Posted by intellisg on May 30, 2007
The following is an extract from the book, “Harvesting the Seeds of Prosperity,” written by Christopher Ng Wai Chung. His own blog can be found in treeofprosperity.blogspot.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. In chapter 1 entitled “Are you a scholar or a statistic”, he examines the concept of Kiasuism.
As an engineering undergraduate studying in the National University of Singapore, Chee Ming, aged 23, does not really care for anything else other than his examination results. After all, engineering students have punishing workloads, often requiring 25 – 30 hours of lectures and tutorials a week. Chee Ming’s philosophy as a student is simple – tune out all the extra-curricular activities and simply focus on his studies. For examination subjects, Chee Ming chooses only those subjects which he believes he would score in, considering complicated factors like the leniency of his lecturers and the feedback on course difficulty from his seniors. Chee Ming deduces that by scoring a solid Honours degree, he could land a good stable job. The technicalities of the work in the industry can come later.
In this country, there is a Chee Ming in everyone. From the uncle who carefully orchestrates the family on a proper strategy to attack a buffet table ( “ Ah Kow ! You go get a plate of prawns. Ah Zhu, you go for the fruits. I grab the fried rice for everybody ! ” ) to the middle-aged woman who positions herself next to school children in anticipation of a vacant seat in an SBS bus, Singaporeans are pragmatists – they do what works, optimise all their choices and alternatives and focus on their goals with religious fervour. In Hokkien this is known as being “Kiasu”.
Before we start to think that we invented “Kiasuism”, we should note that Pragmatism is largely an American invention. Pragmatism, first coined by William James, is the philosophy which emphasises the importance of results, consequences, utility and practicality as opposed to the navel gazing and intellectualism espoused by other philosophies.
If it works, it has to be true. That is the Singaporean way.
Singapore has honed pragmatism into a brand called “kiasuism” and has elevated it into a form of art. We’re such pragmatists that we even have a comic series with Mr. Kiasu in it, a bespectacled guy who performs all sorts of exaggerated stunts to get what he wants out of life – often with funny and amusing consequences. Travel guides that expound on Singaporean culture broadly make the generalisation that with Singaporeans, success and money are always paramount in their lives.
On a more serious note, a lot of policies which may seem painful for us arise from our fundamental belief in the principle of Pragmatism. Streaming in schools was institutionalised to reduce the number of drop-outs in the lower secondary and primary schools. The introduction of foreign talent into the economy was done to keep the multinationals invested in the country when there was a labour shortage in some sectors of the economy. We also offer the best remuneration to our ministers to attract the best people into politics. We are so pragmatic sometimes we need to ask ourselves whether a price is being paid along the way towards progress and success.
I believe that there is always a darker side to every principle that we have chosen to subscribe to. When we practise Pragmatism, we run the risk of becoming overly myopic. In such a case we sacrifice the long-term for the short-term. If we repeatedly execute a policy which is extremely effective at meeting our economic goals over a number of years and have educated the people on the wisdom of simply doing what works, does it not seem logical then that people, being pragmatic just like the ruling body, would then choose to emigrate when the economy is bad because it is the best thing they can do for themselves?
Pragmatism, should we subscribe to it, always functions as a double-edged sword.
Perhaps this can be explained with a continuation of the case study.
So Chee Ming, ever the pragmatist, with his excellent 1st Class Honours in Engineering, predictably joined a government agency as a research engineer. After 3 years, Chee Ming met his classmate, Srikanth, who barely passed with an Honours degree but bothered to participate in sports and some student union activities. Through his network of friends made in the hostels, Srikanth started out with an operations job in a foreign bank and rapidly moved up the ranks, scoring excellent bonuses when the economy picked up. Chee Ming now wonders why, with his excellent grades, his annual remuneration would still lag Srikanth by 30%.
There is a more enlightened way to move on with our lives.
While we see ourselves as pragmatists, we should challenge the statistics and figures that we subscribe to. Are we at risk of being short-sighted? Is there anything that we have missed out in our crusade to optimise everything that we do? Pragmatism needs to be balanced with vision and foresight in order for it to work in our lives.
Christopher Ng Wai Chung, 32, is an IT Project manager who dabbles in personal finance and wealth management. He has decided to spoil part so his latest book “Harvesting the Seeds of Prosperity” in the most intelligent Singaporean blogs in cyberspace. The book details his manifesto in reaching a state of Financial Nirvana, the ability to live within one’s investment income while still keeping day job to grow his portfolio even bigger. This book can now be found on sale at the World Book Fair’s Marketasia stall in Suntec City at about $22.90.
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