Sunday 19 May 2013

In pursuit of being 'good enough'

Singapore's culture of excellence needs to reconsider its laudable but narrow goals.
By Susrut Ray, Published The Straits Times, 17 May 2013

SINGAPORE exudes excellence. Outsiders are dazzled; Singaporeans take it in their stride. Even in 1980, when I arrived here for the first time, I was much taken by what I saw: manicured roads, immaculate transport and communication systems, exquisite public housing, ever-helpful public bodies like the Economic Development Board and JTC... the list goes on. In the 17 years that I made Singapore my home, I was a beneficiary of the quality that Singapore has on offer. It's the same now that I am back for medical treatment. Today, I am amazed by the pains the doctors, the nurses, even the receptionists at the National University Hospital take to make an inherently painful treatment as pleasant as possible.

My purpose, however, is not to eulogise. I wish rather to reflect on the origins of the quality of Singapore and also on its consequences, on where it is likely to lead.

Singapore's excellence is not serendipitous. It is a carefully designed and tested ideology, the "ideology of excellence". The architect of modern Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, expounds how for Singapore excellence is an existential necessity. According to him, his is not a "normal country"; its geopolitical vulnerability demands that it must differentiate itself from its neighbours.

It has to excel in governance and have strong defence. For that, a robust financial situation is a prerequisite. Only a society that is well-educated and cohesive can achieve what is required. Excellence in the educational system - one that can spot and nurture talent - becomes a necessity. The infrastructure too must excel to support the entire system and make it productive.

Singapore is unique in having adopted the ideology of excellence as the basis of governance rather than more familiar sets of ideas: capitalism, socialism, religious dogma, secularism and so forth. What are the origins of this singular model?

The strategy to draw the best available talent into governance was prevalent in imperial China, where for 1,500 years, examinations of the Confucian classics were conducted to select "scholar-bureaucrats". In Singapore too, top scholars are selected as ministers and civil servants.

Though scholarly excellence has been the basis of selection of government officials in both imperial China and modern Singapore, there are important differences.

In the Confucian system, the ideology is one of propriety, of moral order, of li. Propriety starts with the individual and works its way from the bottom, upwards. When the personal lives of individuals are regulated, the family is regulated. When the family is regulated, the state will be in order. There will be peace around the world if the state is in order. The foundation is self-governance rather than governance imposed from outside, top down. In Singapore it is just the opposite; the ministers and bureaucrats drive the project of excellence.

The nature and role of scholarship too are markedly different. In China, the study of the classics was to equip officials with explicit knowledge of the nature of moral propriety. Goodness, implicitly acquired from the environment, was the primary requirement. Explication of that goodness was secondary. Confucius says in his Analects: Be a good son, a good brother and a good friend and "if you have energy left after attending to conduct, then study books". In Singapore the accent is more on utilitarian disciplines such as maths and science rather than conduct; also, scholarship comes first, ahead of innate goodness.

If classical China is not the model for the Singaporean project, what is? It would seem that Singapore's ideology is a novelty that is indigenous and home-grown rather than being based on any other. All ideologies are in a sense flawed; no general body of doctrine can be applied with equal efficacy to each and every situation, event or person. The ideology of excellence cannot be an exception. Let us now look for some of the fault lines.

The first casualty of an environment that constantly exhorts a person to excel is happiness. This is most pronounced in those incapable of achieving the demanded standards. Schools in Singapore have institutionalised a way of branding people early in life as "normal", "express", "gifted" and so forth. The branding stays for life.

"Some pupils never outgrow their shell," laments a young person branded as "normal". "They carry the burden of being called 'stupid' into adulthood and lack self-esteem."

Branding is not always overt; covert and subtle branding is a way of life here. It affects not only underachievers. Even individuals who have been favourably graded live in constant fear of not being able to maintain the level they have already attained and/or of failing to climb up to the next rung.

Second, the continuous peroration about striving to be the best and the hype about succeeding has led to an unhealthy obsession. The ubiquitous, self-congratulatory chatter about being-the-best in this field or that - be it in GDP per capita, ease of doing business, reputation of the universities, even the height of hotels or Ferris wheel - is not only annoying to outsiders but causes unhappiness for Singaporeans as well.

The current angst about immigrants directed mostly at "PMEs" - professionals, managers and executives who are perceived as threats - can partly be traced to the obsession. Why, asks the Singaporean, must we compete against people coming from countries that are not as excellent as ours, having neither top-ranked universities nor the highest GDP, nor tall hotels or Ferris wheels?

Kiasu-ism, the constant jostling and competitiveness, nervousness rather than a relaxed lifestyle are all consequences of the striving for excellence.

Singapore's latest aspiration is of becoming a centre of creativity and innovation. Will the ideology of excellence that has served Singapore so well in the past be effective in steering it towards its latest aspiration? Creative minds do not usually fit into the conventional mould. The Steve Jobs of the world do not come out of maths and science scholarships. Jobs, a college dropout, spent his formative years dabbling in calligraphy and esoteric cults. The innovative mind blossoms in a relatively unstructured environment that is steeped, not only in utilitarian sciences, but also the humanities and arts. This seems at odds with Singapore's ideology.

These are some of the fault lines in Singapore's otherwise admirable ideology. What could bridge these gaps? That question is beyond the scope of this article; it is just about possible to suggest a direction. The solution obviously does not lie in a volte-face, a swing to the other extreme, to an "ideology of imperfection". Rather than that, the current ideology has to be tweaked to make way for an alternative: the ideology of "being good enough". The problem lies not in the search for excellence, but in going overboard and talking about success ad nauseum.

"They (sages) succeed but do not dwell on success / It is because they do not dwell on success / That it never goes away".

So says Lao Zi in Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2. Further on in Chapter 9, he cautions us about the dangers of going overboard.

"Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill / Keep sharpening your knife and it will be blunt."

Perhaps a thorough study of the Tao Te Ching might give pointers about how to move from the ideology of excellence to that of being good enough.

The writer is a 63-year-old Indian national who lived and worked in Singapore for 17 years (1980 to 1997), and is now back for a prolonged period of medical treatment.

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