A Primer, A Hypothesis: In SG, stuff gets done

I had the opportunity to join in an in-depth discussion of Singapore issues at the National University of University. Was nice to be back in University Town to be back with USP friends. The discussions was rushed but still robust. And during the discussion, a particular thought came up, that “in Singapore, things get done“.

In a presentation later, the notion dawned upon me that for various reasons, GSD isn’t just a productivity geek culture getting things done in a distraction-rich world. GSD – Getting Stuff/Sh*t Done – has been ingrained in us for a while now – 2 generations and counting. We have demonstrated over the decades, that we have been able to get initiatives going, get mega-projects done, pull through from crisis, and doing a really good job of accomplishing the goals we set for ourselves. In Singapore, things get done, and we aren’t too shabby at it.

I used the “we” in a collective sense – for the people who have made visions realized – from the politicians through to the construction workers who have built the projects. Yet I also know clearly that this national obsession with GSD also has all kinds of unintended side effects. I’m wondering if our obsession for ‘deliverables’ has got anything to do with it. In previous occasions, I used to think that it was clearly for accountability, in the ‘what do you have to show for it’, but I’m also beginning to wonder now that part of this has to do with the expectation that whatever we do will have an applicability component to it – “it will be useful, and this is how it will be useful”. Even in the OSC, the demands that something ‘tangible’ to show for the process was initially attributed to just general impatience, but after this framing, it’s also because Singaporeans also like things to get done. Clearly for somethings, the process is genuinely useful as a way to get in touch with other Singaporeans, and to see their point of view. The discussion content merely comes out of that sharing of perspectives.

There are also more serious side effects, such as how we might have ignored all kinds of sensitivities – in the enthusiasm and rush to get things done, emotions are brushed aside as ‘subjective’, policies can become inaccessible and cumbersome to navigate, and people have to put up with all kinds of temporary inconveniences for some abstract greater good. Perhaps the clampdown on political expression in previous times was also an expression of GSD as quickly as possible, without having to do with political contests.

There are other things that GSD has no comment on. I’m not sure what the appropriate rationalisation is for GSD to comment on the things of skewed income distribution, the tuition-obsession, the refusal for a more substantial social welfare system. GSD is only one part of a larger system of values that we embody, and there are several others.

Maybe this is also the reason why there’s always a bit of doubt about the purpose of subjects such as history, literature or philosophy, wherever they are thought. It’s not just because these subjects are difficult to ‘score’ in, but that they are about things that are not objective oriented – they are not about getting things done – in that sense. These subjects are about explorations for their own sake, in learning about the crafting of words as with literature, or learning about how our narratives are created, as with history. And maybe ‘worst’ of all – philosophy – thinking about thinking. In this sense, Alfian Sa’at’s repsonse to this national aversion to literature in sceondary/high school is brilliant, and to quote it in full”

“A question I was asked: What more can be done to arrest the trend of dropping Lit candidature? Do you think it is an inevitable trend?

My answer: Yes, I think it is an inevitable trend. And I don’t think it’s necessary to arrest it at all. Look at the speeches in parliament, or even the columns and editorials in our mainstream papers. There’s hardly anything literary about them, and yet they get their points across. I think we should stop measuring ourselves against other countries that have deeper cultures and traditions and accept the fact that we are this mercantile, pragmatic, tough-minded city-state that has no time nor inclination for the effete humanities. I think it’s perfectly fine if our main cultural diet consists of Channel 8, Jack Neo movies, anthologies of ghost stories and self-help books. As a people we are kiasu and crass and ungracious. But why should there be shame in any of that? We’re already a First World country, and cultural capital had no role in determining this particular achievement. One of the indices of ‘first world’ human development is literacy, not literature. This anxiety to acquire ‘high culture’ is actually part of an aspirational third world mentality, and we should feel secure with our own brand of smug philistinism.”

Another issue with “GSD” as an ethos is simply that GSD has no stand over the content of the stuff that gets done. And GSD also doesn’t fully explain this national impatience about needing things to be done quickly.

I guess the GSD ethos only assumes that small fixes get done – after all, for various reasons, Singaporeans only care about what gets done in the here and now – fixing the MRT delays; reducing property prices; meanwhile the longer-term horizon becomes hostage to short-term exigencies. What then, what next, what else?


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