Most Singaporean students are familiar with Social Studies. For me, it’s one of those subjects that I simply happen to be better in because 1) I like stories and 2) It’s wordplay. We learnt about the need to assess sources for their credibility, but it never crossed my mind that the text itself could be (indeed, *should* be) subject to the same treatment. Education in Singapore (until the pre-tertiary level mostly, university is another bag of worms), as I like to pontificate sometimes to friends, is a mind-game where you try to second-guess the examiner. It’s a mind-game because there always is a right answer whether you’re talking about General Paper, Social Studies or whatever, there are these steps that you follow and you think in certain frameworks. Of course, systems and processes are laudable for the most part, if anything they were there to be good for efficiency; frameworks and models were meant to simplify the world so that we focus on what is most important anyway.

But what happens when existing modes of thought are ill-suited to our changed environment?

Institutions are ships, I will go as far to say that you can about build any institution promulgating any whack ass ideology as long as you keep it up long enough (Scientology comes to mind); this is because you need time to change people, people need time to acquire new norms and habits, and society needs time to adopt a set of values in which those norms and habits become internalised and unquestioned. The geek term for this is the technology adoption lifecycle but you can apply it to democracies and Christianity too. Democracy – or rather effective democracy – was bound to fail in some societies because for power to the masses to work, you need the other estates to ensure that the exercise of power is accountable and to keep state power in its place; and what is Christianity but a persecuted cult of people before the Edict of Milan? Now, Christianity has of course went on to acquire many new meanings but my point is this: Generally, all the things that we’ve taken for granted – the last things that we ever question – should probably be at the foremost of our intellectual inquiries.

The official history of Singapore from fishing village to world-class modern city of towering skyscrapers and streets so clean and shiny it’s like walking on diamond dust as was told to us – curated by none other than the powers-that-be – is a tale of right over evil and goodness triumphant. For those of us who never had the experience of living through our formative years, this is a tale that is not too hard to accept. And we – being the beneficiaries of the countless sacrifices our ancestors made before us – are supposed to take up the gauntlet. Study hard, get a respectable degree, a decent paycheck, pay for HDB and grow the economy. Human life in all of its complexity – our secret desires, whims and fantasies – reduced to -isms and the most simplistic set of routines. How nice.

Yet this very symbol of our national identity, this badge of Singaporeans graduating honourably from the squalor of slum-like Kampongs into modern and sleek housing units stacked on top of one another was all of the above and something else – a site of political contestation. Kampongs were also thought to be sites of communist activity – and they probably were (see Reframing Singapore: Memory, Identity, Trans-regionalism page 94, though my argument is not contingent on this) – but I was left with a certain feeling after standing in a room of people who grew up in the 50s and 60s today that I cannot quite put into words.

It’s the realisation that indeed, “people don’t experience dynasties, people experience the world around them” and further to that, the world around people are shaped by ideologies and discourses concerning them, but perhaps not always addressed by them – might that be a problem? Governments enact policies, but people do not respond to policies, we respond to incentives. So the political powers on Kinmen decided that they need to get rid of rats (because 1/3 of Taiwan’s military power was stationed there during the Cold War and a rat epidemic would more swiftly wipe out their military capabilities than mainland forces), the people on that island could not enter the mainland of Taiwan for school, to see doctors, whatever, until they submit rat tails as proof of their catches. 2 different governments and 2 different ideologies produced the all-too-similar result of a mass rat-catching exercise. People, or what we in Mandarin call the Old Hundred Names – responded by letting the female rats live (because you want to make sure that there’ll be rats left for when you need them), cutting up the tail into different segments, caging the rat but cutting off its tail, even developing an underground market in rat tails.

People respond to incentives, not ideologies. Or maybe it’s just me being the economics major guilty-as-charged of seeing economics everywhere.

My worry is that people do not realise that the ideologies that give birth to the institutions that we interact with on an almost-daily basis are not as-is, ideologies may be set in stone but the way that we live need not be and indeed are not such. I am of the persuasion that no one man is evil by design (leaving psychopaths out of the discussion because they are termed psychopaths for a reason) or intent, evilness is probably mostly by incident and even misinformation. Most of the time, people genuinely believe that they are doing good. Imagine how much good we could do as a human population if we expend our energies all on the right things, on all the things that make life worth living for as great a number of people as possible. My worry is that we let these invisible ideologies cage us in and we become acclimatised to a state of things taken-for-granted but suboptimal.

It is for this reason that political apathy disorients me. Since when did we become so much more interested in who is dating who in Hollywood than where all our public money is being spent on? There’s definitely a human instinct at play here, gossip is social, human minds are simply better at handing individual lives than raw numbers. So then shouldn’t our intellectual institutions play a greater part in guiding our directions forward? They are after all built with public money, serve the master that pays you, right? But we as a people (using this term super loosely here) do not seem to enjoy engaging in our intellect (The Empire of Illusion) or even find it important, and academia is either not all that interested in everyday lives or even positively punishing of such interest (here).

This is why I note professor Michael Szonyi’s method with such interest and hope that more intellectuals step forward. This is why I hope most of all that we, the people, venture out of Plato’s cave. And I must add this: This post is not meant to be political, I am not anti-PAP and I am pro-capitalism. But I think that we – each and everyone of us endowed with a working prefrontal cortext – owe it to the world we live in to make good use of this puny lump of matter. We are stewards of the earth, carer of heritage from the past, guardian of exigencies at present and bearer of hopes for future generations and there are so many, so many… So much that we can do better. I will talk more about the environment and sustainability another time.

The relevance of the HDB example is to illustrate the point that there was never a single, inevitable way for societies to progress. Ideas about how society ought to be organised are aplenty and the task is to subject everything to close scrutiny. Because the ideas that you do not question end up owning you, taking charge of our lives and we are left wonder endlessly to ourselves – Why are GDP figures so impressive and yet I’m unhappy? Why do we have to spend so much of our lives seated in an office cubicle when the world is out there? Why does my happiness not grow in tandem with how much I own? We do not think enough about why we live. We do not think enough about what’s worth living FOR. We do not think enough about what if we are to die the very next day. You don’t know when it’s coming, but you know for sure that death is a certain thing, then why do we make less of our individual lives – each and every one of us unique in our own right – by settling, by compromising, by fitting in? And every second, every minute, every hour that we waste on the mundane, on the humdrum, is a second, a minute, an hour forever lost to us. How did I get so off-topic?

I’m still trying to pinpoint an exact moment, but I for one certainly never found it curious that economics as taught to us effectively says that don’t give no damn about the environment. If it is indeed an urgent problem, relative prices would change and magically, the economy (synonymous with the collective human experience) will be back to equilibrium in no time. This way of thinking has a name, the whole time we were learning this in school and I didn’t even know it’s the neoclassical school of thought – one of many schools in what I fondly call the worldly philosophy that is economics. Monetarists and supply-side policies were also given mention but without an understanding of the contexts in which economic thinking were formulated, one is left feeling as if theories are the gospel truth. Or maybe I was just a bad student. Or maybe now I am being a bad student. Hmmm.

My modest suggestion is that if you leave open the possibility that the world we live in is the result of contestation and not one straight-and-narrow progression from antiquity to modernisation, maybe more people’d become more politically engaged. This is of course not in the best interest of incumbents and appealing to an indiscernible future to counter present bias is not entirely helpful so I have nothing useful to add on this point (yet). The upside of people becoming more politically interested is that you need not lure them with lucrative salaries anymore and that’s savings that could be channeled elsewhere. Also you probably don’t want to draw into politics people who’d be drawn in (only) with monetary incentives anyway. It’s a problem of adverse selection for society at large. Then and again societal and state interests do not always coincide. Bummer.

Question everything.

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” – John Maynard Keynes


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