22/12/96 A small house perhaps, but there are precious things
|Sunday, December 22,1996
The Sunday Times, Page 4
A small house perhaps, but there are precious things
I'm sorry,'' you say. "Excuse me.
-A House Too Small (For R.L. in Singapore)
Shirley Lim, the Malaysian-born poet and writer who is based in America, actually wrote a poem for me way back in the early '80s, when she was here as a visiting professor or writer-in-residence at the National University of Singapore.
I lived in a rented room in a terrace house in Holland Village, and it was my good fortune that she happened to be my neighbour during her year's stay here. I was a fan of her works, and soon she became an unwitting mentor.
Shirley had continued to visit Singapore and Malaysia every few years, and was back here recently for a couple of months as a visiting Fulbright fellow at the National Institute of Education.
This time, she was terrified by the insistent seduction of wealth everywhere she went. "For the first time in my life," she said, "I felt this thing the Hokkiens call gian. "
The coarse, peasant word has no direct translation. The nearest equivalent in English I can think of is covetous, although the word also evokes unashamed greed and lust.
"I see all this wealth around me. Everyone I meet has two or three properties. And these are my peers, for goodness sake, or even younger. All my life, I have seen myself as a poet, writer and academic. Money or wealth was never in my scheme of things. Suddenly I found myself longing for it, wanting it."
She fled as soon as her term ended, although she had a very productive time here and in Malaysia. Before she left, she told me that the last two lines of the poem she wrote for me had become even truer, more than a decade later, and literally, too. "Prices of homes and cars here are so high!"
The exorbitant cost is, of course, more than that ofcars and property. It is the price tag that comes with being a Singaporean, with being an inextricable part of a tiny place that has been forged and held together by sheer human will over only a short period of 30 years.
The solidity of the place, with its concrete skyscrapers and all its gleaming trappings of wealth, is no guarantee that it cannot disappear in just three years. All it needs is for the will to slacken, and everything will fall apart. A country as big as America may take four or five hundred years to unravel, but Singapore, a speck on the Earth's face, can be blown off it in the blinking of an evil eye.
To sustain this will, to keep pushing ahead, to never let up, that has become our burdenñ more so as our larger neighbours have begun snapping at our heels ñand yet too our joy. Because in the end, we determine our own destiny, for nobody else is going to do it for us.
Sisyphus- condemned by the gods to push a rock up a mountain to see it roll down again, and to push it up again, endlessly- was happy, in Albert Carnus' reckoning. "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart," he concludes in his short essay, The Myth of Sisyphus.
AT CENTURY'S end, we live in the most exciting of times, and also potentially the most dangerous. East Asia is rising, and there is reason to be euphoric. But as Samuel P. Huntington points out in The Clash Of Civilisations And The Remaking Of The World Order (1966):
"Economic exchange brings people into contact; it does not bring them into agreement... Trade between countries produce conflict as well as profit. If past experience holds, the Asia of economic sunshine will generate an Asia of political shadows, an Asia of instability and conflict."
Europe saw 400 years of wars and internecine struggles before it achieved stability and global power. It was the principal arena of great conflict and co-operation and, even during the Cold War, the principal line of superpower confrontation was in the heart of Europe.
In the post-Cold War world, that arena has shifted to Asia, particularly East Asia. "Asia is the cauldron of civilisations," Huntington warns. "East Asia alone contains societies belonging to six civilisationsñ Japanese, Sinic, Orthodox, Buddhist, Muslim and Western ñand South Asia adds Hinduism."
The author's contention in his book is that culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilisation identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration and conflict in the post-Cold War world.
His theme is not as simplistic as a clash of the West and the rest, as it was made out to be when his essay on the subject first appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993, and generated a debate that has lasted till today. In fact, he suggests that Western belief in the universality of Western culture is false, immoral and dangerous.
That a universal civilisation is false is the central theme of his book. The world is made up of different civilisations and, in the post-Cold War world, the most important distinctions among people are not ideological, political or economic. They are cultural.
It is dangerous because, since culture follows power, "imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism".
And it is dangerous because it could lead to a major inter-civilisational war and could actually lead to defeat of the West.
"Western civilisation is valuable not because it is universal but because it is unique. The principal responsibility of Western leaders, consequently, is not to attempt to reshape other civilisations in the image of the West, which is beyond their declining power, but to preserve, protect and renew the unique qualities of Western civilisation."
Huntington believes that "in a multicivilisational world, the constructive course is to renounce versalism, accept diversity, and seek commonalities".
Many of us, inured to government campaigns and its almost ceaseless exhortations, might have shrugged off the Shared Values that Parliament had worked out in a White Paper after two years of discussion recently.
But Huntington cites this: very effort to define a Singaporean cultural identity which is shared by its ethnic, and religious communities as "enlightened" even if ambitious, and suggests that it could be a relevant model for the world's civilisations to explore and expand their commonalities.
Sometimes, it needs an outsider to show us what precious things we have in our small house, which we take for granted and do not cherish.
IN The World In 2020, British financial journalist Hamish McRae says that as East Asia develops, it will need "pockets of calm competence like Singapore", but other places will be able to provide this, too.
"More than anywhere in East Asia, Singapore will show that it is easy to imitate the West in technology, hard to surpass it in overall economic competence. Meanwhile, other larger places will have taken the torch of growth."
These will be the new tigers like Indonesia and Malaysia. The crescent of countries to the north- Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Burma (as it may well be called again)- can achieve economic take-off and reach, by 2020, income levels akin to Taiwan today, given honest and competent governments committed to the market system, he says.
These neighbours, as they look towards Japan, the organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the newly industrialising economies (NIEs) for investments, present a limited window of opportunity for Singapore which we must capitalise before it closes, as has been pointed out by Keppel Carporation chairman Sim Kee Boon. As he told The Economist in 1992, referring to the Singapore flagship company's overseas ventures: "We missed Thailand.... We don't want to do the same with Vietnam."
As I see it, and I have argued this with my more idealistic colleagues, we do not have the luxury to be guided in our businesses with our neighbours by the moral imperative. We cannot afford to wait till they have put their houses in order, the way we have done ours, before we deign to trade with them.
By the time Myanmar becomes politically correct, becomes Burma again, and we say we go in now, we should not be surprised to find the door shut in our faces. Other countries would have already put in their stakes. We will be the loser.
This is another cost, I guess, that comes with living in a small house. We can take the moral high ground, ourselves and be very harsh about it, but we cannot do, likewise with our bigger neighbours. Commentators though have said, and many times too, that even America cannot afford to allow the moral imperative to dictate its foreign policy. The world is not black and white.
It has also not become entirely borderless, bringing about the end of the nation-state, whatever business guru Ohmae Kenichi says, although he is right in some things. Even when the traditional instruments of the nation-state have been weakened by globalisation, no adequate substitute has emerged to replace it as the key unit in responding to global change, says historian Paul Kennedy in his book, Preparing For The 21st Century.
How the political leadership of the nation prepares its people for the 21st century will be critical in determining whether it will become a winner or a loser. So before you cast that vote, ask yourself: Do you want to stay a winner?
Because if Singapore loses, it loses everything. That is the exorbitant cost and, yes, sadly, it is all we can afford.