Category: social history


The map of the week is about patriotism.



This is a purely-sentimental driven map, although things like economic opportunities could be interpreted in terms of the pride and identification that one has with the country, as with “I appreciate the opportunities I have in this country to realise my abilities”. In a similar way, ownership of property can also be interpreted in the same vein, as with, “I appreciate the fact that I can own my own home.” And then there are pride-destruction experiences, such as losing confidence with the political leaders, losing employment, seeing discrimination perpetuated by authorities of one form or another. This isn’t specific to any country, and I guess the weights of countries will be different. In others, the identification with a local or a national culture (if one exists at all) could be more important than pride for the local region or community.


Intergenerational differences in social networks

Apologies for the absences. Was running workshops in the previous weekend.

This week I can only offer a short post, and this is a theme that I would want to explore further.


One of the most profound differences between generations is the way we form social networks.

The generations of the baby boomers (till about 1960s) were all family-centric. They had large families and that was sufficient by itself. The elder siblings would go out, work from the lowest positions and upwards until they reached senior positions by the time their younger siblings were growing up and looking for jobs.

That obviously also had its disadvantages – as these early large families could accumulate wealth quickly, there would be many opportunities for squabbles – about the distribution of the wealth among families. The highest-profile cases are about the billionaire tycoons and about the division of assets between different wives and all that – these things make for good soap operas. At a real level, they exact immense psychological costs. For those with less, the struggles remain the same – the fight for a fair share of the gains.

The generations born after are slightly different. Smaller families resulted in the need for friendships – for ties with non-kin – the friendships that we make at schools and universities become more important. Economic opportunities are borne out of contacts with strangers, and less so with families.

Parents still think in terms of kinships, whereas the kids would think in terms of the networks of associations they have. This is most obvious in family businesses – how some business owners still distrust professional managers and would prefer to have their business transferred to a member of the family. All across Asia, these transitions are still going on, and even in the mature economies, these relationships still leave their mark.

I suspect that there is an emotional cost in dealing with these differences. I’m not sure about the links, and it’s something I’ll need to think about further.

Happy weekend!

Parenting and Cultural Frames

The parent-child link is one of the most powerful and mysterious bonds that I think we are hardly able to understand. This is also undoubtedly a private/intimate matter, but unless there is a serious conversation about the values we choose to let our children imbibe and to facilitate the environment for consistent transmission of these values, we cannot proceed productively as  a country. We will still be talking past each other, fail to empathise with the positions of each other and the difference in the journeys we take in life.

In a sense, Our Singapore Conversation is a process for us to hear each other’s journeys in life and to appreciate the vast differences in life experiences. This is not about judging between these different journeys, but to appreciate them for their own sake.

There is another implication to understand the parent-child transmission of values. Recognising that parents are an obviously important means that a lot more attention ought to be paid to how parenting is done, the character of the parents themselves, and their state of mind as they bring up the kids. There is a small aside about the importance of parenting – prospective drivers need to be tested before they are allowed on the road; surely something as important as parenting ought to be greater attention to by the society? If we demand our kids to go to schools taught by qualified teachers, surely, when they go home, they ought to be cared for by parents with the requisite skills? And what could those requisite skills be? (I do realise that there’s a programme called Marriage Preparation Course, but I don’t know if it’s an official or informal programme; whether its mandatory for couples and such.)

There are two main modes of cultural transmission – the child receiving cultural frames from the parents, and what the child finds for themselves in the outside world. Parenting provides the framing for the kids to learn from what they see in the outside world. Of course the kid will learn things on their own anyway. Then the question is, where does the parent get their worldviews from? And is the environment conducive for the healthy kind of parenting that we idealise about?

The social scientist in me says that parenting is obviously part of a larger system that includes values, and the social groups and arrangements, and the economic system. Sheryl Sandberg and Ann-Marie Slaughter discuss the role of women in the working world, and the kinds of challenges they face being woman – still taking on the assumed role of primary caretaker to the children while reaching the pinnacles in their professional career. What about us? Sandberg and Slaughter represent the pinnacles; what about the majority – including those who struggle to between work and home a whole lot more? For some parents, the interactive screen has sort of become the surrogate parent – I say ‘sort of’ because its a toy thats given to the child to pacify the demands for interaction, which the busy parent cannot afford as much struggling to at work in a hyper-competitive environment. I’m reminded of the “Illustrated Primer” in Stephenson’s Diamond Age – where a young girl escapes dysfunctional parents, and comes across an interactive book, with digital avatars becoming surrogate parents. That’s a digression, and obviously an extreme case. We are nowhere near the point where interactive digital environments can replace flesh and blood parenting – but the point remains that parenting is one of those things for which the rhetoric does not match up to real attention.

How would greater attention on parenting look like? I know that religious bodies do a bit of that, and some of them have the resources to integrate prospective parents into religious schools for kids – for them to know what parenting entails and to know how little kids are like. And new parents will always find a way – forums, grapevines, and other channels that must have existed wherever anxious parents exist. Should Marriage Preparatory Courses be made compulsory (if it isn’t already)? One of the things that’s come about with an individual culture is that adulthood is assumed to “just happen to you” when you start to become financially independent and paying for your own bills. Yet obviously adulthood is almost so much more than that – such as learning to live with the consequence of your choices, that your own choices will both liberate and constrain, and all the other invisible obligations that we don’t know about until we crash into them.

I have explored a bunch of attitudes and ‘myths’ that abound in society, and I have only touched on the historical context a little bit. I want to go a bit more into them – such as trying to imagine the life experiences of those more advanced in years. When we talk about differences between generations, what I often missing is the empathy to imagine what others might have gone through in their lives. I will be trying to do a lot more of that soon.

The Stories our Parents told us about

I think that one of the most important ways of how myths can inherited is through the stories and messages that our parents tell us. I posit that a thoughtful reflection of those stories and messages and how they led to the present will contribute to better decisions in the present.

What our parents told us shape very much who we are in our adult lives. I think that, by trying to reach into the context of our parents’ generation, we can better understand our present. To think of it, the decisions that our parents made are exactly the ones that led to our present. And by reflecting on the present, we should think about the shadows our present decisions will cast for the future. This is an understated point that gets both over- and under- emphasised. This reflection gets over-emphasised because a lot of times we can end up weighing the future too much and sacrifice too much in the present. This point also gets under-emphasised because the decisions we make can also take the present too much into account.

Back to the main point – of the legacies of our parents bequeathed by our parents. I wonder if the experience of poverty and the ascent to relative prosperity is a source of the many myths that we want – one of them being “get stuff done”. The many stories that we hear about – about being a doctor, lawyer, banker, professional engineer – I wonder if these are merely the result of our parents wanting to secure the legacies that they’ve built – legacies that they know are fragile, and didn’t take for granted. The intention to enter into those professions are the source of this anxieties in education – the rush for grades to get into the right courses.

South Korea goes into a standstill when national examinations happen. This once-a-year national examinations can still somewhat determine the fates of individuals – in deciding whether they can make it to the major universities. These universities can determine where these individuals end up – typically either the government bureaucracy, or some major state-affiliated corporation. In Korea, the chaebols determine the economic life to the country.

I pick our Korea because it’s a country where national education systems are premised on the view that only a certain number of good opportunities are available – because new job openings in the corporations are not indefinite. And so a lot of people fight for a few limited places – a zero-sum game in which some must win, and the rest can’t win as much.

Finland is a different example, where an egalitarian education is contrasted with an economy dominated by a single firm – Nokia (or used to be). In a country of about 5 million, a champion had emerged, only to pull the country down when it floundered.

The preceding parts about the economy are relevant – because the histories of our parents are in large part, economic histories – stories of how they were poor, then they were comfortable, and then maybe, they got really rich. I suspect for the generation of our parents in Singapore, politics was not strongly felt, perhaps because of the suppression of contrarian voices in a time when they were not tolerated as much. The stories they pass on for us were these – that if we worked hard, we can get somewhere in life. The stories also became, if we worked hard, you can earn a lot of money in life; be a banker or a lawyer or a doctor.

And so these stories got passed on – successive generation of parents tell their kids the same thing, that present suffering in the education system will lead to a better life – or at least a freedom of choice in the education system – you can get to decide which polytechnic course, or which JC you want to go to, and then later on, which university you want to enter into – and then to study even harder to have a free choice in the kind of career you want to get into – especially the careers that will give you a lot of money.

“The future will be ultimately better than the present” – that’s another deep myth that we decided to buy into. I don’t think its deliberate, but it’s what it is – it’s there. I don’t think that myth can sustain us for a long time still – I don’t think such promises can be kept.

What happens, when the future – however distant – cannot be better and better?

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?

Announcing a New Series: The Things We Inherit

After the “Hope” and “Fear” posts, I feel that I’ve plateaued in terms of exploring organizations and indicators. Also, the recent posts have been more applied than theoretical. I feel that I haven’t explored the whole topic sufficiently, but at the same time, I do feel a sense of declining marginal returns. So I’m moving on to an adjacent topic, by focusing on The Things We Inherit – looking at the cultural attitudes that we have been given by previous generations, and thinking about how things today are the way they are. Don’t expect long historical essays – but they will be quite historical in nature. With this series of posts, I’ll also need a lot of help from students of Singapore History – there’s still a lot I don’t know – and I’m particularly interested in social history – not the Big Man, Big Politics sort of, but the more mundane type of history. If anyone can point me towards online resources, I’ll be more than grateful.

And then maybe I’ll return to thinking about Singapore’s future after this.

Have a happy weekend!