Sunday, 10 March 2013

Singapore: Butterfly or frog?

Singaporeans seem to have grown unhappier over the years, but as individuals and as a society, we can count our blessings and decide which path to take.
By Kishore Mahbubani, Published The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

SINGAPORE is undergoing a metamorphosis. Indeed, it is likely to be a mighty metamorphosis. Having lived in Singapore for 64 years, I find it hard to recall a period of greater transformation.

Unlike previous transformations, this one is not taking place in the material or mental spheres. Nor is it taking place in the economic or political spheres.

Instead, it is taking place in the spiritual sphere. The soul of Singapore is being redefined.

No one can predict the final outcome of this metamorphosis. There is a range of possibilities. Let me suggest two extreme possibilities using analogies from natural results of metamorphoses.

Singaporean society could either emerge as a happy butterfly, flitting around in a garden city, or it could emerge as a lonely frog, croaking away unhappily in a little well.

Objectively, the odds should favour a happy outcome. Subjectively, we seem to be headed for an unhappy outcome.

Half full or half empty?

SEVERAL recent studies have emerged to suggest that Singapore is an unhappy society. Gallup polls taken last year found Singapore to be both the least positive nation out of 148 countries surveyed, and the least emotional country out of more than 140 countries surveyed.

A book titled Happiness And Wellbeing: A Singaporean Experience, written by two National University of Singapore Business School professors, found that Singaporeans have grown unhappier over the last 10 years.

Fortunately, unlike the metamorphoses in nature, the outcome is not preordained. It will not be a result of unchangeable DNA. Instead it will be a result of decisions that we make. Yes, we can decide to be happy.

And I can speak from personal experience. When we are born, we inherit tendencies to be optimistic or pessimistic souls. I was born with a pessimistic streak. But I have learnt to control or balance it with conscious thought processes. When I slide into pessimism, I carry out a thorough analytical process of counting my blessings and my challenges.

Singapore as a society can do the same. And it can also decide to define itself as a happy or unhappy society, just as many individuals often choose to live their lives believing that the glass is always half empty.

To help along this natural process of deciding whether we want to be happy or unhappy, I plan to write several columns in 2013. Some will count our blessings and some will spell out our challenges.

The final two columns will spell out what the butterfly and frog scenarios will look like. My goal is to be helpful to my fellow Singaporeans and help them decide where to go.

Tension over immigrants

LET me illustrate this process with one clear contemporary challenge.

One of the biggest sources of unhappiness among Singaporeans is the surge of foreign migrants in recent years.

This unhappiness surfaced clearly in the General Election of 2011 and continues to reverberate in the blogosphere. Some of the reactions are rational. Many of them are emotional. And we have to try to understand both the rational and emotional dimensions.

I have had first-hand experience of the emotional dimensions. A little more than two years ago, on Christmas Eve 2010, an Australian driver tried to physically nudge me twice with his sports utility vehicle after I complained about his unnecessary honking off Siglap Road. Fortunately, I was not hurt.

I am glad that I had this experience. It made me understand the resentment that Singaporeans feel towards insensitive foreigners. What made this experience unusual is that Australian drivers are generally more courteous than Singaporean drivers. The wide open spaces in Australia don't create the psychological pressures that a crowded Singapore does.

A month ago, a fellow professor (an American citizen) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy experienced road rage from a Singaporean. After watching the erratic driving of a small truck, the professor rolled down his window at a red light to advise the Singaporean driver to be careful.

The Singaporean driver rewarded his courtesy by running into the professor's car. And he would have assaulted the professor if his father had not restrained him. This incident made me aware that I had failed to alert this American colleague of mine to the dangers of road rage in Singapore.

After driving for over 40 years in Singapore, I know that the capacity for road rage exists in many Singaporean drivers (including, as my wife can confirm, sometimes in me).

We can try to resolve this rising tension over immigrants in Singapore with rational arguments. And rational analysis does help. However, we also have the emotional dimension.

A long-time permanent resident of Singapore, who has contributed a lot to Singaporean society, told me recently that for the first time in decades he was beginning to feel unwelcome in Singapore.

When I asked him whether any particular incident had affected him, he could not think of any. Yet he said that he could distinctly feel less welcome than before.

The Singapore story

IN SHORT, we have to go beyond the material and mental spheres and beyond the economic and political spheres to understand the spiritual direction of Singaporean society. What forces have generated this new-found unhappiness with the previous status quo?

Normally it is the poets and novelists, the playwrights and artists who explain a society's soul to its people. Yet we all know that the great Singaporean novel has not been written. Nor have we had an in-depth discussion among Singapore's artistic community on the forces generating this unhappiness.

The simple goal of my columns for 2013 is to try to unearth these happy and unhappy strains of Singaporean society. Yes, like any other society, we have both. What we don't have is a good understanding of these different strains.

It will be impossible for me to unearth these strains on my own, even though I have been a Singaporean for 64 years and carry the Singaporean soul in my blood. I will need some help.

I therefore welcome readers' views to the e-mail address below.

Civilised comments will be shared: Yes, I did use the word "civilised". I know that it is old-fashioned and not chic to specify "civilised discourse". Rants are often the order of the day.

However, I believe it is possible to express sharp and fundamental disagreements in a civilised manner. And, indeed, one of the best ways to ensure that we emerge as a happy butterfly rather than as an unhappy frog is to have a civilised discourse in Singaporean society on how to manage the sharp disagreements that have emerged.

And, if as a society we cannot have a civilised discourse, we are choosing an unhappy destination for ourselves. In short, we can choose to be happy or unhappy. As Karl Marx wisely said: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

The writer is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. This is the first of a monthly column.

* The ups and downs of being S'porean

In the first of a monthly column that began on March 9, Professor Kishore Mahbubani wrote that Singapore is undergoing a metamorphosis and that it could emerge either as a happy butterfly or an unhappy frog. He invited readers to share their views on the happy and unhappy strains of Singaporean society. More than 50 Straits Times readers wrote in. We run some responses below.
The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2013

Nation in mid-life crisis

I THINK the reason for the angst and discontentment we feel as a society and as a country is no different from that which an individual feels as he hits mid-life.

When he was younger, the future looked bright and nothing seemed unattainable. Now, doubts are beginning to set in, both for the individual and for Singapore as a whole. All that hard work and promise of success seems illusory.

Although he works hard to get ahead in life, he finds he is actually running on the spot. Or worse, sliding backwards as smarter, wealthier and more mobile foreigners take the jobs, the seats in the nice restaurants and the condo unit he aspires to own.

You are right that the Singapore soul is being redefined.
- Daniel Lum Kong Wing

A Briton who became Singaporean

I MADE a very considered choice to become Singaporean two years ago.

It was not an easy decision to give up my British citizenship of more than 60 years. But the values of meritocracy, equality, democracy, harmony, justice, prosperity and progress are the values that I have come to associate with Singapore. They are also the ones I want to identify with.

Having had the good fortune to live, study, and work in England, the United States, Europe and Africa, I feel that I am in a position to compare, contrast and choose the place where I am most happy. That place is Singapore.
- Robert Anthony Gattie

Good grades cannot equal experience

I GREW up believing that Singaporeans should work hard and strive for stability. However, I have seen attitudes change as a new generation entered the work force. With the introduction of scholars, many young bright students with excellent academic qualifications leapfrogged ahead of their peers as well as many experienced senior workers.

This has left behind a group of very unhappy Singaporeans. This large group, coupled with the generations X and Y who are not among the selected scholars, will be the forces that the PAP (People's Action Party) Government will have to deal with.

Finding willing and capable Singaporean leaders to step forward to lead a group of unappreciative followers may become a problem for us as a nation. We have to continue with the basic building blocks of family and community bonding. We need to continue to discipline our children as they grow up.

We also need to continue rewarding experienced workers with higher salaries. Intelligence and academic achievement can never equal experience.
- Joseph Lim Beng Huat

Stressful to keep up with the Joneses

I MOVED here with my family from India in 1991 and accepted an invitation to become a citizen four years later. I say this to underscore the fact that my perspectives are likely to be different from those of native Singaporeans.

Singapore is very different from cities like London and New York, where most people are outsiders. As a relative "outsider" in Singapore, I have a refreshing sense of freedom. I don't have to keep up with the Joneses because I don't have the extensive networks of family and friends that native Singaporeans do.

Native Singaporeans deal with a huge amount of peer pressure. And we measure ourselves by what we own, not who we are or what we do.

When I moved here in 1991, my Singaporean friends used to speak of the 5 Cs - condominiums, country clubs, cars, careers and credit cards. Today, condominiums, country clubs and cars are out of the reach of the average Singaporean.

Singaporeans are also nervous about their careers, despite being better educated. Only credit cards remain, offering a fleeting "retail therapy" for our discontent.

The passengers on the Titanic danced happily, oblivious of the approaching iceberg. We sit on dry land, morosely wondering what the morrow will bring. Small wonder, then, that we are more disposed to croak than flit!
- Mahesh Krishnaswamy

Hopes for 'unity and inclusivity'

I WAS born in Mumbai and moved to Malaysia in 1995. I later immigrated to Singapore in 1999 when I was six years old.

Despite having grown up in Singapore for most of my life, many Singaporeans perceive me as being first and foremost an Indian, or even American, and only after, a Singaporean. My most shocking experience of this mentality came during an interview for a position at a Singaporean government agency.

Upon noting that my educational history involved studying in international schools, the interviewer asked: "So do you consider Singapore home?" I unequivocally stated that I do. "So where all do you go around in Singapore, other than Little India, of course?"

I was completely taken aback by this question as it sought to differentiate me through my native links rather than focus on my Singaporean identity.

In this debate about Singapore's reception to foreigners, I think a thought needs to be spared for newly naturalised citizens. People like me create a new category within the Singaporean society and treating us differently breeds disunity among Singaporeans.

During my interview, I was asked about values that are particularly Singaporean. I stated that hard work and meritocracy were two values that I felt shaped Singapore. If I am asked that question again, I hope that I will be able to add unity and inclusivity to the list.
- Aarti Sreenivas

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