The Singaporean Culture - Culture of Caution?
Singapore has transformed, in a relatively short period of time, from a rural malay fishing village into a cosmopolitan microcosmos. With the astute foresight of the government and its educated labour force, Singapore has been propelled into an optimistic future built on a foundation of orderliness, conformity and efficiency. It is this essence of our asian culture of regulation and pragmatism that bolstered the economy. However, has a distinctive Singaporean culture evolved over the past forty years, and if so, how would this culture interfere with the process of assimilation into Knowledge Management? This paper attempts to grapple with the idea of a Singaporean Culture and its effects on openness and the expression of views.
Why the Need to Address the Singaporean Culture?
Singapore has enjoyed an astounding record of success based on its ability to attract investors and their corresponding capital inflow. Government-led initiatives have involved crafting a culture that will adapt to the investor's needs and to fast-changing global environments in a restructured economy. The socially-engineered Singaporean culture appears hierarchial, disciplined and authoritarian and a showcase for technocratic management. Yet, further crafting of the Singaporean culture along the top-down, technocratic model with seems to result in a diminishing ability to produce creative, innovative and productive workers for the emerging knowledge economy. Thus, there is a pressing need to redirect the Singaporean culture towards openness and the freedom of expression. In the first section, we sketch the ideological bases for Singapore's crafted culture. In the ensuing section, we succinctly discuss the evolution of the Singaporean culture and the new direction it takes.
Culture of Risk Aversion and Conformity
In recent years, the constant exhortations from the government to its citizens to be more entrepreneurial sets the nation's direction away from risk aversion into the opposite end: in order to thrive in the New Globalised Economy, we have to embrace the culture of risk-taking, we must be able to take failure in stride. This is indeed true. Entrepreneurs seldom succeed on their first attempt. They fail, learn from experience and then try again. In Singapore, however, exists a culture that places too much emphasis on all the things that mitigate against risk-taking: we worship paper qualifications over hands-on experience, we deride non-conformity, and we are too obsessed with loss face. Failure is a social death sentence.
Then how did the Singaporean culture evolve into this state? The youth embody the values of freedom, idealism, creativity, imagination and receptiveness to change. Yet, Confucian values of rank and hierarchy, simplified into digestible values of paying respect to parents and elders amongst others essentially nullifies the former values. An individual's desire to field one's thoughts would be deemed as 'disrespectful', thereby ensuing the early death of any creative juices that flowed in the first place. Moreover, a system of ranking at the first step of the educational ladder all the way up to post-university level strongly denies the individual the chance of any failure. Fail your exams and go to ITE (Institute of Technical Education). Simply translated, "It's The End". As a consequence, the opportunity cost of failure obstructs the path towards a culture of openness and acceptance to new ideas and criticisms.
There is no denial that when these young people experience certain socioeconomic conditions, their attitudes and behaviour change. When people get married, buy a house and have children, they veer towards political and social conservatism. Having jobs that enable them to pay the lifelong mortgage and support the family, these people do not rebel against authority or "rock the boat". They learn to conform to institutional norms even with initial disbelief. To go against the flow is to renounce the Confucian values that are so entrenched in the Singaporean culture. Eventually, they get so used to conforming that they compromise their own ideals, principles and conscience.
Thus, as one ages, and as the stakes are raised (having to maintain a standard of living, to pay the mortgage for the condominium, to support the child studying abroad, amongst others), conformism, conventionalism and conservatism set in. This becomes the typical life-cycle pattern of people coming of age.
Culture of Face
There is a constant Confucian confusion which equates criticism with disparagement. In our Asian culture, the elders are always right. To correct one's elders is an act of utmost disrespect. Hence, in the Singaporean context, the individuals are reined in by conservative values and are thus unable to speak their mind. "Face", or dignity must be preserved at all costs. It starts from the young. Parents and teachers insist that children must be well-behaved. The slightest rowdiness is frowned upon. The parents of exuberant kids are given squinty-eyed looks by annoyed neighbours. The question of face again.
Anybody who has tried to organise shows and events in Singapore knows that it is unusually difficult to get audience participation. People are glued to their seats, paranoid about being singled out. They never volunteer and will try to stay indistinguishable from the crowd at all cost. Going on stage and doing something that might make one look a little foolish would irretrievably damaging to one's dignity. The aversion to audience participation is just another side to the same cultural pattern that shuns risk.
Culture and Environment: Which shapes which?
One could suggest that the local culture emanates from the natural qualities of the Chinese. In reality, the situation is not, however, preordained nor is it genetically determined. Overseas Chinese in the west have been very creative. While the creative achievements of Chinese Americans is understandable in terms of Chinese propensities towards mathematics and the sciences, achievements in dance, film, writing, architecture and music are a striking vindication of the importance of a liberating environment accompanied by a large enough appreciative marketplace for new ideas and criticisms. The fact that many of these highly talented Asian individuals also cannot contemplate returning for good to their parent cultures is an indictment of the limitation of the present Asian environment. The creativity of the brightest and the best creative Asian individuals exiled in the West remain a challenge for Asia as it comes of age and tries to re-assimilate these exiles and their creativity back into the new social order.
The Changing Singaporean Culture
Nevertheless, the government's active propaganda towards an entrepreneurial spirit breaks away from the norms of conformity. There is a recognised need for Singaporeans to venture to new horizons, to explore new enterprises, and to build on intellectual capital. Many have come to realise that although pragmatism benefits the economy, it can create stagnation and lack of initiative. Creative possibilities, existential mobility, individualism and the exercise of conscious choice need greater room for manifestation. More than ever, Singaporeans are beginning to feel that they have the right to speak their mind. The environment, with less censorship and an increasingly vibrant art culture, indicates the government's re-alignment of values towards a generative mode.
The deep-rooted culture of risk-aversion and conformity coupled with the fear of losing "face" remains an integral part of the socially-engineered Singaporean Culture and is resistant to quick-fixes. Nevertheless, one must not forget the fact these values delivered the nation into the current admirable status. There is thus a need to preserve the virtues of the current Singaporean culture, while propelling it into a higher realm. In this sense, criticism is the key springboard. Strong, constructive and honest criticism is vital for progress in our knowledge-centric economy. Critics who withhold proper criticism because of a sense of duty are actually doing a disservice to the proper learning of both the giver and the receiver. At the social level, criticism must be valued as part of those things that we take for granted but which have become common and dear to all of us, awareness that the shared experiences which are drawn from our different cultural strands bind our lives together as a people. Only when this is established, and it will take some years of concerted cultural effort on a broad front to do so, will the Singaporean Culture evolve into a stronger entity.