The Cosby Effect – Singapore Style

November 30, 2010

I believe that the challenges that I had to face would not have been easier or harder if I were a male. Frankly I do not think there are different sets of challenges for males and females in the business world.

Olivia Lum, Hyflux CEO, TODAY 4 Nov 2004

In one fell swoop Ms Lum succeeded in doing what public universities around the world have failed to do – render feminist studies completely useless. When we’ve finished cheering, we’re left with a couple of thoughts – is the glass ceiling a myth? Are salary differences between men and women doing the same job mere ‘social constructions’ (read: fancy way of saying it exists only because we think it exists)? Are there so few women in corporate leadership positions because they’re inherently inept? According to 2009 figures from the Ministry of Manpower, men comprise 57% of the domestic workforce, while women make up the rest of the 43%. If Ms Lum is right, then we should see at least 43% of top corporate positions taken up by women.

One of the hazards of being a successful minority is the afterglow of cognitive dissonance. When a minority – be it gender, ethnic, religious or sexual – achieves success and recognition in a chosen field, he or she experiences the “Cosby effect”. Some years ago millionaire entertainer Bill Cosby publicly criticised African-Americans for not doing enough to elevate themselves from their socio-economic position. In return sociologist Michael Dyson accused him of not taking into account larger social factors that reinforce African-American poverty and crime like sub-standard schools, decreasing wages, structural unemployment and capital flight.

In the cases of Cosby and Lum, success stories are re-told as stories of hard work, personal intelligence and sheer perseverance, often leaving out other non-personal elements such as lucky breaks, good networks, fortuitous economic conditions, or even the failure of fellow competitors. Success is individualised and accorded a singular embodied source – me, myself and I. I did it on my own merit, and not with any structural leverage. The myth of the alpha males (or women) must, after all, necessarily rest on that which is inaccessible to others – that mysterious unquantifiable thing called talent.

And we see it all around. Malay MPs tell their fellow Malays to buck up. Australian Aborigine leaders exhort their communities to succeed like they have. Working class businessmen bask in tales of how they lifted themselves up with their own bootstraps. The Cosby effect has a pathological fear for the crutch mentality. The over-reliance on institutional prejudices and the uneven playing field as excuses for personal inertia is, of course, a real issue. However, instead of striking a balance between encouraging underprivileged individuals and calling out existing structural biases, it erases the latter and elevates the Self as example, not with a simple “if I can do it, so can you” message, but a slightly more self-centred twang – “If I can do it, I am different”.

After all, in many instances, the Cosby effect is not about an individual pointing to the pathway she has blazed for others to follow, but rather, it is an implicit drawing of attention to her exclusivity. That someone from a minority community has risen transforms her into yet another minority. But this time, it is a minority of distinction and honour. That person has, from her marginal status and against all odds, redeemed herself. And such state-friendly narratives of redemption and personal triumph are so much more inspiring and convenient to talk about than nasty old societal prejudices.


2 Responses to “The Cosby Effect – Singapore Style”

  1. 期待新作很久了,笔锋和思辨锐利如昔。

  2. George Says:

    In Lum’s case she definitely benefitted from being at the right place at the right time, her personal abilities aside. The govt needed something to cock a snook at the Malaysian govt – Mahatir – and she was ‘ready made’ to deliver it, IMO.

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