I had a conversation with Chung-An the other day about how the DNA of the city-states (alas the last one is no longer a state, so to speak :p) of Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong are fundamentally, genetically different because while we started as a composite of the uneducated masses from the South of China and other places, Taiwan enjoyed the exodus of intellectual elites from mainland China, Hong Kong I do not quite know but given its proximity to the South of China, I’d suspect a huge degree of similarity with Singapore.
Then it all makes sense. Our obsession with materialism. That urge to make everyone conform. It’s the excesses of illiteracy spilled over into modern life. We could have been using our newfound earning power to spend more time on leisure, reading, taking strolls in our green spaces, consuming culture and the arts (I suspect this’d make us a lot more productive, if not at least happier) but alas we outbid each other in splurging on the 5Cs. I think I heard about Cash, Car, Credit Card, Condominium and Country club Membership as young as primary school; and in my line of work I have witnessed a class turn deadening silent when the query “so who’s the normal academic kid in the class” was raised. That conflation of academic grades with status and self-worth not only has devastating consequences, but carries with it an immense waste of human resources and talents as well. At some point our insecurities and aversion to criticism struck me as very nouveau riche behaviour. And looking at my grandmother, who is great and instrumental for me being where I am today, but I look at how she treats family relationships and I realised that if placed in another country, if still back in China, she would totally be one who sees no wrong in the bride trade. That is quite a scary thought. We are an economically developed nation with a moral majority, huh, I am glad our size places an upper limit on the degree of military prowess we can have.
What I mean to say if that we do owe where we are today to the works of people before us. But the forward path is no longer a linear one of continually increasing man-hours (either by increasing hours or by increasing labour) to attain higher GDP growth. And for the people who demand higher, greater benefits we need to be prepared to pay higher taxes or create more value. Just saying you want something does not make it so, it has to be backed with a credible, committal, willingness and ability to pay.
And I think I’ve reached a stage of life in which anyone dreaming of a revolution can screw themselves for all I care. Haven’t history showed us enough. We keep thinking this time it’s different – but where human nature has persisted through centuries and ages, our man-made institutions, rules and regulations are but an eyewink in history susceptible to tribal instincts or in modern language, regulatory capture. So this is why I kept thinking “tragedy is the footnote that mankind as attached to history”. Progress has been made, but there’ll always be problems.
The Jasmine Revolution happened when I was in my second year of university (which I thought was really cool at the time), then what? When you took away the figureheads but that ecosystem of repression remains, another will take his/her place. The Communist Revolution. The French Revolution. Rent-seeking revolutionaries. But this is an argument for another day. It’s the same problem that terrorism and social change faces isn’t it. We come in with our set of values and measures and expect another community to conform. So the one revolution that went on to launch a superpower (but is now faltering, laws of nature) in 1776 was signed behind closed doors by a bunch of intellectuals and elites. Perhaps Plato had a point when he dreamt of a rule by philosopher kings. Though the problem we get with philosopher kings is that their ability to empathise with the common men is severely limited. Which brings us home.
What do you do about a country that has given you so much, that has refused to recognise you as equal? Like anyone else, I think the only thing to be done is to do what you can, to go out and grab it if it is something that you really want. Instead of waiting, wishing, crying, complaining for a handout. No one owes anyone else a living. Entitlement is a real problem in a globalising world because while you are waiting, wishing, crying, complaining for a handout, someone else out there is willing to do your job for less. You cannot WILL your wage to increase when your market value hasn’t budged, you WILL it and you will Greek it out. Yet we cling onto old habits and refuse to pick up something new. I know so because I am still trudging through strings, date and time in Python…
I understand the practical ramifications of pandering to the interests of your population because they get you your vote. But don’t we all, shouldn’t we all, in the deepest of our hearts, believe in the ultimate equality of all men, regardless of language, religion, sexual orientation, nationality and so on and so forth.
So I had this discussion with Jia En the other night over a dark ale and oysters: it’s the social justice question isn’t it? Do we measure the goodness of a society with the Rawlsian maximin principle or do we measure it with the greatest good accrued to the greatest possible number (utilitarian)? I suspect every society will have a different answer to this question, but that is up to the people to articulate and to decide.
So the purpose of this post is to say that everything taken together, I feel incredibly blessed to have grew up in Singapore. I think the next 50 years is up to people of my generation really. And I suspect that the only viable strategy in the long-term for citizens of city-states the world over is to be like Jews. Use this as your base, then go forth and conquer the world. The world is your friggin’ hinterland. How cool is that!? The good thing is we live in very interesting times don’t we. Right under our noses we are seeing the dawn of the Washington Consensus. And I look at this huge mess the Euro Zone is in and I find myself thinking: Didn’t China achieve what they are struggling to keep together (fragments of) now – as early as the Qin dynasty – 221 BC to 207? A common currency. A common trade area. Hmmm. I have yet to encounter a satisfactory explanation for why China and Europe diverged the way that they did, though I suspect it is partially because while we have found a way to control the masses with the Imperial Exams and the Classics which held out promises of upward mobility, Europe never orchestrated a similar feat of human engineering which could keep the costs of coordinating a vast empire within reasonable limits. Anyhow, I expect to see RMB dethrone USD in my children’s lifetime, CETERIS PARIBUS. Singapore may have a will to power, but it would be China that used to be boss for much of its history. And that history is not lost on its people. They have laid low to earn time for progress and now they are starting to turn some of those fats into muscles. It is such a thrill to witness. This is to SG100 and China not screwing up now. 😉