NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin gave an impassioned speech in Parliament yesterday. Her entire speech is quite long. But worth a read. Amongst other things, she called for us to kill the kiasu culture. How? She suggested moving away from the scarcity mindset that has been “an unavoidable product of our context as a small country of limited resources” to one of satisfaction.
What is a mindset of satisfaction? Ms Kuik says it is one where “Whatever we have, it’s enough. I have enough. I am enough. So I want you to have enough too.” It is an interesting point of view. But I don’t agree with her completely.
From paranoid “what if” mentality to confident “even if” mentality
I agree that we have to move away from the paranoia bred from our scarcity mindset. Our government constantly tells us that we are a small country, we are constantly buffeted by the global storms, thrown around against our will by huge waves caused by the wake of passing international incidents, we are vulnerable.
As a result, we have developed a siege mentality. We are in a constant state of fear: “We can’t do this! What if we do it and that happens?!”, “What if we question our assumptions and we are wrong?”, “What if we take the risk and do something boldly different and things go awry?!”
As a result of this paranoid “what if” mentality, every thing we do seems to be preparing for that “rainy day”. That is not living, not thriving. That is subsisting and surviving. A nation cannot last by merely subsisting and surviving.
We need to change to a confident “even if” mentality: We should do something boldly different. Even if things go wrong, it’s ok. We can still handle the fallout. We should start working on that crazy audacious dream. Even if we fail, it’s ok. We would still have learnt much and we WILL be better off because we would have grown and developed tremendously from the process. We should share more of our wealth with everyone. Even if that means we have less for a while, we will be able to create more value for everyone, including ourselves eventually.
We have been told that we are now at a position of strength. I think we need to make use of this position of strength to kill the kiasu, kiasi paranoid “what if” mentality and start nurturing a confident “even if” mentality that allows us to pursue bold and audacious dreams.
Being deeply dissatisfied
But I don’t agree that we should move to a mindset of satisfaction. We should never be satisfied. Innovation doesn’t come from being satisfied. It comes from a deep sense of being dissatisfied with what we currently have. It stems from people looking at the status quo and asking “Why aren’t things better? Why can’t we do things better? Why can’t we have a better life for more people?”
Or as George Bernard Shaw said “I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not'”.
Of course, it’s not just about complaining that life isn’t good enough. It’s being so dissatisfied, so pissed off that things aren’t better, so discontented with the status quo that the “why not’s” become a holy fire burning inside us, driving us to constantly innovate, to constantly create, to constantly make life better for everyone.
Rise above petty individualism
But a change in mindset and being constantly dissatisfied so that we keep innovating and creating are still not enough. If Singapore were to thrive as a nation, we need enough Singaporeans to love Singapore, regardless. I bet you cringed when you read that sentence. I bet that sentence conjured images of North Korea or Mao-era China.
And that is a problem.
We need to realise that we, Singaporeans, can truly love Singapore without becoming North Korea or Mao-era China. We need to realise that we can be proud of Singapore without putting other nations down. We need to be able to do all that even if the government isn’t perfect, even if PAP ministers are paid astronomical salaries, even if the political landscape is not a level playing field, even if there are a thousand and one things that are wrong with Singapore.
Then what is our reason to love Singapore premised on? Definitely not the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy.
Instead, our love for Singapore should be premised on a faith: a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that all of us have a part to play in determining the future of Singapore.
Beyond our petty individualism, we need to be be convinced that we are all in this together, that we are all, for whatever reasons, are connected as one: If there’s a child who can’t read, that should matters to us, even if it’s not our child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay his medical bills and having to choose between health and the rent, that makes our lives poorer, even if it’s not our grandparent. If there’s a couple who have lost their jobs, is having difficulty being employed again, and can’t put food on the table for their family, that should hurt us, even if we don’t know that couple personally.
To weave such a strong social fabric, we need to ditch the “social contract”. People in a contract are engaged in transactions. They provide one another services. The moment one party can’t benefit another, there is not reason for the parties to come together.
In place of a “social contract”, we need a “social covenant“. People in a covenant delight in offering one another gifts for no other reasons simply because they care about one another. A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love: Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.
For this to happen, we need to move beyond token multi-(insert your choice of fault line). It cannot be mere tolerance. Tolerance is merely putting up with another person’s right to be different. But if that person who is different disappears from the face of the earth, we may breath a sigh of relief and mutter “good riddance!”
That won’t pull us together and bring us to SG100.
What we need is a love of Singapore that necessitates a love of each other, that we are a nation, which recognizes that everyone has worth and dignity and we need one another, regardless of who we are. Everyone is part of our whole, part of the reason we love Singapore.
How can we build this covenant, how can we weave this tight knit social fabric? I don’t know. The government certainly has to play an instrumental role in this. Not just about reviewing and tweaking policies using the existing mindset and culture. But our government needs to be boldly and actively leading cultural and mindset changes. That takes courage and wisdom.
But more than our government, every Singaporean needs to challenge the status quo, question our assumptions, dare to change our mindsets, build a social covenant with fellow Singaporeans, and find our own reasons to love Singapore, warts and all.