Of Maids and Coolies
Posted by intellisg on June 4, 2007
I SOMETIMES debate with my wife over affairs of Singapore: national service, CPF, education, political system and most recently, ministers’ pay. One of her remarks is interesting and worth sharing:
“You should be thankful for what the Singapore government has provided you with.”
She remarked this in the context of Singaporeans’ basic education and linguistic ability. Meaning, she thinks we have a linguistic advantage because of our education system attributable to the government.
No, she has not been brainwashed by the government.
Those who have worked extensively with people from Hong Kong, Taiwan or the PRC – can probably identify 2 key differences of these natives vs. Singaporeans:
1. Ability to articulate thoughts in multiple languages
2. Ability to follow instructions and deliver
Let’s use a HK context: the average Hong Kong resident is disadvantaged linguistically, and it is so not because he / she is lazy or stupid but largely due to the environment.
The HK education system uses Cantonese as the primary medium of instruction. Even English is taught using Cantonese enunciations.
Ten years after the handover, the standard of English has deteriorated significantly, but the standard of Mandarin has not improved significantly either. The objective of using mandarin is entirely functional, intended to hawk tourists from across the northern border.
Small wonder that when it comes to comparing linguistic abilities, the average Singaporean has a significant advantage over an average Hong Kong candidate.
Small wonder why we sometimes have that feeling of superiority over our neighbour and other Asian countries.
And if you were part of the team that created this advantage, wouldn’t you feel a little proud of yourself? I would, and we can guess what Kuan Yew is arrogant about.
But is this linguistic advantage sufficient for the Singaporean?
(If you have made it this far with me, congratulations – I am going to share the real agenda of this article.)
Singapore is indeed facing a big risk – in terms of being marginalized by large emerging economies such as PRC and India. Yes – I will say that again: marginalized, made irrelevant, kaput.
And Kuan Yew’s bad dream could very well come true: my wife and sister may have to become maids at Beijing and I will work as a “coolie” at Chongqing.
We may say this is total bullshit and impossible – and that’s probably true for the moment. But let’s insert a time line to this bad dream: in a few generations after you and me, could this become a probability?
I think the answer is yes. It is a very simple numbers game: the top 5% elite of Singapore (let’s simply use education as a criterion) figures at about 200,000 heads today; whereas the same top 5% elite of china figures at about 60,000,000 – or equivalent to 15 entire Singapore populations.
If 1 out of every 100 of these top-5% Chinese elites comes seeking work at Singapore (=600,000), everyone of our native elites will have to compete with 3 other Chinese elites.
If our native elites went out of Singapore to compete for jobs and opportunities at China, they are going to have to compete with 300 other Chinese elites, not withstanding elites of other countries vying for the same job.
That’s just China alone.
So why are we not getting overwhelmed right now? There are many reasons, but I think the fundamental driver is our advantage in education and by extension, our linguistic ability.
It will probably take no more than 1-2 generations for Chinese education standards to be comparable or on-par. The 1-child policy of China further ensures that significant resources are diverted to a single child’s all-round development.
They will catch up, and our top x% elite of Singapore could face much stiffer competition in 1-2 generations. If this is what the elites face, what of the masses?
No matter how distasteful Kuan Yew’s remarks about maids, it is indeed probable – we just don’t know how likely, and he probably doesn’t know any better. Fortunately, he is not going to live to see it anyway.
But given the size of China and India, I shall be “kiasu” and assume the worse. What can we do about it?
The pap government hypothesizes that by having brilliant men (that comes at a premium) lead the way, we will be able to side-step this risk of irrelevance, i.e. not sink and become maids and coolies.
It was a tested method that enabled Singapore to outdo its neighbours while they flounder to meet their basic needs. But will this work vs. much larger economies like that of China and India?
I do not think the current cadre of ministers and civil servants, in spite of their being expensive and brilliant, can make us significantly more relevant 1-2 generations later. At least not with the current trajectory of strategies and collective mentality.
Let’s go back to the second Singaporean difference mentioned earlier. It is well-known that Singaporeans are able to deliver to the letter when provided with concise instructions and clear boundaries.
This advantage can be a disadvantage in a dynamically changing environment where our Singaporean friend may not be able to move as quickly as a candidate from Hong Kong, Taiwan or PRC. In a recent article by Yawning Bread titled “How a traffic jam began” – we see a classic example of this advantage transforming into a disadvantage that culminated a traffic jam at Holland village.
A certain Sim Wong Hoo called it the “No U-turn Syndrome”. And this permeates the entire singaporean society at various degree of severity from the very top, very elite, down to the bus drivers.
Our obsession to follow instructions, to operate within known boundaries – is probably taking away the nimbleness required to compete with newly emerging economies.
Gaps in education or linguistic ability can be closed in 1-2 generations. But how does one inculcate nimbleness, can-U-Turn, flexible, adaptable – traits required to fight over opportunities in the world of tomorrow.
Well, the top elites think to change the population composition by immigrating new blood – conveniently named foreign talents. We can probably assume this has been well thought-out, pros-cons analyzed and finally decided, i.e. it will work (or will it really, considering the various failed “hub” initiatives).
The questions we should ask: how sustainable is this? And was it the best option possible? This subject deserves separate, extensive discussion.
What can us as individuals do? Nothing difficult, really – just look at what our competitors and fore-fathers do: they stop counting on their governments and start making decisions / acting on their own.
Time to do real work, folks.
by Dan E
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