Thursday, August 14, 2008

Our Angsana mentality

Last Sunday, I stumbled upon a very insightful documentary on Arts Central. Entitled, Singapore Standard Time, it was one of those low profile, low budget, local productions. And typical of the Singaporean, “local ginger not hot” (本地姜不辣) mentality, Media Corp hardly gave it any publicity. In fact, as you can see from the TV programme that appeared in the Sunday Times, this documentary wasn’t even announced to the public. I think they just decided to insert it to fill the empty time slot after the movie, Cages, ended. What a contrast from the huge publicity that Channel News Asia gives to its expensive, imported Documentary of the Week shows like this one and this one.

Produced by Lo Hwei Shan and Directed by Joycelyn Khoo, this documentary takes a good hard look at Singaporeans’ obsession with instant results; or what I would call, The Angsana Mentality. Featuring interviews with a number of Singaporeans including Dr Wee Yeow Chin, a botanist, Dr Woffles Wu, a cosmetic surgeon and Ivan Heng, a famous theatre director and playwright, it “explores the ways speed has taken root in Singaporean culture. Driven by an ethos of efficiency and instant gratification, we have taken speed to unique heights, from setting the world record for the world's fastest SMS text message, to the patented 20-minute facelift.” (quoted from the synopsis at this website)

Dr Wee, the botanist, for example spoke about our Garden City campaign and how we planted lots of trees propagated by stem-cuttings to provide ‘instant trees’ for our roads and parks. Another gentleman, an aquarium owner spoke about the craze for luohan fish at one time, because many superstitious Singaporeans wanted to look for numbers on the fish’s body to ‘buy 4D’ and acquire instant wealth. Yet another interview was with a businessman who had developed an ‘instant’ Hainanese chicken rice package for sale to tourists. The final interview was with Ivan Heng. He lamented the decline of interest among students for literature in our schools; possibly because it was a difficult subject to score an A in; and if I may add, of little value in ‘pragmatic’ Singapore.

I find botanist, Dr Wee’s narration of how we transformed Singapore into a garden city in 40 short years most telling. Initially, we planted a lot of Angsana trees to provide instant shade and greenery to our roads and parks. But it was soon discovered that Angsanas were prone to branch breakage, especially during heavy storms, and infection by a fungal disease known as the "Angsana Wilt", which has killed many of the trees. They were later replaced by sturdier trees like the Raintree. He also explained why trees grown from stem cuttings were not as resilient as those grown from seedlings. A tree planted from seedling develops vertical roots which are anchored deep in the ground. In contrast, a tree grown from stem cutting develops roots that spread out sideways and thus could not provide as strong an anchor. But the latter provides fast results.

Coincidentally, over at Channel 5, they were airing the daily news roundup of the ongoing Beijing Olympic Games. As Singaporeans well know, this year we are keeping our fingers crossed that our athletes will finally bring back a medal. Our hopes rest on a handful of mostly foreign sports talents like Li Jiawei and Tao Li. I cannot resist drawing a comparison between these foreign imports and Dr Wee’s stem-cut trees.

In recent years, our government has been going all out to woo foreign talents to come to our shores. We offer them lots of attractive incentives and hope that at least some of them would settle down and ‘sink their roots’ on Singapore soil. Would they form deep roots like us local ‘sons of the soil’ who are born and bred and served our national service here? I hope so.

I have argued before that our foreign talent policy is in fact quite short-sighted. After watching Singapore Standard Time, I understand that our leaders too are suffering from the Angsana mentality. Such a mentality is best exemplified by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong’s famous 1998 National Day Rally Speech where he openly declared that with the help of foreign talents, Singapore is going to qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals. He thought that by waving the mighty Sing Dollar, the likes of Zinedine Zidane would flock to our shores.

I can think of many other examples of such Angsana mentality. One of them is our abortion law. In 1970, we decided to legalise abortion because we were afraid that Singapore would have a population explosion. Now we are contemplating ‘unlegalising’ abortion because we facing a ‘shortfall’ of babies. It is really laughable if it weren’t so tragic. While other societies agonise over the moral dilemma of taking innocent lives, here in ‘pragmatic’ Singapore, we debate about baby shortfalls and low yields of our women’s wombs.

Another example is our language policy. At one time, we were worried that Singaporean’s standard of Mandarin was too low. Dialects was singled out as the chief culprit. Overnight they banned Cantonese tv programmes and movies. Overnight, they changed the names of our towns into hideous hanyu pinyin names like Hougang, Yishun, Bishan and Zhujiao. Suddenly, all our deep-rooted heritage like Chua Chu Kang, Pek San Teng, Nee Soon and Tekka were excavated and incinerated.

Anyway, the documentary ended on a slightly optimistic note with both Dr Wee and Ivan Heng acknowledging that our Angsana-land is a miracle of sorts. "Which country in the world can go from third world to first world in 40 years?" asked Ivan Heng. "And which country can turn a third world slum into a beautiful garden city simply because one man willed it?" asked Dr Wee?

Still I hope we never have a Katrina or a Nargis to test those roots.


Zen said...

As I write this comment, the sport news is out, our table tennis team has finally broken the medal drought (lasting 40 over years) in the olympics by bringing home at least a silver. It proves the forcast of the former PM Goh is right in bringing in sport talents to stimulate the local sporting scene, but whether these foreign talents would be loyal their land of adoption or leaving for greener pasture is left to be seen. This morning while having my breakfast at a coffeeshop, many locals were excitedly discussing the fine strokes executed by our table tennis heroines during their grueling matches, talking as though they are professional commentators. In my vision these former Chinese nationals are true blue professional despite of their young age, looking for a country ply their trades. Being fellow human beings, they are like us, imbued with sensitive feelings and emotions, so if this country treats just like fellow Singaporeans, giving them equal opportunities and rights, I believe they are likely to sink their roots here. This is exactly what happened to our fore-fathers who originally came here just to make a living but eventually settled down, all because they fell in love with this lovely island which we now call home.

Lam Chun See said...

I think there is wisdom in the 'Angsana' mentality. For short term we plant trees that give us the shade which we need quickly. Meantime, you also slowly add new trees of the stronger and deep rooted variey.

Likewise, the success of the foreigh sport talents will inspire locals to take up the sport and in time come the general standard will improve.

Anonymous said...

Likewise, the success of the foreigh sport talents will inspire locals to take up the sport and in time come the general standard will improve.

Well that's the idea. But has anyone considered the "social load" (a term coined by LKY himself in the 1960s on consequences of importing foreign workers), i.e. the undesired consequences that come with it? The erosion of nationhood and social unity.

Anonymous said...

48 years ago, a local lad by the name of Tan Howe Liang through personal grit, passion and sacrifice, brought back a silver medal from the Rome olympics, without much help from local sporting authorities. He was recognised for his effort only superficially. The govt did not really exploit the opportunity to promote weightlifting to our local youths, and might have thought that it was not a popular sport here, therefore having no prospect of getting a medal in future olympics. Another possibility is that our sporting fraternity has this impression that Asians will lose out to their European counterparts in weightlifting due to the latter possessing better physical attributes. The present olympics proves such thinking wrong, because a few Asians have won medals, particularly the Chinese, including two Taiwanese (bronzes). Surprising a few winners are women. After saying all these, should we revisit this sport which bring us glory four decades ago?

Anonymous said...

Deng Ziao Peng once said that in order for China to progress it needs to open the window and let fresh air come in. By so doing not only the fresh comes in, the flies also. In Singapore context, if it wants to have an infusion of foreign talents, it must also expect some negative aspects that would follow these imports.

Sleepless in Singapore said...

Somebody asked; "Did we buy that silver medal?". If we are to be honest about it, the answer is yes.

Do I care? Yes. Why? (1) Becos it's my money. (2) Becos as a Sporean, I prefer to win fair and square. Otherwise, I'd rather lose. What wrong with losing anyway; it's only sports right.

But having said that; there's no denying that many of my countrymen are very happy. And it's their money and their face too.

So no point getting too excited about it. Many other things to worry about.