Padd Solutions

Converted by Falcon Hive

This post is a social commentary I wrote as the editor of sociopolitical site Inconvenient Questions.


There is an inherent tension between preservation and development. Has Singapore leaned too much towards development in its quest for economic progress? Could this tendency have eroded Singaporeans’ sense of connection to their country?

A controversy over building the Cross Island MRT Line through part of Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve flared up recently. The government has promised to consult the public and conduct careful studies before arriving at a decision, but some are not convinced that it is willing to compromise on cost.

Yet others are asking why nature lovers are so up-in-arms about this issue. Should they not be supportive of the government’s balanced approach? Are they just being irrational treehuggers?

Facts and practical arguments aside, and indeed those are not yet settled at this point, I can understand the groundswell of anger at the prospect of damaging the nature reserve. The feeling of loss is something that Singaporeans have often experienced with regard to their surroundings, and it may not get any easier each time.

As a Singaporean, one of the strategies for coping with life in Singapore is not to get too attached to your surroundings. You may love that spot, that structure, that area or that forest; the next thing you know, they might have been altered permanently or even removed.

The reasons for this can be both public and private. Spiralling rental costs have eliminated some of our favourite haunts—places like Borders bookstore at Wheelock Place, for example. Property developers keen to ensure ever-increasing rents have also gone to great lengths to ‘upgrade’ and change familiar surroundings.

In other instances, the inexorable march of public machinery—literally and figuratively— have ripped the living proof of our memories out of existence, such as in the case of the old National Library building. If part of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve will ultimately be damaged by the construction of a new MRT line, who should really be surprised at that outcome?

A casualty of the ever-forward march of progress: The old National Library building. (Photo: Timothy)

Sometimes we may wonder whether all this is necessary or unavoidable. Certainly, the
authorities would be inclined to say “Yes”: We cannot afford to stay still, and the desire for
preservation has to be balanced with the need for development

But if almost no place and no sliver of sentimental attachment is sacred, if we must always
be prepared to sacrifice these things at the altar of economic progress, then who can blame
people for feeling little connection to the country they live in?

Could we seek solace in artistic forms of expression? Has much of that not also been
meticulously pruned away to satisfy both a pragmatic worldview and a narrow vision of an
orderly society? So where else can we anchor our desire for meaning in being Singaporean
that goes beyond just our location and our passports?

For many of us, the answer would be family and friends—we want to live in Singapore
because they are here. But people are more mobile than ever, and communications
technology is getting better by the day. Not being here or not having a Singapore passport
does not necessarily mean losing touch with family and friends.

We may need the time and opportunity to be attached to our surroundings in order to better
appreciate what it means to live here and to be ‘locals’. Top-down feel good campaigns or
spontaneous exhortations to shout “Majulah!” can feel empty and forced. As important, if
not more important, to our sense of identity as a people are natural outgrowths of sentiment
stemming from the places, customs and languages that we live with—things that have all
been affected by at least one official campaign or another.

As things stand, the relationship for many is merely a marriage of convenience—if we really
question ourselves, how many of us are here only because the country is safe and
prosperous? What happens when there is a better prospect out there?

It is not that we can always choose to preserve everything, or that some trade-off between
identity and growth is not necessary. However, we must recognise our national ideology for
what it is; and hard pragmatism does not come without a cost. When we wonder why, as
some people do, potentially more than 50% of Singaporeans want to leave or why many
would not die for the country, we should acknowledge that the lack of personal connection
may be a price our nation pays for taking this path.

Top image created by Liyana Yeo; photo of MacRitchie Reservoir by RickDeye.

This post is a political commentary I wrote as the editor of sociopolitical site Inconvenient Questions. It also appeared on Yahoo News.


Asking unhappy people to leave is a favourite debating tactic of some Singaporeans. If you care about Singapore, however, such an approach is ultimately counterproductive. It also goes against the grain of the Government’s current approach towards Singaporeans moving overseas.

That line above or something similar is what you would invariably see if you read enough comments about local issues on social media. It is the rebuttal of choice of some ‘patriots’, wielded against critics who are unhappy about one thing or another in this country.

Admittedly, the lure of greener pastures can be very tempting and many Singaporeans appear to think so. In a survey conducted in 2012, more than half of Singaporeans (56%, to be exact) say they would migrate if given a choice.

One could jump through hoops to explain away this result, or even question the credibility of the survey. But while it is debateable whether or not the majority of Singaporeans are really unhappy here, such a statistic should concern those who care about the future of our country. After all, what is left of a country when most of its people are no longer willing to stay?

This issue of commitment is even more salient for countries like ours that rely on regular citizens to maintain its security. Singapore’s deterrent against foreign aggression depends in large part on its relatively large reserve force comprising Singaporeans who have been called up for National Service. If we are not committed to defending the country when the need arises, the result could be disastrous. Thus, it is vital that Singaporeans of all stripes remain invested in the fate of our nation.

Hence, telling people to leave if they are unhappy is not a forward-thinking approach for those who really care about Singapore’s future. What any true patriot should be doing instead is to ask how they can keep as many Singaporeans as possible interested in, and engaged with, the country’s progress.

Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Photo: Wes Dickinson)

But there is another problem with asking people to leave: It also goes against the spirit of Government policy towards the issue of Singaporeans moving out.

In a recent trip to New York, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met with overseas Singaporeans there and told them to “Keep in touch with home, keep in touch with us… and one day come back home to Singapore.” His gentle exhortation is a long way away from then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s rebuke – almost 15 years ago – calling some overseas Singaporeans “quitters”.  This new approach indicates that the Government is keen not on pushing Singaporeans out and cutting off ties, but on having us remain emotionally invested in our country even if we leave.

Indeed, the Government’s Overseas Singaporean Unit works with other agencies such as Contact Singapore to ensure that overseas Singaporeans are kept engaged. Considering that our Government has such a rational approach towards keeping Singaporeans as close to the country as possible – if not physically, then at least emotionally – should this not be supported by those who truly believe in the Government’s wisdom?

Finally, equality, a value that is mentioned in our national pledge, means everyone’s voice carries weight – even if you vehemently disagree with what some people say. Asking people to leave if they are unhappy is to deny that their voice matters and is therefore a rejection of equality. No matter how one looks at it, that cannot be the right or productive approach.

It must be said that political discussions among Singaporeans might not become much more rational or less acrimonious than they are now. Nevertheless, it is still better to talk to those who disagree than to ask them to get out of the country. After all, if there is no one left to debate politics and policies with, Singapore will probably be the poorer for it.

This post is a political commentary I wrote as the editor of sociopolitical site Inconvenient Questions. It also appeared on Yahoo News.


The furore following Member of Parliament Denise Phua’s statement describing congregations of foreign workers as “walking time-bombs” reflects Singapore’s ambivalence towards the presence of foreigners. Representing her constituency of Jalan Besar, Ms Phua had proposed fencing off communal areas to keep foreign workers out, no doubt in response to concerns from local citizens. While our society needs the services of foreign workers, many Singaporeans are uneasy about the impact of their influx on matters ranging from safety to the condition of local culture.

So where do we go from here? To start with, perhaps it would be useful look at the example of the most well-known immigrant society of all – The United States of America.

A hundred years ago, immigrants first arriving at New York City would have disembarked in full view of the Statue of Liberty, a monument that Franklin D. Roosevelt honoured in 1936 as an icon of immigration. Today, 80 years later, aspiring American presidential candidate Donald Trump is able to capitalise on a groundswell of discontent with immigration for his campaign.

How did a nation of immigrants and the richest country in the world end up with this much disdain for something that lies at the foundation of its society?

The truth is (new) immigration has always been an issue among the American public. Recent immigrants have often been looked at as a threat to American values. If this sounds familiar to us in Singapore, that would be because the theme of cultural difference is universal. And, just as ironically, we too are a nation built on immigration.

By now, multiracialism and multiculturalism are no longer radical ideas. Yet many modern societies are struggling with the question of immigration, a perennial issue punctuated by shocks such as terrorism and the influx of refugees. In Singapore, where a nation of millions must live together in a tight space, this question is perhaps even more salient. Can our society handle large numbers of immigrants?

With the non-resident population making up slightly more than a quarter of the total population, Singaporeans are naturally concerned about the competition for jobs, the erosion of national identity and overcrowding. As the arrest of 27 Bangladeshi workers under the ISA reminds us, there are also concerns about security and the threat of radicalised groups or criminals finding their way into the country.

Most of these problems could be seen as matters of governance, things that can perhaps be left to experts and officials. However, something that our penchant for hard-headed policymaking and planning alone cannot resolve is the issue of Singapore’s culture and identity. We need to decide as a society what our culture and identity will look like in the coming decades, and this is a process that has no correct answers.

Foreign workers enjoying their break in Little India. (Photo: Nicky Loh)

There are three distinct paths that we can go down. One is the American ‘melting pot’ model of conflict and natural assimilation: There is little or no government intervention and immigrants are left to form self-reliant enclaves. Historically, these groups were often hostile to each other and to the ‘locals’, even spawning violent gangs that featured notorious characters such as Al Capone. Only after generations did these groups eventually assimilate into American society, becoming part of the tapestry of American culture with contributions such as Italian American cuisine and common Yiddish loanwords like ‘chutzpah’.

This path is the least likely to be deliberately chosen in Singapore due to our size and perceived vulnerability to any social instability or disharmony that might result.

The second way is to define what Singaporean culture and identity are and use them as benchmarks for ‘Singaporeanness’ in assimilating immigrants. This could be done by returning to classic or mythologised ideas of what it means to be Singaporean or by synthesising those ideas today. There is a tendency for members of the public to engage in this when they treat qualities such as the ability to speak Singlish correctly as identity markers and yardsticks for ‘Singaporeanness’. Similarly, when Member of Parliament Darryl David proposed that English proficiency should be a criterion for citizenship, he was essentially advocating the same path.

While it might be the most intuitive method for many Singaporeans, this path is also likely to be exclusionary as it sets a high bar for assimilation for immigrants, many of whom come from cultures that are very different from ours. If integration is a goal, this method might even make the process more difficult.

The third path is to include immigrants’ culture as part of a new and evolving Singaporean identity. This would entail fusing elements of the different cultures with local Singapore culture to create an inclusive model. For example, local languages and Singlish could expand to include Mainland Chinese, Filipino or Bangladeshi words, while food from the different immigrant communities could be included as staples of local cuisine.

From the perspective of integration, this would be the easiest path as it allows immigrants to retain their identity to some extent and feel a sense of familiarity towards local culture. However, in practice, it would likely encounter difficulties arising from resentment among local Singaporeans, many of whom might feel that the local culture is being watered down.

In the end, the likelihood is no matter how we go about trying to resolve the question of our culture and identity, our approach will end up being an amalgamation of these three paths. Nonetheless, one of them will likely be the dominant path, and that will determine much of what our sense of community and social fabric will be like in the decades to come.

With so many things that are happening and that have happened, I've decided to fire up my blog again.

Singapore is going into election day, and the media has been abuzz with election-related news and discussions. The parties in the opposition have received unprecedentedly positive attention this election cycle, and the role of social media in contemporary politics is undoubtedly the primary contributing factor.

My social media is full of messages in support of the opposition, although there certainly are enough supporters of the ruling party as well (especially the wealthier, conservative or typically apolitical people). It actually seems to have become quite a norm. And judging from the attendance at the opposition rallies, the sentiment on the ground is also pretty warm.

I think Singapore politics will see exciting days ahead. Like it or not, we are seeing a trend where we can expect more successful politicians to be those who have their ears closer to the ground. There are more debates among the public, and politicians of all stripes will have to be responsive to public sentiment, balancing traditional rationality with an appeal to citizens' passions.

But unlike conservative ideologues in Singapore, I will not hasten to trot out the label 'populism' here, because responsiveness and accountability to the electorate is part and parcel of a democratic system. 

Too often, modern audiences are fixated on procedural democracy—on the process of holding elections—as well as on the representative part of democracy. However, the traditional idea of democracy was not usually limited to having an elected aristocracy. In democratic thinking, the people are meant to have a say in how they are governed. There is populism, and then there is democracy; the latter does not necessarily translate to the former just because one party no longer has a free hand to rule as they see fit.

Understandably, many in Singapore will feel some trepidation about the opening of the floodgates. Are we as a society ready for the full democratic experience? Will we be able to maintain current levels of prosperity when the ruling party no longer dominates local politics with impunity?

No matter who is in charge, the future will remain uncertain. As the financiers say, past success is not indicative of future performance. For now, it's time to prepare ourselves for societal change.

Many things are more deterministic than we think. We are not so different from who we used to be. Even societies may persist with their old ways, unbeknownst to its members, long after the reins have changed hands.

Simply put, we are constrained by our past choices and directions—a phenomenon known as path dependency. We cannot simply change the direction in which we are moving at any time of our choosing because we cannot will away the present consequences and implications of the past.

Hence, while we often wonder why a problem cannot be fixed, the answer can be found in history.

Why is creativity and entrepreneurship so underdeveloped in this society, for example? That is to a large extent a colonial legacy. Colonial governments were focused on the extraction of resources and the development of trade in the colonies for the benefit of the empire. These required the establishment of strong bureaucracies and civil services to administrate the territories in a stable and efficient way. Hence, education in a colony was geared towards training local elites to be obedient but skilled administrators, not towards developing critical thinkers, leaders and entrepreneurs. This system was then found to be convenient by the new government of the independent colony, who continued to have need of able administrators and to desire stability and quick prosperity. The system, therefore, remains entrenched.

So there's the answer. We cannot so easily abandon what we were—the past casts long shadows on any probable future.

Water to whine

@ 07:46 0 comments

There are no such things as miracles on demand.

The number of people I know who believe in miraculous healing powers, administered by almost anyone, supposedly at almost any time of their choosing, is actually rather alarming. Magical thinking is a pretty universal phenomenon, but I'd also attribute the prevalence of such beliefs here to a cultural predisposition towards superstition. Still, it boggles the mind how so many intelligent, well-educated young people could buy into this.

I have no prima facie problems with faith. I respect a lot of people who have faith. To me, even though the tenor of many people's beliefs seems to indicate the opposite (the popular stance is to subordinate reason to faith), faith can co-exist with reason. But for that to happen, we must first discard the fantastic but convenient elements that are so popular precisely because they act as the opiate of the masses—after all, who doesn't want to have magically easier lives?

If miracle healing is a real thing, and a fairly commonplace one at that, the social and economic repercussions would most certainly spill over to other parts of society. It wouldn't be just a thing mostly discussed in circles of people who do not question its veracity. It would have major implications on mass healthcare. Surely if people sincerely mean well when they administer these supposed powers and there are many people willing to be healed (Lord knows they are—if it works, faith is no object to many who really want to be rid of their pain and suffering), we would see waves of healing ripple through society. We would see scientists studying the phenomena in droves and not simply conduct the occasional inconclusive studies that cannot prove that it is more than a placebo.

But that is not happening. Why? Perhaps because miracle healing is only 'proven' when examined through the lens of personal empirical observation that is influenced by the desire to believe that it is real in the first place. And modern life can be so alienating and objectifying, that it is no surprise people want to believe there is more—that they can do something where modern technology often fails, and that there is an almighty Nanny take care of your every need from high above.

That is not what I respect in faith, and it is a juvenile form of faith that I don't think any thinking person of faith should endorse.

Recently, someone asked, "Do the humanities have a future?" They certainly do have a future, but I'm not optimistic it would be something that I would consider to be good.

Not everyone thinks the same way, though. In the first place, their notion of what is good for the humanities is different. Some cite the proportionately higher numbers of humanities graduates employed in management roles as a sign that the humanities are in a good place. Others reporting less stellar outlooks note that someone with a humanities degree still tends to earn more than someone without a degree, and that when the economy picks up, questions regarding the future of the humanities will die down again as graduates have a much easier time finding work.

However, these seem to be rather odd things to say where the humanities are concerned. In modern society, common wisdom has it that education and industry should function symbiotically, with schools feeding industry with the manpower and skilled personnel that it needs. But the humanities often impart a very different worldview, one where human life is far richer than simply work life; one where the goal of learning is not just to make money or to become a useful cog in the industrial machine.

If one takes the lessons from the humanities seriously, then one would be quite ill-suited for the kind of life where economic concerns are to be privileged above everything else. One would therefore be at a disadvantage in an environment driven overwhelmingly by competition for economic advancement. Thus, someone who has a bad career progression in modern industrial society, or someone who is consumed by internal conflict, seems quite a natural product of education in the humanities today.

So if the success of the humanities is to be measured by society by how well their graduates are advancing themselves economically, then I'd say that the future of the humanities is bleak indeed. How can it be otherwise, when they are made to produce what they were ideologically never supposed to produce?