Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Celebrating Singaporeana: Happy 46th

In my friend Lucian's post, he admitted having the sort of prejudice some Singaporeans might have towards things made or achieved by Singaporeans:
It is true that for some obscure reason, Singaporeans look down on other Singaporeans. “Made in America” comes with the notion that the product is heavy-duty; “made in Japan”, quality; “made in the UK”, quaint. But when you talk about something that is “made in Singapore”, it is always the Singaporeans who’ll be first in line to pull it down. You’ll often hear things like “trying too hard to be [insert name of western country]” or “cannot make it”. Best of all, these criticisms are uttered by the ones who’ve never had the guts to even try.

I know, because I’m guilty of it.
(Btw the context of his post was Inch Chua's Open Letter to Singapore; her facebook post has been removed but you can read a repost here).

Lucian's admission struck a chord with me. I, too, displayed a similar sort of prejudice a few weeks earlier.

I was reading a book containing stories written by Singaporeans. The title of the book isn't the point. The point was my unconscious judgement, comparing those stories with my favourite non-Singaporean authors. I felt the "made in Singapore" stories were not "good enough".

On one hand, I desperately wanted to like the stories. On the other, I wanted to admit the stories didn't appeal to me. I even tried to rationalise why those stories weren't appealing to my tastes. My reasoning came up short.

I was torn between wanting the stories to be great, and having to acknowledge they were not.

Then I realised something else.

Even though I would not consider those stories to be 'great', I had managed to read the entire book from cover to cover. I read every single story. That was already an achievement. There have been contemporary best-selling authors whose works I can never read past chapter one, or less.

Once I got past my mental literary-hang up, it was easy to see what else was good about those stories. They were technically competent. There were no glaring spelling or grammatical errors. The story ideas may not have made me go "wow" (actually, very few stories can) but they were not run-of-the-mill ones. It was clear the authors put in what they were worth, and not out to insult the intelligence of the reader.

I also realised I didn't have to like every single story in that "made by Singaporeans" book.

Perhaps this sort of reader reaction is part of the literary territory. We all have our personal yardsticks against what we consider as 'best'. And I think it's healthy to compare, so that there's some specific literary target to aim for.

However, I think we Singaporean readers have to be mindful not to confuse "setting a goal" with "expecting every Singaporean author to write like [insert name of your favorite author]".

Another friend of mine is fond of saying, "Don't celebrate mediocrity".

I agree.

I'm not suggesting we endorse or embrace, by default, everything "made in Singapore" or "by Singaporeans". If the works are shoddy, we should say so. But I believe we should not impose undue expectations or comparisons. Enjoy the work -- a play, music, a piece of creative fiction -- for what they are worth.

We should not confuse "not being unique" with "not good".

If we have a flower that smells like a rose, it's OK to compare with another blossom in the next yard. But let's not forget: that very flower, grown in our garden, still smells sweet.

Happy 46th, Singapore.


  1. Nice post Ivan and a timely reminder for us. Beyond the literary and musical fields, we are sometimes guilty of undermining our own experts in professions like medicine, law, and even business. Having the confidence to engage a local firm versus a foreign one may sometimes give our guys a better chance of making it someday. However, as you've said, it doesn't mean compromising our standards but instead, removing those blinkers which make us prejudiced against our own talents.

  2. Anonymous12:27 pm

    Ayio, even our leaders think foreigners is better than singaporeans. What can I say (stomp, stomp)

  3. @anonymous - That's too sweeping a statement. And where's the specifics that made you conclude that?

  4. Good heavens, Ivan, the "specifics" as you call them are all around you in the form of expats. Every time the government hires an expat for a job, the message is that a Singaporean was unable to fill the post. And why wasn't a Singaporean able to? Oh, not because of the PAP's education policies; it's because the Singaporean just wasn't quite "up to snuff" yet. And why not? Well, because the mass of Singaporeans are unteachable, obstinate, or slow-learners. So goes the party line. Please understand that professional expat hires serve more than one function. For one thing, they serve to distract anger and resentment away from the ruling party to the expat - a move which, I am sad to say, many expats make easily possible by their often ignorant and obnoxious behaviour. For another thing, they serve to create a mass inferiority complex and so make the populace more likely to swallow unpalatable policies. And for still another thing, they provide a pseudo-rationale for overseas English-educated elitism - a justification for continued rule by a few geniuses who got lucky with their genes. Or so the story goes. And if it sounds like a familiar story it should: it's the same one the greatly outnumbered British used to control vast native populations during colonial days. Seems like someone in Singapore just very cleverly took over where the British left off. BTW, if memory serves me well, QQ addressed this issue in her blog a couple years ago.

  5. Ollie1:04 am

    P.S. To address a much more pleasant subject: did you remember to wish QQ a happy birthday? :-)

  6. I fear the comments to this post are straying from the point that I was trying to make.

    Just because "there are expats" = "our leaders think foreigners are better than Singaporeans"? That's your opinion. And this statement is also an opinion, not a fact: "Every time the government hires an expat for a job, the message is that a Singaporean was unable to fill the post."

    I work for a government agency. But I am not a member of the ruling party. I'm technically not a civil servant either. I've never received any of such directives to say foreigners are better, or vice versa.

  7. Nice post!

    I guess it's a matter of respect ourselves for who we are and believe that we can hold our heads high as Singaporeans.

  8. @O - absolutely. Self respect and self confidence. It's defintely not about the "locals Vs foreigners" debate (which is a topic that's tends to be more emotional than factual, IMO).

  9. Off topic, but I may be visiting some children's libraries here... and apparently the university's library has the original manuscripts of the Curious George series. I'm excited to view those hopefully this Fri! I'll keep you posted ;)

  10. Once you've been exposed to a variety of literature and you have been consistent in following the works of great writers, you sort of become a connoisseur when it comes to books, novels, stories, etc. So one cannot help but compare those materials that are of "mediocre" quality. There's no shame in sharing your opinion, whether it be a positive or negative one, about a piece of literature, particularly of that book you've read. It's just your point of view and we respect you for it. Great post by the way.

  11. @whathaveyoureadtoday - true. My view is that as long as we don't confuse "not being unique" with "not good" :) thanks for reading the post.


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