Is the Scholar Program responsible for creating the Ugly Singaporean

December 23, 2010

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This may have something to do with that MOE scholar who got booted out of York University. It may also have something to do with why George Yeo & Co doesn’t seem to have any hang up’s about slagging off our neighbors with impunity – then again it may have nothing to do with all of the above – I am just writing with a rough plot in my head nothing has really congealed yet – so lets just go with the flow for 15 minutes and see what we end up with – consider this an experiment in serendipity.

Question: Is the scholarship system responsible for creating the ugly Singaporean? For those of you who may not know who the ugly Singaporean is? He’s the nasty guy that all our Asean neighbors and beyond have accounts to square off with – he’s quick to lavish praise on Singapore Inc – quicker it seems to criticize and look down on those who he claims isn’t up to his standard of homegrown excellence – in short, the ugly Singaporean is just an asshole par excellence.

What’s really the psychology that drives the ugly Singaporean attitude? Its conceivable a large chunk of it may have something to do with our education and our scripting. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect and academic achievements – or for that matter aspiring to be a scholar. There is however something very wrong with the smugness and self-aggrandizing tone of the scholarship program in Singapore. The message is implicit: You’ve made it, Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve nothing but the very best!

To me that sort of single track thinking has to be the creche that gave birth to the ugly Singaporean – it could also account for why Singapore unlike HK, Taiwan, thailand and Malaysia lacks a broad band of entrepreneurs -it’s even conceivable most of us suffer from what I call the scholar fixation; and implicit in this fetishesness is we aspire to be nothing more than salarymen – this cultural aberration is most evident when one stops people on the streets and carry out a simple experiment by asking them:

“Who do you most want to be?”

In the US, its a toss up between Britney Spears and Steve Jobs; in Hong Kong its been Superman Li Kah Shin for the last 20 years and he is still going strong; even our Northern cousins would prefer to be Fernandez of Air Asia or Francis Yeoh the tycoon who runs YTL corporation – but in Singapore, everyone wants to be a scholar. To paraphrase everyone wants to be minted in the image of LKY.

And this should prompt us to ask the question: is this something that takes or adds to society? Is it good or bad? And what does it really say about our psyche as a nation?

To me where our government may have failed is by failing to perceive the wisdom of nurturing a healthy balance, between entrepreneurism and scholarship – as a result this myopic idea of promoting ONLY scholars as the gold standard means that we end up producing really well educated people who have a strong sense of entitlement, but they don’t nearly the breadth of experience or business acumen to prosper in the global market place.

To exacerbate matters since these scholars harbor that misplaced mightier than thou attitude – not only do they think they deserve more than other people, it inculcates them with a false sense of superiority over others.

Now you know why George Yeo’s motley crew lashed out at everyone who they consider either “stupid” or “incompetent.” Had those cocktail slurping monkeys just sat down and a crunched through the numbers; they would have realized that they were sticking their necks out.

My point is this corrosive attitude stems directly from the scholarship system – its an accretion of an elite education – and there is nothing contrived or even conceited about it; its perfectly natural for most scholar to identify their sense of worth, self esteem and in some cases even flesh out their identity from where they once graduated from – where it becomes a travesty of reason is no one bothered to tell them those test they once took really measured just a very small slice reality. 

To further exacerbate an already acute delusional state the Singapore system is designed to encouraged these newly minted scholars to forget this truth or at least elide it from their consciousness; in this cognitive shift, academic excellence becomes synonymous with the idea of excellence in an absolute sense – to paraphrase, a lie is elevated to the status of a fait accompli – and since the state continues to promote the idea that the scholarship system is the gold standard for both personal and organizational success – then what inadvertently happens is eventually this idea becomes so fossilized and ritualized, that even the apparatus of the state i.e press, TV and radio are responsible for embellishing, exaggerating and mythologizing the importance of scholars – given the benefit of time; this kernel of truth becomes a kind of governing metaphor that shapes not only the eventual social form; but it also exerts an influence on the way we look at scholars and the scholarship program.

That in a nutshell is how the scholarship program acquires its raison detre and legitimizes itself.

Compare and contrast this with run of the mill cookie cutter colleges, polytechnics and tin pot universities. Here the students are being trained for positions somewhere in middle management; in what we the brotherhood call, the faceless depths of bureaucracy.

Paradoxically, when I compare my own education with lets say someone like Darkness who had to hold down 2 shift jobs and pay his own way through university – they’re being conditioned for lives with no safety nets; say what you like, but these days, if you cant cough out the money; you cant even sit for the paper – in this world of no safety ropes, no support, no margin for error and everything is mission critical. Compare and contrast this with elite institutions and of course, it’s the reverse. The irony here is the elite like to think of themselves as perpetuating the idea of meritocracy and excellence; but that’s true up to only a point. Firstly where is the motivation for continuous improvement when one is already bubbled warped in a world where door open automatically? Secondly while elite schools claim they nurture excellence, they also nurture a self delusionary state common known as “entitled mediocrity.” Basically this means, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. You may not be everything that you are cut out to be; but since we have to keep up the myth that we are all the masters of the universe; that also means we will not allow you to let the side down.

I didn’t understand this until I began comparing my own experience with those around me – I guess these a just things you get to know about when you’re into the 5 year of working – the awful truth that is: we all live under the same sun, it seems.

“If you go to the US or EU and you told a panel of managers that you are a scholar – they would just say: so what? Do you want to know why they are so ambivalent? Let me explain to you; when I was doing my Master’s of Science in the UK, there were at least 7 CEO’s in my class. And when I looked at the CV of one of them – this was what it read like,

“worked as a bus driver – got bored after I started dreaming about traffic jams. Decided to go to South Africa, came back a bankrupt. Thought it a good idea to go back to school, so worked in a circus and attended correspondence school – started a company, got it listed and decided to sell to retired before 40. Sailed around the world a few times – got bored, so I went into a business that I knew absolutely nothing about and again listed it. Now I feel really bored again.”

This is how it is in the West – I think the lesson here is very clear – to make progress, we may not even need to learn anything new at all. All we have to do is forget or better still remove what is already stuck like chewing gum in our minds. I have to admit it; I am not entirely comfortable with this free & easy idea, but I am slowly getting used to it….slowly….I think…I hope.”

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