Striving for Excellence
Something that Shanmugaratnam said is true.
When I was a student in school, every year there were plenty of people who did special papers. Most did 1 or 2, but a few, 1 or 2 in the school, aspired to do 3 special papers instead of 2. Naturally, because of the advantage having 3 special papers gave you in scholarships, more than 1 or 2 aspired to 3 “S” papers, but they decided that only very few would do 3 “S” papers.
I thought this was dumb, even though I wasn’t one of those who aspired to 3 “S” papers. I thought that peoples’ potential were unfairly limited. But now I think that it’s a good thing, because it’s bad enough that people should spend all their time studying, you shouldn’t encourage this sort of thing.
It’s alright to limit people striving for better and better grades. I think that exams are there solely for the purpose of sorting out the chaff from the wheat. Other than that, there is not much purpose at all. I’m not even sure that it’s really an education. I don’t really know if having perfect scores for your major exams is excellence.
The problem with this notion is that when you sit for an exam, 100 marks is the upper limit. But in real life, there are no limits. In real life, you have to run and run until you are exhausted and have to stop.
So we come to the first problem about excellence in Singapore. We live in a closeted place. We were force fed stuff from the very beginning, and there wasn’t a whole lot of people asking us what we wanted. That is a very big problem. Excellence is mainly achieved by people who have already found their niche. There’s not much encouragement for people to find their niche. Everybody takes all subjects, and are assessed on all subjects. What is taught are the facts. But often the facts are distilled from a lot of knowledge, and they are derived of context.
You will never excel in the real world by doing a lot of what people do in school. Nobody gives you prizes for being the best at mugging, except in school. And being the best in that field is a joyless thing. So people put a cap on how much you want to mug. If you don’t put that cap – well you end up with a whole generation of hikikomori.
In contrast, the real world is – well, a world unto itself. Everything has its place. You don’t get to pick and choose which skills you need to have: what you don’t have, you’d better learn. You have to work with others. You have to understand the way things work, outside of an academic context.
From the classroom environment, it is quite hard to teach people what it’s like to be great. What it’s like to excel in the real world. In the classroom, books are king. Thinking is privileged over doing. In the real world, it’s the other way around: doing is king. Now that I’ve grown older, I’ve looked around me and realised that those classmates of mine who became captains of their respective ECAs have made a better go of it at life.
When I was a student in school, people were encouraged to work hard, and they did. People aspired to get As and they did. But there was a lot of bitching about how people “spoilt the market” if you aspired to a level of excellence beyond that. If you studied all the time you were a “chao mugger”. Even the nerds were calling each other that.
I think, this is Asian society. In some ways we don’t like people who stand out too much. Yes, we are also greatly influenced by the west. So we have this fascination about people who dare to be different. There was one or two people who tried to be different, and when they were talked about, it was with a curious mix of contempt and reverence.
Then, here, we have the second problem: excellence, or being outstanding, is, in part, exceptionalism. This exceptionalism is not as well tolerated in Singapore as it may be in some other societies. It has been said that entrepreneurism has never been very well tolerated in Japan as it has been in other countries: if you fail in Japan, everybody will shun you. If you fail in California, everybody takes it as par for the course. That’s why there are many entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, but none in Japan.
A third stumbling block is people’s attitudes towards excellence. Singapore is nothing if not intensely practical. People privilege face, social status. The monkish austerity of an excellence seeker ploughing a lonely furrow – a little frowned upon. People instinctively understand if you were to feather your nest. Everybody does that. Better to be a manager, living off people’s work, than to be the engineer doing that work. Eye power, vision. That’s the thing. Better to be a pimp than a prostitute.
Because people are generally more concerned about what you can get out of the system than what you can put in. That’s why, as you can read in the comments, when Tharman asked for excellence, everybody interpreted that in the sense of “here’s my boss telling me to just work harder for him”. They don’t think of it in terms of “being excellent makes me a better person. It makes me a real man.” That’s the problem with Chinese culture. It lies with how work is appropriated. In Chinese society, you instinctively know that your boss gets all the credit anyway. Yes, China is a great civilisation. We invented gunpowder, paper and the compass. Who invented those things? History doesn't record. Nobody pursuing excellence gets his just credit.
In Western culture, they respect the great artist, the great scientist. Kings? Fuck them. In Chinese culture, they respect the king. You shake hands with Queen Elizabeth, but you kowtow to the Chinese Emperor.
So don’t bother striving for excellence. Don’t bother trying to take humanity forward. China does not regard itself as the vanguard of humanity. China is for China. Don’t bother being a Leonardo da Vinci. Be a king, and make other people kowtow to you. That is the only way you will ever be remembered.
Who was the most entrepreneurial person in Western History? Christopher Columbus. And he was deified. In contrast, our Admiral Zheng He is just a eunuch working for the emperor.
That is why I fear that China will grow to a certain size, and break all speed records in getting itself up to the middle class, and then stagnate there for the rest of her existence. Like Zheng He’s magnificent voyages to Southeast Asia, to India, even to East Africa. Then after that, you fucking burn those ships because the emperor’s had enough. China will shoot itself in the foot because it has done so before. If you want an entrepreneurial culture then it will be something foreign and novel to Chinese culture. It’s not impossible but don’t count on it happening.
A fourth reason is that Singapore is a big city but it has a small town mentality. Singapore is a small market, no matter what. If you make it big here, you will still have a problem going beyond these shores to do something overseas. It is way too easy to denigrate what Singaporeans have achieved. It’s too easy to have existential crises, too easy to put down your own fellow countryman. And way too difficult to change peoples’ mindset about this. Whenever you set up a shop, you need to trick people into thinking that it’s an international brand from overseas. Therefore you have Watson’s from Hong Kong. Ferrero Rocher from Hong Kong. Delifrance from Singapore. Haach from Singapore.
A most obvious reason, actually, can be gleaned from the comments that have been made at the bottom of the article. People are asking, “Why are our ministers earning so much?” rather than asking what they can do to become a great entrepreneur. People are complaining that facilities are less than stellar. Being a complainer is more or less the opposite of being an entrepreneur.
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