The Goodness of Singaporean Exceptionalism


man carrying backpack looking at ferris wheel
Photo by Dio Hasbi Saniskoro on

At the time of writing, Singapore’s GDP, national reserves and currency mark the uniqueness and exceptional character of the small island country. The film Crazy Rich Asian (2018) is a good illustration of not only the wealth but also the unique blend of history, culture and modernity of the country.

But wealth should not be the only factor that distinguish Singapore from its regional Neighbours. Instead it is the relatively stable and accommodating socio-cultural interactions and exchanges between people of different races, religions and language groups in a small pocket of land. I am not going to sugarcoat the very real and tangible socio-cultural restraints that have been strapped on every citizen in Singapore by her leaders.

Although it may appear to be draconian and authoritarian from a liberal perspective, I fully agree that political and legal restraints are necessary to maintain law, order and peace in the pursuit of economic and every day liberality.

I applaud the many dissidents and activists who have and are still arguing for a more expansive and diverse points of view to social cultural and political state of affairs in Singapore.

But while I agree that Singapore can often be a stifling place to be in, I fully agree and logically support the kind of society that Singapore has been conceived and operationalised.

We (Singaporeans) know that we are grouped into classes in the country. This is a fairly obvious structure that can be seen in three mega sorting machines. The first is education where MOE sorts students into abilities. Then this is evident by the kind of Universities one goes after compulsory education. The second is the type of housing. HDBs are for the non-exceptional people whereas Landed and Condos are for exceptional people. The third sorting machine is the kind of educational disciplines and jobs one is fitted into.

Singapore exceptionalism works because it is legalistic, logical and economical. This structure is dictated by educational disciplines: law, economics, mathematics, and engineering. And while cultural and biographical conditions do play a part in school results, the fact is academic studies (rite-learning and memory) is also largely influenced by biological makeup.

Thus it is logical to think in Singapore that if one gets good grades one is naturally smart. And even though anecdotal evidences suggest that some may claim that the success of an academically-inclined student is due to mugging and hard work and not evidence of true intelligence; biological makeup do have an influence because one needs to have concentration and naturally good memory to cram the information and details; not to mention the cognitive ability to regurgitate the correct answers to the appropriate questions.

I unfortunately am not of the elite, semi-elite or even the outer peripheral of desired individuals in the country. While outcast is too much of a dramatic statement, I would consider myself to be an oddball or anomaly of the system.

Singapore is a system that is meant for the construction of excellence. And I see nothing wrong in that. We want excellence in al things.

But excellence have been conflated with elitism (a sense of superiority) and aristocracy (natural right). Both terms are often considered in a derogatory fashion. After all they not only connote “excellence” they also connote a “natural aristocracy”. A combination that harkens back to ancient regimes of Kings and Princes. A kind of rightful place.

Well, actually I don’t really mind that such thinking still exist because I firmly believe that there will always be hierarchies. Note I say hierarchies and not one hierarchy.

That is because it makes sense to think that if we value something in this world. A book, a film, a song, political systems and social activities – we always have preferences. And preferences means we value something over others not because they are valued by others but that we have found and recognised something in that preferred something that we deem to be better or more desirable than other types of somethings.

So in Singapore, certain somethings are preferred over other somethings precisely because they are desirable and valued above others. So I suppose if one wants to be valued and desirable in a system, it is best to figure what that system want and fit one according to that.

Nietzsche writes in his analysis and uncovering of morality in his Genealogy book that such morality cannot but be present in human societies. I agree. But societies have in them structures and structures. And the utilitarian principle dictates that certain rules and regulations benefits some and not others.

From a big and broad perspective, I agree that it is important for societal rules and regulations to benefit the majority. But usually the big perspective tends to conflict with the small and individual perspective.

The question is what to do about it?

Do we abolish societal rules? Do we price individual happiness over communal happiness? Or do we make a compromise and balance both? Which usually makes both sides unhappy?

These are complex issues and should not be reduce to platitudes and simplification.

So on the individual level, what can we do?

Human life is diverse.

But in Singapore all ships must sail in the same direction.

And while I logically admit that the conditions and constraints of the country’s environment dictates the necessary structures and discipline, I think that wholesale changes are not necessary.

But then we subordinate the individual in Singapore to positions in hierarchies.

And that is where I feel liberal democracies and open societies function better than less liberal and less open – indeed less paternalistic ones. Again I don’t disagree with paternalistic and directed societies (given the conditions) but it is also good that space is opened up for diversity.

And that is what SG has done: the opening of different universities to cater to different students, the tiering of housing options, the opening of different education disciplines and sub disciplines to help people to develop their interests.

The constant adjustments means that Everyday life is managed and directed for success. That’s a good thing.

But if one does not want to be directed, what to do about it?


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