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Fahrenheit 451 – Intellectuals, We Dam Well Need Them So Singapore!

Posted by inspir3d on January 27, 2007

In Fahrenheit 451, a 1966 film, based on Ray Bradbury’s classic, director Francois Truffaut paints a frightening vision of a dystopian future, where firemen don’t put out fires – they start them to burn books. In this world books are evil. In this future scope, society holds up the appearance of happiness as the highest goal – a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad and anything resembling intellectualism and philosophy is simply corruption.

Fire Captain Beatty (the main protagonist boss) explains it this way, “Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs…. Don’t give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”

The main character, Guy Montag, bears the number 451 on his helmet. Coincidentally, this is also the temperature at which books ignite. Montag seems to be a robot of sorts, a machine simply following orders.  His mission to destroy homes contaminated with books is mandated by the government. Though he initially seems moderately content with his job and his life, Montag’s mind reflects the condition of his futuristic society: empty.

He walks home from work every night “thinking little at all about nothing in particular.” In this world, very few people still bother to consider the deeper questions of philosophy and religion.  They are consumed with instant gratification which comes in the way of TV, mind-dumbing drugs and government inspired rallies – gratification that distracts them from larger, more important yet unsettling issues. The government, which strongly promotes this lifestyle, is in the meantime struggling to sugarcoat the great lie, one which Guy is slowly unraveling.

One night on his way back from work, Guy chances on Clarrise. Indeed she is out of place in this brave new world, where individual personalities are downplayed by society.  More importantly, Clarisse thinks for herself and worse admits to reading—a trait definitely discouraged by the totalitarian government of the time.

Eventually through a series of chance meetings with the fireman, Clarrise awakens Guy to the idea that there is more to life than burning books and watching television – one night when the world sleeps, the fireman opens a tome slowly, he pauses feeling the texture of the creamy paper and struggles as he prepares himself to cross the threshold into the other world of books, one which would betray his cause, and eventually lead him to his impending doom – he begins to read for the very first time in his life……….

I read the book many years ago and though there is just enough of it to filter through, when I watched the film. I can’t really remember whether the book or the film is better (that is the beauty of memories; one only manages to recall the good and filter out the bad). All in all, it was a intriguing film, the cinematography wasn’t much to shout about. If anything, it was typically run of the mill Pinewood studios stuff. The acting did not come across as spectacular. I felt, for one, that the main protagonist Guy read too fluently (if reading is banned, duhhhhhh! You would have thought, he would at least have the decency to mangle his vowels, but he read flawlessly, clipped accent and all! That spoilt it all for me. Yes, I have the ability to search out the coquetry, once a man develops such a bent it’s easy to seek out the inconsistencies of this world.)

While watching Fahrenheit 451, I couldn’t help but question whether perhaps we are already living in a sort of dystopian nightmare where we have ceased to examine the deeper meaning of life in Singapore – and who are these people who mull over the details of life? If books represent the coda of reasoning, then surely the head of them all must be the intellectuals.

Let me be clear: there may be intellectuals in Singapore, but there are no Singaporean intellectuals – not independent and private intellectuals, at least. The concept of intellectualism, first emerged during the Dreyfus affair; J’Accuse, Emile Zola’s letter to the French president published in L’Aurore on January 13 1898 when he questioned the ratio of supreme courts decision concerning the incarceration of the accused, chiseled the notion once and for all. When writers, social critiques and philosophers bought wholesale into the idea, it was their duty to question the established order.

They were not part of an intelligentsia or elite per se, but they were all preservers of a tradition of who felt the need to question beyond the superficial – to clarify even the nuances of what really constituted meaning in their age, for none other than the betterment of their society.

In Singapore, (I for one lament no end) this notion triggers sneers. People feel they must apologize if they want to say anything remotely intelligent (we prefer to the binary language of “we do not have a choice,” doesn’t matter if 30 million German soldiers in Nazi Germany said the same thing, when they were often heard recounting, “we don’t have a choice, we were following orders,” when they herded 6 million Jews to death camps). Even our vernacular discriminates against intellectuals. Consider the Singlish term, “cheem” – what does it really conjure? If anything it signals our intolerance for anything remotely philosophical, never mind that philosophy is simply defined as a rational means of thinking how to live. Since the good life for man is the life lived in accordance with his essence, it follows that the good life for man is one that is firmly rooted in an examined existence. And if that doesn’t nail the intellectual, consider the Singlish word “atas,” which roughly translates into “whatever you say is 5 index IQ points above idiot.” And if that’s still not enough to sink the intellectual, that’s the cue for the village dunce to say, “hey chiat kantang, don’t talk so much!” – that to me is the clincher, that says it all – we loathe intellectuals.

I guess in Singapore, it doesn’t pay dividends to be an intellectual – for one, one doesn’t nearly command same moral currency as someone who claims to emerge from the ranks of the heartlanders, since intellectuals are often mistakenly considered to be those who occupy some lofty position high in stratosphere of the elite, not forsaking for one moment this hardly bears any resemblance to reality.

If the truth were known, intellectuals are born into every milieu, and they are society’s conscience. They don’t belong to any particular class. They can only flourish in an environment in which the pursuit of ideas, public debate and cultural matters is paramount, a world in which the school gives citizens the tools, curiosity and taste to engage in the societal debate without any inhibitions. In that world, all citizens are potential intellectuals, only of different caliber.

You will recognize these intellectuals easily; for one they never apologize before opening their mouth. They are not afraid of abstraction, do not refuse to dissent, and lastly, they do not naively think that they hold any thing remotely close to the truth.

John Stuart Mill perhaps embodies everything gallant and noble about intellectualism. If one reads his Collected Works, it is as if he is an unimaginably brilliant columnist, commenting on yesterday, today and tomorrow. He speaks to almost every issue. It is almost impossible to summarize his ideas and their urgency is so short a space, but at their core they boil down to two concepts: utilitarianism and liberty. In a world where people passively followed moral rules they believed had been handed down by God, Mill picked up and developed utilitarianism as an alternative – a philosophy as blazingly radical as it was easy to understand. The only way to measure the morality of an action, he says, is not to refer to ‘natural’ rules, much less ‘God’, but to ask if it increases the overall happiness of human beings: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to produce happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” The overall promotion of happiness and the minimising of suffering are “the sole basis of morality.” It was radically egalitarian – everybody’s happiness is equal – and a radical affront to a world organised for the happiness of a few wealthy people.

But he did not stop there. He went on to argue that the best way to maximise human happiness is to maximise human freedom. We must “give full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions.” There is no single form of Happiness for us to discover; it is only by allowing innumerable “experiments in living” that people will find their own personal slivers of happiness. We must never ban each other from acting and speaking as we wish, unless we can show that clear, immediate and considerable harm to other people arises from it. Mill serves up a philosophy that provides the best of the collective – the focus of concern is humanity – while preserving the sovereignty of the individual.

If we were to act on the broad contours of Mill’s philosophy today, we would be better prepared to question the merits of religious fanaticism (be it Islamic fundamentalism or neo conservative Christianity). For one it would allow me to ask the question which I always wanted to lambaste at Bible thumpers, do you accept the theory of evolution? If the answer is no, then – you should be denied all medical treatment when full blown bird flu hits our shores. No Tamiflu for you!

Flu vaccines only work because scientists track the evolution of the influenza virus and adjust the vaccine accordingly. But creationists believe there is only one fixed influenza virus, created by a supernatural ‘God’ at the beginning of time. If bird flu evolves to the point of human-to-human transmission, they will have to refuse to accept Tamiflu on the grounds that the science behind it is “just a theory” and is “filled with holes”. We will send for an African witch-doctor who part times as a chef in the African enclave of Novena – you know, the ones Africans can’t ditch fast enough once they have access to real medicine – and he will use magical potions and try to achieve “new age balance and harmony” (with the help of a desiccated chicken feet) while you melt happily away.

Or perhaps, when you arrive in the A & E in Tan Tok Seng, they will toss a coin to see which of these different equivalent treatments you receive. Heads, a “Western” doctor, tails a Japanese Reiki doctor who will use his skills to summon invisible forces to heal you. Still a creationist? (and we will even throw you a Jurassic Park DVD for free, how is dat?)

Intellectualism simply allows us to make sense of the senselessness of modern life – for too long, people have been allowed to piggy-back on the fruits of ignorance and superficiality, pastors going around in BMW sports cars, politicians who keep on saying, “we do not have a choice,” corporate figures who keep telling us the turnaround is just around the corner while they sell their stock options.

But against the all seeing pineapple eyes of the intellectuals, the world is a safer place, because question they will in the way they do, write they will in the way they do, think they will in the way they do, and conclude they will in the way they do. For even if the last of us stands providing he ask, why, where and who? – there is an intellectual in all of us. This begs the question: why do we loathe him so? Why do we loathe the intellectual in all of us?

In the final scene of the movie, Guy comes into contact with a secret group of intellectuals – who, to his astonishment, have been expecting him. Every one of them has committed entire books to memory to share with those who can listen and pass on the stories until books are allowed again. They themselves burned the books they read to prevent them from being discovered; the true books are safely stored in their minds. Guy learns from Granger (who is a figure unlike darkness), the leader of the group, about the mythical phoenix that is consumed by fire when it gets old and complacent, only to be born again through the flames, a symbol of the group’s mission for society. Amid the madness of it all, he smiles and along with him so does Granger. He is home – the battle of the minds has begun……..

Quotation from Fahrenheit 451:

“What traitors books can be! You think they’re backing you up, and they turn on you. Others can use them, too, and there you are, lost in the middle of the moor, in a great welter of nouns and verbs and adjectives.”

(By Harphoon, Agnes P, Johan. Astroboy / Sociology / Satire / Politics EP90339822AB/ The Brotherhood Press 2007)


14 Responses to “Fahrenheit 451 – Intellectuals, We Dam Well Need Them So Singapore!”

  1. parsimonia said

    Well, the ‘recognised’ intellectuals in Singapore are even hardly intellectual.

  2. Rowen said

    Well fareheit 451 reminds me of Qin Shi Huang period of china.

    Prior to his reign, there were many philosophers, intellectuals. After his burn book policy there were few….. erm none i guess.

    There are good books around and there are bad books again. But we are blind to those which are good….

    From Jose Saramago’s book Blindness.
    “If you can see, Look.
    If you can look, Observe…”

    My 2 cents worth…

  3. observer said

    Hi 🙂

    We are within the top five most competitive nations in the world. 🙂 We are within the top three most wired country in the global list :), but when it comes to nurturing private and independent thinkers 😦 we dont even have a single one and even our so called public intellectual just barely made it, as usual, we are the last of the Mohicans, where its supposed to really count, but something tells me, no one really cares about this observation – after all we dont have any intellectuals in Singapore, do we? 😦

  4. PM said

    “Intellectualism simply allows us to make sense of the senselessness of modern life – for too long, people have been allowed to piggy-back on the fruits of ignorance and superficiality”

    Well-spotted. How very true. Thats the reason why every repressive regime silences intellectuals.

  5. Jai hue said

    Hi Bruderhood,

    OK we read u loud and clear, what do u propose? A very thought provoking piece. It never occured to me intellects can emerge from all levels of society, that is why, I was against them.

    This post has definitely opened my mind wider. Thak u IS.

  6. Firstly, there *are* intellectuals in Singapore, in the sense of people who think deeply about things and who have highly developed intellects e.g. Chua Beng Huat, Eddie Kuo, Cherian George. I’m sure you can find more example.

    Secondly, intellectuals *are* by and large from a certain socio-economic class, usually because their intelligence is correlated with income. Moreover, if you think of class in terms of education, intellectuals would form their own.

    What you seem to be lamenting is the absence of “public intellectuals” i.e. intellectuals who actively write about and debate public issues and policy e.g. J K Galbraith.

    I agree with you that there aren’t many public intellectuals here, and I agree with you that there should be more.

    But public intellectuals aren’t the panacea you’ve painted them out to be in your post. The attitude that “But against the all seeing pineapple eyes of the intellectuals, the world is a safer place” is simplistic.

    Moreover, your post quickly turns into a rant against fundamentalist Christians. Allocating flu vaccines is a health policy issue, not one of faith.

    I don’t like fundies either, but careful that you don’t end up sounding like them.

  7. astroboy said

    “Allocating flu vaccines is a health policy issue, not one of faith.”

    Burning heretics is a social policy, not one of faith.

    Gagging scientist, the likes of Galileo is a public information policy, not one of faith.

    Hacking off the genitalia of young woman is a mass public health program and has nothing to do with faith.

    Banning books is a public education policy designed to stem mass myopia, it has nothing to do with faith.

    Stoning gays is one way to inspire community solidarity, it was nothing to do with faith.

    No Tamiflu for you!

  8. sphgirl said

    Hello Harphyboy,

    Completely and whole hearted agree, it is almost impossible these days to solicit an intelligent reply. I guess most people in Singapore are afraid of coming across as atas or elitist. Was it LKY? Who once said liberalism was a western concept which was at odds with Asian values, and intellectualism is after all the strongest form of liberalism.

  9. Dan said

    America got really bad secondary schools, marks in science and maths is always at the bottom, Singapore students always at the top of the world. But why America scientists always win Nobel prize and not ours?

  10. Harphoon said

    Let me try to take it all in one swoop.


    I deliberately emphasized the importance of private and independent intellectuals, as opposed to those who may reside in either the fold of the government or public domain, only because I really cannot sensibly envision an intellectual being able to successfully exercise his critical capacities in a corseted environment. It’s definitely an oxymoron – the idea of a public intellectual, so for this reason alone, I don’t consider them to be effective agents of change or those who are even able to provoke most of us to even think deeply about our roles and responsibilities.

    The idea of intellectuals being watch dogs is not simplistic, if anything it is a necessary precondition, if society is to successfully evolve holistically – it needs to question, clarify and define – attributes such as satire, public debate, social critiques, don’t just emerge from nothingland, they were once painfully nurtured by individuals, think satire and Karl Krauss comes to mind – think social critiques and you can probably fill up 10 sheets of A4’s with luminaries.

    If the holocaust, rise of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism, meltdown of corporations e.g Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Andersen and NKF teaches us anything at all – it is simply this: power corrupts and it doesn’t corrupt in small increments, its corrupts completely and against this stark reality, the only thing that stands between right and wrong is the intellectual who says, “wait a minute, I have a question…….”


    If MM Lee did indeed say “that” with due respect to his comments, he was misinformed. When the Spanish Inquisition were pulling out the nails of heretics and spreading protestants on pelt racks. In Asia Emperor Akbar was drafting legislation to enshrine the rights of non-Muslims to practice their faith freely – liberalism has deeper roots in Asia, if only we care to dig deeper into our histories.

    In the age of globalization, any jingoism about Asian or the Planet of the Apes or Mickey mouse club values makes the charge of the light brigade look like a well though out military proposition. It is facile as, it is false to assume liberalism doesn’t have a place in Asia simply because it didn’t emerge from Asia (what kind of argument is that?) – people, cultures, histories, schools of thoughts and states of minds migrate very much like seedlings carried by birds and they often take root far away from the places whence they once came from.


    This is a tough nut to crack, I haven’t really considered the question, but I if were to hazard an answer drawing correlations between level of education and innovation and creativity is a bit like studying tea leaves to make sense of our future – I don’t think the correlation is that robust, it only makes sense, if you believe events and outcomes are necessary linear.

    IMHO, though education may have played a complimentary role in establishing the US as a technological leader – more importantly, the primary success factor had a lot to do with the fact, the US is still considered a lightning rod that continues to attract talent from all over the world.

    If one looks at even their space program much of the foundation were laid by Nazi scientist like Werner Von Braun, who once said, “I aim for the moon, but Ach! Sometimes those rockets end up in London!” – since 9/11, the situation has changed dramatically and this underscores the question whether the US can continue to maintain its technological primacy in the foreseeable future – with more restrictive legislation to curb the migration of talent (bc of the war on terror) and a fledging US foreign policy that is increasing perceived as incoherent and bordering on the neo-rightist conservative – the US is increasingly being seen as the last man on the block – I’ve be honest with you, I need to do more reading on this matter and I don’t pretend to know why intelligence doesn’t add up to better mouse traps, I simply don’t – but let me just say this, the outlook for innovation and creative doesn’t look promising in the future –thank you for the intelligent insights.

  11. To Harphoon:

    I agree with you that we need intellectuals who can ask reasonable questions about public policy. What I disagree with you on is your implication that society will be OK once we have people like that. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have intellectuals. We should! It’s just that that won’t be enough to make society better.

    Power corrupts of course. Everyone knows that. But this does not mean every can be explained by saying “Oh! It was done by bad people in power!” Part of the explanation is that, but it’s not the whole story.

    Your ideas about intellectualism are pretty romantic I must say. But hey, so be it.

  12. submariner said


  13. harvardian said

    Fahrenheit 451, why am I not surprise? I wonder. Anyway to the point, while reading several new novels published last spring, one is struck by how since 9/11 there has been a gradual shift where authors who were once content to being just casual observers have taken it upon themselves to tackle (is that the right word?) the issues of our time.

    There is Ian McEvan who addresses the trauma of 9/11 and then Ishiguro who writes obliquely abt the matter in his new book – the shadow world.

    My point really is this, while the west has obvious found its creche in nurturing intellectuals through literature etc. We in Asia still havent really figured out how to go abt it. One reason could be because of our illiberal def of what really amounts to education.

    I dare say most students these days study for one reason only, thats to learn life skills to make they useful and guarantee their employability. Providing we still cling to his sort of narrow interpretation as to what education really means, as a educator, I do fear, we will not progress very far in the area of nurturing prospective intellectuals.

    I do agree dear boy, there is definitely a need for intellectuals and I can very well see your point in all its hemispheres only one needs to be realistic about the the issue of whether intelletualism can be “nurtured” as a “matter of strategic precondition??????”

  14. harvardian said

    Another question, I am working currently on an article and would really like to ask, whether you believe the next utube will emerge from a Singaporean? If so do comment boys!

    I am sure most of you boys have read the post abt Dr Vivian during the Davos Summit and I would really appreciate your inputs on the technological commentary i.e does it add up? Or is it all just PR salad dressing????

    efficacy, probability and feasebility would be much appreciated along with comparatives as to: is he just talking bs? That’s what we in the desk cant figure out, perhaps you boys with your wide experience in the sciences can offer a rear view pov?

    Hoping as always in more ways than one! WTM

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