Friday, November 04, 2011

Where the West still Wins

Like all good Western Educated Asians, I am an “Anti-Colonial.” I never saw the “White Man” as my savior. When I was a small child I refused to cheer for the British whenever there were documentaries about the Japanese Invasion of Singapore in the 1940s. Even when I learned history and knew about the awful deeds of the Japanese (and the comparatively benign deeds of the Crown Colonizers), I could not accept the “White Man” in Asia as the good guy and the savior of the “natives.” The political heroes of my childhood were people like Mao (Mad Communist Fucker that he was) and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Much as I disagree with Communism and admire the Jeffersonian ideals that made America, I held up Mao and Ho as people who didn't capitulate to the American lead world. Thanks to them I do not see the ideal as being part of the bigger, better Western World. I want to be the small weakling who beats the bigger stronger man on his day.

That does not mean to say that I am “Anti-Caucasian,” or “Anti-Anyone-in Particular.” I made my friends in the West. I love my American and British family. I have good memories of my time in the UK. I even have good friends who happen to be Caucasians who have made Asia their home. I am merely unable to “bow-down” to the “Gwei Lo” on a personal basis and I cannot accept that educated Asians continue to have the mentality that is good to do so. I cannot accept that the Western View of the world is necessarily the right one either. I've seen Orchard Towers at night on more than one occasion to realise that after a few beers, your average Pink Blotchy is exactly the same as your Bangladeshi Worker – he only pays more for his vices.

Having said what I've just said, I do believe that there is one area where the West and the Caucasian part of the West still rules the world – namely the area of human decency. The West, for all its problems, has a culture that provides room for people to grow. Asia, for all our recent triumphs has one major cultural flaw – we cannot help screwing ourselves in the race for better things. As I get older and see more of this disparity between East and West, I believe that human decency will save the West and the lack of it will hold Asia down.

This was brought home to me most recently by two letters in the local press about why it was a bad idea to extend training opportunities to foreign workers. The letter writers felt that the idea was bad because it would be expensive and what money we had should go to training Singaporeans. They also argued that uneducated foreign workers if educated would come and steal jobs from Singaporeans and cause all sorts of problems. They argued that it was better to redesign jobs to make them “noble” and “appealing” to Singaporeans instead of allowing “uneducated” foreigners to come in and do the jobs.

OK, I understand the sentiment. In the past few years Singapore has seen a dramatic demographic shift and our ideas of ethnicity and culture have been forced open. Such changes are traumatic. The entry of highly educated Indian Nationals who don't look on their Singaporean cousins as the “lucky” ones has been like a bucket of cold water on the local Indian Community. For the Singaporean Chinese, meeting fellow Yellow Skins who think them as nothing more than richer but less pure versions of themselves has also been something of a shock. It easy to blame the outsiders whenever the world you know starts to crumble around you.

Where I fail to sympathise with the writers is their view that keeping “uneducated” people down and out somehow helps them. The argument runs like this – an uneducated man who becomes educated will become a threat to us and therefore there will be less good things for us.

I guess in Singapore we call this “Kiasu” or “Afraid to Lose.” We like to think of this as a virtue. We are afraid to lose, so we work hard and earn more etc. However, there is a flaw in the idea of “Kiasuism.” It assumes that there is only so many good things and if I can't get the good things, I must ensure that you cannot get the good things too. It is “Everyman” for himself.

Kiasuism when taken to the extreme would be funny if didn't affect you. Think of the typical Asian school, which is highly competitive. As the “Tiger Mum” points out – the ideal of kids being free to play and discover themselves at school is a wishy washy Western invention. School in the Asian context is all about studying to get the top exams. Western Universities are filled with Asians who kick ass (I wasn't one of them) when it comes to exams. Simply put, the Westerners are busy in the pub while the Asians are busy swotting (Conversely the Asians suck at thinking and people skills).

You have great Asian students who study hard. The “A” grade means more to the average Asian student than the Western one. You could say the Asian kid is driven by the “Kiasu” mentality. However, the kiasu Asian is also the shit that feels scared that you might get a better mark than him – so he hides reference books in the library to ensure you do not have access to the materials you need. I kid you not, Singaporean and Hong Kong schools have found missing library books because people have hidden them. The idea is simple – I know I can't get an “A” so I make sure that you can't too.

Now, you apply this to the work place. I am an educated man. Therefore I am entitled to a high paying job in a big company. You by contrast are a lowly educated pleb and so all you are entitled to clean my shit for $300 a month. It is not in my interest to see you become educated because you might become a competitor for my high paying job in the company.

When people think like this, they become obsessed with screwing each other instead of being excellent at their jobs. Resources, as they say are finite and if we don't get them we also have to ensure the other guy does not get them because there will less for ….me, myself and I.

OK, the West isn't immune to this. When you listen to successive American administrations talk about unfair Japanese and now Chinese trade practices, you can't help but feel that the Americans cannot accept that other people can fight back and be big dogs too. This is also true whenever the Americans talk about oil in the Middle East. Its almost as if only the USA is entitled to have a secure energy supply.

Leaving aside trade and energy policy, Americans and other Westerners are not afflicted by this symptom. Let's not kid ourselves – racism is rife in parts of America. However, Americans suddenly find the ability to overcome their racial prejudices when someone succeeds. Look at the number of revered sporting heroes in America. Being “black” is usually a handicap in the US but if a black man excels at something people forget the color and see the excellence.

Being an immigrant is also tough in the USA. However, when an immigrant finds a way of excelling, he or she becomes a folk hero and the good deeds of the immigrant cause laws to become more flexible and humane.

In Europe, people are less obsessed by success. However, if you are willing to work hard and don't disturb the natives, you will be left alone to do pretty much as you want. Chinese migrant communities in the West are generally respected because they don't encourage their kids to go on welfare and they work hard and set up businesses which benefit the natives too.

I can understand when Europeans complain that they are being exploited. They do have migrants who come and live off social services that are funded by local tax payers. My stepfather works in a hospital filled with people from outside Germany. They only German they've picked up is the word for “Welfare Office.” Why bother working in your own country when you can go to someone elses and live off their tax payers? This isn't the situation in Singapore.

Say what you like about the West and Westerners but this ability to allow good deeds and contributions to overcome personal prejudices is a strength. America is currently in the shit. However, it has a culture where it will find enough people to start its proverbial engine again. Europe has its problems too but somehow the Europeans will find a way of working together to get things moving.

Look at the British and the way they treat foreigners. When an Indian actress was abused on TV by a native born British girl, the British public was incensed ….not with the Indian girl but with the British one for behaving “indecently.” White British People could not take another one of their own behaving indecently to an Indian girl.

I think of my stint on an English jury. In the first case I was on, a group of 12-White English Working class people were on the side of a Lebanese boy against white Anglo-Saxon policemen.

This innate sense of decency amongst the British is their salvation. For all the faults of the nation and the people – they have decency and although there's no hard evidence for it – Britain has benefited from this. I look at the way in which your average Briton stood up for Shillpa Shetty and the way Indian Conglomerates have gone shopping in the UK (Jaguar for example is now part of the Tata Group).

The British have not had mass demonstrations about this. They're happy to accept Indian money and understand that this may save Britain and your average Brit from being flushed down the toilet that the bankers would have the country in. Think about this – you are an average Indian industrialist thinking of a place to invest in. Would you invest in a place where even when you give them your money and create jobs they'll complain that you are taking over. Or will you chose to be in a place where the natives will stand up for people like you whenever you have been treated indecently?

By contrast, we in Asia and in Singapore in particular have a nasty habit of not being able to tolerate the well being and success of anyone we deem not one of us.

I take the example of the story of a Chinaman who snuck into Singapore not once but twice, illegally. What did this Chinaman do? Well, he ended up starting up three, thriving noodle shops – thus creating prosperity for Singapore and dare I say, Singaporeans.

So, how did we reward him. We caught him and gave him 12 of the best. Point being – he broke the law on immigration and that was somehow so bad that he had to be canned 12 times.

What's particularly interesting about this case is the fact that I seem to be the only person who remembers it. When it first happened, a few intellectual journalist bitched about this – but then everyone lost interest in this. As far as the general public was concerned, this Chinaman got what he deserved – he came here by breaking our law and then proceeded to exploit Singaporeans by setting up a business that was profitable.

In the US, the General Public would have fought his case and spoke highly enough of the guy and somehow they would have found a way of creating an amnesty to allow people like this to thrive and bring the country up with them.

I say again, America is in deep shit but somehow it allows little migrants to climb in and turn the place around based on their sheer hunger alone. Hispanic Immigrants to the USA are going to be the salvation of the USA. You can live in the shit but there is a system to allow you to rise beyond it.

Here in Singapore, we somehow can't bring ourselves to look at deeds and actions instead of where people come from. Huong, the lady in my life has a record for “vice-activities.” When I go with her to deal with immigration officials, I get constant remarks like, “Do you know she has record with us etc.” I think they get shocked when I say, “Yes,” I am aware of her record and I wish they'd stop giving her a hard time and check “real” crooks. For all her faults, Huong is clever and enterprising. She is constantly looking for opportunities for business to help friends and family. She is simply the type of person we need. Yet, officialdom cannot look beyond her passport.

Huong is better for the economy and well being of the nation than people like the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek who is questioning the loyalty of Mainland Chinese who volunteered to serve National Service from the comfort of his Commanding Officer's Office.

Somehow, we, as a people cannot accept the idea of prospering together. Its like the only acceptable person is a government scholar “guiding” the economy or an employee of a giant “multinational” that creates instant jobs.

Unfortunately governments need tax payers and multinationals can relocate as and where they chose to go. You cannot build a sustainable economy on government dictate and multinational investment alone (though both are good). You need people who are willing to find ways of making a living beyond gifts from the MNCs and Government. If your local population won't – you have to encourage people like Huong or the C hinaman who set up his noodle shops. They may have a bit of shade but on the whole they more good than harm to the nation.

A wise man once made the distinction between strong government and strong society. Places with strong societies can survive weak governments. Places with strong governments but weak societies are only as good as good as the government of the day.

For all the lousy governments that have plagued the Western World, Western Societies have survived and even thrived. Can places like Singapore survive if we had anything less than the government that we have today?


Jonathan said...

As for the disapprobation of the idea of "training the foreign workers", I don't think the Singaporeans dislike it because they want to screw other people. I think the problem is that the proposal would allocate resources to uplift foreigners (and probably at the expense of local workers). You pay taxes and you want your government to work for your people, not for other nationalities unless our own people are already very well taken care of.

Anyway, I agree that the anglo-saxon community is more developed in terms of values that promotes human well being.

kayangmo said...

Angmos are the same as asians. The only thing is this: the angmos whom we are familiar with, in Singapore or Asia in the 1950s-1990s are the rich affluent ones, and everyone thinks angmo is "dwa kee" (big stick). Having lived overseas for more than 10 years with the angmos, I can testify that they are the same kiasu like us, kiasi, and thrifty like us. Some are stupid and some are arrogant.
The angmos (most of them) you encounter in Singapore are the expats, high-salaried people from big companies, and therefore they are high and mighty. People have a skewed impression about angmos.
Tell you what, they are all the same pigs under the skin, just like chinese, malays or indians.