Sunday, August 07, 2011

Are You Ever Ready for Anything?

You have to credit the Singapore government for coming up with one of the most ironic points of the day. In a session to 250 youths, our Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean made the point that one is never really ever ready to join politics and even till this day, the man who is a heart beat away from the Prime Ministership says that he still feels completely “inadequate.” This is a wonderfully human admission from a senior member of a government that has made it a point to be totally ready for anything.

I admire Mr Teo for this moment of humanity. Mr Teo is a military man (former Chief of Navy). As such, he should be more aware than most about the very real fact that you can never really be fully prepared for anything.

Let’s face it; the military officers in just about every military in the world are trained to think of every possible scenario. They do things like play make plans, study battle tactics and play war games. Thanks to Hollywood, we are all familiar with the scene of senior military commanders huddled up in the room playing what looks like chess – except that this time it’s with real lives at stake.

Lower down the food chain, we’ve now invented simulators to give the boys a ‘feel’ of what its going to be like. However, despite all the technology and training time that goes into making a solider, nothing can fully prepare a solider for war other than being in a war.

At the time of writing, I am living out my military fantasies on a Facebook game called “Army Attack”. It’s fun to imagine myself being a big war hero. However, I suspect I would probably pee in my pants when the first shell lands and explodes next to me and I have to deal with real life casualties. I’ve often made the point that the two military funerals I had to attend were two too many. Yes, I agree that a nation should use its young men to defend itself but it should only use their lives when it has no other choice.

War is not the only thing that one can never really be fully be prepared for. Take parenthood for example. How many of us are fully prepared for the realities of being a parent. Thousands have books have been written about the subject. We’ve had role models in the shape of our own parents. There is so much advice about parenting out there; you would imagine that it becomes easier with every generation.

Yet, despite the availability of information on the topic, how many of us are ever prepared to be parents? OK, I don’t have my own kids – but even then you’d imagine that I would be a know-it-all when it comes to being a parent. I studied biology and anthropology – so I should be pretty familiar with the various roles that parents should play in nurturing a kid and raising them to deal with society. I have had two stepfathers to add to my father and two stepmothers to add to the other I already have. As such, I am spoilt for choice when it comes to parental role models. I have so much “simulation” knowledge of the subject that I have to be an expert.

However, I was not prepared when Thuy became a part of my life. To put it crudely, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of having to live for something greater than myself. OK, having experienced it once, it became easier when Yooga popped into my life. However, I wasn’t prepared for the many bouts of separation that his mother imposed on us.

Let’s face it, everybody can teach us the brain stuff. It’s easy to process information. In this day and age, you should be shot for basic ignorance. Thanks to Google, you can find out just about anything with a click of a button. Getting information does not require much physical effort. The processing of information doesn’t burn any additional calories either.

However, nothing can prepare you for the emotions of dealing with the situation. We all know what to do in certain situations but yet we often fail to act. A Kuwaiti fellow I once knew made the point that he was a cancer patient who was in denial for a year. Did he know he had cancer? Yes he did – but he was overcome by fear. He’s not the only person to be this situation when your emotions overcome your intellectual knowledge?

I guess you could say that the first thing you need to do is to be honest about your feelings. Most of us like to think of ourselves as nice people who don’t get greedy or frightened. We convince ourselves that we will always be that way. However, when the situation comes, we end up being less so and screwing ourselves. Just look at the stock market. Everyday, thousands of people clever and rational people play the stock market. They tell themselves that they are not greedy or fearful. Yet, everyday you get people who get burned on financial markets because they got greedy, frightened or both.

Yet there are people who don’t get burnt on the stock market. In fact they become quite good at playing shares – my late grandmother was one of them. She was, I suspect, one of the few people who could resist the temptation to give into greed or fear. I suspect she understood that those emotions existed in her and could get to her. Thanks to this self-knowledge, she would act before she would get affected by them. She didn’t make a vast fortune on hot tips. More importantly she didn’t get burnt when the hot tips proved to be less than hot or cooled dramatically. The old lady left her much better educated children with a decent nest egg when she died – not bad for a woman who spent the better part of the last four decades of her life as a housewife.

Self-knowledge is hard to get hold off. Who really wants to admit that they might have a short coming or two? Yet, despite this, there is much to be gained by achieving it.

I think Mr Teo’s admission of weakness is a welcome change for Singapore. Successive PAP governments delivered pretty darn good results for the people on just about every facet of social development. While this was good, it had the unfortunate side-effect of developing a “God Complex” within our government.

Analyse the last election and you’ll find that the ruling party’s main message seemed to be “Trust us because you always have and you won’t be disappointed.” When people pointed out their mistakes like the escaping limping man or the great floods in the city square, they got defensive – “How dare you question us – we’re Godlike and can do no wrong.” The most amazing example of the Deus Complexus (God Complex according to my very hazy school boy Latin – trying to show off here) came from the Former Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, who never apologised for insulting a good portion of the population – he merely “Stood corrected.”

God Complexes prevent problems from getting solved. All you have to do is to think of the way the government rushed to defend one of their own when the limping man who was allegedly the most dangerous terrorist of all time waltzed out of their prison. Everyone kept talking about how we “need to judge the man by his distinguished record than an incident,” than finding the said terrorist.

That annoyed people and so when it came to voting time ……the public made themselves heard as loudly as they could.

So, is Mr Teo’s sudden admission of his inadequacy a welcome change in the way business is done? Let’s hope so. A government filled with people who are secure enough to admit their own failings is more likely to be a government that gets round to the business of solving problems for the people instead of a government bent on defending a perfect record when it is clearly not perfect.

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