Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The root of Singapore's intellectual vacuum

I'm currently reading a book titled "The Assassin's Gate" by George Packer, about the politics of the Iraq war and I realised something about Singapore.

We have no interesting people here. Parker talks of how he met an Iraqi intellectual in exile in the US, who envisioned a new democratic Iraq, and how he was highly educated, extremely intelligent and an idealist.

And I realised, we will never meet characters like that in Singapore, which makes life here so devoid of ideals, and overwhelmed by pragmatism. Pragmatic economic survival is all we know because we have never met people who are victims of ideological struggles.

"Ideology" to us is fluff, "Human Rights" is a dirty word and "Democracy" is a sham.

"We are nothing without economic prosperity" - the government never fails to remind us. And over time, if the only people we are exposed to are bankers, financiers and businessmen (and ok...institutionalised artists), we will come to fully and utterly internalise this myth.

Economic prosperity is a drug. Look at us Singaporeans. We have had economic prosperity for decades. Are we happy? No. Are we better people? No. What are we? We are bored and unfulfilled, constantly plagued by the insatiable desire to have more, buy more, own more and spend more.

I remember when I was living in India, South Africa and Europe, I felt like ideas were real and I could live with less. I met with people who were children of refugees and political exiles from Iran, Palestine, parts of Africa etc. To these people, ideology was the stuff of life. It was what they lived for and what they lived by.

What do we as Singaporeans live for? Do we even know what we live by?

Call this a whim of the young middle class generation. I think its far more than that. Our parents lived through different times. They suffered poverty first and now prosperity. We started out with prosperty but suffer a poverty of mind. Do we not have a right to change that?


arem8 said...

"We have no interesting people here...highly educated, extremely intelligent and an idealist.
"And I realised, we will never meet characters like that in Singapore..."
Thanks v much. Really. I thought I was The One. Sigh.

Carpediem said...

hahahah...sorry uncle came close at least!! :)

Fievel said...

It's true isn't it...just take time to watch the folks in the morning and evening peak hours... everybody looking like's such a waste of life.

Anonymous said...

I think if you went overseas and talked to the Singaporeans there. They have much ideals and aspirations for Singapore, very much like the exiles that you mentioned. :)

Aloysius said...

And I realised, we will never meet characters like that in Singapore, which makes life here so devoid of ideals, and overwhelmed by pragmatism. Pragmatic economic survival is all we know because we have never met people who are victims of ideological struggles.

Why so pessimistic, carpediem? What's so wrong about "pragmatic economic survival"? People do need jobs so they can do what they want.

You can't expect everyone here to be living by some grand-sounding ideology. A hairdresser lives by his profession, he keeps to his highest standard; a mother lives by her household, she raises and cares for her children...

We started out with prosperty but suffer a poverty of mind. Do we not have a right to change that?

I think I'm *considerably* younger than you, and I've to disagree that my gen suffers from 'a poverty of mind'. Come on, surely you can't apply that claim to ALL of us S'poreans? ;)

Carpediem said...

Aloysius, that's totally not the point I'm making. I agree that (key words) "certain degree economic pragmatism" is necessary or we'll all be living with our heads in the clouds while our children starve to death. But that should not be the all encompassing ethos of our lives - which is the case here.

I have many friends in Europe who have no illusions about economic pragmatism. Many are engineers and executives themselves. But they do know how to take time to sip a coffee at the neighbourhood cafe on the weekend, take an interest in politics, the environment, social trends, the arts etc.

Ideology doesn't need to be grand sounding. I'm afraid you have a middle class-educated understanding of ideology. The factory worker in a sweat shop in the Philippines doesn't need to know "grand ideology" to know that their rights as a human being are being violated when they are not allowed to use the toilet and are paid less than a dollar a day.

Lastly, it is not my intention to speak of ALL Singaporeans. I'm no God. Our understanding of any social setting is limited by the people and social contexts we are in contact with. Even in any scientific finding, the researcher has to lay down the limitations of his/her study.

The point here is not to say this is what everyone thinks, but this is what I've observed in the larger scheme of things.

Anonymous said...

hello carpe diem,

having read your reply to aloysius, i think i am in a better position to understand what you meant to say.

it seems to me that the singaporean vacuum of which you speak is less a matter of intellect and more a matter of soul. if this is correct to say, then yes, it does fit in well with the administrative/bureaucratic nature of singaporean society.

in this connection, wasn't it max weber, a student of the bureaucratic ethos, who mouthed these words "specialists without heart, sensualists without soul"? isn't this an apt description of our society?

Carpediem said...

Hi Anonymous,

Well quoted. Max Weber had it spot on!

Anonymous said...

Pursuit of economic wealth (e. wealth) can be, in and of itself, a passion. What it seems to me (my $ 0.0000001 worth here, err-hmm) to be missing in Singapore is the WIDESPREAD commitment to something, anything, chosen through their hearts. There are individuals I have met in Singapore who have given themselves over to following their hearts, passion whatever. One such individual is a taichi master able to replicate much of what the old taichi masters could do, to have made it such a famous martial art. He committed himself to 20+ years of study and practice. There are some young (early 20's) Singaporeans following in his footsteps. There are similarly others in many other fields I know who have given up 'normal' lives to chase what their hearts would have rather than what Society and Culture would have us (YES I am Singaporean, finished NS and all that) become and pursue.

Which means that the only questions left are

a) WHO do you believe is stopping you from looking for and chasing your passions? Your fears? Your desire NOT to 'lose face' and have less (and thus, in Singapore, be less) than others? Your desire for a comfortable life being more important to you than 'roughing it out' so that you can experience your passion for yourself?

b) Do you actually want to experience that passion yourself? Or is it just too difficult to overcome the mental and emotional barriers that we all have, to some degree, and actually get your butt on the road to feeling and being lost until such time as you find your passion?

c) Maybe your own passion IS the pursuit of economic wealth, the passion of engaging and challenging all other humans for a share of the economic pie, of outwitting your opponents, of innovating useful stuff that makes our lives easier to live? Why be negative about this and why not just try it out for yourself? Even if you find one less thing to be passionate about, you are started on the road and now know that you have to look for your passion elsewhere?

Carpediem said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your very reflective post. I agree with you, many Singaporeans lack the ability to commit to anything chosen of their heart, largely because they (and myself included) face far too many pressures from society, family, friends etc.

I personally also know of a few Singaporeans who have given up everything - a law degree, a promising career, etc - to pursue their passion in theatre and humanitarian work, but they are either very brave, or very fortunate to have supportive families.

I fear I still lack the courage to disappoint the expectations of my loved ones in order to pursue my passion. I have doubts about where this passion will lead me.

But perhaps in good time I will find it.

Anonymous said...

i'm so glad i read this post of yours! totally sums up what i feel about singapore and convinces me tt i shld really go and see the world.

just a note though.. maybe 'cause i'm "considerably" younger, with less burden and expectations from the society, but i still believe tt maybe for just once, you should go and pursue what you want.. life is unpredictable and the time when you have the energy to do things is short, if you want at least something memorable in your life, perhaps you should just go and pursue it. you should decide ur own life^^
thanks again for the post!!

Anonymous said...

just to add: life is itself an adventure and no one knows where it leads