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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’s Risk

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?

Staying Relevant

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


24 Responses to “Of Maids and Coolies”

  1. Real work cannot be done unless the PAP understand what is at stake, and that they do not have the answers in their ideology.

  2. Dan E said

    On the contrary, real work can only begin after we discount the pap from the formulae to help ourselves – in other words, make the government as irrelevant as possible.

  3. Copout Democracy said

    What it means is: don’t count on your leaders to lead you to greener pasture. Just pay them their dues and then go fend for yourself. Today’s leaders are expert archers(arrowing). They just want to eat their cake and have someone else do all the dirty work. Or even better, have you attend your own funeral when you are dead!

  4. Disgusted said

    Do we really have leaders to lead us today?
    Or are they parasites, skunks and vampires pretending to be benevolent and conscientious “leaders”?

    Dan E is correct.

    We must totally discount and disregard the gabbagemen and the papayas from our equation in whatever we think or do. Treat them as totally insignificant and irrelevant.

    Don’t even have to give them their dues. Their obscene and shameless salary is sufficient to be all their dues. F*cking money-faced blood sucker!

    Only thing required is to be aware that these are very dangerous and vicious people. So, don’t fall into their deceptions and traps of nice talks and propaganda.

    Stay Together and Move Ahead, MY BIG FOOT!

  5. inspir3d said

    hi Dan. i created an archive link for u on the sidebar. just a couple of essays now but i’m sure the number will grow in the future 🙂

  6. […] stumbled upon Dan E’s “Of Maids and Coolies” during my nightly travels around the Singapore blogosphere. In it, he laments about the challenges […]

  7. Kelvin said

    Singaporeans becoming maids and coolies overseas? You never know but judging from the current status of citizens, I will not be surprised that some of the Singaporeans might fare better as maids overseas.

    And seriously, judging from how the government is currently leading the country, I would not place my bets on them to “inculcate nimbleness, can-U-Turn, flexible, adaptable.”

    That said, the whole situation of a rising China and India might not necessarily a zero sum game. But I do agree that global competition is just going to get stiffer.

  8. techme said

    Kelvin ,
    what do you know ? Our gov is never going to face competition because their party monopolise everything else in Singapore. ON the contrary, their salary is rising sky Rocket ! That defy the law of globalization ! That’s how very extraordinary of our gahmen is.
    Recent case of NET increment of 300Percent is the case of gov love of money ! DBS, UOB etc, the big banks where gov has a stake in it, run by high official ppl and yet do nothing about increment and talk about other bank increase, why not them.
    This show how *** is our gov is, and still we can’t do anything. I waiting one day for PAP to be topple because we must not tolerate these bully anymore. What can we say when our own gov bully us more than foreigner and that foreigner take pity on us ! How pathetic, and it only happen in LeeGapore.

  9. brasher said

    We never will believe what gahmen say. If a gahmen say something, it usually quite positive. So if LKY say our daughter will become maid and we become coolie, than it mean we could be worse !

    It means that the female will become prosititue, and the male become gigolo !

    And who knows, the customer could be gov and its cronies because these gahmen has no moral authority , let alone personality !

  10. wbg said

    I don’t like this Dan E article.

  11. ding said

    Wby says “I dont like this Dan E article”

    You mean, anyone cares about your likes or dislikes?

  12. Jennifer said

    I agree. I have long realised that the only way for Singapore to progress is to regard the government as dispensable entities. Much like a handphone or laptop. When they get obsolete, replace them.

    Unfortunately, the second “singaporean advantage” of just following rules will make this reality hard to achieve. Thus, my conclusion is still the same. Singapore will kaput in the next 2 decades.

    But, I am in the process of shipping out my whole family and kin. Just like my forefathers did.

  13. brasher said

    People better invest in submarine rather than car because Singapore is going to next Alantis to sink into bottom of the sea.

    Singapore’s name is just smokescreen. The real name likely to be is LeeGapore or WorkGapore.

  14. welsh said

    CASE is now pretending to scold NET for being a monopoly. Why didn’t they scold SMRT when it upped the transport fare?

  15. Dan E said

    It wasn’t my intention to instigate pap bashing – there’s quite enough of these at various forums and sites.

    I just wanted to point out that there is a big world out there where the pap government can be (and is) irrelevant. That, once we let go of that instinctive emotional pre-occupation, we can look beyond the self-imposed boundaries and hopefully move on.

    As Kelvin had also pointed out, the rise of China and India is not necessarily a zero sum game and we do see the government trying to insert various instruments such as bilat agreements with India, etc.

    However, the numerical disadvantage will mean that singaporeans have to strive very much harder as individuals in order to compete.

    And where better to start by focusing inward, acknowledging the competition and start taking actions?

    And if we really got busy working on us, I think we’d hardly find time to bash the govt at all: it will become irrelevant and non-consequential – individual by individual.

    Who will need whom, by then?

  16. Clarence said

    Singaporeans’ biggest handicap is to rely on the government for anything and everything. No money, ask from government loh, no jobs, ask Ministry of Labour why import even more foreign talent, no this no that, then complain to their MP.

    Do they even think how they can do it themselves?

    That’s why, that’s why… you want to progress, then you must be better, stronger, faster. Get the crutch mentality out of your mind.

  17. wbg said

    ding Says:
    “You mean, anyone cares about your likes or dislikes?”

    Hell yeah.

    Just look who’s answering his own question. Like duh. Typical head-in-the-mud Singaporean.

  18. thebonemachine said

    at least hong kong has a vibrant film industry. they have more of a culture than we can ever hope to have, with the speaking good english movement stamping out our unique singlish. with our actors and actresses speaking like they have a potato in their mouths. ang mors are clamouring to learn cantonese, because of lam ching ying, bruce lee and stephen chow.

    nobody gives a flying fishball about singapore’s movie industry. but i do think we are stepping towards here, with people like royston tan.

  19. anongal said

    royston tan. never heard of him bfr

  20. tc said

    royston tan – go google. I think some people are still in the woods. LOL

  21. marie claire said

    Heard of darkness, read every single one of his sappy novels all 7 of them, some over 10 times. Never ever heard of a Roy tan though. Sorry. Is he a famous?

  22. superman said

    Good article. A timely reminder that we should not be too complacent with our ‘advantages’ may it be linguistic or otherwise. Having lived in China for a number of years, I am constantly faced with many Chinese who speak better English and Mandarin than most Singaporeans. To say that it takes one generation for Chinese in China to catch up with Singapore is way too optimistic. We don’t need the entire China’s population to catch up with Singapore, we just need 0.5% of it and we are already in trouble.

  23. Well Driller said

    Yes, your wife is right in a way. You should be thankful for the well owner who has made you lived in the well. Happy living in the well and view the world like a professional critic. Good Luck

  24. tiong kia said

    The question is: “what makes a nation?” and “What is nationhood?” Is it just economics?

    PAP’s reasoning that Singapore cannot hold back the floodgates to foreign hordes belies its real agenda of short term economic gains (for the elites) over long term pitfalls of such a policy. Or maybe the PAP is really that short-sighted. It is so strange that Singapore having achieved sovereignty since 1965, the country is now increasingly aping the colonial past. It seems some in the PAP are still hankering or living in pre-1965 past.

    What makes a nation a nation is not economic gains but geographic physics, short of Singapore sinking and disappearing of course, and the natives that fill it up. To the 60 million ah tiong or apuneh, there is always a motherland to go back to. For Singaporeans there is only this island. If the PAP continues in its current immigration policy, why even bother with the idea of a Singapore sovereignty? Tighten the rules and floodgates now. Invest in Singaporeans instead of throwing money trying to lure transiters and fake talents!

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