Why they hate Singapore?

Recently I’ve been  addicted to Reddit, a web-based news aggregator where people around the world (though largely from the USA) submit and vote on newsworthy web articles. Usually the articles that catch my eye are those on science and technology or the occasional humorous image of a sleepy kitten. Politics usually doesn’t interest me much, especially since it’s largely filtered through a western lens.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon an article about Singapore–which was in itself not uncommon–about why the West hates Singapore:
Why they hate Singapore–Western detractors are getting the jitters as others copy our model. That seemed a little extreme–most westerners I’ve talked to seemed to quite like Singapore, or at least be polite enough not to badmouth it in front of me.

Stranger still, the article was published on The Straits Times, and by a local writer, no less.  And not a freelancer or occasional eccentric commentator, but a press veteran and former Intelligence Officer Chua Lee Hong, a former ISD analyst–and proud of it (http://newscompass.blogspot.com/2004_11_01_archive.html).

Singapore’s blogosphere has taken to the article pretty badly, which was to be expected–Mrs Chua isn’t popular with the online crowd, having bad-mouthed bloggers only recently. There are a multitude of other bloggers who can (and have, quite rigorously) analysed the article and her arguments better than I can, so I won’t bother about the content.

What surprised me about the article was that ST, so often the mouthpiece of the Singapore government and so careful not to offend, has decided to be so open about not taking up a “US-centric” model of democracy and so explicitly aligned itself with Big Brother China. Of course, this form of EAst-vs-West rhetoric has always existed, with authors like Kishore Mahbuhani championing the rise of Asia even before China’s trade deficit loomed so large, but Singapore has always stayed either on the side of the West or quietly neutral.

It looks like the scales are tipping over at the offices of our foreign-policy makers.

However, one must ask why Mrs Chua feels there is a need to reiterate our economy’s dependence on the suppression of liberal personal freedoms? After all, this argument has been made, and quite well-accepted over the course of Singapore’s history. Wasn’t the government just promising more freedom of the press and speech recently? Wasn’t a ban on political media only just partially lifted today?

Perhaps this a call to Singaporeans to find more sympathy for their Chinese compatriates. A subtle hint to us that the guys on top to align outselves with the mainland? Or perhaps the article was meant for foreign ears, to earn us brownie points and set ourselves up as a happy economic model for the Chinese to adopt?

Sadly, it doesn’t take much exploratory work to find out that Singaporeans aren’t very popular in the Chinese webspace at the moment. Searching www.anti-cnn.com (a chinese forum with an unsurprising anti-western viewpoint) for “新加坡 (Singapore)” turns out several posts about arrogant, ignorant, over-important Singaporeans who snub mainland Chinese despite being inhabitants of a tiny, puny island that China could snuff out in a second if it wanted to. When Singapore lost at ping-pongto the Chinese at the Olympics , I imagine some analysts at MFA breathed a sigh of relief–we certainly don’t need the kind of fallout that comes from beating Big Brother at his favourite game.

Sadly, given the common Chinese sentiment about Singapore, Mrs Chua’s idea that “rich and powerful states” are picking up tips from our model of governance might be sadly optimistic.  The common Chinese are unlikely to find Singaporeans a sympathetic model which they can aspire towards, even if they could be induced to believe that the challenges of ruling a tiny island-state are scalable to be applicable to a country as large as China. Furthermore, Singapore’s political and economic landscape evolved pragmatically, not idealistically. I find it hard to believe that the Chinese, finally stable enough to allow for some experimentation in their political landscape, would be happy giving up on any potential liberties before even having had a chance to review them. Should the Chinese decide to do so in exchange for economic prosperity, it will not be because of any Singaporean pre-cursors of success.

Perhaps Mrs Chua has confused Singapore’s governance capabilities with its governance philosophies. Certainly, Singapore is well-administered and has an effective civil service, which foreign countries have been acknowledged, respected and studied for years. This is, however, not limited to developing post-communist countries. Even the United States, supposed-bastion of western capitalist freedoms, often cites Singapore’s education system as being a success-story. SingaporeMath is a product, and it’s not even produced by Singaporeans.

Breaking in shoes

I remember shopping for trekking shoes once with a friend, who was more experienced than I was in such matters. I settled on something that looked suitably pricey/branded/affordable–a pointless endeavour since they would only be worn on mountaintops where my only audience would be a bunch of goats–and proceeded to exclaim in relief that I would no longer have to worry about footwear matters for my trip. Whereupon said experienced friend told me that I should spend at least a month wearing the shoes so that they’d be “broken in” and more comfortable for the trek. Not entirely exhilarated at the idea of having to wear the heavy things about on campus for a month (all the cool kids wore flip flops to match their fishmonger attires at lectures), I made some quip about why shoe factories didn’t employ underpaid sweat-shop kids to walk about in new shoes, breaking them in first.

I thought it was a pretty funny quip, but he didn’t laugh and rather looked at me as if I had said something stupid. He then told me that I was being silly (said friend took footwear rather seriously): breaking in shoes wasn’t about making the shoes more comfortable–it was so that your feet could grow into the shoes . Shoes didn’t magically conform to a certain person’s feet, no matter how well-made they were – only feet could grow accustomed to shoes. Just because a pair of shoes was well-worn didn’t mean they would be comfortable, unless they were well-worn because of you.

The shoe-salesperson, who was kneeling beside me, concurred and nodded sagely, and they both cast pitying gazes upon me, me who knew so little about feet and shoes.

Ha ha, so did that mean I could break in stilettos if I walked in them enough, I asked said friend in a jovial manner, trying to break the awkward silence that accompanied my embarrassment.

He replied seriously that yes, I could, but I’d probably have to go through hell first to get my feet into the correct shape (said friend possessed little humour regarding footwear, or anything else for that matter).

I remember this little incident, mainly because it was the only time I had ever been embarrassed over shoes and also because it was interesting to me that my own perceived superiority over an inanimate object–a shoe–had been erroneous. It chafed at my ego that I was in fact the subjugated party, my feet in a war of attrition that it would ultimately lose, shaped and twisted to the whims of some strips of cloth and leather.

I was humbled at the thought that my shoes were bigger than I was.

And yet, it was also a cheering reminder of the plasticity of the human body–a reminder of our ability to surmount the odds, of how adaptable we could be to even the worst of surroundings. How we, the living, could triumph over the dead, as long as we kept on walking and growing. For surely even the greatest of mountaineers, before they set off on their journeys to heights unknown–surely even they too had experienced the slight squashing of the toes and the uncomfortably tough soles.

And so, my friends, I share with you this story of shoes, and hope that you can garner some wisdom from my pain. When next you encounter a seemingly unsurmountable task, remember the parable of the shoes and know that for us, Impossible is Nothing.