, our most spoken language comes from across the ocean and when we are stuck in a motionless blacked-out train carriage, we sit quietly texting our bosses that we may be a bit late. We are better than unique. We are weird and wonderful. So why compare?

No comments:

Post a Comment