Two weeks ago, the politician who leads my ministry said something that has knocked itself around in my head since.
Because a considerable period has passed since then (two weeks are a considerable period for me :p), I can’t claim to be quoting this chap word for word – I do really need to stop being so lazy and start blogging more frequently – but I think I can communicate the gist fairly accurately. What he said was, essentially, that Singapore needs to find ways (e.g. train workers so they’re more productive, ensure the workforce is flexible enough to weather upturns and downturns and stagnant non-turns) to be valuable to the rest of the world.
Now, I was in a rather belligerent mood at the time, and even though we’ve been brought up listening to the rhetoric that we can never rest on our laurels, we need to move forward, so that the world and its economy won’t bypass us as it could so easily do, my spiky (non-verbalised) response to the politician’s comment was: “Really? If we think that way, it’s no wonder we are confused about our values and apathetic about the political process. Because we are always worried about how valuable we are to others, we therefore neglect to build our own values. The integrated resorts being a case in point. The F1 race another.* We are focused on being valuable to others, not bringing value to our citizens.”
Over the last couple of weeks, these issues have percolated in my head, and now it seems my thoughts have settled into some patterns that are fairly sensible. Call them clear-eyed conclusions, or no-impact mental waffling, whatever – but I just thought I’d share some of that distillate.
“… it’s no wonder we are… apathetic about the political process.” Rather than being a function of an economy driven by its value to others, I’ve come to think that political apathy is probably a result of having a policy-making class that sees itself as intelligent and responsible enough to take care of Singapore. Indeed, one could argue that such an elite group of visionaries and planners would be silly to consult its citizens on important matters, as the consultation would likely entail lengthy education, cantankerous debate on issues it’s already thought through and quite possibly the same decision at the end of the consultation process. The populace’s response to not having its opinions sought for a fairly long time was, quite naturally, apathy toward the political process. Things have changed – more of us are more educated now, a direct result of our government’s work – and it’s clear that, far from being apathetic, new generations of citizens are eager to get involved in refining policies, or at the least in making their voices heard. And I think policy-makers know that there is wisdom not only in its council of elders, but also in crowds, and that, moreover, having the crowds on their side can only help the implementation of their policies.
“Because we are always worried about how valuable we are to others, we therefore neglect to build our own values.” I’ve come to think that the issue of values is a more complicated one. Why are values important? I’d say it’s because values allow a group of otherwise different folks to coalesce and share causes, whether you see values as abstract but real forces that build among and then meld members of a group that share experiences and memories, or as fraudulent but ultimately effective constructs of rhetoric and National Day bish-bosh. If so, the next question is, would caring more about what makes us valuable to the world economy than what we can do for our citizens have an impact on our values as a nation? Okay, that was confusing; let’s try it this way: Would governing us as an economy first, and a state second have an impact on our development as a nation?
My take is that, one of the reasons our values as a nation are superficial and relatively undefined (for many, our signature value is “kiasu-ism” – I mean, seriously, that’s the best we can do?) is that we – Singapore – see ourselves as an economy first and foremost. If we occupy ourselves with how valuable we are to other countries, and we are very clear about this priority to our citizens, it is no wonder that they see themselves as cogs in the national wheel, mere digits in the “value added” ledger of the world economy, Singapore column. Citizens may well feel that the state doesn’t care about them beyond their economic value, and it is then completely understandable that some see themselves as rats on wheels powering a relentless remorseless uncaring economic machine, and feel less rooted to Singapore as they otherwise might.
I guess my point is, I’m aware that there needs to be a balance between managing Singapore as an economy and as a nation-state, and I don’t think the current mainstream rhetoric, with its unabashed prioritisation of Singaporeans’ economic value, is the best way to build a nation.
There are difficult questions, of course. For example, are we trying to build a nation, or just make sure everyone has a decent living, or the opportunity for one? Doesn’t Singapore, small and un-blessed with natural resources as it is, need to prioritise being economically valuable to the rest of the world? (Does Denmark or Switzerland do this?) Don’t we need to be successful economically first before we can take care of our people? Should we be frank in our communication to citizens about our priorities and their role in this, or should we use nicer-sounding words to communicate a similar message to ensure these same citizens are more engaged in our common goal? And what is that goal: to give value to our citizens, or to be valuable to the rest of the world? Which is the means, and which the end?
Gosh, I hope that made a bit of sense :p
*I’d heard that the organisers of the 2008 Formula 1 SingTel Singapore Grand Prix have been extremely pushy and unbending in their pursuit of revenue, to the extent that building tenants who have a good view of the street circuit are being faced with a dastardly choice: sell the space to the race organisers (or pay for the view), or have one of the particularly bright lights strung along the circuit shine into your office and ruin that view. If this sort of crass thuggery is representative of behaviour we have to put up with to bring events like this into Singapore, then I would rather we neither put up nor bring in.