May 13, 2009
It ain’t easy being Singaporean.
Your life is run by a series of acronyms like ERP, COE, CPF, PSLE, NS, PMS; you have to endure the relentless tropical heat; you have nothing to read but The Straits Times; your national culture consists of shopping and whining (I’m nothing if not patriotic); and it’s still considered a crime to strangle Gurmit Singh. You get called names like ‘little red dot’, ‘useless piece of snot’ and even Jacky Chan craps all over you. Let’s face it, when a man who made his living jumping around like a monkey says you have “no self-respect”, well, it ain’t been a good week.
But still, you try. The great Romantic poet John Keats once wrote:
It matters not what the crowd bays
Or what the angry gods may say
For all that matters is the heart
And the values you cling hard
What beautiful lines. It means that regardless of what people may say or think about you, what matters is what you believe in. Words deserving of colourful embroidery indeed. Ok, I completely made the lines up. Keats never said that. I could have looked him up but I really can’t be bothered. Laziness is one of my many charms. But don’t let that take anything from the message. It’s still pertinent.
And so I try, as a citizen, to narrow the gulf between our national values and what we do as a country. After all, if morality means practicing what you preach, then being a great country means practicing what you teach. Under George Bush, America tore up their Constitution, practiced torture, invaded the wrong country and became the pariah of the international community. Under Barack Obama, America is heeding the call of its ideals and founding principles and, in the process, is becoming great again.
I think a little red dot can be great too. I think greatness is not limited to the measure of size and might, but the loftiness of one’s ideals and one’s faithfulness to them. By this definition, Singapore can be great.
And so I turn my eyes towards our ‘Shared values’. Phrases like “Nation before community and society above self” ring so sweet. They stir up a sense of pride deep inside. They make me want to do something. Oh shut up, it’s true. They really do make me want to give of myself.
But then I see our ministers’ legendary salaries and their need to “facilitate the recruitment and retention of the quality of talent we need for the government and public sector.” My enthusiasm becomes more flaccid than an 80 year old man in a cold shower.
What about Shared value #3 -“Community support and respect for the individual”? Pretty uncontroversial, we can’t go wrong here. 377A, AWARE new exco, Thio Su Mien – enuff said.
What about Asian values and Confucian ethics ? I think to myself, well, perhaps cynicism aside, the clarion call to be moral, ethical and righteous, regardless of their political intent, is worth heeding. My cynicism is about to slip away when I also recall our on-going manufacture of landmines, their sale to war-torn countries, our economic dealings with the Myanmar junta, our medical offerings to Robert Mugabe, and most recently, our welcome of North Korean President Kim Yong Nam. Ah well, you know what they say, we’re just a little red dot and must look out for our national interests.
Pragmatism is a wonderful device. It allows you to do anything you want, however you want, and then blame it on reality. It’s an excuse for abandoning higher morals and ethics without looking like a dick. It makes you a man because you’re seen to be ‘realistic’ and ’grounded’. It’s the ultimate backstage pass, allowing you to bypass everyone to get straight to the goodies. And being pragmatic also means that you have to pretend to have values, whether shared or of the Asian variety because there are idealistic saps out there who, believe it or not, romanticise principles. It’s just pragmatic to be an ethical Confucianist.
It’s hard being Singaporean. It’s damn hard. Screw it. I’m going shopping.