Monday 16 July 2012

The little reddening dot

As the rat race gets hotter and tempers get shorter, a way to stay cool is to run at your pace
By Leslie Koh, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2012

SINGAPORE, it seems, is getting angrier and angrier.

Take a look at the exchanges online, or recall the recent clashes between commuters on buses and trains, and you'll notice what appears to be a trend of volatile tempers and deepening rage, whether it's directed at the Government, foreigners or a fellow passenger.

Singaporeans are angry with the Government for - quote, unquote - messing up public transport, allowing too many foreigners to come in, and making homes so expensive.

They're also increasingly resentful of foreigners for coming in and stealing their jobs, their university places and their scholarships.

And they're increasingly frustrated with one another for taking their precious seats on the MRT, and for deigning to set up elderly facilities in their void decks.

And they're angry because the authorities don't seem to take their complaints about these seriously enough - or because they answer their questions with a question.

As more than one observer has commented, 'we are an angry society'.

What is happening? Why is a society that prides itself on tolerance and courtesy getting more easily worked up these days? Why does the little red dot seem to be getting redder?

Many lay the blame at the Government's door. After all, the influx of foreign workers and overcrowding on trains and buses can be linked to government policy.

You could also attribute the strong sentiments to a boiling over of accumulated frustration, or a change in the relations between the Government and the governed.

Singapore isn't unique in that sense. A deepening frustration with rulers has prompted protests around the world, from Occupy Wall Street in America to the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and Bersih across the Causeway.

But that would not fully explain the intensity of the rage that seems to emerge when something goes wrong in Singapore, or when an incident arises reminding the populace of a sensitive subject, whether it's a lax immigration policy, wage gap or social injustice.

Neither would it account for the bitterness of the vitriol sometimes seen in online as well as verbal exchanges.

Is there something else that is driving the anger?

A look at the touchy topics seems to suggest a common thread running through them.

The resentment against foreigners essentially boils down to a competition for jobs. The frustration over the location of facilities in backyards could be simplified as competition for land and personal space. The indignation of not having one's voice and opinion heard, or being 'engaged' enough, could be likened to a competition for attention.

And the anger against fellow citizens sometimes comes down to competition for, well, a seat on the train. Or a place in the queue.

Of course, competition isn't a new thing to Singaporeans. But it had not been so intense before.

Singaporeans have always had to compete for jobs, but they've never had so hard a time. Not only do they now have to compete with one another for the best positions, but they also have to fend off competition from abroad.

They've never had to compete so much for space, whether it's in their shrinking backyards, on the bus, or in school or university.

You could blame some of it on government policy, but a large part of it is undeniably a natural result of living in a city-state.

With the pace of life accelerating, the competition for jobs, land, space and time is taking a greater toll than before. In other words, the rat race is getting a lot harder. Singaporeans are finding they have to run faster on the treadmill just to stay in place.

The intensifying competition could be one of the sources of the me-first attitude and the rising anger, much of which ends up directed against the marshals organising the race, the new contestants hoping to join in, and even fellow competitors.

Is this modern-day race inevitable? Or is there another way?

Some would argue that the nation - here they really mean the Government - has a choice.

It could relax in its pursuit of economic goals, rein in population growth and immigration, improve public transport and ensure that land development leaves enough green spaces. Certainly, this is something worth thinking about in policymaking - how to make the little red dot grow bigger, not redder.

But with just 700 or so sq km and the ever-growing external pressure from globalisation, there is surely a limit to what the authorities can do.

Some have argued that individuals can choose to drop out of the rat race. Parents can opt not to push their children to qualify for an elite school. Homebuyers can pick a smaller flat. People can consider a simpler lifestyle. All these would translate into less worry about getting the best tuition, or striving for more pay and promotions.

But these options come at a price. Opting out of a good school could risk a child's future. Taking it easier in a job could mean losing it altogether. Buying a small home would mean a smaller asset to cash in for retirement later.

Some would surely find the costs too high. With everyone running ahead, getting left behind would mean compromising on the quality of life or giving up hopes for a better one. Less pay, less luxuries, less achievements.

Others may deem the choices simply irresponsible. Parents, for example, would not want to risk their children's future. There is, after all, a difference between kiasu (scared to lose) and kiasi (scared to die).

Some will argue that there are also instances in which choices aren't available, at least not in a city-state. You can't choose which bus or train to take to avoid the crowds, or which park to take refuge in for a spot of solitude.

There are some, however, who have taken the plunge, quitting high-paying jobs for a simpler lifestyle or more time with the family. Ultimately, it is probably inevitable that Singaporeans will have to stay in the rat race. But maybe - just maybe - it is possible to run at your own pace.

Singapore chose the right road / Singapore must pause and reflect

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