Between Ordinary and Extraordinary: America and Singapore

October 31, 2008

As the 4th November US presidential elections draw near, it’s timely to observe the difference between what American and Singaporean voters look for in their leaders. This is by no means a scientific study but rather an impressionistic perception gleaned from following closely the US campaign trails of both the Democratic and Republican candidates as well as living in Singapore.


One of the key reasons for George W Bush’s successful campaign back in 2000 was the creation of a myth. The myth that Bush was your everyday man, the down-to-earth rancher whom you would share a beer with was carefully cultivated by his spin-master Karl Rove. Americans, specifically Republicans I should add, took a look at Bush and said to themselves: “This guy is just like me. He’s alright”, and voted him.


We have seen the same phenomenon with Sarah Palin, the self-styled hockey mom. Her appeal lies not in her executive experience or her intelligence, but in her ability to sell herself as just another ordinary American. Hockey moms around the country raised their sticks in unison and thought “This gal is just like me. She’s alright”.


Of course Bush is as typical an American as Obama is an Arab, and Palin is as attuned to the woes of hockey moms as she is to the intricacies of Russian politics, but the fact remains: Americans want their leaders to be just like them – ordinary. They are suspicious of intelligence and sophistication, which is why Al Gore and John Kerry were sidelined, and why Bill Clinton was always viewed with such distrust. And this fact makes Obama’s popularity so out of character in today’s climate. (Of course eight years of Bush will make any alternative popular).


In short, there is a certain narcissism in the American voter. My leader must be as smart, or as dumb, as me. There are several possible explanations for this. This could be the logical conclusion of a country that developed as an antithesis to the class-based English society. Instead of accepting that certain folks are born into privilege, Americans demand that the privileged behave like the ordinary. Or perhaps this is an inbuilt political mechanism to ensure that their interests are met by whoever sits in the Oval Office. We will never know for sure. Theories will be theories. What we are sure of is that in American politics, to stand any chance of getting votes you have to declare two things: that you are a Christian and that you are an ordinary Joe; plumber, six-pack whatever.


The converse seems to be true for Singapore.


Here we have come to accept, almost blindly, that our leaders are intelligent, bright and the best of the best. Which by definition means extraordinary and much better than the average Beng the runner. The apparently stringent selection process of the PAP, the habit of co-opting high-flying individuals from different professions and the sheer gumption to talk-up themselves has resulted in a political culture where we expect our politicians to be better than us.


Unlike in America, there is no need for the Singaporean politician to pretend to be ordinary. Obama, the first African-American of the Harvard Law Review, has to dumb down when talking to small town America because he wouldn’t win votes otherwise. Imagine a Singaporean politician saying he is no better than you or me – it would a direct indictment of the PAP’s selection process and very raison d’etre! Or as the average Beng would retort: “Then pay you so much for what??” No, in Singapore politicians take pride in telling us they are the result of a best-and-brightest policy, and if we don’t believe it we can jolly well take a look at their paychecks. You wouldn’t dare question the market would you?


Singaporeans are also told we have extraordinary leaders for cultural reasons. It’s all a throwback to a mandarin system where top scholars entered government or that as a Confucian society those who are older and above your station are, by virtue of their position, worthy of respect and deference. Again, theories will be theories.


While the drawback with the American case is that they get dummies like Dan Quayle, George Bush and Sarah Palin into powerful positions, for Singapore we have to deal with the arrogance and superiority complex that comes with the belief that one is more intelligent, more talented, more capable than the average Singaporean.


The American and Singaporean voters are at two ends of a spectrum. The first is too much of a narcissist and while the second has absolutely no self-esteem. And like most matters, things would be a whole lot better if they met somewhere in between.




6 Responses to “Between Ordinary and Extraordinary: America and Singapore”

  1. deminc Says:

    The American public is anti-intellectualism. The Singapore public worships so-called intellectualism to the point of abandoning their own common sense.

  2. satayxp Says:

    “Americans demand that the privileged behave like the ordinary.”

    I think this is grossly untrue, cos if so America will have embraced socialism. It is never easy to blanket label cos demographics defy blanket categorisation.

    As for SGians, the majority are not intellectual enough, which again is the same for most ppl everywhere in the world.

    In SG, it is the system, an authoritarian one, that is retarding the ppl. On the other hand the US or democratic systems elsewhere pushes the ppl to be intellectual.

  3. psychosis Says:

    I see the issue as a case of the political leanings of the nation, with democracy as in the states, a worrying trend is the inability of voters to comprehend the mechanics of democracy, instead voting to affirm their view, because they believe that democracy equates to the freedom of speech.

    In Singapore, the situation is one that has led the common person to believe that there is “big brother” looking out for them, in this case, the people would want to be reassured by their leaders. The “talking up” is probably just catering to the people’s expectations.

  4. Anxoin Says:

    Just ask about yourself nationalism.

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