A national blot:
Singapore can't go very far when people accept policies with unquestioning faith. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Oct 15, 2006
After years of prodding its citizens to think more and be more creative - even making it a school subject - Singapore has succeeded in moving the ground by, maybe, a few inches.
In other words, things have hardly changed and the majority of people remain largely content to leave the thinking to the government, accepting policies with unquestioning faith.
For the government, this compliance is both an asset - it makes for a governable country - as well as a liability, because countries nowadays compete on ideas rather than hard work.
It often works, but on those occasions when it fails, it could have painful results for Singaporeans.
At any rate, this leave-it-to-the-government trait - the result of years of top-down government and an obedient press - is no panacea for handling modern challenges.
Example: When Lee Kuan Yew spoke of a six to seven million population by 2030, no one questioned its rationale or asked: "Why seven million and not four-and-a-half million" or "How can we reach this target with declining birth rates?" or "What are the social costs of rapid foreigner intakes?"
Nothing. No questions from the mainstream media or the academic community (as far as publicly known). Everyone seemed to have accepted it as inevitable.
Singapore's foreign relations, in particular, have never been much of a public subject, either. That's for the government to decide.
Singaporeans would prefer to talk about shopping than ties with the world, considering it none of their business, lamented the late S. Rajaratnam, the first foreign minister, years ago.
One blogger observed, "When Lee Kuan Yew said something that angered Malaysians recently, almost the entire Malaysian nation reacted. But in Singapore, people left it to Lee's lone voice to fight the battle."
During Lee's rule, this environment was considered an asset. He simply wanted obedient students and obedient workers, whose job was to follow orders unquestioningly.
This is, of course, no longer a desirable trait, but shaking off this apathy is next to impossible.
When Singaporeans read the news, they simply nod their head and figure out how they can benefit from it or run. Few would look beyond the headline to ask whether the announced measure is really necessary or whether there are better ways.
Early this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appealed to Singaporeans: "Speak, speak out, be heard, take responsibility for your views and opinions ... We don't mind if you have different views, but you must have some views.
"If you have no views, I have a problem. If you have different views, we can talk about it and let's do something about it together."
The response was a deafening silence. Some genuinely fear that criticising policies will get them into trouble, while others simply don't know how to articulate.
This could be a natural consequence of decades of top-down rule, or even conditioning, when saying the wrong things could be harmful.
"So why not play safe by keeping quiet," explained a blogger. "Anyway, the government isn't much of a good listener."
For some time now, schools have been teaching students how to think critically, a seemingly ridiculous idea but actually very much needed - except the results have been very slow.
Recently, a mother complained angrily to the press that her child, in Primary 6, was asked to write "a report" in her English paper. "She has never been taught how to do it!"
The people's unquestioning obedience of government policies sometimes causes pain.
Six years ago, when the government launched the S$2bil project to develop life sciences into one of five pillars of growth, parents rushed their children to get a college education on the subject.
Few really questioned what it really meant or how many jobs it could generate for first-degree holders or polytechnic graduates.
If the government was behind it, it must surely be a great career! Even with growing signs that many life sciences graduates in the United States were jobless, they plunged ahead.
Interest in the biomedical studies in the universities and polytechnics boomed.
Last year, life sciences became the top choice for students seeking polytechnic entry with 26.6% choosing the subject, compared to 17.5% for engineering. There were a total of 23 life sciences courses, offering 2,863 places.
Today the investment is beginning to pay off for the government, but not for many of the graduates. They have found the Promised Land is just not there; the job market can't absorb so many.
The first batch of life sciences students have graduated and many have ended up in junior research positions or manufacturing and sales jobs in the industry, where a degree is not required. Others are forced to work outside the field.
Edmund Lim, 27, who graduated two years ago, and now works as a property agent, told the press: "One of my classmates is working illegally in Australia, peddling psychotropic drugs to clubbers."
Some have gone into teaching or work in pharmaceutical or equipment sales. At least one found a job at a tuition centre.
An educator blogged that he often heard his undergrads commenting, "I enter into life sciences because my parents think that it is the best course after law and medicine" or "the government is promoting it".
This led a Taiwan legislator Li Ao to describe, "Taiwanese are scoundrels, but lovable, Hong Kong people are craftier and Singaporeans are stupider. They don't break rules, but they don't stand out."
(This article was published in The Sunday Star, Oct 15, 2006)