Tagged: myths

From Fear

This is a stab at applying assumptions and indicators to Singapore society.

From fear we have reached a few pinnacles. By some standards we have one of the best education system in the world. We have a prosperous society with one of the highest material standards of living. Despite the glitches in transport systems these still pale in comparison to the outcomes in other developed societies. From fear we have developed an impressive indigenous defence capability that cannot be trifled with.

Yet from fear we have created demands that cannot be fulfilled. From fear we have developed a society of selfishness. We have established a society where the gains seem increasingly zero-sum – one’s gains is seen as another’s loss. We have created hierarchies upon hierarchies – schools better than one another; JCs better than Polys, courses better than others, occupations better than others, where having a scholarship remains the best thing to have.

We have chosen implicitly to privilege the young heterosexual nuclear family at the neglect of those with different sexualities who still are filial and serve their parents. From fear of financial insufficiency, systems established put the burden of healthcare on the individuals. From the fear of dependence, a social safety net is constructed albeit a tenuous construct, leaving holes that some fall through, leaving people to protect themselves from life’s storms. Of course, there definitely is dignity in this, but sometimes the storms can be so great that the individual and the family alone cannot withstand them, and the state might be too far-off to intervene. Not that the state is deliberately aloof, but a fear of dependence drives the style of processes that can deter people from signing up, or from going through the whole process of being assisted.

From fear, the state can sometimes seen to be privileging MNCs than SMEs. Large corporations rooted in other countries and span continents might seem to provide a sure bet for jobs, and be a hub for technology transfer, but it also means being vulnerable to their relocation or collapse. From fear we have tried to reduce risk, and inadvertently created a culture of inaction. To call subsequent generations weak or not hungry begs the question of how they were brought up . From fear we have lost courage.

The indicators we have devised stem from fears, and certain kinds of it. We fear for our survival – and that’s the right thing, because Singapore’s existence cannot be taken for granted. A red vulnerable dot cannot hope to expect assistance from other people. The reasoning is clear, and hard to argue against. From this vulnerability we become fearful for our own future, and struggled in the early years of independence to make things work. And they have worked wonderfully. The fears remain nonetheless. The fear that all that we have can quickly vanish overnight, or in a few years. And now the fear has worked its way through generations, and the fear sustains itself.

SG is still vulnerable, but its vulnerability is the fear it has used to sustain itself. In an uncertain world, the fear only grows. Things have worked now, and in some senses, the fear from vulnerability has worked. We have only known fear; we don’t know as clear what hope, courage and risk-taking means. People hold on to what they know and familiar with, and not yet open to the possibilities that await. As others have put it, people would prefer the suffering they know than the goodness they don’t.

*From fear we relied on ourselves and become self-centred. From fear we have relied on transactional relationships instead of trusting on the goodwill of others. From fear perhaps we don’t even think about extending goodwill. Perhaps in a society such as ours, unconditional love remains an alien concept.

The idea that SG has to make her own way in the world is not yet a clear one. There are no examples to follow, no case studies to learn from. Whereas what we used to be able to look at others’ experiments, we have now become our own experiment of how long fear can be use to drive a people/nation onward.


*added on 3 March 14:48

Are salaries ever high enough?

There has been a bit of a debate in Singapore about whether ministers and political appointees are paid high enough or not. The reason for this debate goes all the way back to the last time revisions were made to the salary structure over many years, the last one being made in 2007 (before the revisions in December 2011).

There are a couple of arguments to justify the compensation:

1. Singapore has a limited talent pool of capable people. Good salaries in the public sector should be good but not the best to attract/retain people who would otherwise leave for better opportunities in the private sector.

2. Singapore’s unique circumstances mean that comparisons with other countries might not be appropriate.

3. The commitment to clean wages mean that salaries should be transparent – there should be no hidden perks attached.

I have no issues with points (2) and (3). I find that they are reasonably defensible. The avenues for corruption and the erosion of public trust have to remain few and far between. The main problem that people have regarding salaries would then be (1).

In fact, there are 2 components for the arguments in (1):

(a): There is a limited talent pool in Singapore.

(b): People should be compensated well when compared with the private sector.

First of all, I should say that I am not a fan of the “small population” argument. Finland and Denmark have roughly the same population as Singapore. Israel has a population of less than 10M. The Netherlands has a population of about 15M. To say that these countries are bereft of talent would be an insult. To say that small population = small talent pool is simply a failure of imagination. Besides, I’m not a fan of the ‘talent’ argument – the view that there are some people with ‘it’, and others don’t – that to me, is a very impoverished view that fails to see people as having the capacity for ceaseless growth.

Then, there is the argument that people should be well compensated with respect to the private sector.The assumption here is that people are enticed by high salaries, or that high salaries are responsible for good performance.

There are 2 counter-arguments for the above view:

1. Wall Street and the near-collapse of the financial system – an empirical observation;

2. Behavioural economics – and the emerging view that above a certain amount of compensation, the performance level for cognitive tasks does not improve, but degrades.

In other words, paying people lots of money does not necessarily mean good performance.

Why should ministers have their own cars and own landed property anyway? Why can’t ministers stay in HDB flats and take the public transport, like most Singaporeans do? I find this hierarchical mental perspective extremely jarring, especially when these leaders are the ones who say that Singaporeans shouldn’t feel entitled to anything.

Yet, these are the myths that most of us live by, and accept at least subconsciously. I would rather these myths/assumptions be exposed in public spheres, and debated.